The Devil's Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch is a riveting historical thriller debut set in 1799 New York City, perfect for the fans of Gangs of New York and the works of Caleb Carr and Erik Larson.
Seven years after a financial crisis nearly toppled America, traders chafe at government regulations, racial tensions are rising, gangs roam the streets and corrupt financiers make back-door deals with politicians... 1799 was a hell of a year.
Thanks to Alexander Hamilton, America has recovered from the panic on the Devil's Half Mile (aka Wall Street), but the young country is still finding its way. When young lawyer Justy Flanagan returns to solve his father's murder, he exposes a massive fraud that has already claimed lives, and one the perpetrators are determined to keep secret at any cost. The body count is rising, and the looming crisis could topple the nation.
"A thriller with strong, multifaceted heroes and villains, [and] tight plotting. I impatiently await the next adventure."Patrick Taylor, NYT bestselling author of the Irish Country series
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Justy Flanagan leaned on the gunwale of the Netherleigh and watched two big men square up to each other on the wharf below. They were like a pair of cart horses, one black, the other white, their fellows in a half circle behind them, grim looks on their faces.
"How goes the negotiations?" Lars Hokkanssen leaned on the rail. He was a giant of a man, with a shaved head and a ragged red beard. Justy was six feet tall, which meant he saw over the heads of most men, but the Netherleigh's first mate was nearly a foot taller, and wider. His build and his name came from his Norwegian father. His red hair, his Galway accent and his politics were all courtesy of his mother.
"Negotiations?" Justy asked.
Lars gave him an amused look. "How long is it you've been away?"
"A lot's changed in that time. This isn't the town you grew up in, I'll tell you that. There's a lot more free Negroes here, for one thing, and they want to work. They're forming gangs and taking work, either by force or by selling their labor cheap. The Irish aren't happy about it. There's been a few small riots. Men killed, even." He nodded at the two men, who were now circling each other, ready to come to blows. "This here's the way they usually decide who gets to unload a ship."
A shout went up from the other side of the wharf. The two fighters dropped their fists, and the crowd broke up as men rushed to the water's edge.
One man called for a gaff. Then the crowd went quiet, and Justy knew it was a body. They pulled it up onto the huge granite blocks, and when they all stood still for a moment, their heads down and their caps off, he knew it was a woman.
Four men picked her up. Justy saw the head roll backwards as though it had detached from the body. One of the Negro longshoremen vomited, and there was a ripple through the small crowd as the men in front stepped back.
Two men carried the body to a cart beside the Netherleigh's gangway. They heaved the corpse up and pulled a tarpaulin over it, but as they walked away the wind gusted and pulled the canvas loose, showing the dead woman's legs, her dark skin turned gray by the seawater.
The Negro workers were arguing, and one of them, a short, wiry man in a peaked cap, climbed onto a crate and started haranguing his fellows. Justy couldn't hear the words, but the white longshoremen began edging closer to one another, the gang closing in tight and facing outwards, like a squad of soldiers caught in an open field.
Stung by the words of the small man in the peaked cap, the black workers turned and started shouting at their rivals. The white workers shouted back, stoking themselves and their mates towards the point where they would hurl themselves across the narrowing gap between the two gangs.
"I'm glad I'm up here and not down there," Lars muttered.
Business on the wharf had stopped. People knew the difference between a labor dispute and a fight. Shoppers were hurrying up the streets, away from the docks. Stall owners were hastily packing boxes and stowing their goods away. And the open space of the emptying wharf was filling with a trickle of men, both black and white, coming to join their fellows on the dock.
A long whistle blast made Justy look up towards the Broad Way. Another whistle, and then a half-dozen watchmen, dressed in their long dark coats and leather firemen's hats, were pushing through the crowd of shoppers. The watchmen forced their way onto the dock and ran down between the two groups of men. They made a wall, some facing the Irish stevedores, the others facing their black rivals. The watchmen stood firm, slapping their long billy clubs into their palms, their eyes steady as the workers screamed abuse and spat.
A man in a red coat was pushing his way through the gang of white workers. The men parted way, until he was face-to-face with a white-haired man with a ruddy face and a knit cap perched on the back of his head. They spoke for a moment, and then the white-haired man nodded and shouted something to his fellows.
For a moment, nothing happened, and then the Irish gang began to move slowly away from the water. It was clear some men weren't happy about leaving, but the white-haired man shouted again, and the protestors fell into line, unwilling to be left alone on the dock without their fellows. The black workers fell silent and watched as the Irish withdrew, followed by the watchmen.
When they reached the street, the white-haired man spoke a few words to his men. He took off his cap, and those who were wearing hats followed his lead. He turned towards the docks and nodded at the small, dark, wiry man who was still standing on the crate. And then he turned away and led his men into the town.
The wiry man stepped off the crate. The black crew went to work.
Lars exhaled loudly. He winked at Justy. "So, welcome back to New York, a chara. You glad to be home?"
Justy shrugged, and Lars laughed. "Glad to be three thousand miles away from the bloody English, though, eh?"
"There are plenty of English here."
"Aye, but they don't have bayonets fixed and artillery support."
Justy said nothing.
"Jesus, look at the face on you!" Lars said. "You look like you're about to stab someone. And speaking of which ..."
He dug in his pocket and held out a small bundle of filthy linen. Justy unwrapped it carefully. It was a folding knife, a six-inch length of steel tucked into a handle made of a single piece of carved teak. Justy smiled at the weight and the feel of it, the warm, smooth wood and the cool, polished metal bands under his thumb. "You oiled it."
"Only a couple of times. I was worried about rust." Lars grinned. "Plus a good piece of steel needs to see the light of day every now and again."
"So long as you didn't shave with it. That beard of yours would blunt an executioner's axe." Justy tucked the knife into his boot. "And the other thing?"
Lars fumbled in the band of his breeches with both hands and pulled out a thick canvas belt. It was gray with dirt and sweat. He handed it over. "I stashed it in the galley, behind the hardtack. No one wants to steal that stuff, let alone eat it, so I figured it'd be safe there."
Justy quickly strapped the money belt around his waist. "I hope you took a few coins for yourself."
"The pleasure of being of service is payment enough."
"Jesus, you took that much?" Justy smiled at his friend. "Don't spend it all in the one tavern, will you?"
The big sailor frowned. "That's a terrible thing to say."
"The truth cuts like a sharp blade, a mhac," Justy said.
Shaking hands with Lars Hokkanssen was like getting to grips with a bear. They stood for a moment, hands clasped, not saying any of the things they were thinking.
Justy was the first to let go. "Thanks for finding a place for me."
"A small thing, after what you did."
"You don't owe me."
"You'll let me be the judge of that."
Justy nodded farewell to his friend and went to the top of the Netherleigh's gangway. He pushed his face into the gust of wind that carried the smell of the city down the hill to the docks. Woodsmoke from a thousand hearth fires, urine from the tanners' shops, horse shit from the streets, sewage from the septic tanks, fresh blood from the abattoirs, rotting meat and produce from the tips. Bad breath, sour beer, raw spirits, stale sweat. It was like a pungent cloud rolling down the Broad Way to the docks, a slap in the face of every newcomer who arrived in the city.
Justy smiled. It was the smell of home.
And then he remembered why he had made the long trip back from Ireland. He thought about what he had to do and his mouth set into a thin line.
The cart that held the woman's body was at the bottom of the gangplank. Her head was wedged against a pile of sacks, so that her chin was touching her right shoulder, but as Justy came down the gangplank he could still see the ragged purple wound in her neck. Close up, her skin looked darker, and there was a cut on her right cheek. She looked as though she was barely thirteen years old.
A man wearing the gorget of an accountant of the harbormaster's office pushed past to look at the corpse. The man was bald, with skin the milky color of a dead fish. He sniggered and wiped his nose. "I'd say she was a pretty one, for a Negro bobtail."
"She wasn't a whore."
"She was surely," the man said. "Look at the mark on her face."
"That cut's fresh. Someone did that to make fools like you think she was a whore. Or they did it for spite."
The accountant leaned over to peer at her face. "Maybe," he said. He reached for the tarpaulin. "I wonder if he cut her up some more."
The man shrank back. "I was only going to cover her up."
"She doesn't need help from the likes of you. Get away from here."
The man ducked his head and slunk away.
Justy took one more look at the dead girl and turned away. A young man was leaning against a stack of crates, watching him. He was dressed in a black coat and breeches, with cheap peg-soled shoes and a white shirt that was grubby at the collar. He looked like any apprentice, but his dark green caubeen hat was unusual. The caubeen was a kind of oversized beret, popular with the old-timers who came over on the boats from Ireland but rarely worn by anyone so young.
The man grinned. His teeth were white in his tanned face, and Justy felt a prickle of recognition.
"He was only wondering what the rest of us are wanting to know," the young man said.
"Why, whether it's the same man going about killing Negro girls. That's the third in less than a week."
Justy looked back at the body. He felt the skin prickle at the back of his neck.
"Were they all killed the same way?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean did they all have their throats cut like this? And were they marked like that? The cut on the cheek?"
The man looked at Justy thoughtfully. "New in town, are you?"
"I've been away."
"I'd say you have, indeed." The grin flashed.
Justy looked down at his stained breeches and threadbare coat. He had worn the same clothes for nearly a month. His spares had been chewed to ribbons by rats on the voyage, and he had thrown them over the side. At least his boots looked like the sort of thing a gentleman might wear.
The man held up his hands. "No offense." He tapped two fingers to the brim of his hat.
"I'll see you," he said, and slipped into the crowd of tradesmen and shoppers. Justy stood for a moment, watching him go, struck by the feeling that he knew the man from somewhere.
He shook his head. He had traveled for months, and now that he had arrived, back in New York, he wasn't about to dawdle. There was work to do, and still a full half day to do it in. He would not waste the time searching his memory for half-forgotten faces.
He set off up the hill.
The sun was high in the sky, and the streets were crowded with gigs and horses. Coachmen and riders cursed and shouted as they tried to navigate around one another. The air was heavy with the smell of horse manure, and the cobbled streets were slippery with it, despite the piles of straw thrown onto the ground.
The sidewalks were equally busy. Shoppers and passersby competed for space with a crush of handsellers and their carts: chive fencers selling cutlery, swell fencers touting the sharpness of their sewing needles, flying stationers flogging their penny ballads and histories, crack fencers offering bags of nuts, and everywhere the cakey pannam fencers, whose trolleys were piled with pies, sweet bowlas tarts and savory chonkeys, the minced-meat pasties that no true New Yorker could resist.
Justy was at the top of the hill, crossing Wall Street across from Trinity Church, when he saw the young man in the green hat again. He was striding across the Broad Way, dodging carriages and carts, but as he stepped up onto the sidewalk he stumbled, staggering into a man dressed in ivory breeches, an immaculately cut sky-blue coat and an old-fashioned powdered wig that slipped over his forehead.
"God damn it, you fool!" the bewigged man shouted, groping at the horsehair.
"Sorry, sir!" The young man bowed. "I slipped in some horse shit. There's just too many carriages on the road. My apologies."
The gentleman brushed him aside. "Out of my way!" Clutching his wig to his head, he puffed past Justy, clearing a way through the crowd with his cane. Justy turned to watch him go, and when he looked back up the hill the young man had disappeared again.
Justy had felt the eyes on him as soon as he stepped off the ship. Not that he was surprised. Any new arrival in New York was fair game, even one dressed in rags and carrying no baggage.
There were three of them, all dressed in loose homespun breeches, wooden shoes and threadbare coats. Street bludgers, thieves who weren't small enough to shoplift, or deft enough to pick pockets, and who relied on violence and intimidation instead. He felt the crew hemming him in after he passed Wall Street, a touch of a shoulder in the crowd edging him gently to his right. One man in front, another behind.
The man ahead of him stopped suddenly on the other side of an alley. Justy was supposed to stumble into him, so that the man on his flank could crowd him down the alley. Instead, he deliberately stepped to his right and took four quick steps down the dank, stinking lane. The bludger on his left had committed to a shoulder charge, but there was no one there to receive it, and he came staggering down the alleyway, slipping in the mud and falling flat on his face in front of Justy.
His mates crowded in behind the man, who tried to struggle to his feet.
"Stay down," Justy ordered.
One of the men sneered at him. He had lost his front teeth, and a stream of snot ran down from his nose and over his upper lip.
"There's three of us, so," he said, his accent a mangle of West Coast Irish and New York waterfront. "And there's just the one of you. So let's have what you've got hidden in your breeks there and we'll let you go without a hammering."
The man on the ground began pushing himself up.
"I told you, stay down," Justy said.
Justy had left New York to study law at the new Royal College of St. Patrick in Maynooth, just west of Dublin. But he had done much more in his four years away than page through books and take exams. The Monsignor of St. Patrick's believed that travel was an enriching experience and had included a number of cathedral tours in the first year of the syllabus. Justy had attended every trip, more as a way to see other cities, rather than the churches themselves. On a visit to the cathedral of Saint Marie in Sheffield, Justy had grown bored by a lecture on stained glass and slipped out into the streets of the town. Sheffield was famous for its cutlers, and Justy went from shop to shop, comparing blades, learning about steel and shanks and hafts and curvature, so that by the time he crept back into the chapel for evening prayers he knew more about cutlery than he thought possible.
He also had possession of the unusual knife that he had left with Lars for safekeeping during the voyage.
Folding blades were common on the streets of every modern city, but what made this one different was the spring in the blade, and the release catch in the side under Justy's thumb.
Which he now pressed.
With a tiny click, six inches of polished steel appeared magically in the air. It was dim in the alley, but the light caught the blade well enough. The eyes of the man on the ground flickered, the whites showing in the gloom, and he let himself slide back into the mud.
Justy felt his heart thump a little harder at the feeling of power over another man. "I'm not some culchie just in from the old country. I'm a New Yorker, same as you. And I don't appreciate being welcomed home in this unfriendly way by you filthy scamps."
The two men still standing were looking at him, wide-eyed. The leader ducked his head. "Sorry, mister. We thought yiz might be good for a lift, ye know?"
"No. I don't know. Now pick up your boy and fuck off."
The men looked at each other again and then lifted the third man to his feet. Without looking back, they hurried up the alley to the Broad Way.
Justy leaned on the wall of the alley. He felt sweat on his forehead and his pulse hard in his temples. And something else. Shame. The look in the man's face, the fear in his eyes, had made Justy feel things he hadn't felt in a long time. And hoped he'd never feel again.
He folded his knife and tucked it back into his boot.
"Welcome home, a mhac," he muttered to himself, and followed the men back up to the street.
Excerpted from "The Devil's Half Mile"
Copyright © 2018 Patrick Hirsch.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The main character of Paddy Hirsch’s debut novel, Justice Flanagan, is appropriately named. He is after all a newly minted lawyer in search of justice for his murdered father. The novel is set in 1799 New York, a short time after the Panic of 1792, the first great financial crisis to hit the U.S. A historical thriller that is more thriller than history, the author’s note at the end of the book explains which parts of the story are accurate. There is lots and lots of slang here. Most of it you can get the gist of from the story, but if you want the exact meaning of any of the phrases, there is a glossary at the back of the book. Between the colorful language and the detailed descriptions of late 18th century New York, you’ll have no trouble at all imagining what life was like at the time. Well written, the story moves along quickly right up to it’s satisfying conclusion. With themes of greed, racism, and prejudice it’s a reminder of where we’ve come from and how far we have to go.
It's 1799 and it seems like just about everyone in New York is corrupt. Justy Flanagan has just returned from Ireland after studying to become a lawyer. He is intent on proving his father did not commit suicide years ago and is hoping to find the murderer. As he searches for answers, he uncovers a massive fraud that runs deep and continues to claim lives. I was excited to read this book that takes place in the late 1700s because while I like to read historical fiction, I rarely read anything that takes place prior to the Civil War. I found the whole son looking for his father's killer to be intriguing at first but I have to admit my interest in the mystery started to wane as the book progressed. The book incorporates Irish words and phrases so much that there is a handy dandy glossary of terms at the back of the book. There were a few instances in which I wondered if the words were being overused and certain dialogue exchanges that didn't feel entirely realistic. Overall, this isn't a bad book, I just wish it would have sustained my interest a little bit more. I won a free copy of this book in a giveaway but was under no obligation to post a review. All views expressed are my honest opinion.