In one of the more elaborate scenes from The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy, a robotic replica of President William Howard Taft goes on the fritz, running roughshod through the White House and nearly strangling the actual president. When someone suggests that the Taft-bot’s supposed malfunction could have been an assassination attempt, Taft replies, “Who would want me killed? I’m this century’s Falstaff.” The real-life Taft, a politically inept teetotaler, was hardly a font of drunken, bawdy wit and charm, but it would have been so much more fun if he were. So Conspiracy runs with that premise, using real historical events as reference points around which it weaves a science fiction-tinged adventure of international skulduggery in the 1910s.
Although the title mentions Abraham Lincoln, we glimpse the 16th president only briefly, in the prologue. The stars of this romp are Taft—or, rather, a roundhouse-throwing, champagne-swilling reimagination of the man—and the coterie of advisers who accompany him around the world on his steampunk airship. One of the posse is Robert Todd Lincoln, who’s baffled by a futuristic pocket watch that apparently belonged to his father. As Taft and friends investigate the watch, they catch whispers of an anti-American plot that sprawls from the wilderness of Alaska to the personal library of J.P. Morgan to the halls of power in Brussels. The intrigue is exciting but always tinged with a fun silliness, as the presence of the buffoonish Taft keeps the proceedings from growing too dark.
That lightness is Conspiracy’s greatest asset. With Bob Lincoln as the straight man, Jacopo Della Quercia takes the license of coloring in history’s black-and-white outlines. Real-life military aide Archibald Butt, for instance, is amusingly rendered as a saintly mama’s boy with a latent sword obsession. And Della Quercia often includes footnotes citing news articles from the era—articles that show not all of the book’s lunacy is invented. It’s worth reading with a web browser close at hand so you can follow the author’s bread crumbs to confirm that, say, a prominent scientist really did believe in 1910 that poison gas from Halley’s Comet threatened to end all human life. Della Quercia doesn’t just want you to get caught up in his story. He wants you to share his enthusiasm for the actual dramas and insanities of the era.
As is often the case with conspiracy yarns, the buildup is more compellingly crafted than the resolution. (A late bombshell by Taft’s Secret Service chief is the biggest sad-trombone moment as Conspiracy ties up its loose ends.) And the blustery action scenes can drag on too long. But Della Quercia rejuvenates the story with his formal creativity—at various times, he tells the tale through telegrams, a spy’s shorthand notes, newspaper clippings, and other novel bits of early 20th-century media. It all swirls together to create a kaleidoscopic view of the actual 1910s. The true conspiracy here is the one between author and reader, a tacit agreement that history’s gaps can and ought to be filled in with effervescent madness.