Miami native Brad Meltzer is a nine-time bestselling author of historical and political thrillers. He hosts two shows on the History Channel, Lost History and Decoded. He’s given anti-terrorism advice to the Department of Homeland Security, hobnobbed with George H.W. Bush, and spent hours poring over Lincoln assassination history.
But a couple of years ago, Meltzer learned something new: Four of the eight men who conspired to assassinate America’s 16th president were sent to suffer on the island prison of Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas off Key West. “Of course, everything crazy comes back to South Florida,” Meltzer says.
Now the obscure historical fact provides part of the setting for Meltzer’s new thriller.
The President’s Shadow opens with a scene where the first lady discovers a severed arm in the White House Rose Garden. Inside the arm’s hand is a puzzle, setting the stage for the remainder of the plot; by the final third of the 416-page book, the mystery has circled back to Fort Jefferson. “They go back to Dr. Mudd’s cell,” the author says of his characters. “The mysterious items they’re looking for are buried on that island.”
And in the name of research, Meltzer also visited the island — obsessing over everything from the island’s live “grouper cams” to the logistics of the fort’s 25-ton Rodman cannons for possible plot twists. Would a covert scuba diver show up in the grouper cam? Would the cannons’ temperature-monitoring equipment detect human flesh?
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“Could I put a body part in there? Would it sense it?” he wondered.
Meltzer spent hours consulting with Dry Tortugas National Park workers, including one who happened to be a big fan. Along the way, he also learned the fort was made of 16 million bricks, that the much-reviled Dr. Mudd became a kind of hero during a yellow fever outbreak, and that the island may well have served as a staging area for the Bay of Pigs Invasion, although there’s little record to prove it.
“We all know that Florida is insane,” says Meltzer, a North Miami Beach Senior High alum. “I never thought we also had the killer of Abraham Lincoln here.”
The President’s Shadow lands June 16; Meltzer will speak at Books & Books in Coral Gables June 20 and at the Alvin Sherman Library at Nova Southeastern June 21.