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Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.

The Blackest Bird: A Novel of Murder in Nineteenth-Century New York

The Blackest Bird - Joel Rose This is an intriguing, if flawed book, and it's certainly not for everyone. If you're looking for a murder mystery (and that sort of plot pacing) look elsewhere. If you enjoy languorous period character pieces, full of somewhat squalid details and a good bit of depravity, this one's for you. As inspiration for the book, Rose looks to one of the famous unsolved murders in NYC history, the killing of The Beautiful Cigar Girl, Mary Rogers in 1841. In real life, the case was chockablock with drama, and Rose doesn't manage to quite capture it, in part, I suspect, because the novel focusses on 69-year old High Constable Jacob Hays, known as Old Hays. He isn't a terribly dynamic character, although not without his plodding charm. Mary Rogers, a tobacconist clerk was a somewhat famous (notorious?) Professional Beauty. Her admiring customers included authors such as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. When her mutilated body is discovered, Old Hays begins to investigate. It is a meandering, somewhat aimless plot which never, alas, quite coalesces, and without giving anything away, the ending is unsatisfying. Throughout the novel are old, and seemingly pointless tense shifts -- some chapters in present tense, others in past -- as well as intermittent passages mimicking newspaper reports of the era. Such prose manipulation draws attention to itself, and I couldn't help but wonder what effect the author was trying to achieve. The newspaper report passages were often dull and I found myself losing interest. Whatever the author's intention, for this reader, he didn't succeed.The portrait of NYC during this period -- that of Gangs of New York -- full of opium dens and marauding thugs such as the Short Tails and the Forty Little Thieves, is quite fascinating, and it's clear Rose has done his research (perhaps even a bit too much of it). Poe, who is center stage, for much of the novel, is a pathetic, somewhat enigmatic figure. Those seeking a novel based on Poe's life will be, I fear, disappointed. Old Hays, as noted above, is not altogether engaging. I wish the novel had been 100 pages shorter and with a tighter focus. I think the pacing would have been much improved. Having said that, however, there were parts of the novel, such as the prison scenes with Mr. Colt (of the gun fame) and gang leader Tommy Coleman, deeply engrossing. It's clear the author has considerable talent. This may well be a case where a good writer needed a firmer, and more experienced, editor.