Timothy Wilde is a New York policeman who is writing a report on what occurred before and after a ten-year old girl, covered in blood, ran into him on the street. Her name is later revealed as Aibhilin o Dalaigh (Little Bird). As he writes, we learn about him as well: He was orphaned some 19 years earlier by a house fire, in which only he and his elder brother Valentine had survived. He’s known a Mercy Underhill, the Reverend Thomas Underhill’s daughter, since she was nine-years old, and is secretly in love with her. He’s been saving for ten years and feels he almost has enough now to ask for her to be his wife (if he can get up the courage), when there is a huge fire and it seems the entire city has exploded. His home, his possessions, and all his savings are gone. He has to start over.
As the number of immigrants increases (a huge proportion of whom are Irish), spurred on by the Potato blight in Ireland, there is a an increasing anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment in New York. Timothy resists these prejudices, however. When his brother Valentine secures them both positions in the new police force that is being established he hesitates. He realizes though, that since he has been badly disfigured in the fire that he’ll have to take what he can get. A police force, a “standing army” so called by those against it, is a controversial proposal. The author makes it clear that from the start, the police force was a political entity. The Democrats having just come to power, establish the force:
Harmless citizens were shrieking for a system of constables, and less harmless patriots were bellowing that the freemen of New York would never stomach a standing army. [Legislation creating the police force was engineered by those who] liked danger, power, and bribes in equal measure.
After finding a flat above a bakery, he starts his new job in August of 1845, stationed in the district that houses what quickly comes to be known as “the Tombs”. After Little Bird had runs into him, she is taken to the bakery and cleaned up as he and Mrs. Boehm attempt to find out the truth of what had happened. She’s an “expert liar”, so it’s hard to trust what she says. Little Bird is a fascinating character – the best – along with one other in this fine historical novel
Meanwhile, another child murder in Val’s ward leads Tim to seek the aid of Mercy. Mercy is known for doing charity work for the poor/Irish which is what leads Tim to seek her out. In the New York of 1845, disease was believed to be the result of certain factors:
Disease, the clergy and the scientists agreed is caused by weak living. Rich foods, bad air, rotten earthy, lazy hygiene, liquor, drugs, vice, and sex.
When the victim is identified as having worked as a “nab” (a prostitute) out of a Greene street ‘house’, the connection is made to Little Bird. And, he learns from a priest that the house is connected and protected…by his brother. Tim vows to get the truth out of Little Bird now. Information from Little Bird is hard to come by. At least reliable information. She seems to be a notorious liar. Tim quickly becomes known as quite an investigator. Whereas previously he had be hired on as a “roundman” (a beat cop), his talents for investigation is soon recognized by the chief of police, former Justice George Washington Matsel. Through many twists and turns, Tim pursues the mysteries of what looks to be a serial killer with a dogged determination. It’s a good old fashioned ‘ripping yarn’.
The other fascinating character is the Madam of a house of prostitution, by the name of Silky Marsh. The author’s description of Marsh is worth noting at length – it’s that good:
It’s kind of hard to describe Silkie Marsh when you’re looking right at her. The effect is all wrong. So instead I’ll say how she looked in one of the massive Venetian mirrors in her front saloon. Surrounded by gilded walnut furniture lines in royal purple velvet, illuminated by a crystal chandeliers that sparkled like glancing views of the inside of a diamond.
She wore a simple but perfect black satin gown the way the playhouse courtesans do, which led me to believe that she’d used to ply her trade in the third tier of the Bowery Theatre. Plenty of rouge, artfully blended. The scent of violets hovered around her like a patch of spring. She stood with her white fingers draped over the treble end of a rosewood piano, a champagne glass in her other hand. Looking right at her, you’d think her beautiful. But looking at her reflection, you see that she isn’t…she looked like the theory of beauty and not beauty at all…she’s missing human empathy entirely. That little string tying people to strangers and acquaintances was cut clean through.
Lyndsay Faye’s highly readable historical novel zips right along – it’s a pager turner, with only minor lags in parts. Intricately plotted, but never obtuse or too dense. There’s a nice balance. Highly recommended as an entertaining diversion, and you might just learn a thing or two about New York in the mid 1840’s.