Dark criminous deeds abound in Paris Review editor Gaffney’s colorful debut, a melodrama set in the late 1860s in New York City’s notorious Five Points.
The story’s vivid actions exfoliate from the suspicious fire that ravages P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, making German immigrant stableman Georg Geiermeir a hunted man. Briefly detained in the Tombs and then released, Geirmeir attracts the attention of Irish immigrant “hot-corn girl” and pickpocket Beatrice O’Gamhna, a member of the female branch of the Points’ dangerous criminal gang, the Whyos. When the murdered body of a pregnant girl is discovered in the wreckage of the Barnum fire, Geirmeir finds both refuge and further peril among the Whyos (who rename him “Frank Harris”), having been recruited by their charismatic bisexual leader, “Dandy Johnny” Dolan, the figurehead behind whom looms the real criminal mastermind: black-hearted Mother Meg Dolan. Gaffney’s busy plot—much lavish detail is drawn from Herbert Asbury’s classic social study Gangs of New York (also the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s eponymous feature film)—encompasses the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the heroic efforts of the pioneers of women’s medicine to rescue impoverished girls from prostitution, disease, and premature death. Gaffney’s first outing isn’t as wonderful as it might have been: some of its action is quite redundant, the seams of her formidable research clearly show, and her Trollopian habit of inserting loquacious authorial commentary at odd moments often unsettles the tone. But the narrative line is strong, and the text is enlivened by such brilliantly imagined characters as the aforementioned Dolans, the conflicted Geirmeir (haunted by memories of the family he left behind in Germany), and the Bill Sykes of this consciously Dickensian novel: freelance informer, murderer, and Geirmeir’s implacable nemesis, the vile “Undertaker,” Luther Undertoe.
Luther alone is worth the price of admission, but there’s much more to like in Gaffney’s rip-roaring, agreeably ungainly, outrageously entertaining tale.