In ‘The First Conspiracy,’ Brad Meltzer, Mensch make historic intrigue a thriller

In ‘The First Conspiracy,’ Brad Meltzer, Mensch make historic intrigue a thriller

January 10, 2019

It’s hard to imagine a more conspiracy-minded age than our own, wreathed in theories of collusion and deception that spiral in a charged political atmosphere. But it’s nothing new — America was founded in a whirl of high intrigue, with plots and counter-plots among the colonial rebels and British loyalists who struggled for the upper hand in the winter of 1775, while the Continental Army struggled to life under a largely untested leader, General George Washington.

That’s the milieu explored by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch in “The First Conspiracy” (Flatiron Books, 413 pp., ★★★ out of four). It’s a breezily entertaining account of a treasonous plot among various pro-crown figures, including some of Washington’s bodyguards, to assassinate the general and turn the tide of the Revolutionary War.

Led by New York’s British-installed governor William Tryon and mayor David Mathews, the plot – it’s no spoiler to say – failed. Washington wasted little time in arresting the guilty and gathering some 20,000 troops and citizens in an open field to witness the hanging of the key conspirator.  This took place only a few days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and since then the incident has faded from historical focus.

But as Meltzer and Mensch emphasize, the plot gave birth to an American counterintelligence establishment that would flower centuries later with the CIA. Keenly aware that foreign and domestic spies posed a huge threat to the nascent republic, Washington launched a secret “Committee on Conspiracies,” the first dedicated American counterintelligence team.

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