The Fatal Flame

Written by Lyndsay Faye
Review by Susan McDuffie

Manhattan, 1848: Copper Timothy Wilde hates fires. His parents died in one, and a second conflagration, in 1845, scarred his face and burned his life savings to ashes. So when Tammany Hall alderman and tycoon Robert Symmes consults Wilde about threatening letters received from an incendiary, Timothy reluctantly investigates.

Wilde’s search leads him to Dunla Duffy, a “simple” girl who speaks in enigmatic riddles of witches and angels, and to Sally Woods, a trouser-clad advocate of rights for women. Sally had previously worked for Symmes, slept with him, and instigated a strike against working conditions in his garment factory. Now she sends letters threatening arson. A tenement burns to the ground, and lives are lost. Wilde’s investigation grows far more complicated when his brother challenges the corrupt Symmes in the upcoming election. Meanwhile the elusive Mercy Underhill returns unexpectedly from London, and sends Timothy’s personal life into turmoil.

The Fatal Flame, the third novel in Lyndsay Faye’s Gotham trilogy, is a thrilling, careening ride through 19th-century Manhattan. Faye’s vivid descriptions and her use of “flash” dialect immerse the reader in the gritty underbelly of a teeming metropolis populated by a cast that includes starving immigrant seamstresses, independent Bowery girls, ambitious newsboys, and Tammany Hall politicos. Neither Timothy and nor any of the other fully realized characters in this novel are presented with easy choices but, as Timothy concludes, “it’s the fraction we were dealt.” Recommended.