Peter Pike and the Lincoln Love Letters
Sophomore detective novel chases after ‘Lincoln Love Letters’
Aarik Danielsen, Columbia Daily Tribune, Feb. 20, 2021
Sophomore detective novel chases after ‘Lincoln Love Letters’
No one knows history quite like Peter Pike does. And that’s ironic because the fictional sleuth shows little interest in annals of the past, his creator notes.
A figment of Columbia author Neal Fandek’s substantial imagination, the detective put himself in the middle of American religious history and our national lust for treasure in Fandek’s first novel, “Peter Pike and the Murderous Mormons.”
For his next adventure, Pike inadvertently inserts himself into a debate over the sexuality of no less than Abraham Lincoln. “Peter Pike and the Lincoln Love Letters” finds Pike chasing down Lincoln correspondence lifted from a major university. In his pursuit, he “must navigate a world of fluid sexuality, political correctness, college race riots, musty archives and inconvenient truths,” as Fandek’s website notes.
In an email exchange with the Tribune, Fandek discussed the progression between books, the discourse around Lincoln and how the Midwest is, once again, a character in his work. The conversation was lightly edited for space and style.
Tribune: What were the biggest differences, either creatively or logistically, between writing Book One and Book Two? How much of Peter’s story had you plotted out from the very beginning of the series?
Fandek: That’s at once a very tough and very easy question. For both Number One and Number Two, once I had what Alfred Hitchcock called “the MacGuffin,” the object or idea that sets the plot and characters in motion, it flowed pretty easily.
In Number One, it’s golden tablets and a crystal sword, as described in the Book of Mormon; in Number Two, it’s lost Lincoln love letters. That’s the easy part. I had actually written the Civil War chapters of Number One in a previous, unpublished novel, so I just adapted them.
Number Two was harder. Like most history majors (University of California, Berkeley, a long time ago), I thought I knew Lincoln. Turns out he’s much more elusive than I thought.
I had to dig pretty deeply into the lives, times and thinking of both John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln, and standards and mores of that era. Turns out Booth was raised not far from where I grew up, in the northern suburbs of Baltimore. Our history teachers neglected to mention that.
I’d say it took about three years, endless hours on the internet, poring over nonfiction and fiction books, to track Lincoln’s life from southern Indiana to a trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans, to Springfield and northern Illinois in the Black Hawk War, and to Ford’s Theater in D.C., where Booth assassinated him.
Bringing him to life as a young man conflicted by his own sexuality took even more careful research into original documents. I just hope I’ve succeeded in making him come alive. Whatever you think you know about Lincoln, I assure you, that’s only part of the story.
As for the stories — I don’t plot them out. I’ve tried; it doesn’t work for me. They all but write themselves.
Once I established Pike’s identity — former military policeman in the Middle East, knows a smidge of Arabic, trained investigator, trained in combat, formerly homeless, etc. — it became apparent he was ready for new adventures. Enter the MacGuffin, in this case lost Lincoln love letters to John Wilkes Booth. Then the assassination on Good Friday 1865 takes on a whole new meaning, as do Lincoln’s service in the Blackhawk War and adventures in New Orleans.
And because these fictional letters were archived at a university, it was quite easy to add uber-PC and dishonest academics, protests over racism (including cotton balls in front of the student union, swastikas made from human waste) that escalate and result in presidents resigning, much of it mined from news reports and public MU statements from the unrest here in 2015. Real life seems remarkably fictional in retrospect; sometimes even as it happens.
The irony is, Pike could care less about history. He’s a smart guy, in fact quite smart, but has no time for the intricacies and nuances of history.
Tribune: The first book was inspired, in part, by a fateful trip to Quincy, Illinois. Did any other settings leave an impression on this one? How did the Midwest or any other specific places serve as a character here?
Fandek: Quincy — my St. Baarlam, a town built on the ruins of an ancient Indian city, as an awful lot of our cities are — is again prominent because that’s Pike’s base. But this time we journey to Hannibal, which I call Punica (you Roman history geeks will get it), its FDR-era stadium where the collegiate Prospect League team plays, whom I call the Punica Punishers, and Dan and Dani’s house on a lightly fictionalized Hannibal street: It’s a circle drive, and in the circle is a unique neighborhood park called Osterhout Mounds, an ancient Indian burial site.
Pretty much wherever you live in America, other people were there first. I also use the commercial strip of McMasters Ave. right off I-72, and echoes of Mark Twain.
Tribune: These mysteries crack the door open to aspects of American history. What are some of the true (or close-to-true) threads you’re pulling at this time around?
Fandek: That’s easy. The stories that have been swirling around Lincoln for a century now. I’m talking details about his personal life that are hiding in plain sight. Look it up for yourself: typing “Lincoln sexuality” in your browser yields close to 21 million results. Really.
Lincoln slept with men throughout his life; that’s clear. But how to properly read that? The sexes were highly segregated in the mid-19th century and freewheeling 21st-century sexual standards just don’t apply.
Beds were limited on the frontier; most people know that. Passionate, non-gay same-sex friendships were a staple of 19th-century American life, carried over well into the 20th century — that may not be as well known. Gender rules and roles were very different back then, and trying to apply our interpretations just won’t fly. Nineteenth-century America was much closer to ISIS rules than ours in terms of gender.
Here’s a contemporaneous quote from a book by Thomas Chamberlin: “Captain [David] Derickson [a mighty handsome bodyguard, BTW] advanced so far in the President’s confidence and esteem that, in Mrs. Lincoln’s absence, he frequently spent the night at his cottage [the Soldiers’ Home], sleeping in the same bed with him, and — it is said — making use of His Excellency’s night-shirt!”
In a larger sense, this novel is about sexual identity, then and now, that just happens to have invaluable, scandalous Lincoln love letters attached.
Tribune: How has your relationship to Peter — and his presentation on the page — evolved across two books? Where do you think he goes from here?
Fandek: First of all, he likes to be called Pike. Not Peter. Not Mr. Pike. Don’t ask me why.
But having established his identify and bona fides, I can’t predict how he reacts when thrown into mysteries. When I think a scene calls for violence, he just smiles. When the scene is peaceful, he’s violent. When he really needs to stay sober, he gets bombed.
I also try to never underestimate his intelligence. He may not have a college degree, but he’s quick, intuitive and unafraid to go places most people don’t.
As to his path — I have written four more Peter Pikes. Finding genuine mysteries in history is remarkably easy, in my opinion. All it takes is curiosity and a taste for exploring. Only now that I’ve written a few do I see how Agatha Christie can write 75 novels, many starring that inimitable detective Hercule Poirot; the criminally underrated John D. McDonald and his 21-novel Travis McGee series; and the champion, Georges Simeon, who penned something like 500.
When and how to release the novels is another matter, but it’s safe to say Pike will get entangled in even more skullduggery in Punica and St. Barlaam, and, in books five and six, in Smithton, a Missouri college town located on I-70 just north of the capital, home to a major university.
- “I read and enjoyed this book. Artful mix of below the surface historical narrative and contemporary societal observation.” –D. Sett, North Carolina
- Fandek brings his John Wilkes Booth to life very substantially. The language and details- landscape, interiors, forensics- reflect thorough research of historic American town life and Illinois in particular. The book convincingly travels back and forth from contemporary time to the period of Booth and Lincoln. Reading scenes with one of the contemporary characters with mental illness was both illuminating and disorienting. I hadn’t felt inside a mentally ill person’s mind this convincingly since Don DeLillo. –Mike S., Columbia, Mo.
Peter Pike and the Murderous Mormons
“Writes about historical and contemporary tough stuff for those not faint of heart. Young male readers will enjoy Neal’s book!”
— Linda Ferris, author of “LORAL COUNTY TIMES: Return to Echo Woods”
- From “Unlikely story: Novelist writes at intersection of mystery, history”
“Fandek sees genre as a servant to greater stories and, with “Peter Pike,” he walks up to the precipice of accepted American narrative and points out just a little of what lies beyond it.”
— Aarik Danielsen, Columbia Daily Tribune
Read the whole review.
“From the moment I picked up this book, I was hooked: “Hot, so damn-ed hot. Why is it always hot as damna — blazes in this gol-durned state” Starting with the motley crew of the New Mormon Brigade, and continuing with colorful characters like Vietnam Johnny and Rock the Avenging Angel, the players are well-drawn and the story is suspenseful. In the beginning you’re not exactly sure where things are going or why so many southerners are losing their heads, but pretty soon things fast forward to present day and the mystery begins to unfold. The narrative continues to draw you forward as you are introduced to one memorable character after another. The book is peppered with layer upon layer of historical facts, centered largely in Missouri and Mississippi and even include passages from the Book of Mormon. The book is incredibly well researched, and Fandek’s clear love for and knowledge of history is apparent in the Author’s Notes at the end, where the author separates fact from fiction.”
–K. Hunt, Amazon review
I’m eager for the release of the next Peter Pike adventure!
–William R., Amazon review