Book of the week
The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch (Corvus) $33
Paddy Hirsch set out to write a history of America’s first financial crisis, the Panic of 1792. As he delved further into the matter, centred on a developing Wall Street in the early days of New York City, he hit upon the notion that a novel would be more fun to write. And even more so if it involved murder and mayhem.
So The Devil’s Half Mile is set in New York in 1799 and depends on a fine mixture of thought and action by the young lawyer, soldier and
general righter of wrongs, Justice Flanagan. Justice, by the way, is his not-inappropriate first name, rather than position.
As the book begins, Justy has returned from Europe where he has been fighting against the English in the Irish rebellion, learning lawyerly wiles at university and the ways of criminal investigation in Paris. His uncle, the Bull, a very tough man who runs the waterfront in NYC, sent him there. It was to get over the hanging, thought to be suicide, of Justy’s father and the Bull’s brother. With his newly gained knowledge of crime and detection, Justy is certain that his father had
not hanged himself and sets out to prove it.
What follows is not unlike Gangs of New York, although that was set some 50 years on. The streets are crowded, with people and general filth, and there is little room to move. Everyone (almost) is out for him or her self, and violence (including daily murders of young women) simmers everywhere, even in the pretentious coffee houses in Wall Street. Life is based on power, strength and chicanery. Very few people are what they might appear at first sight, so Justy has to tread a very cunning path in order to outmaverick the mavericks that make up the city.
He has the good fortune to have a friend, Lars, a 7-foot, bristly bearded Norwegian sailor. He also has Kerry, a half-Irish, half-black young woman with whom he grew up. She now dresses as a man and is one of the city’s most successful pickpockets. But even she is not what she seems in this new guise.
The action moves from one cleverly described bit of fighting to the next, as it follows Justy’s attempts to expose the scheme that his father had been involved in. This turns out to be a putative Ponzi scheme – they had to begin somewhere and what better place than NYC? – involving the soon-tobe-outlawed slave trade.
This book is a belter of a read and should sell far more copies than Hirsch’s history book would have. And along the way, it is possible to learn some splendid new (old) slang words. Do you know, for example, the original meaning of balderdash and pettyfogger? –Ken Strongman
Everyone (almost) is out for him or her self, and violence (including daily murders of young women) simmers everywhere, even in the pretentious coffee houses in Wall Street.