O’Malley’s debut political drama weaves a tale of discrimination and social corruption around the real-life Cronin murder trial in 1889.
Dan Coughlin is a member of the Clan na Gael, a secret society of Irish nationalists operating in 19th-century Chicago. This patronage army has drawn the furor of many enemies, some foreign, some within its own ranks. When one such enemy, Dr. Patrick Henry Cronin, supposedly a British spy with information about Brotherhood activity, is murdered and jammed down a sewer basin, Dan and four other men are arrested for the crime. If he wants to prove his innocence in a trial rigged to see the culprits at the pendulous end of a hangman’s noose, Dan and his co-defendants must contend with powerful political forces seeking to quell Irish influence in Chicago. Meanwhile, Alexander Sullivan, one of the Clan na Gael’s leaders, uses his power, finances and political clout—while keeping secret his part in the conspiracy—to help Dan navigate the corrupt legal system. There’s also Mackie, a murderous Irish newspaper boy who sought vengeance on the wicked doctor. All three try to pilot a society where being Irish can be guilt enough. History and politics buffs will appreciate the novel’s blending of research on the real-life Cronin murder trials with fictional forays that highlight the discrimination and legal duplicity of the era. The narrative could be a bit more fleshed out, but glimpses of wooden sidewalks, blackjacks and urban stables draw forth the almost otherworldliness of turn-of-the-century Chicago. Unfortunately, the characters don’t receive much depth beyond their roles as political pawns. Those who scheme against Dan are pictured as either racists or perjurious miscreants. Of particular note is Cronin—child molester, slipshod abortionist and “traitor who sold out his fellow nationalists to feed his greed.” Dan is another take on the wrongly accused man with a wife and child longingly awaiting his return, but his characterization may be too saccharine for some readers.
An intricate political drama that stumbles over uninspired characters.