Evil of the Age
The Charles St. Clair Chronicles by Allan Levine
Review: Historian by profession, mystery writer by avocation, Winnipeg author Allan Levine has shown in his previous novels his masterful marrying of both followings. Now, in Evil of the Age, the first of the chronicles of a mid-1800s investigative journalist, 35-year-old Charles St. Clair of Fox's Weekly, Levine has done it again. He has seamlessly crafted an amazing mix of historical lore, credible views of the seamiest settings of old New York, an intertwined plot of murderous suspense and political corruption, and with a population of unique characters, good, bad, ugly and everything in between. For history/mystery fans it's a book that leaves its readers begging for the next of the St. Clair chronicles.
When the mutilated corpse of a young woman is found decomposing in a trunk at the NYC Hudson Depot railway station, St. Clair and his boss, 55-year-old Tom Fox, the editor/owner of Fox's Weekly newsmagazine are incensed. The gruesome crime, a botched abortion, is for them another example of abortion as "the evil of the age," an evil they are dedicated to exposing along with the increasing graft and corruption of the city's Tammany Hall power brokering. For St. Clair the grisly find is a tragic reminder of his wife, Caroline, and her death from an abortion to which he eagerly consented because of her increasing dependency on laudanum. Fortunately for him, however, his brother-in-law, Seth Murray, on the outs with a corrupt supervisor, is the detective assigned to the current case. Together they track the clues of a monogrammed handkerchief, a blood-soaked newspaper advertisement, and two blood-soaked gems found with the corpse to uncover the identities of the victim, her lover, her alleged abortionist, and eventually, her killer and the motives for her murder. Their quest leads them through brothels, bars, and hotels and into the opium dens of the Cercle Francais de l`Harmonie, the offices of the Tammany Hall politicians of the day, even into the homes of the rich and famous where socialites dance "the German." While the fictional story moves forward with threats and physical assaults on St. Clair, Tom Fox and others, and with a red hot love affair between St. Clair and an undercover agent Fox has hired for the abortion investigation, references abound to real life people, places and events of the 1800s. Trysts take place at dives like the Hole-in-the –Wall pub and Billy McClory's Armory Hall. Civil War veterans are beggars on the Five Points' streets. The Credit Mobilier scandal plays prominently and facts and figures of the graft and corruption in the building of the Courthouse are quoted. Procuress Hester Jane Haskins is mentioned in the same breath as "Red Light" Lizzie, and politicians such as Oakes Ames, Vice-President Schuyler Colfax, even President Grant are implicated in the Credit Mobilier ruse. Susan Anthony, "a school teacher in upstate New York," sends letters and handwritten articles to Fox for publication in his Weekly. Arguments for and against abortion rage around Madame Phillipe, alias Anna Jacoby, a refugee from Frankfurt's Judengasse (Jew's Alley) ghetto, and against a backdrop of the Tombs, miscarriages of justice for blacks and the NYC Draft Riots of 1863. And for anyone familiar with the history of Tammany Hall, the model for Grand Sachem, "Boss" Victor Fowler, the head of the Ring and the master-mind villain of Levine's story, will be readily recognizable.
As a nineteenth century prototype of the hardboiled sleuth, chief protagonist Charles St. Clair is a warts-and-all hero. He's guilt–ridden over the role he played in his wife's death, imbibes far too much and more frequently than he should, carries a pistol for protection, enjoys sexual relations with a woman he's barely met, literally and figuratively, gets high on hashish at Miss Kate's House of Southern Belles, and has lost hundreds of dollars at a local gaming house, a debt that almost gets him killed. But inside the hardboiled exterior there's sufficient marshmallow to give him a softer edge when needed. And he's good, darned good, in his role as an investigative journalist willing to turn corrupt politicians on their collective ears and to track villainous vermin down their historical paths. His chronicles are potentially classic.
Special thanks to M. Wayne Cunningham (firstname.lastname@example.org) for contributing his review of Evil of the Age.
Review Copyright © 2008 — M. Wayne Cunningham — All Rights Reserved
Reprinted with Permission
Location(s) referenced in Evil of the Age: New York City
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Evil of the Age by Allan Levine — The Charles St. Clair Chronicles
Publisher: Heartland Associates
Format: Trade Paperback
Publication Date: May 2008
List Price: C$22.95