Teresa Brinati 2014-02-10 17:13:21
Brad Meltzer has a thing for archivists. Meltzer is the number-one New York Times bestselling author of the 2011 political thriller The Inner Circle, where he first introduced the brainy action hero Beecher White, who happens to be an archivist at the National Archives. The thirty-something, blondehaired Beecher is back for more in The Fifth Assassin (the second book in a projected trilogy), which was published in January and has been scooting up the bestseller lists. Here’s what our hero says when he is introduced to the reader in Chapter 2: “There are stories no one knows. Hidden stories. I love those stories. And since I work in the National Archives, I find those stories for a living.” Later on, Beecher confesses: “. . . Why else would I work in the Archives, reminding people every day of the power that comes from exploring their past.” This guy, even though he is fictional, could be a spokesman for American Archives Month! Beecher’s mentor and sidekick is Aristotle “Tot” Westman, a wise seventy-two-year-old who has longish grey hair and “a wizard’s beard” (cue John Fleckner!). Tot’s the one who taught Beecher that “the best archivists are the ones who never stop searching,” and he continues to offer his protégé dollops of encouragement: “I know that brain of yours never lets anything go—it’s what makes you a great archivist.” That kind of sentiment surely brings to mind Fleckner’s memorable 1990 SAA presidential address, “Dear Mary Jane: Some Reflections on Being an Archivist.” In the book, there’s a plot to assassinate the president of the United States. Beecher discovers a killer who’s meticulously re-creating the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy through the ritualistic killings of several church pastors in Washington, DC.Beecher and Tot speculate that the four presidential assassins had a secret connection.Thanks to archival documents, which play a pivotal role throughout in advancing the action, they must divine the assassins’ larger purpose and for whom they really work, and then figure out why the current president is being targeted. The plot has more twists than the Potomac, along with the requisite conspiracy theories, secret societies, decoding, creepy characters, and enough seesawing across time and history to keep the reader riveted. All of it is wrapped in archival details: gloved hands handling documents, file folders, record groups, automatic lighting in the stacks, document preservation, and special collections exhibits. Quotidian? Yes, but it’s the type of information about archives and archivists that can inform the public and raise awareness about the profession, even in a book of fiction. Oh sure, there are a few hiccups, like when Meltzer has Tot and Beecher summarize the dating scene: “In the world of Archives . . .Nerdy librarian love was far more common than people thought (You like old books? I like old books! Let’s date!).” Besides the “nerdy” sobriquet, the reference makes archivists and librarians synonymous. That quibble aside, Meltzer has done his homework. The National Archives gets the biggest shout-out not only in the storyline, but also in the book’s acknowledgments.At the end of the book, the author’s note addresses what’s real in the story, with Meltzer signing off, “See you in the Archives.” In some ways, Meltzer’s fictional archivists are channeling New York Times columnist’s Maureen Dowd’s 2007 characterization of real-life archivists as “the new macho heroes of Washington.” At that time, the National Archives fired off an appeal to the Justice Department when Vice President Cheney refused to comply with Executive Order 12958 reporting requirements and denied the Information Security Oversight Office access to his records. As it turns out several years later, archivists are not only “macho heroes” in life, but also in fiction! With more than a half million copies sold of both The Fifth Assassin and its predecessor The Inner Circle, now even the broader public may be developing a thing for archivists.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.