Elizabeth Gaffney's 2005 novel Metropolis compellingly details the corrupt, violent, and often ugly side of New York City after the Civil War.
The late nineteenth century was an interesting age in America, as she shoved off the setbacks of the war and turned her head to recreating herself. In this work of fiction, Metropolis follows the journey of a young German, Georg Geiermeier, seeking to make himself a life in the United States after shrugging off not only his old life and family but also his vocation as a stone cutter who once dreamed of building cathedrals.
On a cold March night, Geiermeir, recently off the boat Leibnitz, awakes to the smell of smoke and the sounds of animals stomping and whinying. Recently hired as a stableman for Barnum's, the noises send him into action as he tries to rescue the animals and alert other employees to the fire. In his attempt to rescue, he's fingered as an arsonist by the dastardly Luther Undertoe, a snitch, killer, and thief, who manages to commit crimes and then set others up for the fall. With a buddy on the police force, Undertoe, [I love the name btw] nicknamed by those who know him "The Undertaker," is the grittiest, lowest kind of villian -- a criminal who lurks in alleys and "rolls" victims for the thrill of it.
Even with his likeness in the paper, Geiermeir manages to elude Undertoe's plan for him to take the fall for the crime, and he slips into the crowded boroughs of New York City by using aliases and being adopted into the highly successful but secretive gang known as the Whyo and the Why nots who pull their own little scams on the populace of New York. In using the alias Frank Harris, Geiermeir works manual labor in New York as a street paver, a sewerman, and then finally a builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. Unbeknown to him, the Whyoes protect him from the police and Undertoe, who crazily seeks revenge on Geirmeir for getting away.
Gaffney's eye for detail, which is richly drawn, as well as her historical accuracy creates a believable as well as suspenseful novel of the less than savory side of a bustling city with a corrupt police force and underground organized gangs who ran like well-oiled machinery.
From the time he is indoctrinated into the gang and donned Frank Harris until the suspenseful ending, the reader will be lead down the streets of New York with its cast of immigrants, newly freed Negroes, and its powerful females beginning to assert themselves in a changing society.
Gaffney not only fully develops a love for the heroic Harris , but also a love for the minor characters who interact with Harris: pretty boy leader of the Whyoes Dandy Johnny Dolan,the benefactor Mr. Noes, and Beatrice O'Gahmna, the tough, smart, and resilient First Girl of the gang. The reader will find himself interested in all the stories -- including the feminist and quite aggressive Dr. Sarah Blackwell, a woman concerned about the need for hygienic filters in the sewers and contraceptives for the city's many prostitutes.
Gaffney's novel is a good one, but its density may not make it a good read for all.