The Judges of the Secret Court

BOOK: The Judges of the Secret Court
12.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

DAVID STACTON (1923–1968) was born Lionel Kingsley Evans in San Francisco. He attended Stanford University before serving in the Civilian Public Service as a conscientious objector during World War II, eventually graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1951. Stacton went to Europe after college and ended up staying, in his words, “because I liked it and because I could not get my books in print in America.” His first novel,
Dolores
, was published in England in 1954. Among the wide-ranging historical and biographical novels for which he would become best known are
On a Balcony
, about Nefertiti and Pharaoh Akhenaten;
Segaki
, set in feudal Japan;
A Signal Victory
, about the Spanish conquest of the Yucatán;
Old Acquaintance
, set at a film festival and telling of the loves of a star resembling Marlene Dietrich; and
People of the Book
, set during the Thirty Years' War. Under various pseudonyms, Stacton also published Westerns, mass-market murder mysteries, and a soft-core gay novel. Twice the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he also received a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1968 he moved to Fredensborg, Denmark, to work on a book to be called
Restless Sleep
, about Charles II and the diarist Samuel Pepys; ten days later he was found dead in his new home; he was forty-four years old.

JOHN CROWLEY is the author of a dozen novels and works of fiction, among them
Little, Big
, the Ægypt Cycle, and, most recently,
Four Freedoms
. He is a three-time winner of the World Fantasy Award and a winner of the Award in Literature of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Crowley teaches creative writing at Yale University. His reviews and critical essays have appeared in the
Boston Review, The Yale Review
, and
The Washington Post
.

THE JUDGES OF THE SECRET COURT

DAVID STACTON

Introduction by
JOHN CROWLEY

NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS

New York

Contents

Cover

Biographical Notes

Title Page

Introduction

THE JUDGES OF THE SECRET COURT

Dedication

Epigraph

Prologue

Part One

I
,
II
,
III
,
IV
,
V
,
VI
,
VII
,
VIII
,
IX
,
X

Part Two

XI
,
XII
,
XIII
,
XIV
,
XV
,
XVI
,
XVII
,
XVIII
,
XIX
,
XX
,
XXI
,
XXII
,
XXIII
,
XXIV
,
XXV
,
XXVI
,
XXVII
,
XXVIII
,
XXIX
,
XXX
,
XXXI
,
XXXII
,
XXXIII
,
XXXIV

Part Three

XXXV
,
XXXVI
,
XXXVII
,
XXXVIII
,
XXXIX
,
XL
,
XLI
,
XLII
,
XLIII
,
XLIV
,
XLV
,
XLVI
,
XLVII

Part Four

XLVIII
,
XLIX

Epilogue

Copyright and More Information

Introduction
David Stacton's Evidences

The Judges of the Secret Court
tells the story of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth; the subsequent flight, capture, and death of Booth; the roundup of anyone connected with him and his plot by the secretary of war Edwin Stanton; and the prosecution and hanging of a number of these as conspirators.

The book begins, however, many years after those events. Edwin Booth, the greatest American actor of his age and John Wilkes's elder brother, in retirement now, has received the manuscript of a five-act tragedy by a Mrs. Henry Lee, a woman he doesn't know. “The heroine, except, no doubt, in the dressing-table mirror of Mrs. Henry Ferguson Lee, could scarcely be said to live at all… He had only been turning the pages. But the title she had given it haunted him. She had called it
The Judges of the Secret Court
.”

It
is
a haunting title. Where did Stacton get it? Not from Mrs. Lee or her play, which are apparently imaginary. I find an unfinished opera by Berlioz,
Les francs-juges
, which title the lutenist Howard Posner translates as “the judges of the secret court”— the opera was to deal with medieval German courts whose judges met in secret and never revealed their decisions (though those they condemned to execution were later seen hung up in public places, an object lesson). Was that Stacton's source? The phrase appears in an early poem of his; perhaps the coinage is his own.

It was something all the Booths were aware of, those judges … If we are too selfless to believe in God, and yet remain somehow devout, we are very much aware of the Judges of the Secret Court. We cannot see them, nor do we know who they are. But they are there: the whole world is a courtroom, every life is a trial; if we are guilty, we stand there condemned; if we are innocent … we have to prove it. But who can prove it? For in fact no man is innocent at that bar. He is always accessory, willynilly, before or after some fact.

All that happens in the novel proceeds from this awful sentence (
awful
, in the older sense;
sentence
, in both senses). The fairness or justice of the judges is not at issue, they too are guilty and they are to be judged as well as everyone else. It's the author who places his characters, their world, and in a sense himself before that bar, where all their improvisings, their playacting, their loyalties, their belief in their innocence cannot win them reprieve. To know this is the only mitigation; and almost no one in this brief, harrowing novel is willing to face that knowledge, or has the means to grasp it.

In February of 1963, two years after
The Judges of the Secret Court
appeared,
Time
magazine named what its editors
[1]
considered to be the best American novelists to appear in the preceding decade. The list included Joseph Heller, John Updike, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Ralph Ellison, along with a couple of less perspicacious guesses (if enduring fame is the measure) like John Knowles (
A Separate Peace
) and H.L. Humes; but the oddest name to find on the list is David Stacton. The author at that time of nine novels under his own name (except that it wasn't) and some crime and Western paperbacks under other names, Stacton had gained a little praise but sold few copies. His inclusion with other certified luminaries was perhaps the high-water mark of his literary reputation. I don't remember reading that issue of
Time
, but I had been an admirer of Stacton since fortuitously discovering his 1958 novel
On a Balcony
, about the pharaoh Akhenaten and his sister Nefertiti. I knew only one other person in my generally literate set in college who had ever heard of him, and together we read
The Judges of the Secret Court
on its publication with a sense of exclusive privilege.

Stacton's appearance in
Time
's approved list helped induce G. P. Putnam's Sons to do an American edition of
Sir William
, his novel about the love of Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton, which had been published by Faber in London. Romance, glamour, the Regency, and the precedent of a grade-A movie (
That Hamilton Woman
with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh) should have added up to a solid seller, but
Sir William
sold only some five thousand copies in the Putnam hardback. None of Stacton's novels ever did much better.

In a sense—and as we will see perhaps not inappropriately—Stacton's historical novels were passing, or in disguise, not really members of the genre. Historical novels come generally in three kinds: the ones that tell stories of fictitious characters against a general historical background (
Gone with the Wind
, for example); those that follow the adventures of invented characters who become involved with actual historical characters and events; and those that fictionalize real people of the past, or use the techniques of fiction to reveal or exhibit more of their insides. In all of them, richness of period detail is expected; characters are bold in outline, their conflicts vivid; the page count tends to be high. When Stacton's historicals began to appear in the late 1950s the genre was dominated by such best-selling authors as Thomas Costain (
The Black Rose
), Samuel Shellabarger (
Captain from Castile
), and Lawrence Schoonover (
The Burnished Blade
). “Colorful” was the indispensable adjective. Stacton, in a literal sense, is often quite colorless: his is a world of grays and sables and pallid dimness. Instead of acting, many of his characters only pretend to act; they brood or are brooded on by the author.

Stacton's novel of Akhenaten (he uses the rarer form Ikhnaton) came only a few years after Mika Waltari's
The Egyptian
, a huge international best seller that dealt with the same historical events—the attempt of Akhenaten (Waltari prefers Akhnaton) to establish a new monotheistic religion, and the consequent fall of his dynasty. The two books couldn't be more different (I wonder if Stacton's book might actually have been conceived in opposition to Waltari's big one). Here's Waltari's description of Akhenaten's new temple-city:

Thus Akhetaton rose from the wilderness in a single year; palm trees waved proudly along its splendid streets, pomegranates ripened and reddened in the gardens, and in the fish pools floated the rosy flowers of the lotus…Tame gazelles wandered in the gardens, while in the streets the lightest of carriages were drawn by fiery horses with ostrich plumes…[W]hen autumn returned and the swallows emerged to dart in restless flocks above the rising waters, Pharaoh Akhnaton consecrated the city and the land to Aton.

And Stacton's:

Aketaten was really delightful. Even the servants were new … there was no one to remind him of the past. He had finally found a solution to the awful boredom of rank, or so he thought. One made the rank higher still. He was not the first nor would he be the last monarch to become a god out of ennui. For the gods must have some amusements … He looked at the city with animated eyes. It was simply wonderful to have so much to do.

All of Stacton's historicals are centered on actual personages and stick closely to the known facts of their public lives (their secret souls are for Stacton to unfold, but even there he doesn't contradict the standard sources).
The Judges of the Secret Court
amounts almost to a documentary novel: the events, down to the smallest, are all in the historical accounts, and Stacton hardly adds to them. He examines them, surrounds them in thought, tries to break into them in imagination. The plot is simply what happened, and Stacton accepts the constraints: he takes the almost perverse chance that readers will go along with him even though the central figure of the book, John Wilkes Booth, dies with a third of the pages remaining.

The assassination and death of Lincoln are narrated with a gripping cold attentiveness, from several points of view, amalgamated as though a prosecutor was assembling evidence, yet with an odd noticing of inconsequential detail. A certain Dr. Leale manages to get into the president's box:

Leale sent for a lamp, got the body on the floor, and while men stood in a circle around him striking innumerable matches, he searched, by that dim flicker, for the wound… In a few minutes the floor was littered with charred sticks. The sound of scratching, as new ones were lit, was the sound of a nail drawn down a blackboard … The eye glistened in the light, but it was out of focus and the evidence of brain injury was plain enough. The matches smelled abominably of sulfur.

BOOK: The Judges of the Secret Court
12.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Memorymakers by Brian Herbert, Marie Landis
Inhale, Exhale by Sarah M. Ross
His Xmas Surprise by Silver, Jordan
Breathers by Browne, S. G.
Betrayal by Lady Grace Cavendish