Displaying the same gift for characterization that refreshed her retelling of the Jack the Ripper case (Dust and Shadow, 2009), Faye crafts a top-notch historical thriller.
This time around, she’s invented her own plot. In July 1845, Timothy Wilde is a successful bartender who’s accumulated $400 in silver—just about enough, he figures, to ask minister’s daughter Mercy Underhill to marry him. But the conflagration that sweeps through Manhattan that night consumes Timothy’s savings and disfigures his face. It’s the second time fire has upended his life; an earlier blaze orphaned Timothy and older brother Valentine when they were children, leaving them to fend for themselves on the city’s brutal, indifferent streets like so many other “kinchin.” (Faye makes savory use of 19th-century thieves’ slang throughout.) Timothy reluctantly becomes a “copper star,” so-called for the badge worn by members of New York’s newly created police force. Valentine, a stalwart of the city’s Democratic political machine, gets him the job, but tensions seethe between the brothers that seem to involve more than Valentine’s addiction to morphine. When Timothy stumbles across a young girl covered with blood, who leads him to the mass grave of 20 kinchin horribly disfigured apparently at the hands of a Catholic fanatic, political scandal and religious riot threaten. No one is precisely what they seem in Faye’s richly imagined, superbly plotted narrative, which delivers not one, not two, but three bravura twists as Timothy tracks the killer and tangles with a well-connected madam, Mercy’s anti-Catholic father and gangs of nativist thugs. The tough police chief and a doctor who has devoted his life to caring for New York’s neglected children are among those who aid Timothy’s quest, which concludes with a gruff, moving reconciliation and a sorrowful parting.
Faye’s damaged but appealing hero seems likely to have more adventures ahead, and they’ll be welcomed by anyone who appreciates strong, atmospheric storytelling.