BRAD MELTZER -The Fifth Assassin. Beecher White #2. Grand Central, trade paperback, January 2013; mass market paperback, May 2015.

   The recipe for a good conspiracy thriller is fairly simple. You start with a few historical anomalies and oddities, research heavily, trim any logic or uncomfortable facts (while noting them in your notes to prove you actually did your research), employ audacity freely, add ruthless villains with vast resources and ties to power, throw in innocent and not so innocent victims, mix with human complications, and finally throw in an attractive and believably human protagonist and bring to a series of boils until the lid threatens to blow off the pot.

   It sounds much easier to do than it is, which is why so few writers get it right. That is exactly what Brad Meltzer does in The Fifth Assassin, and to great effect. This is the second thriller to feature Beecher White, a researcher who works for the National Archives, and who is also a member of the secret Culper Society founded by none other than George Washington to protect the Presidency (viewers of Turn or readers of Washington’s Spies have a heads-up here).

   We begin with the murder of Pastor Riis of St. John’s Church which sits across from the White House, by a mysterious and highly skilled assassin called the Knight (there are no incompetent and seedy assassins in conspiracy thrillers, I think its in the union rules). White and his friend and ally Tot are friends of the late Pastor and note almost immediately the murder of their friend has been staged to resemble the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

   When shortly after a second murder is staged to resemble the assassination of President James Garfield White and company are off digging into a conspiracy dating to the beginning of the nation and tying the four successful assassinations of Presidents and the ten unsuccessful to a conspiracy as old as the Culper Society itself, a conspiracy that goes higher up than White can or is willing to imagine and which puts him and his partner in personal danger as well as calling into question their loyalty and that of men much higher in government than they are reaching the Oval Office itself.

   White is a likable, moral, and human hero, and following along with him is one of the pleasures of this better written than average bestselling conspiracy thriller. Climax and anti-climax follow in traditional thriller mode, all done with more care than usual, all coming down to a final page conclusion that without quite being a cliff-hanger leaves you restlessly panting for the next book (which gratefully is already out).

   This mix of history, conspiracy, mystery, some detection — at least of the historical kind — ethical hero, patriotism of the actual sort, and enough action to keep pages turning is highly entertaining, and best of all the plot is kept moving without pages of half-digested exposition that would slow down even the most dedicated historian.

   Don’t start reading too late in the evening, you may find yourself not wanting to put it down until you see how it all unfolds, and you will almost certainly want to spend more time with Beecher White, the most likable thriller hero in my recent reading.

      The Culper Ring Trilogy

1. The Inner Circle (2011)
2. The Fifth Assassin (2013)
3. The President’s Shadow (2015)