“Incognito,” by Terry Lewis

Terry Lewis

Reviewed by Claire Matturro

Incognito (Moonshine Cove Publishing 2021) by Terry Lewis is a riveting, high-stakes adventure story with accurate, well-drawn history about the birth of the United States. Set in the early days of the American Revolution, the tale captures the tensions and conflicts of the time in compelling action and narrative. Lewis, a former Florida Circuit judge and legal thriller author, pulls his readers right into the story of young Will Harrell and the men and women in his world. Danger and intrigue are the daily stuff of Colonial times where one’s politics could easily get one killed.

Historical fiction such as Incognito, should ideally educate as well as entertain. But educating in the guise of entertainment involves a certain trick. The historical research should definitely be accurate, but must also be incorporated into the novel with enough finesse and detail that readers are drawn into the time and place of the setting. Yet, the historical fiction author must carefully avoid the dreaded info-dump and appearance of giving a lecture. It’s a tough balancing act. Lewis pulls it off quite splendidly in his newest novel.

While Incognito is filled with precise, informative historical facts, Lewis adeptly weaves them into the plot. His eye for details is also so keen that readers should feel as if they are walking the streets in 1776, hearing the noises, breathing in the city air of Philadelphia—and feeling the tensions in passages like this one:

The Green Dragon Tavern was crowded, thick with conversation, some quiet and some loud. The air was dank and warm, aided by an unnecessary fire in the stone fireplace, and it smelled of sweat and spilled ale. A dense cloud of smoke hung in the air, clinging to everything and everyone it touched.

While the story is filled with names readers will no doubt readily recognize (such as Ben Franklin, John Dickinson, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock) the protagonist, Will Harrell, is purely a work of fiction. As a law clerk apprenticed to John Dickinson, young Will is learning to be a lawyer—but the stress of speaking in a courtroom triggers his epilepsy. He is wooing one sister, but entranced by the other, more serious sister. He has a rare talent for solving puzzles, which plays into the plot as Will deciphers an intercepted correspondence and concludes, “Gentlemen, you may have a traitor in your midst.” That traitor’s goal is to assassinate leaders of the nascent revolution.

Dickinson enlists Harrell’s help in providing security for the potential targets of assassination and seeking out the traitor’s identity. Will is introduced to members of the Continental Congress as Dickinson’s apprentice at law who has agreed to serve the Congress as a deputy clerk, thus giving him access and a legitimate cover. Will’s real mission, of course, is far deeper and more dangerous than mere clerk.

The antagonist, a British spy with the code name of Incognito, is a complex and talented villain, equally worthy of the novel. His skill at disguises makes him a hard man to catch. He blends into places he should not be. Will describes Incognito as “a terrorist” who is “more likely to be a lone wolf … with an ego large enough to make him adverse to sharing in the glory… He is a professional killer, neither a patriot nor a martyr.” His targets reach as far as George Washington, and if Incognito succeeds, the American Revolution will have had no chance of success. Thus, the stakes are high for Will and his fellow patriots.

While most of us know at least the broad history of the Revolution, Lewis takes us into the nuances and lesser-known facets. He also puts an educational twist on things such as Quakers (how they came to be called that) and apothecary secrets and printing presses. His fictional use of such men as Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin adds both a certain charm and intrigue to the story. But of all the real people used in a fictional way, perhaps John Dickinson is the most effective. A solicitor and politician from Philadelphia, Dickinson authored twelve “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” in 1767-8, and was known as the “Penman of the Revolution.” As Will’s trusted mentor, Dickinson plays a crucial role in the story.

Lewis is the author of three well-received legal thrillers, but Incognito is his first historical novel. When asked what motivated his change of direction, Lewis—who retired from the bench in 2019 and is now in private practice—explained he had been a history major in college and was especially drawn to the origins of the United States of America. “I think it was reading Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis that got me thinking of this period as a setting for some kind of fictional story,” Lewis said. “Eventually, I decided I would try to write something tied to the Declaration of Independence. So, I read books and articles about historical fiction, and several novels set in this period, as well as novels written during this time. I read many general histories of this period, biographies of the well-known and lesser known and especially anything having to do with the Declaration.”

As for all those true-to-everyday life details Lewis handles so well, he said, “I also read books about daily life stuff (history of beds, plumbing, housework, taverns and drinks, recreation, etc.).” Lewis also used a few primary sources like diaries, newspapers and letters to and from delegates in researching for his novel.

A fine novel, Incognito is a compelling addition to not only Lewis’s own catalog of quality fiction, but also to the many historical novels about our own country. Will is a worthy character to base a series on and Lewis says that two more books are planned.

The novel works well on so many levels. From the wealth of accurate history woven into the plot, one learns a lot (or renews one’s knowledge) about our country. The story also is authentic in its setting and sense of place, so it isn’t just the factual history on display, but the essence of what life was like back then. And the plot itself—part mystery, part action, part spy thriller, and with a hint of romance to boot—is fast paced and easy to read. It is hard to put down.

Click here to purchase this book: 

Leave a Reply