This book is the second in the historical police detective series that began with The Gods of Gotham (see my review, here). It picks up six months after the events of the first book, and continues to follow the career of 28-year-old Timothy Wilde, a member of the newly formed “copper stars,” or New York City Policemen.
The story begins on Valentine’s Day in 1846, when Tim and his colleague Jakob Piest are approached by Lucy Adams, a desperate woman claiming her family has been stolen. She is African-American, though hardly recognizable as such, and she explains that her son and her sister who was babysitting him have been taken by slave catchers. These “blackbirders” common to Antebellum America specialized in kidnapping blacks, whether legally free or not, and sending them South. The capture of fugitive “slaves” was of course legal at this time in American history, but the more unscrupulous and greedy slave catchers did not make a distinction between a black who was free and one who had escaped from slavery. The author reports in her Afterword:
“Overwhelming evidence indicates that the practice of kidnapping free blacks for the purpose of selling them as alleged slaves was common, systematized, and almost entirely overlooked by courts and law enforcement.”
As Tim interprets the situation in New York:
“This city plays with its residents a mortal game of musical chairs… There is simply not enough here. Not enough work, enough food, enough walls with roofs topping them. …there aren’t enough chairs for the tens of thousands tearing their way into the parlor for a try. And if only one seat out of a dozen is marked FOR COLOREDS, and that identical seat is the only one marked FOR IRISH… Then it’s a question of who pitches whom on the hardwood first.”
Lucy is desperate for Tim to find her family before they are sent South into slavery; violated in other ways; or even killed. He has an advantage in doing detective work, because people tend to open up to him. He says, “Where stories are concerned, I am a man-shaped safety deposit box.”
But Tim has his own difficulties: he doesn’t mind angering his boss to obtain social justice, nor alienating the Democratic party, which controls the police. This attitude tends to put Tim repeatedly in danger himself. Also, his brother Val plays an important role in both the party and the police, so Tim’s behavior doesn’t just hurt himself.
As for Val, he is truly the star of the series, in my view. He is open-minded, interesting, brave, and has a lot more street smarts than his hapless idealistic brother. Tim knows Val’s worth: “He [is] my entire context.” He won’t admit it to Val, and only rarely admits it to himself. But we the readers know his worth, because it is largely because of Val that I want to keep following this series!
Evaluation: This is an appealing historical crimes series with a social conscience, and with characters that grow dearer to the reader as the series progresses.
Published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2013