1896, blackmail, book review, historical fiction, Minnie Gertrude Kelly, murder, mystery, New York City, Otto Raphael, police, presidential election, Theodore Roosevelt, W. H. Flint, William Jennings Bryan, William McKinley
Review: Hot Time, by W. H. Flint
Arcade, 2022. 267 pp. $27
August 1896 witnesses a record “hot wave” in New York City, as the newspapers call it, searing temperatures that kill thousands of people as well as horses that drop in harness, blocking the streets. Political temperatures run almost as high, as a presidential election campaign prepares for its autumn stretch. William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate opposing William McKinley, will speak at Madison Square Garden, expected to draw an overflow crowd, and the police have uncovered purported plans by anarchists to stage a violent demonstration there, maybe even to kill Bryan.
Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who makes little secret of his ambitions to ride McKinley’s coattails to a coveted government post, perhaps with the Navy Department, is also trying to weed out the corruption among New York’s constabulary. Aiding him in this Herculean task is Otto (Rafe) Raphael, the first Jew to wear the uniform of New York’s Finest, and Minnie Gertrude Kelly, the department’s first woman stenographer.
Complicating matters is William d’Alton Mann, whose dead body has been found near the Brooklyn Bridge. The police report ascribes the motive to robbery, and Commissioner Roosevelt accepts the judgment, even when Rafe, who’s had the chance to investigate on his own — overstepping his authority — points out a key fact. Mann’s gold cufflinks, likely the most valuable items on his person, remained untouched.
What’s more, Mann was an infamous blackmailer, gathering poisonous secrets about the rich and powerful, perhaps even Commissioner Roosevelt himself, and threatening to print them unless sizable sums are paid. Rafe, who admires Roosevelt without being blind to his faults, doesn’t know what to think — and keeps digging.
For me, the chief pleasure of Hot Time is the political and social atmosphere. Flint, a pseudonym for a well-known historian of the Gilded Age, has lovingly re-created that era and many of its figures, well-known or otherwise, the latter including the blackmailer, our inquisitive constable, and ground-breaking stenographer (though the author has taken license with biographical fact).
It’s not just that J.P. Morgan, Mark Hanna (senator, kingmaker, and McKinley’s handler), Bryan, and Jacob Riis, the reporter who exposes the degradation of New York’s slums (and wrote How the Other Half Lives), float through these pages. Flint has underlined how even reformers like Riis disliked and distrusted immigrants, Jews especially, and how the populist Bryan wanted the United States to close its borders.
I’m a little surprised that Flint has ignored Tammany Hall, which ran the police department like a fiefdom and brought about the corruption Roosevelt’s trying to counter. (I’m also curious about how Tammany, a Democratic machine, would have viewed a candidate who wore the right party emblem but opposed immigration, to which the organization owed its roots and power. Maybe too complex for a mystery novel.) But otherwise, the author portrays an engaging portrait of a time when bigotry and fears sound all too familiar to us today.
I also like the depiction of New York itself, of the Lower East Side and what was then “uptown,” the area in the lower Thirties. Flint brings to life the hard existence of newsboys, usually homeless young children, whose welfare was one of Roosevelt’s pet causes. One boy, called Dutch, figures heavily in the story:
At the Bowery, [Rafe] crossed under the elevated tracks, grateful for a moment’s respite from the sun. His usual newsboy was on the corner. Brown hair stuck out from under his woolen cap, and he stood with a habitual hunch, like a stray dog wondering whether the next passerby was good for a handout or a boot in the ribs.
But Hot Time, though intriguing as a historical novel, falters as a mystery. The narrative implies the killer’s identity fairly early on; only the motive remains unclear, and though it turns out to be politically satisfying, I find it somewhat hard to credit. The real tension comes from remarkable chase scenes involving Dutch’s acrobatics, and though they’re hair-raising, I wanted more of a puzzle. It’s as though the narrative can’t decide whether it’s a mystery or thriller.
As a detective, Rafe is dogged, intelligent, and good-hearted. There’s a whisper of attraction between him and Minnie, the stenographer, which can go nowhere, for religious reasons. For the most part, I believe Rafe’s Jewishness — thank you, Mr. Flint — and his family’s living conditions seem real too.
However, certain conversations feel like information dumps, and I wish Rafe’s interior narration depended less on rhetorical questions, sometimes a half-dozen or more in a row. Whenever an author resorts to that device, I sense a perceived need to remind the reader what’s been learned (or not) and uncertainty as to how best to convey this, except in shorthand.
Consequently, if you read Hot Time, concentrate on the atmosphere and the derring-do, and you’ll see the narrative in its best light.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.