Swerling (City of Dreams, 2001, etc.) continues her series of “city of” novels celebrating the history of New York.
This installment finds an unhappy young man named Joshua Turner freshly returned to Manhattan from service in the Civil War, during which he’s lost a leg along the way and now sports a peg in its place. (Smoking gun warning: The peg comes into its own at a critical point in the story.) Joshua isn’t one to be inconvenienced by such trifles: He’s single-minded in the same way that his mogul successor Donald Trump is abrasive, though, admittedly, he’s much less entertaining than The Donald. Alas, the war follows him home, first in the person of a pal’s brother-in-law, a rebel spy caught in the act of a spectacular arson, and over whom Josh expresses regrets that he wasn’t on hand to save the day. Writes said secessionist, “My dear brother-in-law and friend…Much as I hope for the success of our mission to burn New York to the ground, I also pray God that you and yours will somehow survive whatever turmoil we unleash.” That “we” is an operative word, for Johnny Reb isn’t alone in wanting to see bad things happen to Gotham, and Joshua is caught up in an intrigue that unfolds above and below the streets of the city over the years to come. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to fight the battle alone; he’s since won the heart of a former brothel inmate. The novel is competent enough, though the dialogue is a touch flat, the scenes sometimes too contrived and the yokels too yokely: “He’s always walking around the city drawing things,” says one. “Illustrations he calls ‘em.” Right.
Swerling doesn’t promise more than she delivers, but this is still a rather ordinary novel. For a stronger thriller set in the same time and place, see Frederick Busch’s The Night Inspector.