Many thanks to Dominic Streatfeild, author of Cocaine, An Unauthorized Biography; Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control (short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Award – the equivalent to the National Book Award); and the upcoming A History of the World Since 9/11, for his great assistance in putting this together (and his enthusiasm for my writing and the Hanlin Trilogy). Writing the proposal, with the restrictions inherent in the form, is much harder than writing the book and while this is not quite perfect, I would still be staring at a blank sheet of paper if not for Dominic’s help.
War, adventure, death, intrigue, disillusionment, military justice, bigotry, betrayal, loss, sex, terrorism, political absurdity, cowardice, bravery, literacy, humor, philosophy, poetry, religion, madness, and redemption. The Hanlin Trilogy is sweeping, Homeric, funny, profane, devastating, very topical, and just happens to occur during the usual Civil War . . . . . .
. . . it starts with a murder . . .
The girl and the country died the same day.
That may sound prosaic, a poor attempt at Dickensian-grandiosity; might even evoke Edward Bulwer-Lytton. I do not much care, it would not make it any less true – it was not a good day.
The body Osgood and I were summoned to at dawn was nude, grotesquely – yet precisely – splayed across the bed under the shadow of a headboard so baroque it made the petite, pale body below tinier, more forlorn, more … broken.
She was young: maybe twenty, violated obviously in every manner, and cut in the fourteen places I could see without touching. I knew, with the confidence of previous experience, we would find another fourteen wounds when she was turned over.
Not a smudge, drop, or faint suggestion of blood on the alabaster skin. The sheets below her were unwrinkled, squarely tucked-in, lightly tinged with blood, an edging of crimson around white flesh. Not nearly as much blood as I would have expected – a fact that may have been attributed to the opulence of the bed clothes employed by the exclusive brothel I stood in — for the first time.
The girl was nearly identical to the corpses we had attended to since Election Day: young women, pretty even in death, cleaned, left interred amid luxurious surroundings. One difference, the significance of which eluded me completely: this body was found by chance, we were not directed to her by an infuriatingly articulate note.
I leaned against an open window and watched in silence as Osgood moved slowly around the bed, hard, unblinking black eyes registering every detail, hands methodically, delicately, inspecting the girl. We seldom spoke when he performed his specialized duties . . . . . . with four identical bodies in five months, there was little left to say in any case.* * * * *
From the murder to news of Ft. Sumter through the frantic scramble to mobilize, William Hanlin, Assistant State’s Attorney, West Point graduate, Mexican War veteran, sees his carefully constructed anonymity fray while he is swept back into the world he abruptly left years earlier.
For Hanlin – Boston Brahmin, intelligent, humorous, sardonic, the product of an ambitiously dysfunctional family – harbors a secret: the reason he resigned his commission in 1850 and disappeared for two and one half years. It’s a secret that could at best discredit, at worse get him killed.
For now, he copes with bigotry, rank amateurs, opportunists, and more murders – each one increasingly personal – while he trains a regiment and hopes his past remains just that.
The Ceremony of Innocence follows Hanlin and friends through the early days of a war that all, save Hanlin, are sure will last only months: Seth Arnold, wealthy industrialist out to assuage his family’s honor; O’Shea, Irish sergeant major, Fenian; Olga, proprietress of the brothel, now a mentor; brother, Christian, junior by fourteen years; Osgood, erstwhile investigator, moral compass; Bridget, educated, sexy, smarter than Hanlin, she may or may not be a high-end prostitute, it matters little . . . . now; the Prince de Joinville, deposed French royal observing, illustrating the Army of the Potomac; many more…
After the Bull Run disaster Hanlin is drafted by his West Point friend, George B. McClellan, the Young Napoleon – for over a year Hanlin will serve him loyally; use his previously untapped political connections to aid ‘Lil’ Mac’; shelve mounting doubts while the country wonders why “All’s quiet on the Potomac”; put himself in great peril on the Peninsula then watch appalled while a victorious army retreats before a smashed enemy; hold his tongue at political machinations out of Shakespeare. The friendship ends, spectacularly, late afternoon after the bloodiest day in American History.
. . . The ferryman, reed thin, untrimmed beard that started a quarter of an inch under cloudy gray eyes to finish mid-hollow chest, possessor of three tobacco stained teeth, chaw ballooning his left cheek, accepted our payment without a word, spat, and pushed off. We were halfway across before he took note of us, obviously checked out our side arms, and spit into the Potomac – it raised a splash worthy of a good sized spawning salmon.
Satisfied, he turned his half closed eyes to Griffin, “You don’t got no gun?”
“Don’t carry one, I’m a reporter.”
“Yes, sir, New York Times.”
“Plannin’ on writin’ ‘bout gittin’ strung up by your balls by the marauders over there?” He spit at Virginia.
“ They’re evr’ywhere,” a spit with the size and velocity of a minie ball cleared the gunwale by an inch, stains running down its side attested to years of practice, “attackin’ you ‘uns wagons, slittin’ officers’ throats, hangin’ enlisted.”
“Really?” Griffin looked to me for confirmation, I shrugged.
“Ain’t safe, you wear blue, you seen wi’ blue bellies,, they getcha – lessen you wi’ a whole lotta other blue bellies,” he emphasized that with a high, arching lugie, a parabola through the thickening air, trailing small green and black globules before falling just short of the approaching bank.
“You see any of this yourself?” I could not suppress the lawyer in me.
“No, no, no, no, no,” he moaned as if disappointed, “but evr’yone says so, many a grisly tale from many a passenger – gotta be true.”
“Gotta,” I confirmed.
“What else your passengers tell you?” Osgood, with malicious curiosity.
“Why they’d be telling me a lot,” he leaned into Osgood, who somehow managed not to recoil from the man’s breath, potent a ferry boat length away, “didya know Lil’ Mac’s bringin’ his army north?”
“Is he?” Osgood arched a brow, “Where to?”
The ferryman looked about, as if to insure it was still only us, before whispering, “Hear tell he’s goin’ to Washington, gonna’ take o’er the gommerment, end all this nonsense,” a howitzer of a spit skipped at least twice off the flat surface of the river, “all this over the nigger, ‘magine that.”
We reached the landing, led the horses and mules off, began to move away from the Charon of the Potomac even as he uttered his final warning, “Lot of ‘em wear captured Union uniforms, be careful or you all throats be slit afore you know they ain’t friends.”
We rode a good hundred yards before Griffin spoke, “You two mind telling me where you got the uniforms?”
“We ain’t tellin’,” I snapped.
“Don’ reckon we have to neither,” Osgood seconded.* * * * *
The halls of Washington, siege works of Yorktown, base ball at Cumberland Landing asan army of 120,000 sits idle, torrential downpours and flooding bridges at Seven Pines, retreat into the Great White Swamp from Savage Station, a comet ‘blazing forth’ the night before Second Manassas, the crawling horror of Antietam’s Bloody Lane and inanity of the ‘chase’ south, to, finally, a freezing night below the ridge on Marye’s Hill where a severely wounded Hanlin huddles with the survivors:
. . . I wondered where the hell I was, became fascinated by the deep plumes of Seth’s spasmodic, frosty breath – all in all, not the best of signs.
“You alright?” He croaked a broken whisper.
“Couldn’t fucking be better,” snarling eased the pain. Momentarily.
“I can see that,” somehow he smiled, “get comfortable, we’ll be here awhile.”
“We’ve been ordered to hold the ridge,” he could not keep disbelief from his voice.
“Why would the rebels want it?” I rasped.
“Why indeed?” He agreed, “then there’s that,” he pointed over the river where a half moon as bright as the sun in the cold, still air rose over the silvery Rappahannock.
“Thought it was a little bright out,” my close to out of body observation.
“Too bright, we can’t move without the bastards cutting loose – Christ, they shot at a goddamn crow a little while ago.”
“They hit it?
“Of course they fucking hit it, they haven’t missed anything all day.”
I started a nod …… passed out. . . . .
. . . . . .the ground was wet, my jacket’s fine, thin layer of frost, crinkled when I moved, the hip throbbed, the wound itself ice while everything around it exploded; my back burned, teeth clattered, beads of sweat the consistency of mercury pinpricked my brow. Colonel William Hanlin, a contradiction in medical terms . . . perilously close to no longer caring.
I lost myself in the luminous moon, lost track of time despite the metronome constancy of the throbbing hip, may have drifted again . . . . . Seth broke the silence with a thick, sleepy, rasping whisper, “Jesus Christ, have I got to piss.”
“Then piss,” I hissed back.
“I’m not pissing my pants, William.”
“It’ll warm you up,” my voice of recent experience.
“Can’t do it,” it sounded final.
“Then hold it.”
“Can’t last much longer, already hurts like a son of a bitch — oh sorry, didn’t . . . it’s . . . uncomfortable, that’s all.”
“If you’re looking for me to provide an alternative, I don’t have any.”
“I know that,” he spit, “thing is, I think I can let it go from here — ‘
“Oh, no you ain’t,” a harsh whisper below, “don’t fuckin’ think it.”
“Not in your direction,’ Seth snapped, his patience evidently thinning as his kidney filled. “I won’t hit anyone —-“
“Then why ya’ botherin’ us wi’ it?” Different voice, rail thin, quivering.
Gingerly, I moved my head toward Arnold, reconnoitred for his urination, soon saw his predicament, sighed yet again, “I think it’s alright to piss on the sergeant, Seth, it’s no matter to him.”
“You sure?” Asked gaspingly.
“He’s sure,” someone answered for me, “more pissin’, less talkin'”.
Amid murmurs of agreement I heard Seth unbutton, grunt, let fly. In the cold and still of the night the steaming jet of a stream sounded like a waterfall hitting fine china. It went on for long seconds before two rifle shots echoed across the field and the sergeant’s corpse thudded and jerked.
Arnold yelped as if the force of the shots had travelled up his piss, a voice a few feet away yelled out, “For fucks sake, the man’s jus’ tryin’ to piss.”
“Don’ worry,” the laconic reply from on high, “Ya’all peckers too tiny ta’ hit anyhow.”
We sank lower into the crisping grass, had no retorts to hurl back, would not have been heard over the laughter and self-congratulations bubbling up from behind the damn wall in any case. . . .* * * * *
The Ceremony of Innocence ends on that frozen hill . . . the trilogy continues in the backrooms and hospitals of Washington, a wheat field in Pennsylvania, courtrooms, bedrooms, continuous warfare under Grant, guerilla warfare in the Shenandoah . . . . the only constants: Hanlin’s indomitable spirit and humor – and the relentless, prolific, polite killer of young women who refuses to go away.
Hanlin will meet the specter of his past; lose the love of his life; survive his plotting parents; face a terrible decision in the flame and smoke of the Wilderness; watch everthing come to an unexpected head at the trial of the ‘Know-Nothing Killer’.
Why the Trilogy
Civil War literature has a chasm between history and fiction, with fiction a very distant second. John Jakes, the Shaara’s, retired politicians, hundreds more, have written reams, the majority adding to a mythology peopled with wax icons espousing platitudes, endlessly discussing motivation, and grimly wading – in excruciating detail – into the breech.
No humor, pathos, sex, bantering, profanity, angst, suffering, for that matter. . . Nothing that makes it rea – I know, I have read most of them in the fruitless search for a Civil War equivilent to the Sharpe series, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Caine Mutiny, others from eras that have not managed to become as sacrosanct as the Civil War.
I wrote this to show the Civil War as it should be portrayed: real people, men and women, real dialogue, real emotion. As such, the Trilogy, starting with The Ceremony of Innocence, bears the same relation to the standard Civil War novel Saving Private Ryan does to The Longest Day.
I am an attorney, I wrote this novel in prison – a white collar fiasco of LeCarre complexity, I successfully sued for release – after carrying it for years. I was inspired by Patrick O’Brian, HBO’s Deadwood series, the fact that none of the very, very many Civil War novels I have read over the past forty or so years comes near Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac Trilogy or, perhaps more poignantly, Shelby Foote’s page and a half stream of consciousness description of Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle.
The 150 anniversary of the Civil is fast approaching; it is time for a real, visceral, novel. I have written it.