Friday, July 7, 2017

How I Found Lincoln's Dr. Watson: Guest Post by Jonathan F. Putnam

Jonathan Putnam is a writer and attorney. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, he is a nationally renowned trial lawyer and an avid amateur Lincoln scholar. His books in the Lincoln and Speed Mystery Series include Perish from the Earth (to be published July 11, 2017) and These Honored Dead (2016). He is currently working on the next book in the Lincoln and Speed Mystery Series, which will be published in 2018.

Jonathan F. Putnam:
How I found Lincoln's Dr. Watson

After two decades as a trial lawyer for a large, international law firm in New York City, I decided I wanted to become a novelist. As a trial lawyer I was experienced in telling stories (to judges and juries), but I’d always told someone else’s story – typically, my client’s. Now I would have the freedom to tell my own story. But what was it about, and how would I tell it?

Since I’ve always loved history, and the time-honored advice “write what you know” seemed sensible, I immediately thought about writing a law-related historical fiction. I would need a famous lawyer from history to be my protagonist. After several weeks of looking into various notable lawyers from the past, I settled upon Abraham Lincoln, who was a prolific trial lawyer long before he became the President who ended slavery and won the Civil War.

Lincoln is an iconic figure of lasting interest to the reading public. Better still, for my purposes, while many aspects of his Presidential career are well-known, the two prior decades in which he toiled as a private trial lawyer in central Illinois are much less so. The relative obscurity of this period gave me some historical maneuvering room to cook up compelling historical fiction. And as a defense lawyer representing someone accused of a crime, Lincoln was well positioned to be the protagonist in a murder mystery, solving crimes in course of his legal work.

But while I was pleased with my choice of protagonist, I quickly decided that I needed someone else to tell Lincoln’s story. Lincoln is such a larger-than-life figure that I feared he would obscure the rest of the narrative if he was alone at its center. And the best detectives – at least the ones I enjoy reading the most – have a dependable sidekick, someone they can collaborate, and occasionally spar, with along the path to solving the mystery presented. In short, I needed a Watson figure for Lincoln’s Sherlock Holmes turn.

Enter the little known but hugely important – in real life – figure of Joshua Fry Speed. A few years younger than Lincoln, Speed was born and raised in a wealthy Louisville family that owned a large hemp plantation run on the forced labor of some sixty enslaved persons. Speed, the second son of the family, was educated at the best private schools in Louisville and even attended college for a few years before deciding to strike off on his own. He ended up running a general store on the frontier, in Springfield, Illinois.

Fatefully, on April 15, 1837, a tall, gangly young man who had just moved to Springfield and been sworn into the bar as a new lawyer walked into Speed’s store, looking to buy a mattress, pillow and sheets. But when it turned out the lawyer couldn’t afford the price quoted, the shopkeeper mentioned that there was an unused berth upstairs in his own bedroom. And that is how Lincoln met Speed. My first novel in the Lincoln & Speed Mystery series, These Honored Dead (2016), opens with an essentially non-fiction account of the two protagonists meeting and becoming roommates, just as the very first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, opens with the meeting of Conan Doyle’s two famous heroes. In Speed, I had found both Lincoln’s sidekick and my first-person narrator.

It’s been many years since I first “discovered” Speed, and in the time I’ve spent in his company I’ve come to realize how fortuitous my choice was. First there’s his name – Speed – which couldn’t be better chosen to suggest a fast-paced mystery. Then there’s the fact that, in real life, he became Lincoln’s best, most intimate friend. In fact, the two men didn’t just share a room but also a bed.

Since real estate was cheap and plentiful on the frontier but improvements upon that real estate (houses; bed frames; mattresses) were expensive and comparatively rare, it was not uncommon for unmarried men to bunk two to a bed. Stopping at an inn for the night during a long stagecoach journey? Three or four men might share the bed with you. You could only hope – probably in vain – that none of them had lice and that the bed was free of bugs.

Anyway, Lincoln and Speed shared a small double bed in the room above Speed’s general store for four years, before Lincoln married Mary Todd and Speed returned home to Louisville. Despite being each other’s polar opposites in many respects – Speed was well-born, formally educated, and pro-slavery; Lincoln, of course, was none of these things – the two men remained lifelong best friends. In my retelling of history, the two men must solve murder mysteries that arise on the turbulent frontier of the 1830s. And the differences between the two men become the grist for much creative tension between my real-life protagonists.

The new Lincoln & Speed mystery, Perish from the Earth, is being published on July 11, 2017. In it, Lincoln is faced with a fateful choice on which the future of the nation may hang, if his own client doesn’t hang first. Lincoln and Speed must work together to free Lincoln’s client and ensure that justice prevails. I hope you’ll give it a read.

1 comment:

Tracee de Hahn said...

I'm looking forward to this second installment. I grew up in Kentucky and appreciated the Louisville connection for Speed... and the hint of Mary Todd from Lexington to come. Lincoln and Speed are both such interesting characters..... I've pre-ordered so I can start reading on pub day!