In 1841, New York City is bound in a unique social construct, the city teeming with Americans of every walk of life, the very wealthy, the great working class and a rich pool of literary talent, all juxtaposed with newspapers that fight for readership, corrupt backroom politics and gangs of leatherheads who compete as fire brigades, the city a microcosm of a rapidly changing world. One impressive figure, Jacob Hays, High Commissioner of New York City for forty-two years, is notably the city's first detective, at the time sixty-nine years old, with no plans for retirement in spite of his advancing years. His office located in the newly built prison, the euphemistically named "Tombs", "Old Hays" has his finger on the pulse of the city as a series of murders give the newspapers no end of speculation.
The most notorious murder is that of Mary Rogers, a woman with many admirers who has graced a local tobacconist's shop that serves as a gathering place for such luminaries as James Fennimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe, all of whom reflect the bizarre balance of dramatic Victorian fiction, poetry and a journalism defined by sensationalism. The city's appetite whetted by the brutal murder of the striking young woman, another outrageous crime focuses attention on the unexpected slaying of writer/publisher Charles Adams by John C Colt, brother of the inventor of the Colt revolver, an influential family. After his trial Colt is sentenced to die, his quarters in the Tombs markedly different from the other prisoners, attended to by a manservant, his cell obscured by draperies, meals delivered by the finest restaurants.
Across from Colt on death row is yet another condemned man, Tommy Coleman, leader of the Forty Little Thieves, one of the infamous gangs that create havoc in the poorest part of the city, Five Points. Tommy is charged with killing his wife, a hot corn girl, and her little daughter, although he insists they were murdered by the woman's former lover, Ruby Pearl. Tommy's insists his only crime, is killing Pearl after finding him by the slaughtered bodies. From the lowest echelon of society, Tommy's prospects are bleak. It is Old Hays task to ferret out the truth of these crimes and he applies himself with his usual mental vigor; unfortunately a fire in the prison complicates the pursuit of justice.
One of the most pivotal characters in the novel is the aggrieved Edgar Allen Poe, who interviews both Colt and Coleman while they are incarcerated and brings suspicion upon himself. Fascinated by the study of physiognomy, Hays believes a man's face is reflective of his character. To Hays, Poe is both an interesting and suspicious person; their lives become a series of contretemps, especially once Poe writes a chilling narrative of Mary Roger's murder as a thinly-veiled fiction in a local magazine. Blending the criminal element with the literary ambitions and expanding world of publishing, Rose has created a unique blend of crime and literature, unchecked passions and one author's steady decline while grappling with the self-destructive nature his particular talent. From thugs and murderers to the luxurious boardrooms of the powerful, Hays remains undeterred, shadowed by the sad and desperate life of the shattered genius of the author of "The Raven". Luan Gaines/ 2007.