The Blackest Bird: A Novel of Murder in Nineteenth-Century New York by Joel Rose

In the last few years, Edgar Allan Poe has become far more popular as a character than as a writer, popping up in a startling number of period novels, usually in a tormented state. The visionary author takes center stage again as the beleaguered cynosure of Joel Rose’s substantial and enjoyable historical conceit, set in pre-Tammany Manhattan.

The plot is whipped into a lather by the notorious murder of young Mary Rogers in 1841. (The crime was also the subject of a fine nonfiction book by Daniel Stashower just last year.) Rogers worked the counter at a tobacconist’s on lower Broadway, but her beauty was widely celebrated, especially among New York’s literary set. Famous editors (and patrons of the cigar shop) James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley — and a young reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle named Walt Whitman — turn her murder into a tabloid sensation.

But no one is as preoccupied with the crime — or as crestfallen at the girl’s death — as Poe, who commutes to the action, quite memorably, from Philadelphia. (Next time you want to curse Amtrak, read about Poe’s laborious sojourn.) Transplanting the incident to Paris but keeping the details tantalizingly intact, he re-created the Rogers murder in his story “The Mystery of Marie Roget.”

Poe’s fixation with the victim puts him squarely in the crosshairs of New York City’s High Constable, Jacob Hays, still an imposing figure after 40 years on the job. If only Old Hays could devote himself to the Rogers case. But his attention is divided among a trio of infamous murders and a lurid assortment of macabre crimes in the bustling port city.

Rose does a scrupulous and impressive job of mustering the pace and mood of the rapidly expanding city, its still pastoral fringes and its customs, as in this passage:

“Each and every year for some hundred years, one of the most glorious events in the city was the annual Firemen’s Parade down Broadway. Raucous crowds, made overwrought by rhum and boisterous, unrestrained celebration, lined the wide avenue and bordering sidewalks to lay excited eyes on the exuberant red-shirted brigades, handsome in pounded beaver hats, marching two by two, pulling their beloved engines to the cadence of huge brass bands blaring out `Solid Men to the Front,’ the bellowing cadres of firefighters coming up behind, singing and shouting the lyrics to their brave anthem:

In time of need

When we succeed

The flames afore …

It’s solid men to the front!”

One quibble with The Blackest Bird is that Rose lacks a narrative knockout punch. He builds the story to several natural climaxes, such as a rumble between the Irish gangs of Five Points and the native-born toughs of the Bowery. But after artfully setting them up, Rose tends to shy away from the large-scale cinematic scenes.

But you read The Blackest Bird for the atmosphere, not the action. And on that score, it is most satisfying.