Book of the week

The Southland Times - - Weekend -

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.

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