1799, book review, commercial fiction, English prejudice, financial fraud, historical fiction, Ireland, Irish nationalism, Manhattan, mechanical plot, mystery fiction, Paddy Hirsch, street gangs, violence
Review: The Devil’s Half Mile, by Paddy Hirsch
Forge, 2018. 300 pp. $25
Justice (Justy) Flanagan, attorney at law, has returned to the Manhattan of his youth from Ireland, following his legal training and participation in the failed rebellion of 1798. He’s come to make his way in the world and to investigate his father’s suicide. But Justy, who found the body hanging from the rafters, has since learned more than most people care to hear about what violent death looks like, and the precise details he remembers from cutting his father down don’t square with his lessons in what we would call forensics. Moreover, given that his father was involved in an extremely risky financial speculation involving men far less scrupulous than himself, Justy reasonably concludes that motives for killing him abounded, as do suspects.
But Hirsch’s Manhattan in 1799 is a mucky, filthy place, and he’s not just talking about the condition of the streets. The language, Irish-American slang that fills a four-page glossary at the back, is pretty raw too. The title refers to Wall Street, a savage entity with no rules save caveat emptor, and where tempers are short, and memories, long. The stock exchange per se doesn’t exist yet, but trading happens in coffee houses, and a new one has risen specifically for that purpose. Hirsch wants you to read this portrayal, full of rich ruffians who detest even the thought of regulation (despite the Ponzi scheme that set off a catastrophic panic in 1792), so that you realize that little has changed.
This is where Hirsch excels. I find his portrayal of the city the most persuasive, gripping part of The Devil’s Half Mile. Whether depicting the racial tension between free blacks and Irish immigrants, the cut-and-thrust of corrupt finance, the gangs that act like private armies, the prostitution, common thievery, and violence that afflict all but the fortunate few, the squalor in which most people live, or the tiny enclaves of great wealth, the novel gives you New York in its gritty self:
Justy nodded farewell to his friend… 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 water, a slap in the face of every newcomer who arrived in the city.
It was the smell of home.
Despite this vividness, however, the narrative of The Devil’s Half Mile has a mechanical feel that intrudes, though it’s not for want of plot points. There are plenty of twists and turns, right up to the end. Hirsch has apparently followed Raymond Chandler’s dictum that to restore flagging tension, send in a man with a gun. In this case, it’s more likely a corpse discovered or a knife fight, which gets predictable after a while. Even at that, Hirsch’s machinery might not matter, except that our hero, despite his powers of observation, remains remarkably dense about the obvious, such as the probable killers, the nature of the speculation that his father was involved in, or the mastermind behind all his troubles. Is it that he has to remain clueless until enough bodies fall? To his credit, Hirsch does the fight scenes well and is not squeamish about granting them their proper length, so if they’re a device, they’re a carefully polished one. However, like the grisly findings the sleuthing unearths, the spilling of blood requires emotional transitions from Justy — surprise, horror, the pain of treachery, or what have you — which zip past in clichéd language. His gut clenches, or his fist, a phrase announces that he has “raw feelings,” and the narrative moves on.
As such, Justy comes across as more shallow than he should, which is a shame. Hirsch tries to convey the depth to which violent fury possesses his protagonist, and how Justy’s physical skills may be useful in surviving, but not for living a satisfying life. It’s a worthy theme, especially when the author is after even bigger game; he wishes to connect the skill for violence with English prejudice against the Irish as savages fit only for doing dirty deeds or slaving at the docks. In that, The Devil’s Half Mile is a more ambitious book than it seems at first; but unfortunately, it never realizes its potential.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.