Mystery? Historical fiction? New York? Sounds like all the elements I need to enjoy a book! And this one was certainly a success. One reason I love to read mysteries that are historical fiction is because it gives the author so much room to play with. The idea of solving crime without all the forensics we have available is fascinating, and it's also interesting to see how misconceptions and prejudices of the past play into things - "he's Irish? He must have done it, they're all degenerates!" The other reason I enjoy them is because it means the author doesn't necessarily have to develop this crazy intricate mystery for the reader because there is so much more to the book. Let's be honest, when it comes to mysteries, most people have read enough stories and watched enough CSI to be able to guess things ahead of time. The best mysteries are not necessarily the ones with the best puzzle but the ones with the most interesting detectives and surroundings and a decent puzzle but not necessarily an unpredictable one. And Faye certainly hit the jackpot: a solid mystery, a great setting both time and place-wise, and varied and interesting characters. I can see why it created all the buzz earlier in the year, and am excited that there is a sequel (I don't think I've really seen it in the book stores which seems odd given this novel's success).
After a fire in 1845 destroys Timothy Wilde's place of employment and consumes his entire life savings, he has to start all over, and accept his brother Val's job offer of joining the fledgling New York Police Department as one of the first members of the force in the Sixth Warden, by the infamous 5 Points (think Gangs of New York). Tim fears that his loss of money and his less respectable circumstances have cost him his romantic prospects with Mercy Underhill, and he immerses himself into his work. After coming across a dead baby on his beat, he is close to quitting but runs into a young girl covered in blood on his way home. The girl is a child prostitute and tells him a tale of murder. When the body of a child, a boy prostitute, is discovered soon after, Tim decides to take the girl's word seriously and pursue the leads she provides.
Tim's case takes him through brothels, Irish neighborhoods, and introduces him to priests, doctors and newsboys. As a result of the potato famine, the Irish immigrant population has risen dramatically, and they face extreme prejudices. There are also black free men living in New York and they may be the only ones lower on the totem pole than the Irish, and Faye does a great job of creating the fears and conflicts the labor force faced. Some of it rings true for today, where poor people blame other poorer people for taking jobs for minimal pay when the issue is much more complex. When Tim and newspapers start receiving letters blaming the Irish for the possible murders, it does not help the mood in the city, and solving this case could easily lead to a powder keg of rage and anger igniting.
I can't recommend this book enough! The city and the characters really came to live for me, and I felt like it captured the history and attitudes so well, showing the human perspective on things I'd read of in history books. It's populated by a mix of historic and fictional characters, including the leader of the Sixth Warden precinct who must have been quite the force in his time. It also demonstrates how history often repeats itself with the immigration issues and labor disputes. Thanks to faintingviolet for her review and recommendation!