My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview historian Mike Wallace about the second volume of his monumental history of New York City (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!
In 1999, the first book of a projected three-volume history of New York City was published, Entitled Gotham, it covered the history of the city from is beginnings as a Dutch colony to the 1898 consolidation that merged the city with east Bronx, Brooklyn, western Queens County, and Staten Island, and won its authors, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for their labors.
It has taken eighteen years for the second volume to be published, yet the result is well worth that wait. Picking up where the last volume left off, Wallace (who is now soldiering forward solo in his efforts) describes the development of the city in all its particulars, covering its many economic, social, political, and cultural aspects. Though diverse in its scope, much of it is united by a common thread of consolidation, which in many respects was only just beginning. Consolidation was a popular concept of the age, with economic combinations emerging in American industry that dwarfed what had come before. Much of this was possible thanks to the financing provided by Wall Street, which served as the beating heart of the new, ever-more nationalized economy.
Consolidation was also important at the local level, as the city’s leaders now sought to turn the political achievement into a practical reality. To that end, they created a common infrastructure that tied it more closely together, which they did in a vast construction boom that created many of the institutions and arteries upon which the city relies today. Their efforts were emulated by others, as groups from Broadway to the criminal underworld embraced the benefits of combination. Yet not everyone was accommodated in the process, and Wallace’s book chronicles the many disputes that characterized an often painful growth of Gotham into the global metropolis it became by the end of the First World War.
Comprehensive and engaging, Wallace’s book is a worthy follow-up to its award-winning predecessor. Though its size is daunting, the division of the material into subject chapters makes it easily digestible, while Wallace’s ability to use the stories of individual New Yorkers to tell the larger history of the city makes it enjoyable reading. In Wallace the city has found a worthy chronicler, and with the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, and another world war looming, it is to be hoped that readers will not have as long to wait for the next volume.
This is set primarily in Toronto in 1839, although some of the characters take a brief trip to New York City later on. At the start of the book we meet Dick Dougherty, a massively overweight man who was once a lawyer in New York City but who, after some vague and mysterious trouble, was able to relocate to Toronto. Since then, he’s been taking care of his two wards, Brodie and Celia, and slowly taking control of his life again. A recent courtroom success has inspired him to apply for admission to the Bar (he wasn’t disbarred back in New York), and with Brodie and Celia’s help and encouragement he’s slowly regaining his mobility. He now takes daily walks that are so regular and predictable people can practically set their watches by him.
Unfortunately, although the common folk of Toronto love Dougherty, the same can’t be said for some of the area’s political leaders. There are rumors that Dougherty’s relationship with Celia isn’t entirely proper, and Dougherty’s refusal to give any details on the events that got him run out of New York City inspires even more whispers. Things come to a head when Archdeacon John Strachan delivers a fiery sermon that accuses Dougherty of “vile and abominable” behavior. Not long after the sermon, Dougherty is discovered dead, with one of his eyes removed and a note with “Sodomite” written on it pinned to his chest.
Marc Edwards and others suspect that one of Strachan’s parishioners was influenced by his sermon and killed the man. They even find a likely suspect, drunk and covered in blood. However, some of the details don’t add up. Marc suspects there’s something else going on, but the tense political situation makes it difficult to discover the truth.
I’ll start off by saying that this is book 7 in Gutteridge’s Marc Edwards series, and I haven’t read the previous six. The only reason I had this one, and five other ones after it, is because they were all free during some past Smashwords sale and their descriptions made me think of the Murdoch Mysteries TV series. I had noticed the series numbering but thought it might be a mistake, because no books with earlier series numbering were even listed. The earlier books appear to have been put out by a different publisher, one that doesn't sell through Smashwords (not a deal breaker for me, as long as it's available through Kobo) and that has chosen to add DRM to all their e-books (still one of my deal breakers when it comes to e-book purchasing).
I had hoped that jumping into the series at such a late point wouldn’t be too difficult. The story itself was fairly self-contained. Unfortunately, character relationships weren’t, and I could tell there were references to at least three previous books: one in which I’m guessing Dougherty was first introduced, one in which Marc’s wife’s first husband was killed, and one in which Marc was reunited with his mother. I had difficulty connecting to and caring about most of the characters, and I wasn’t sure whether that was due to the writing or my own lack of familiarity with them.
My other hurdle was my lack of familiarity with Canadian history. I basically know nothing. I probably should have sat down and read a few Wikipedia pages on historical figures and events mentioned in the book’s first 50 or so pages, but instead I powered through my confusion. Thankfully, the situation became a lot easier for me to follow once Dougherty was murdered. The basics: politicians afraid of a scandal, and a power struggle brewing over the position Strachan would vacate once he was elevated to bishop as everyone expected he would be.
Marc was given a pretty tight deadline, and I wasn’t sure I could buy the extension he was given in order to go to New York City and ask a few more questions. Still, the results of his investigation were interesting and more shocking and horrible than I expected. I was glad that Marc
didn’t see pedophilia and homosexuality as being essentially the same thing, even though other characters seemed to.
This was a decent book, but it didn’t work nearly as well for me as I had hoped it would. Marc and his wife both seemed like okay characters but didn’t really grab me, whereas Cobb and his habit of mispronouncing words actively annoyed me. I’m still debating what I’m going to do with my freebie books 8 through 12. Eh, they’re free and not taking up any physical space, so I’ll probably keep them around for now. I just checked, and it looks like I should be able to read at least a few of the previous books via interlibrary loan, if I wanted to give one of the earlier books a shot before moving on to book 8.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)