Written by Eve Karlin — Anyone who has visited New York is bound to be dazzled by its towering skyscrapers, bright lights and reputation as ‘the city that never sleeps’, but beneath a French bistro in SoHo lies a remnant of the city’s dark past. Visitors to the eatery often ask to visit the basement and see the Manhattan Well, where a young woman was found dead at the end of the 18th century. It is a sad and sordid tale – and provides the basis for Karlin’s debut historical crime novel.
The narrator is Catherine ‘Caty’ Ring, wife of Elias and mother of two young children. The family are Quakers, and Caty is somewhat surprised when Elias suggests moving to New York from Cornwall, 60 miles or so north of the city. They set up a boarding house and store, and an increasingly overworked Caty is delighted when her younger cousin, Gulielma ‘Elma’ Sands, agrees to come and help her. It’s a decision destined to haunt Caty for the rest of her days.
Among their lodgers is Levi Weeks, a handsome young man and brother to one of the city’s would-be movers and shakers. It soon becomes clear that Levi and Elma are attracted to each other and Caty does her best to warn off her cousin, although her words seems to fall upon deaf ears. Meanwhile, Elias is trying to insinuate himself into the upper echelons of New York society. Caty sees his social climbing as against their humble beliefs, and is all the more appalled when she learns the so called Manhattan Water Company, set up ostensibly to provide the city with clean, healthy water, is actually a front for a much more ambitious plan. It appears that political point scoring is all that matters to the men of power.
Karlin brings New York, circa 1799, to life with opulently drawn pictures of a city rife with illness, filth and finagling. The family live at a respectable address in lower Manhattan but this is not a place that any of today’s dwellers would recognise. Raw sewage is dumped in the centre of the road in the hope of it flowing down to the river, and precious fresh water has to be pulled from wells that often run dry – hence the initial welcome for the Manhattan Water Company, and its ambitious plan to bring clean water to the area.
The story is complex and takes a long time to get up any momentum, as history interweaves with fiction in a narrative that is awash with detail. We are well past halfway before Elma goes missing, so much of the volume up to that point is all about back story, political wranglings and historical detail. Fortunately, it bursts into life with the vivid descriptions of the courtroom shenanigans that followed the discovery of Elma’s body in the aforementioned well – it is so realistic, you feel you are sitting there on the hard benches with Caty and Elias and this is definitely my favourite section of the novel.
City of Liars and Thieves is a well-researched, minutely plotted piece of work that will appeal to lovers of historical crime set in the New World. It offers a sharply focused sense of place and period and shines a spotlight on a dark and largely forgotten piece of New York history, making for a worthy debut.
This book will be released 13 January.
CFL Rating: 3 stars