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Joel Rose – The Blackest Bird

March 25, 2009

33. The Blackest Bird: A Novel of Murder in Nineteenth-Century New York by Joel Rose (2007)

Length: 479 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 08 March 2009
Finished: 23 March 2008

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 31 December 2008
Verdict? Most likely going to the Bookmooch pile

Brutal murder and
Edgar Allan Poe, but it’s
not that exciting.

Summary: In the summer of 1841, the brutally murdered corpse of Mary Rogers – “the beautiful segar girl” – is found floating along the shores of the Hudson River. High constable Jacob Hays makes it his duty to bring the murderer to justice, but in nineteenth-century New York, that’s easier said than done. No one is being particularly forthcoming, and Old Hays also has to deal with rival gang factions, the execution of John Colt, the brother of the famous arms manufacturer, and the political machinations of his city, as his investigation leads him inexorably towards the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe certainly writes of morbid topics, including a fascination with the Mary Rogers case, has many enemies in the literary and publishing world, and is known to be carried away in strange fits of passionate temper… but could he really be a murderer?

Review: Blargh. This book had been on my wishlist, at “highest priority”, ever since I read the blurb on the LT Early Reviewer page ages ago. Several birthdays and holidays passed, and tired of no one taking the hint, (and being unable to acquire it for myself via assiduous bookmooching and scouring of used bookstores,) I actually shelled out real cash monies and bought myself a new copy. And, after all that, it turned out to be a serious letdown. That should (but probably won’t) teach me not to judge a book by its cover blurb.

Because the cover blurb is great. 1840s New York City! Brutal murder! Detective work! Edgar Allan Poe! Gang wars! Grave robbers! “A gripping and atmospheric historical thriller”! Sounds good, right? While it does contain murder and gangs and Mr. Poe, as promised, that last quotation overshoots the mark. “Historical” it certainly was, and I’ll give it “atmospheric”, but there were few if any thrills to be had, and its degree of “gripping”-ness (gripitude?) can be deduced from the fact that it took me over two weeks to read, despite not being particularly chunky.

Okay. I’ll start with the good points: Mr. Rose has obviously done his homework. This books contains elements of a number of true stories that are (for the most part) cleverly woven together, as well as pretty accurate depictions of Edgar Allan Poe’s life, 1840s New York City, and the state of American literature and publishing at the time. The author also is clearly making a conscious effort to write in 1840s style, and the result is certainly evocatively atmospheric. The effect wasn’t entirely to my taste – too wordy and effusive, too hard to keep track of a single thought, and the random shifts into present tense were distracting – but I can see how people who enjoy the literature of that time more than I do might have a different opinion.

On the other hand… Ye gods, was this book slow! The ostensible center of the story – the investigation of the murder of Mary Rogers – drags on for years with little to no headway, and the ultimate conclusion comes out of nowhere and isn’t particularly satisfying. I think its main problem was that it was overambitious, trying to tie in too many elements and too many historical persons and too many plot threads to ever deal with one satisfactorily before moving on to the next. Combined with the rambling style of the writing, that resulted in one very draggy reading experience, even once I got adept at skimming. 2 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Erm… maybe if you’re really into Poe, or really enjoyed the setting and the language of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, then The Blackest Bird might work for you better than it did for me. If you’re looking for a good contemporary historical mystery in Gothic style, I’d recommend Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night instead.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Wikipedia articles about Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Rogers

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Make no mistake, the task at hand affects him deeply.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 13: “In this way, proceeding from cove to sport to magsman and back again, he had put an end to many a free-for-all, many a melee.” – a confidence trickster, raconteur
  • p. 15: “With Balboa’s hand up he climbed back into his carriage, a closed black barouche, and within minutes was standing in his office at the Tombs, in front of the barred window, in a slip of noonday sunlight.” – a four-wheeled carriage with a high front seat outside for the driver, facing seats inside for two couples, and a calash top over the back seat.
  • p. 16: “The high constable’s office was located on death row, off the large Bummers’ Cell, where a continual string of drunks, rowdies, and bingo boys were paraded daily, to be held until such time when they might sober up, pay their fine (typically $2.50), and be on their way.” – Highwaymen who liked to drink (bingo meaning brandy)
  • p. 18: “On Rose Street a sallow-faced barrowman was murdered by a cut-throat for his wheeled cart, four puncheons of rhum disappeared off the wharf at James Slip, three autumn morts were discovered strolling uneasily east on the Fourteenth Street, fully swathed beneath their dresses in bolts of watered silk, pilfered not five minutes before from the Endicott dry goods emporium.” – A cask with a capacity of from 72 to 120 gallons (273 to 454 liters); variant spelling of rum; old slang for women, particularly prostitutes.
  • p. 22: ““In evidence was an ecchymose mark, about the size and shape of a man’s thumb on the right side of the neck, near the jugular vein, and two or three more marks on the left side resembling the shape of a man’s fingers.”” – To discolor by the production of an effusion of blood, beneath the skin
  • p. 27: “Because Old Hays had a daughter of his own, the last surviving of his children, the other four, all sons, having succumbed during the feral yellow fever epidemic of 1822, all within the short span of a sweltering, humid August weekend, the death of the segar girl Mary Rogers took on for him added significance.” – variant of cigar.
  • p. 39: ““I need to have a word with Tommy Coleman,” Hays said to her, not touching the poteen.” – illicitly distilled whiskey.
  • p. 148: “Poe nearly stumbles into a man in a camlet coat carrying a lantern in one hand, a large staff in the other.” – a durable, waterproof cloth, esp. for outerwear.
  • p. 151: ““The court of oyer and terminer saw it differently, sir, wouldn’t you say?”” – A court of general criminal jurisdiction in some states of the United States.
  • p. 174: ““I don’t want nothing from the likes of you, hackum,” the guard smirked. “Just looking.”” – a bravo, a slasher.
  • p. 202: “Bovine, self-important pig-widgeons, they make a big show of directing traffic, spitting on the ground, screaming at the teamsters to get their horses out of the way, punching the terrified beasts in their soft snouts as hard as they can to get their attention, get them to do what they want and move clear.” – A cant word for anything petty or small.
  • p. 225: “His pipe still clamped between his teeth, it is not long before he has closed his eyes, and in the comfort of Colt’s gift patent chair, and in the bascom of his daughter’s comforting voice, he has once more succumbed to sleep.” – I can’t find a definition of this word anywhere. Help?
  • p. 260: “How many people attended this wake? Of mourners and curiosity seekers, gang members, adjutants, and well-intentioned neighbors?” – A staff officer who helps a commanding officer with administrative affairs.
  • p. 314: ““Some years ago, Mr. Poe wrote a volume on conchology for the very well-respected firm of Haswell, Barrington & Haswell.”” – the branch of zoology dealing with the shells of mollusks.
  • p. 326: ““Again, I quote: ‘Herein, under the pretense of relating the fate of a Parisian grisette, the author has followed, in minute detail, the essential, while merely paralleling the inessential, facts of the real murder of Mary Rogers.'”” – a young French workingwoman.
  • p. 352: “He filled it from Hay’s pouch while Hays struck a locofoco and lit both Poe’s bowl and his own.” – a friction match or cigar developed in the 19th century, ignited by rubbing against any hard, dry surface.
  • p. 373: ““Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee – by these angels he hath sent thee / Respite – respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!”” – anything inducing a pleasurable sensation of forgetfulness, esp. of sorrow or trouble.
  • p. 374: ““His voice takes on such omnificence.”” – creating all things; having unlimited powers of creation.
  • p. 394: ““This city, if not the world, is a corrupt place. Justice and politics are available within her confines for a price. Pettifoggery is at no premium.”” – carrying on a petty, shifty, or unethical law business.
  • p. 442: “One, dressed a thimblerig bully with velvet waistcoat, fancy neckerchief, gilt chains, soap-locked hair, and filigreed buttons, seemed familiar to Poe.” – a sleight-of-hand swindling game in which the operator palms a pellet or pea while appearing to cover it with one of three thimblelike cups, and then, moving the cups about, offers to bet that no one can tell under which cup the pellet or pea lies.
13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2009 10:29 am

    Too bad this book was a disappointment! I definitely would have been tempted by its blurb too. I like gripitude!

    My words are here.

  2. March 25, 2009 10:30 am

    So sad! I was experiencing the same thing you did when I read your summary. Oh well, I guess at least I can learn from your misfortune and not bother.

  3. March 25, 2009 3:45 pm

    Too bad it didn’t live up to your expectations. At least it had a lot of great new words in it.

  4. March 25, 2009 3:50 pm

    aviannschild – Gripitude it is, then!

    DoB – Yeah, this is one of those cases where there was probably a good story in there somewhere, but the writing style and I just did not get along.

    bermudaonion – I particularly like knowing that Pigwidgeon is more than just the name of an owl. :)

  5. March 25, 2009 5:40 pm

    Sorry about the story but at least you learned a few new things.

  6. Bobbie Crawford-McCoy permalink
    March 26, 2009 7:13 pm

    Great review! It looks like a great book, but I think that I’ll just steer clear of this one, thx.

    Hi, it’s Bobbie Crawford-McCoy from ‘Book Reviews By Bobbie’.
    As a book blogger and book reviewer I have come across many blogs and bloggers who have made a positive impression on me.

    So I am passing on the’ Lets Be Friends Award’ to you:
    Enjoy! :-)

  7. March 27, 2009 5:59 am

    It looked nice…but I am staying away from this one

  8. gwendolyn b. permalink
    March 28, 2009 11:12 pm

    Thanks for the warning! I’ve had this on my wish list, too! Maybe I’ll just peruse it at the library!

  9. March 30, 2009 10:57 am

    Margot – Historical fiction’s always great for my vocab!

    Bobbie – Wow, thank you!

    blodeuedd – Yeah, it’s such a pretty cover and such an enticing blurb… and then…

    gwendolyn – I think if you can nab it from the library, open it to a chapter somewhere in the middle and read for a few pages, and see if you can handle an entire book in Rose’s writing style. Maybe it won’t bother you as much as it did me.

  10. March 30, 2009 6:46 pm

    I’m with you, the cover blurb would have pulled me in too. Sorry you didn’t enjoy this one :(

  11. April 3, 2009 8:59 am

    Ladytink – Drat those pesky copywriters, doing their job! :)

  12. edifanob permalink
    April 5, 2009 8:38 am

    I bought the book some time ago. I will give it a try but I lowered my expectations after reading your review.

  13. April 5, 2009 9:44 pm

    edifanob – Hopefully you’ll have a better time with it than I did; I just didn’t click with the writing style.

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