Mid-nineteenth century New York City is a mix of the cosmopolitan and the urban, the great robber barons, teeming immigrants, booming businesses, day laborers, gangs of leatherheads who compete as fire brigades and opportunists of every stripe. All come in droves to a city in constant flux. Even the literary scene is rife with talent, with writers on the cusp of greatness - James Fennimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe - all juxtaposed with the yellow journalism that appeals to the masses. Tainted by corrupt backroom politics, the city is a microcosm of a changing world.
High Commissioner of New York City for forty-two years, Jacob Hays is sixty-nine years old, the city’s first detective. “Old Hays” has his finger on the pulse of the city as a series of murders give the sensational newspapers no end of speculation. He ruminates in his office in the basement of the newly built prison, euphemistically named “the Tombs,” weighing evidence and the potential guilt or innocence of those accused.
Hay’s first order of business is a murder that has captured the attention of the city, the discarded body of beautiful Mary Rogers, who graced a local tobacconist’s shop. Their appetite whetted by Mary’s murder, the city is shocked by a second heinous crime: the unpremeditated slaying of writer/publisher Charles Adams by John C. Colt, brother of the inventor of the Colt revolver. The condemned Colt’s cell is markedly different from that of the other prisoners - obscured by draperies, his meals delivered by the finest restaurants, attended to by a manservant.
Tommy Coleman, leader of the Forty Little Thieves, is another occupant of death row from the poorest part of the city, Five Points. Charged with killing his wife, a hot corn girl, and her little daughter, Tommy insists they were murdered by the woman’s former lover, Ruby Pearl. Tommy’s prospects are decidedly bleak. All becomes moot when a fire breaks out in the prison, the consequences for the incarcerated quite different than expected. Still, Hays remains undeterred in pursuing the thugs and murderers who mar the reputation of the city.
Perhaps the most fascinating character is Edgar Allen Poe, a subject of Hay’s innate curiosity. A devotee of the study of physiognomy - that a man’s face may be a predictor of criminal acts - the High Commissioner finds Poe a perfect example of the concept, which isn’t helped when Poe pens a barely fictional account of Mary Roger’s murder which is published in a local magazine.
Blending the criminal element with the ambitious literary figures of the time and the expanding world of publishing, from boardrooms to the mean streets, Rose has created a unique blend of crime and literature, unchecked passions and one author’s steady decline while grappling with his self-destructive nature: the sad and desperate life of the shattered genius of Edgar Allen Poe.