This historical fiction crime novel is set in 1845 New York, corresponding with the potato famine in Ireland; the consequent mass immigration of the Irish to America; and the beginning of the New York City Police Force. The explosion in population ignited a warlike situation in New York, with Protestants venomously protesting the “infestation” of these Catholic “vermin” who well might corrupt their children, take their jobs, and in general contribute to the moral degradation of the city. As one “God-fearing” businessman spouted:
“We ought to round these papists up somehow, send them back where they belong. If God wishes them to starve there, then who are we to stand in the way of divine justice?”
A police force really becomes a necessity, and into the fray steps Timothy Wilde, at age 26 a newly minted “copper star” or policeman, who seems to be one of the few people in the city without prejudice. His ecumenical attitude toward people is reflected in a glass darkly by his older brother Valentine, who, in spite of being a police captain and a Democratic party heavy, has an ecumenical acceptance of any and all forms of debauchery. Tim hates Val for it, and yet they continue to take care of each other, just as they have since their parents died in a fire nineteen years before.
Some ritual slayings of young children are uncovered, with a cross carved into the dead bodies. The conviction that there is room for only one God of Gotham (“and Him a Protestant”) complicates the search for the killer of these children, or “kinchin” in the “Flash-patter” street argot of the era. The young victims appear to have been not only Irish, but Irish prostitutes, or “kinchin-mabs.” An anonymous letter to the papers – allegedly from the murderer – claims the killings are being carried out by someone Irish who is dong the work of “our most blessed Pope” to “cleanse our own filth before God’s eyes.”
Timothy, who is more interested in doing the work of a detective than anything else, doesn’t believe the letter to be authentic, but many people do, and he knows the city could be convulsed by riots if the police don’t get to the bottom of these murders fast. So he does his best to find the killer before (a) more children are killed and/or (b) the city explodes in a religious war. He is aided in his quest by a motley group including the little girl Bird Daly he recently rescued from her life as an Irish child prostitute, the formidable Chief of Police George Washington Matsell, and Tim’s new friend and fellow policeman the “crab-faced old scoundrel” Jakob Piest.
Discussion: I wasn’t totally surprised by the denouement, but I thought that solving the crime seemed secondary to the author’s intention of depicting what it was like, especially for the Catholic immigrants, in mid-nineteenth century New York.
The author does just fine with making sure we know what the characters mean when they speak “Flash” but ironically for me, there were other times when her prose, albeit written in plain English, just seemed garbled to me – most often when she was trying to describe how people looked. On the other hand, she did a beautiful job setting scenes, as with this description of New York in the fall:
“By two weeks later, September had made itself better felt. The charcoal-sketched notions of trees in City Hall Park burst violently red and then faded back into line drawings.”
The characters are appealing, although Tim alternates between saintly, savvy, and dumb. I can’t decide if that’s a realistic combination or not! Val meanwhile, is ostensibly a bad man, but my heart hurts for him so much I can’t hate him, and would like to shake Tim a bit for not being more charitable toward his brother. I also can’t understand what Tim sees in his love interest, Mercy Underhill. But I still liked both the brothers, and I love the historical aspects of the book. I can’t wait to see what the next in the series will be like.
Note: If you’ve seen the movie “The Gangs of New York,” which begins in 1846, you’ll recognize not only some similar plot elements but some of the “Flash” dialect. The action in the movie quickly jumps ahead to 1862, but not much changes in that time. Thus this book and the ones to follow it in the same series are still a good way to understand what was behind the ongoing warfare depicted in the movie between the “Nativists” and the immigrants, and to get a good sense of the hatred and violence characterizing that era.
Evaluation: This historical crime novel is as entertaining a way as any to learn about antebellum American history, particularly in the urban North. The combination of economic hardship, scarce jobs, crowded living quarters, and an immigrant population to serve as the scapegoats for all that pent up stress and anger created a volatile mix; one that politicians did not hesitate to exploit. Hmmm. Sounds familiar….
Published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2012