On the bustling docks of the Hudson River, Catherine Ring waits with her husband and children for the ship carrying her cousin, Elma Sands. Their Greenwich Street boardinghouse becomes a haven for Elma, who has at last escaped the stifling confines of her small hometown and the shameful circumstances of her birth. But in the summer of 1799, Manhattan remains a teeming cesspool of stagnant swamps and polluted rivers. The city is desperate for clean water as fires wreak devastation and the death toll from yellow fever surges.
Political tensions are rising, too. It’s an election year, and Alexander Hamilton is hungry for power. So is his rival, Aaron Burr, who has announced the formation of the Manhattan Water Company. But their private struggle becomes very public when the body of Elma Sands is found at the bottom of a city well built by Burr’s company.
Resolved to see justice done, Catherine becomes both witness and avenger. She soon finds, however, that the shocking truth behind this trial has nothing to do with guilt or innocence.
City of Liars and Thieves, Eve Karlin’s debut, is a historical novel based on the first recorded murder trial in New York. Just for this fact alone it would have been fascinating, but it is also a snap shot of the run up to one of the most hotly contended Presidential elections in US history, which makes it even more interesting. To be fair, I didn’t know much about either Hamilton or Burr, but I did know about the continual issue with water supply in Manhattan and I was interested to see how they tied into this.
In the prologue to the narrative, which is told from her point of view, Caty says that this is as much her story as it is Elma’s, but in my opinion it is more her story than Elma’s, as Elma remains curiously nebulous. She’s present in the narrative, but even then she is marked by her reticence and emotional distance. I never really got a feel for her and certainly not to the extent that I found myself caring about Caty. She feels displaced by her family’s move to New York and only slowly adjusts to city life. Her struggles with adjusting and keeping hold of her faith – she’s a Quaker – make for an interesting backdrop to how she perceives events. Caty certainly is an interesting narrator, though her bias clearly colours the narrative. Her instant distrust of Levi makes for a somewhat telescopic focus on him as Elma’s possible killer, so much so that it is easy to miss certain other clues and alternate interpretations of events.
The novel only really comes vividly alive once Elma disappears; Caty’s rage, guilt, and grief singe of the page. What I found interesting about the days between her disappearance and when Elma’s body is found, is the extant to which the search for Elma is a community effort. While there is some official sheriff’s involvement, it only comes after Elma has been gone for days and the search has been ongoing for a while. There is a true sense of community in the Ring’s neighbourhood, very different from what you might expect from what was even then a relatively large city. Once Elma is found the narrative moves to the court – there wasn’t much of a police investigation – and I really enjoyed this look at how court cases worked at the time. Surprisingly, not much seems to have changed in over two hundred years; then, as now, there were the judge, the prosecutor, the defence attorney, and twelve jurors, and that was all that was needed to pronounce justice. What has changed is the standards these people are held to, there are conflicts of interests, heavily biased jury instructions, and other elements that these days would have been cause for an immediate mistrial.
What also features more openly in the second half of the book, but is present throughout, are the political shenanigans of that era. It truly is a fascinating look at the political situation. Karlin shows how convoluted, partisan and corrupt politics were at the time. Politics, business, private interests, they all run together and one is used to further the other. Arguably, this is still the case, as evidenced by the multiple corruption case, insider trading and other stories in the news, yet these days the behaviour tends to be less blatant and far more frowned upon—then it was just a fact of life. I liked how Karlin tied the murder to the conspiracy around the Manhattan Water Company as this was a problem then, but still is now. Even if the water supply is well-established these days, it still remains a vulnerable point in Manhattan’s infrastructure. It’s one of the island’s weakest points and in times of increased threat to US national security New York City’s water system is always one of the municipal organisations to be given extra protection.
City of Liars and Thieves is an enjoyable mystery and provides a fascinating look at early New York society. It’s an intriguing case, but one that unfortunately doesn’t have a clear resolution historically speaking. Karlin has chosen to give the reader a sense of closure through the theory she posits, but for the true Elma Sands there was no such justice. Karlin’s debut is a sound, well-structured narrative with a clear sense of style. My only niggles would be that not all the characterisations were equally strong and the pace tended to be a bit slow in the first part of the novel. But those certainly shouldn’t stop you from picking up City of Liars and Thieves, especially if you are interested in the history of New York City.
A Fantastical Librarian is just one of the stops on this blog tour. Please visit the other stops for different views on the book, author guest posts and giveaways.
Tuesday, January 6th: Mystery Playground
Wednesday, January 7th: Bibliophilia, Please
Friday, January 9th: Fiction Zeal
Monday, January 12th: Omnimystery News – author guest post
Tuesday, January 13th: Dwell in Possibility
Tuesday, January 13th: Kritter’s Ramblings
Wednesday, January 14th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Friday, January 16th: Reading Reality
Monday, January 19th: From the TBR Pile
Tuesday, January 20th: Sarah’s Book Shelves
Wednesday, January 21st: A Fantastical Librarian
Thursday, January 22nd: Chew & Digest Books
Monday, January 26th: Brooke Blogs
Monday, January 26th: History from a Woman’s Perspective
Tuesday, January 27th: Tales of a Book Addict
Wednesday, January 28th: Staircase Wit
Thursday, January 29th: 100 Pages a Day… Stephanie’s Book Reviews
Friday, January 30th: Books in the Burbs
TBD: Back Porchervations