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The Blackest Bird: A Novel of Murder in Nineteenth-Century New York Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 17, 2007

3.3 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Rose (New York Sawed in Half) takes on one of the most celebrated unsolved murders in New York City history—the 1841 killing of Mary Rogers—in this historical whodunit, but doesn't make the most of its potential. Rogers, an attractive young woman, achieved local notoriety as a sales clerk at a Manhattan tobacco shop whose clientele included such notable authors as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. After the discovery of the victim's mutilated body, Jacob Hays, the city's high constable, who makes a somewhat plodding and colorless detective, quickly narrows his scrutiny to Poe, whose second Dupin story was based on the case. While the author provides a convincing portrait of the New York literary world of the day, crime fans may be disappointed that the mystery's solution comes out of left field with no evidence to support it. This novel should get a lift from Daniel Stashower's recent factual study of the Rogers murder, The Beautiful Cigar Girl. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Sixty-nine-year-old High Constable Jacob Hays is facing a long, hot summer in 1841. The soaring temperatures are nothing compared to the heat being generated by the sensation-seeking newspapers and the vicious gangs that rule the New York neighborhoods known as the Five Points. When Mary Rogers, a pretty clerk at a tobacco shop, is found brutally murdered in the Hudson River, Hays is charged with the search for her killer. A long-respected lawman known for creating a new interrogation technique called the third degree, Hays is starting to feel the full weight of his position, caught between public outrage and political red tape. High on his list of suspects is the eccentric poet Edgar Allan Poe, who freely admits that he was in love with the "cigar girl." Rose (New York Sawed in Half, 2001) creates a compelling portrait of nineteenth-century New York as well as fascinating, deeply flawed characters. At the center of his novel is the dissolute Poe, dressed in a tattered coat, heavily addicted to opium, and convinced of his own genius. Part history, part mystery, and thoroughly entertaining. Joanne Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (March 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393062317
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393062311
  • Product Dimensions: 0.7 x 0.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,695,122 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Paperback
On the surface, The Blackest Bird is about a murder, introducing readers to rich characters and a gritty, budding New York, but the drama unfolds to reveal at its heart, the literary figure of Edgar Allan Poe. Many a novel has attempted to fictionalize Poe with varying results, but Joel Rose has probably been the most successful in painting the proper patchwork of ego, madness and genius without having the poet come off as a pure fop. Rose is able to cast the reader back to a simpler and darker time filled with corruption and politics, scandal and decorum with the careful turn of a phrase and execution of dialogue. The story is an intriguing mystery filled with shadows and ultimately vague yet plausible answers that hang in the air of the fiction, to beckon consideration to the aspects borrowed from reality. Its only vice is that it may have held the suspense just a shade too long.
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Format: Hardcover
According to his acknowledgments, Joel Rose spent eighteen years writing THE BLACKEST BIRD, easy to believe since most of it is written in nineteenth century newspaper jargon. The following is a description of Jacob Hays, "Old Hays," High Constable of New York City: "Equipped solely with his long ash constable's staff, he would proceed from one to another, knocking the hat off the most vituperative, then, when said individual went to retrieve his aggrieved topper, sending him flying with a swift kick to the rump, effectively rendering his participation harmless." Rose was able to hold true to this recondite argot for 475 pages, a Herculean accomplishment in my mind.

THE BLACKEST BIRD refers to Edgar Allen Poe's nickname, The Raven. Poe is a major player in the narrative. At the beginning of the novel, Old Hays, now almost seventy, must deal with three murders, those of Mary Rogers, a "segar" store clerk, Samual Adams, publisher to John Colt brother of Samuel Colt of six-shooter fame, and the daughter and wife of gangster Tommy Coleman. The latter two are open-and-shut cases and both men wind up in the Tombs, notorious New York City prison. Edgar Allen Poe is a suspect in the Mary Rogers case, primarily because of a thinly-disguised short story he wrote about Mary, a former lover.

Joel Rose's portrayal of Edgar Allen Poe might strike some readers as suspect. He is depicted as a megalomaniac, not above plagiarism and blackmail. Towards the end of his life we see him pingponging back and forth between three different women, all of whom he asked to marry him. Somewhere in the cobwebs of my mind I remember a reference to a Poe biographer who hated him with a passion.
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Format: Hardcover
This is one of those irritating "historical" novels that have virtually nothing to do with actual history. To recap some of the more notable oddities: 1.Poe never had an affair with Mary Rogers--in fact, there is no reason to believe he ever so much as laid eyes on the woman. 2.There is also no evidence that Poe was ever unfaithful to his wife at all--with Fanny Osgood or anyone else. This fictional portrayal of Poe actually has practically no resemblance to the real man in any sense. 3.As the author himself rather shamelessly admits in his afterword, there is no evidence that the novel's murderer had, in reality, anything to do with his victim. Rose was certainly free to concoct any completely fictional scenarios he chose, but why did he have to tack the names of real people onto them? Is there no compunction anymore about libeling the dead? Has Rufus W. Griswold been transformed into a role model for some of these novelists? Ironically, the book would have been much more convincing if Rose had eschewed trying to use real people and had instead stuck to pure invention. The scenes where he simply describes the milieu of 1840s New York are the most successful in the entire novel.

To top it off, this novel is way too long, and extremely dull and pointless in spots. It was a real effort to get to the conclusion, and when I realized that it had nothing to do with the actual facts surrounding the Mary Rogers murder, I felt rather cheated. In short, I found the book to be a waste of time.
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