The first person ashore on January 1, 1892, the day Ellis Island opens, is pretty young Christina van der Waals, expecting to be met by her cousin. On hand to record the ceremonies are photographers Crombie and Sehlinger, who are racing Edison to put into production a moving-picture machine, and dime-novelist Marshall Webb, who plans to write a book about the 14-year-old Dutch immigrant’s happy life in her new country. But soon after Christina steps off the boat, she vanishes. And Webb’s efforts to track her down illustrate just how awful life in fin-de-siècle New York can be for unprotected girls. Men like Josiah McQuaid patrol the Tenderloin district for women to hustle into sweatshops (if they’re ugly) or prostitution (if they’re not). And men like her cousin’s common-law husband Warren Gleason, an abusive city patrolman on the take, cow their beaten wives so thoroughly they can’t even see the part Gleason has played in selling Christina to McQuaid for $20. Webb’s search leads him to Colden House, a woman’s shelter run by wealthy do-gooder Rebecca Davies, who joins him in seeking Christina—and, after her strangled corpse turns up, in finding her killer. The path winds past a tobacco-plant sweatshop in Connecticut, a Bowery bordello called The Roost, and payoffs to cops, customs officials, and Tammany pols.
Despite whores, drunks, bribes, graft, and the stench of the Tombs, the earnest hero and early-feminist heroine make this a tad dull. Most likely audience: fans of Soos’s period baseball series (Hanging Curve, 1999, etc.) and devotees of the Victorian women’s novel.