Audio Book Review: Killing Lincoln

Killing Lincoln

Killing Lincoln
by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard

It is almost impossible to review Killing Lincoln without first reviewing one of its listed authors, Bill O’Reilly. Anchor of The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News and a self-avowed right-leaning conservative, just mentioning his name stirs up controversy. Plainly, the controversies have spread to his book. Many reviews are more a judgement of O’Reilly’s politics than his take on the Lincoln assassination, and some reviewers seem to feel that, without the proper academic credentials establishing O’Reilly as a historian, he has no right to even think about writing history. I am not so sure this is history however, and all the controversy is a diversion.

Killing Lincoln, released in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company, and available in audio book form read by the author, is an interesting thriller, riveting and compelling in its style. It is written in present tense, an unusual way to approach history. Initially, this is a little disconcerting, especially when listening to the audio version. Nothing is “in the past.” Every scene is immediate, from examining the crowd at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural to the sad scattering of Lee’s troops just before Appomattox. A present tense approach is, however, used very effectively in creating a true crime atmosphere, and this books seems to fit that genre much better than that of history.

The audio book, read by Bill O’Reilly in what could be described as a flat, “true-crime” narration style, lends further credence to the claims of the authors that their book is a “thriller,” and not a historical recounting. Each chapter even begins with a Dragnet-influenced recitation of date, time and place.

The narrative is fast-paced, and the relentless countdown of Lincoln’s remaining time is a unique literary device which heightens the anticipation of events to come, overriding the fact that the ending itself is already well known. By extension, one begins to count down John Wilkes Booth’s remaining time after the assassination.

John Wilkes Booth

Opening scenes include Lincoln aboard the River Queen, visiting General Grant at City Point and waiting for the fall of Richmond, which begins the death knell of the Confederacy. At the same time, an angry John Wilkes Booth is plotting among a group of Confederate sympathizers in and around Washington, D. C. to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for ransom. As the narrative progresses, the kidnap plot turns to one of murder when Lee capitulates to Grant at Appomattox.

O’Reilly/Dugard’s Booth is one of the most interesting characters in the book. Described as, “ . . . handsome, brilliant, witty, charismatic, tender,” the authors create sympathy for Booth’s anger at the surrender of the South. One begins to understand that terrible sense of betrayal felt by so many on the Confederate side as O’Reilly/Dugard create motives for Booth’s actions, from his drinking and plotting through the assassination and the ill-fated jump to the stage floor, partially breaking the actor’s lower leg, to the final episode where the barn in which Booth is hiding is surrounded, fired, and Booth himself is shot dead.

Some have questioned whether this particular version of Booth is a creation of the authors, or if a case can be made for its factual nature based on primary sources. I feel it is both, as the sources listed in “Notes” at the back of the book (not available in the audio version) contain both secondary and primary sources, including Booth’s diary.

Diary of John Wilkes Booth

I have read many of the reviews, including the one by the National Park Service, which point out literary and factual errors in Killing Lincoln, and I have read the multitude of comments these reviews have generated.  The reviews and comments alone could be a book! My opinion is that the factual errors, although there, are not important enough to derail the book as an entertaining read. Several “objections” do not even seem valid.
Although not foot or end-noted, which is complained of often by reviewers, many well-known, reliable primary and secondary sources are listed in the “Notes” section of the print edition. A “Recreation of Harper’s Weekly” reprint of the events is included as well. A thorough reading of this Appendix should be enough to silence those who feel that O’Reilly/Dugard are attempting to resurrect the “old canard” concerning Secretary Stanton’s suspected involvement in the Lincoln Conspiracy and the missing pages of Booth’s diary. It is alluded to in the Harper’s account, and could not be left out if the authors were to remain true to their attempt to stay in present tense.

Additionally, although Bill O’Reilly is clear in his opinion that, “John Wilkes Booth epitomizes the evil that can harm us, even as President Abraham Lincoln represents the good that can make us stronger,” in his Epilogue, I could discern no particular hidden messages in the book that might pertain to today’s political situation. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Map of Booth Escape

Killing Lincoln, when reviewed as history, adds nothing to Lincoln scholarship. It presents no challenges to theories about the assassination plot, nor does it provide new information concerning the trial of the conspirators. However, the book never claimed this as its purpose.

Both O’Reilly and Dugard have said in interviews that they wanted to write the book to help “bring history alive” and reach more mainstream readers than an average history accounting. It’s tone owes more to Anne Rule than to Carl Sandburg. When reviewed with these “factors” in mind, the book holds up very well. Give it a listen.

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
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9 Responses to Audio Book Review: Killing Lincoln

  1. Several years ago, Dugard wrote a book about Stanley & Livingston, “Into Africa,” which was just fantastic. He has a great narrative style. I’m hope, in his collaboration with O’Reilly, that Dugard’s narrative style drives the book. If it does, I bet it’s an engaging read (as you seem to suggest, Meg). Thanks for the review.

  2. O’Reilly did graduate from Marist College, majoring in histroy, and he taught high school history and english for a couple years before pursuing a degree in broadcast journalism. Because of this, many wish to hold him to a higher standard. With this book he has reached a popular audience rather than academic. One has to be realistic and ask if the errors that are pointed out detract from the overall value of the book, which is to entertain and stimulate further interest? Anything that inspires or awakens interest in our nation’s history should be applauded, in my opinion. O’Reilly has indicated future printings of the book will have factual mistakes and errors corrected. Regardless, it has sold well over a million copies, although detractors insist that is due to O’Reilly’s perceived “star status ” with conservatives. If John Stewart had written the book, would it receive universal praise from the critics of O’Reilly? Probably so, regardless of his being a satirist, with a degree in psychology. Stewart’s 2004 book, “America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction”, although satirical, is catagorized as “non-fiction”, and enjoys the distinction of being an attitudinal primer in civics. It sold over two million copies by November of 2005, and is considered a “classic”, described by USATODAY as an “irreverent send-up of American politics and government…”
    Oh well.

  3. Meg Thompson says:

    I hope my review met YOUR standards. I am an unabashed liberal, and I thoroughly enjoyed Killing Lincoln. I am enough of a political wonk to remember when the book first came out. Both authors made the popular audience factor very evident in interviews. I took what I had heard from O’Reilly (one of those interviews was either on Stewart or Colbert, btw 🙂 ) into consideration when I read/wrote.

    I also read true crime and hard-boiled detective stuff–most of the reviews I read did not even remotely take these genres into consideration, yet the Lincoln book clearly drew from both, stylistically.

    Here is, IMHO, the true test–Yes, I ordered Gingrich’s The Battle of the Crater!

    • I thought your review was quite “fair and balanced”, and took much more into consideration where others have not. Excellent job. My comments were simply to supplement the points you were making (as I saw it), of course with my own thoughts regarding fairness thrown in. No quarrel with your work here.
      BTW, I don’t watch O’Reilly or Stewart. TV pundits, real or satirical, don’t really color my opinions. I just wish some people out there could seperate fact from fiction, regardless of political affiliation.

  4. Meg Thompson says:

    The more I work on the Civil War, the more parallels I find to today. Separating fact from fiction is a very difficult job. Thanks for your knowledgable words.

  5. Dolores Bryant says:

    I was never really good at history but I have always enjoyed telling and listening to stories and especially detective type stories. This audio presentation kept me so interested that I was compelled to finish hearing each CD at every spare moment of my allotted time to listen. I dared not multitask considering I might miss an important piece of information. The reader’s voice and appropriate inflections made the listening all the more interesting. I’m still not compelled to go out and buy a history book but I can say that I’m more knowledgable and actually feel good about doing this during the President’s Day holiday. I have already loaned my purchased copy to a fellow co-worker and civil right’s fanatic. Bottom line, I loved it and would highly recommend it to others.

  6. Llinda Reese says:

    Bill O’Reilly needs to learn the correct pronunciation of Cavalry. The US Cavalry should not be confused with the place where Jesus died on the cross–Calvary. Also, his use of Secretary Seward and Secretary Steward interchangeably, was really annoying.

    Linda Reese

    • Cheryl says:

      I noticed A LOT of mispronunciations in this book. Calvary for cavalry was the most annoying one, but for a person who hosts a television show, I didn’t expect to hear so many errors.

    • Kathyl says:

      The cavalry mispronunciation is REALLY bugging me while I listen. Why wasn’t this discovered and edited? Frustrating to listen.

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