The Devil's Half Mile: A Novel
Paddy Hirsch, in his mesmerizing novel of New York City in 1799, creates so strong an aura of time and place and late-18th century language, readers may find themselves calling an opponent a “blackhearted mackerelbag,” or admitting that they are “overegging the pudding” the next time they indulge in hyperbole.
For readers who treasure the music and variety and richness of the English language, this novel’s setting is a special treat. Indeed, Hirsch helpfully includes a glossary at the end of his novel, which is entertaining and enlightening in itself, especially for readers who approach this fine work unaware that the phrase “fart catcher” refers to a valet or that “trumpery” refers to “rubbish; hot air.”
The latter definition, though new to most modern readers, will perhaps not be surprising to many.
The Devil’s Half Mile of the title is Wall Street. In this New York of 1799, the street that will one day be the financial center of the world is only just beginning to evolve into the location where investors and speculators gather to make and lose fortunes.
In this New York, the street that will eventually run the length of Manhattan and will become one of the most famous thoroughfares in history is not called Broadway, but rather the Broad Way. And the river running along the west side of Manhattan is called Hudson’s River, the possessive not yet having been deleted.
In this New York, filth and disease and poverty and hunger are everywhere. Hirsch evokes such a vivid sense of the stench of human and animal sewage on the streets, readers may find themselves gagging along with the characters who are forced to wade through these narrow, dark pathways.
The force driving the narrative of The Devil’s Half Mile is its protagonist, Justice “Justy” Flanagan. He is described, by another character who may or may not be an ally, as “that rare breed, a man of action who uses his brain.”
Justy has returned to New York after going abroad for four years to study law. While in Europe, he traveled to Paris and studied the beginnings of forensic science and detective work. He has returned to his home to uncover the truth behind his father’s death, which was ruled a suicide.
Justy is not a young man who shies away from a battle. He fought with the Catholics against British rule in Ireland. He saw the cruelty and horror of war. He inflicted some of that cruelty and horror himself.
The New York he returns to is a powder keg of racial and religious hatred. The New York Manumission Society is working to abolish slavery. The Irish immigrants don’t want their jobs to be lost to freed blacks. Violence is never more than a wrong word or misinterpreted look or selfish whim away.
Justy has friends and foes in New York, and there are times when he can never be sure which is which, including when they’re family. His late father’s brother, known as the Bull, who took care of Justy after his father died and who paid for Justy’s education, is a very powerful man in the city. But is he a decent one? And is he on Justy’s side?
As Justy searches for evidence to support his belief that his father was murdered, there may be a serial killer at large in New York. And there are, as yet, only the beginnings of a municipal police force to solve the mystery of who has been murdering prostitutes.
Hirsch introduces readers to the Tontine, a coffee house on the corner of Wall and Water Streets, where stockholders meet to conduct trade and correspondence. In the New York that Justy rediscovers after a long absence, the U.S. Constitution is brand new, and the economy is only beginning to recover from the great crash of 1792.
There is fear and danger everywhere. Another crash may be imminent, and the new republic may not survive it. Yes, Alexander Hamilton makes a cameo in this tense story, in which the perilous journey of the main character and the equally fraught journey of the new country will inspire readers to keep turning the page.
The scourge of slavery is never far from the narrative, as is the cruelty of a woman’s woefully unequal place in society. A young woman Justy knew in his past, and with whom he reconnects now, has been reduced to being a thief so that she can save herself from walking the streets as a whore.
As she explains to Justy in a paragraph that is as timeless as it is agonizing: “All your lot sit around and blather about freedom, and how you won it from the bloody English in the war, and how it’s enshrined in your Constitution and all of that shit. Well, let me tell you, all of that trumpery might sound great, but it means nothing to a woman, and even less than nothing to a woman whose skin isn’t lily-white. We’re not free, Justy. We can’t do what we want or say what we want, like you can.”
While Justy is righteous in his quest for truth and decency, he is no perfect hero. After having committed murder to save his own life, this multi-layered protagonist is forced to realize that, rather than feeling panic or regret, he felt a different sensation: “The breathless glee as he drove his weapon home. The raging triumph as the life came out of his enemy. He had enjoyed it.”
Hirsch’s prose, always elegant and affecting, is especially powerful in the passages in which he describes combat, both individual and the battles of armies. Hirsch writes in a style that can approvingly be described as cinematic; it is one that allows the reader to visualize with ease the violent scenes that are unfolding.
At the end of this sweeping novel, readers may feel frustration in knowing that the horrors of slavery which are so painfully described by Hirsch will not legally end in the United States until decades later. Readers may feel equal pessimism in the knowledge that the horrifying sex trafficking which is also part of this story will never disappear. But there is, perhaps, hope and consolation to be found in the eternal presence of characters like the aptly-named Justice Flanagan, who will continue to strive to protect the most vulnerable in society.