New York in 1845 is a turbulent city. The political campaign between the Democrats and the Whigs is crooked and violent, and the recent influx of Irish poor is causing some Protestant leaders to preach against Papists. The recent establishment of a police force has been fought against by those claiming it impinges on their civil liberties.
Timothy Wilde is a bartender who has managed to save up $500 and intends to ask the woman he loves, Mercy Underhill, for her hand. A huge fire that ranges more than twenty blocks changes his plans, for his home is burned down with all his money in it and so is his place of work. His face is badly scarred as well, so Timothy believes his future is ruined.
His older brother Valentine, with whom he has a rocky relationship, has plans for him. Val has just been made a captain in the new police force and believes the copper stars–for that is what they are soon called because of their badges–is the place for his brother. Timothy is distrustful of Val’s intentions. His brother is a popular and charismatic leader of the firemen and the Democratic party, but Timothy also knows him as an opium addict and a wild man who hangs out with thugs. Timothy soon finds that the job suits him, however.
He is not long on the job before a child runs into him late one night, hysterical and covered with blood, saying “He’s going to tear him to pieces.” Wilde sees that she is a kinchin mab, or a child prostitute. He brings her home to the Dutch widow who is his new landlady instead of taking her in for questioning. When the girl recovers herself, she identifies herself as Bird and tells him a pack of lies. He soon finds out what she was talking about, however, when the body of a young male child prostitute is found in a trash receptacle.
Timothy’s investigation results in the discovery of a field full of bodies on the edge of the city–a total of 19 dead children with a cross carved into their torsos. Although the authorities try to keep this a secret, the word soon gets out. Then someone begins writing letters blaming the deaths on the Irish. Soon the city is a powder keg.
This novel is even better than Faye’s acclaimed first, Dust and Shadow. It depicts New York in all its grit and dissension and feels historically grounded. It introduces an honest, kind, and clever hero whom I hope we’ll see more of. The plot is full of twists, and although I managed to spot a perpetrator well in advance, the story was much more tangled than I expected. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.