Alternate histories needn't be grounded in wrenching, universe-altering circumstances like the Confederacy winning the Civil War, or Hitler getting the bomb before America. In David L. Robbins' appealing little thriller The Assassins Gallery, an alternate storyline is hiding just beneath the facts in the history books. Outwardly, everything looks the same: Great men make decisions, have meetings, live and love and wait for the verdict of time. But underneath lies a plot that leads to the same outcome, yet with a completely different flavor and meaning.
For Robbins, the event is the denouement of World War II and the decline of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, playing out his fourth term in poor health, hated by half of America and Europe alike. The novelist imagines an assassin—no, an Assassin, proper noun: a member of the ancient Persian sect from which the word for political murderer derives. Dropped ashore on a Massachusetts beach, the killer is forced to leave mayhem behind instead of stealthy silence. And that puts Mikhal Lammeck, history professor and trainer of Allied murder squads, on the Assassin's trail. In a style borrowed from Ken Follett and other venerable suspense novelists, Robbins switches between the single-minded, somewhat stylized perspective of the killer, navigating through Washington's black community, and the rough-and-tumble hunches of Lammeck and his sidekick, Secret Service Agent "Dag" Nabbit.
The weakness in this page-turner lies in Robbins' occasional over-reliance on formula. Readers probably could have suspended historical disbelief more thoroughly if he hadn't chosen to have the killer and the professor confront each other for a numbingly conventional tête-à-tête between honorable soldiers in an ugly war. Robbins succumbs to so few fallacies, especially as the action tightens in a mad dash to Roosevelt's "Little White House" in Warm Springs, Georgia, that the fallacy of the talking killer (repeated twice over) seems especially ludicrous. Yet such flaws are more than offset by the upstairs/downstairs insights into wartime Washington, from Embassy Row to the hired help. Robbins succeeds best when he dampens his flair for the dramatic and let his readers fill in the chilling gaps, feeling their worlds shift as they contemplate a future just like the one they know, yet run by a different engine.