The Blackest Bird by Joel Rose
March 18, 2008 by Wulf Forrester-Barker
I wonder if The Blackest Bird, “a novel of history and murder”, by Joel Rose would be more intriguing for someone well-versed in the time and place of its setting (New York in the 1840s)? As a murder mystery, a genre in which I am better read, it drags along in a desultory manner.
The book starts in a gripping fashion, with a scene of murder and then the introduction High Constable Jacob Hays. Unfortunately, “Old Hays” has no forensic anthropology or DNA matching to turn to and relies instead on his trusted methods such as the study of “criminal physiognomy” for his role as detective-protagonist.
The story meanders along, opening more bags than it closes, with plenty exposure given to the book’s major historical personage, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is not presented sympathetically and repeatedly finds himself near the heart of the mystery. Another historical figure who features in the plot is Samuel Colt, arms manufacturer, along with numerous other names that the historically well-read will have heard of and may recognise.
The book struggles because it puts such famous people near centre stage. The scents and stinks of Old Gotham create a marvellous backdrop but the close involvement of characters based on real people, like Poe, prevent the mystery having the freedom to develop a life of its own. While interesting at the start, the novel felt increasingly drawn-out and unsatisfying.
So, quoth the raven, “Nevermore”.
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