Blurb for The Fatal Flame by Lyndsay Faye
No one in 1840s New York likes fires, copper star Timothy Wilde least of all. After a blaze killed his parents and another left him with a terrible scar, he has avoided flames of all kinds. So when a seamstress turned arsonist threatens Robert Symmes, a corrupt tycoon high in the Tammany Hall ranks, Timothy isn’t thrilled that Symmes consults him. His dismay escalates when his audacious and charismatic older brother, Valentine, himself deeply politically entrenched, decides to run against the incumbent, who they suspect is guilty of assault and far darker crimes. Immediately after his brother’s courageous declaration, Timothy finds himself surrounded by powerful enemies who threaten to harm those he cares about most.
Meanwhile, the love of Timothy’s life, Mercy Underhill, unexpectedly appears on his doorstep and takes under her wing a starving Irish orphan who may be the key to stopping the combustions threatening the city—if only they can make sense of her cryptic accounts. The closer they come to deciphering her wild tales of witches and angels, however, the closer Timothy comes to the fiery and shocking conclusion that forces him to face everything he fears most.
I reviewed this over a year ago in January 2021 when I started trying to write a review of every book I read. I don’t remember why I never posted it here, but I wouldn’t put it past me to have had some pipe dream about waiting until I reviewed the whole trilogy. Hah. So, in lieu of inspiration to write anything else, and wading in a backlog of unwritten reviews, here’s my original review of The Fatal Flame.
The third installment in the Timothy Wilde series serves as a suitably satisfying conclusion to several threads of plot and character that carried through from the first book. I can’t say too objectively how this stood up as a mystery/historical crime novel, because I got hooked into it about a third of the way through and read to the end in a single sitting. Which either bespeaks how gripping the book is (and I think it objectively true that Faye knows how to build story beats so that each chapter ends in a way that makes you want to start the next, without using cheap cliff-hangers) or that I was in the right mood for this type of book. Both, maybe.
Copper star of the newly formed New York Police, Timothy Wilde is in the process of executing a sting with his fellow officers, when the appearance of his brother Valentine turns a routine operation into an investigation into arson, trafficking, insurance fraud, rape, and the tension between traditionally male tailors and more cheaply hired female factory workers. Oh, and a fraught election split on the views about how to deal with the slave states of the south, which eventually fed into the outbreak of the American Civil War. There’s a lot going on.
The narrative is from the perspective of Timothy Wilde, who chronicles his most personal and disturbing cases as a method of coming to terms with what happened, but also eventually to share with the one person he cares most to understand him. His voicing is clear, entertaining, with enough style and poetry to make the story and its places and characters come alive. He manages to be a somewhat objective observer, as he tries to be, but also express so much that is reactionary and biased, revealing a truly interesting human character. Of course, given the time period in which he lives, in order to be marginally acceptable to today’s readers, Wilde has to be on the radical side of social reform of his day, but Faye doesn’t make him unrealistically naïve and outspoken about his views. In fact, given his occupation as a copper star, a member of a police force known in its nascence for corruption, brutality, and torture, Wilde somehow manages to whimsically impose his own set of values on the streets without a lot of push-back. If the copper stars could go against the “official” party line for less honourable reasons without much regulation, why not someone with better intentions? It sort of works for this story. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a reputation as a good investigator, so he gets a lot of free rein.
The differing sides, characters, and their varied and fraught relationships are generally handled well and sufficiently developed. I appreciate the storminess but also the loyalty of the relationship between Timothy and Valentine Wilde—in fact, it was their brotherly bond as it developed in the first book, The Gods of Gotham, that really made it stand out to me. As the relationship had somewhat mellowed in the second book, Seven for a Secret, I think it was a wise choice for Faye to push the breaking point further in the final one. Given the fact that I didn’t care too much for how many of the romantic relationships turned out, the brothers’ development and interactions were a high point for me.
In general, the subplots were more compelling than the main mystery, which was connected to a lot of interesting subplots, but in the end turned out to be less than devious. What promised to be a labyrinth of corruption and plotting, turned into more of a case of fraud, a somewhat pointless detour into familial revelations from out of a clear blue sky, and behind it all, the less than subtle hand of power politics in the form of Tammany Hall. In the end, this novel became more about politics than anything else, but yet managed to mostly sidestep what had promised to be the main political topic of the novel—workers’ rights, specifically female workers’ rights. I mean, it was in there, but all in all, there were so many social issues afloat throughout the novel that, like I said, isolating or even giving thorough treatment to any would be almost impossible. And honestly, I didn’t mind it. Better lightly skirting an issue than touting it ad nauseam when interested persons can simply look it up in a history book for themselves if they so desire. However, the surface treatment of the issue as personified in the pants-wearing striker Sally Woods did serve a plot function beyond its obvious one—having to do with the development of Timothy’s character and some self-realisation about the woman he loved. Like I said, I wasn’t all in with the way the relationships turned out, but I have to give this one credit for at least being well-thought-out.
In general, this is a story that is almost as equally character driven as it is plot driven, which is usually balanced well, sometimes slipping somewhat unrealistically into one or the other. Overall, though, if a dive into the mucky streets and muckier morals of 1850s New York appeals to you, along with a provoking whodunit and a core struggle to (hopefully) mould the world into something better, the Timothy Wilde series is a solid recommendation, with The Fatal Flame a strong entry in the trilogy.
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