It’s 1799, and the water situation on the island of Manhattan is slowly spiraling out of control. More and more people are settling into the city, with less and less fresh water to go around. Into this chaos steps Elma Sands, arriving to help her cousin and her husband run their new boarding house.
As the water problems worsen, Elma’s drawn into a seemingly whirlwind courtship with Levi Weeks, a young carpenter boarding with them. When her body turns up in a well shortly after the first of the year, Elma’s cousin Caty is determined to find her killer and see him brought to justice…even if it means opposing some of the country’s most powerful men.
I’m not normally one for historical fiction. I am, however, one for murder mysteries, and City of Liars and Thieves is based on the country’s first recorded murder trial.
The story’s narrator is actually Catherine, or Caty, Elma’s older cousin. She’s smug and sympathetic by turns, relieved to be married and therefore have more standing that Elma, yet conscious of the problems her young cousin faces because of the circumstances of her birth. She’s full of contradictions, actually, appalled at the forwardness Elma and Levi show toward one another, angry and unwilling to hold her tongue on her suspicions surrounding Elma’s disappearance and death. She’s leery of Levi and his easy charm, protective of Elma and worried what his attentions might do for her reputation if he doesn’t follow through and marry her.
The setting is as big a character as any of the players. Apparently New York City has always been filthy and smelly. Despite being surrounded by water, fresh, potable water is scarce, and what little there is of it ends up contaminated by sewage. New immigrants arrive in droves, people crowd together in tiny rooms, and yellow fever sweeps through the city blocks.
Liars and Thieves is less about character, though, and more about plot. Aaron Burr (aka the man who shot Alexander Hamilton) formed the Manhattan Water Company in an attempt to sway the public and provide fresh water to the city. Through political machinations and back-room dealings, though, the original idea gets twisted, and Elma finds out about it. Catherine suspects her cousin was murdered in part to keep her quiet.
It’s an intriguing story, but I was still disappointed. The trial itself took up about two chapters, the first half focusing on the blossoming relationship between Elma and Levi, switching focus to her disappearance and eventual death. This may be due to the fact the trial was only two days long, with the jury deliberating for an obscenely short amount of time.
For fans of historical fiction, particularly set around the turn of the 19th century, City of Liars and Thieves is well worth a read.
Copy of City of Liars and Thieves provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.