Book review: The Fatal Flame by Lyndsay Faye

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The dark, dangerous underworld of 19th century New York has never seemed more breathtakingly real than in the masterful hands of actress turned author Lyndsay Faye.

The Fatal Flame – final book in her stunning Gods of Gotham trilogy – returns to the teeming, turbulent streets of 1840s downtown Manhattan where ‘copper star’ Timothy Wilde of the fledgling NYPD treads a perilous beat.

Faye paints a memorable, authentic portrait of a riotous, racially divided city slowly growing in confidence but bedevilled by ruthless gangs, corrupt politics, crime, prostitution and the cruelties of slave labour.

Struggling to make a difference amidst all the chaos, poverty and violence, we meet Timothy Wilde who, with little more than his badge, his notebook and his humanity, is determined to fight iniquity at every level.

For three years, Timothy has witnessed pain, deprivation and terrible crimes in lower Manhattan’s Five Points neighbourhood, notorious worldwide as ‘a ripening lesion on the face of New York.’

But now someone is setting fire to buildings and threatening Alderman Robert Symmes, a reviled and corrupt politician well known for his mistreatment of the female workers who toil under his callous management.

The women, particularly young Irish women, driven to America by the potato famine in their homeland, work in shocking conditions as ‘manufactory outworkers’ and are regarded by their bosses as ‘less than human.’

When Timothy’s gregarious, headstrong brother Valentine announces he will run against Symmes in the next election, both men come up against a host of influential enemies and Timothy’s investigations lead him into the heart of the Bowery girls, the home-grown clannish ‘factory girls’ who live in all-female boarding houses.

Meanwhile, Mercy Underhill, the long-lost love of Timothy’s life, returns unexpectedly from London and takes starving and misused Irish orphan girl Dunla Duffy under her wing.

Dunla, with her blank expression and unnerving eyes, may hold the key to stopping the arsonist, if only the police can understand her obtuse descriptions of the suspect. If Timothy is to catch the perpetrator and stop the whole city going up in flames, he will have to unravel a knot of revenge, murder and black mail…

The New York conjured up by Faye is a menacing melting pot of cultural and political tensions as the authorities battle to cope with an influx of people from all over the vast country as well as slaves from the South and Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine.

It’s a volatile mix with natural enmities between the young and old, the natives and the immigrants, the Protestants and the Catholics and the men and the women. A war with Mexico has just ended, the House of Congress is waging its own civil war and New York’s half a million inhabitants are ‘clawing for supremacy like distempered street cats.’

And then there are those extra special ingredients that lift Faye’s remarkable historical novels way above the norm… outstanding characterisation, a vibrant narrative style which includes original ‘flash’ slang, the impressive recreation of a forgotten world, superb plotting and good old-fashioned detective work.

We witness cruelty, corruption, murder, exploitation and plenty of other dark deeds but we also find brave souls willing to go that extra mile to help others, to combat evil with kindness and compassion and to try to right the wrongs of an arrogant young city.

The Fatal Flame may be the last chapter in this extraordinary historical odyssey but its power will resonate for some considerable time yet…

(Headline Review, paperback, £14.99)