Saturday 24 March 2018

Third instalment of 19th-century detective crying out to be filmed

Historical fiction: The Fatal Flame, Lyndsay Faye, Headline, pbk, 416 pages, €20.99

Language of her own: Lindsey Faye
Language of her own: Lindsey Faye
The Fatal Flame

Eilis O'Hanlon

For newcomers, the experience of reading this book may recall the infamous Irish joke in The Quiet Man about the tourist asking for directions and being told by a local: "Well, I wouldn't start from here."

This is the third book about so-called "copper star" Timothy Wilde, and, for those unfamiliar with his previous outings as a detective in 19th-century New York, navigating a path through the first 50 pages may feel like being dropped without a map into enemy territory.

Stick with it, though, because the unfeasibly clever Wilde, and his even smarter older brother Valentine, chief of the congested city's fire department, are two of the most beguiling creations in the equally crowded world of historical crime fiction; and if that description recalls Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft, it's probably not coincidental.

Timothy bears a scarred face, the result of a fire which killed the brothers' parents 20 years earlier. Valentine blames himself for that tragedy. Hence the passion for dousing flames. Together, they find themselves investigating why so many buildings belonging to a corrupt businessman and politician are going up in smoke.

Prime suspect is a "trouser-clad deviant" called Sally Woods, who was dismissed from the loathsome Alderman Symmes' employment after daring to call a strike in support of better wages and working conditions for the women who labour in his garment factories, and who is "infamous for wearing obscene clothing in the amoral cause of destroying the balance between the sexes". Sally insists that she's innocent, and knocks Wilde out with a half-filled whiskey bottle when he comes to arrest her; but what can one woman do against a powerful, well-connected man?

The pages teem with characters who are poor in money, but rich in words. This is a world of "unwashed bodies, unclean refuse, unadulterated woe", but it's illuminated with flashes of wit and tenderness. They may be in the gutter, but they're gazing at the stars, to borrow a phrase from our hero's namesake. Like them, Faye describes the world in a sensuous, mannered, playful language all of her own.

Her new book is as scrupulously researched as its predecessors, and there's even a glossary to help with the 1840s American slang, though it's easy enough to follow because of the context. It all adds richness to a narrative already lush and layered with meaning, as if the covers are straining to contain the wealth of material inside.

The Fatal Flame manages to be both historically authentic and ruthlessly contemporary at the same time. It's funny too. These characters are crying out to be transferred to the big screen, ideally with Johnny Depp as Wilde and Robert Downey Jr as Valentine; but those who wait for that to happen will be missing a literary treat in the meantime.

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