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1869: In his prison cell in The Tombs, Robert Gillian has countless days to reflect upon his story, a journey which began years earlier, the time of the Great Hunger in Ireland. So destitute that burying his young twins in rented coffins was the best he could afford—their bodies re-interred in burlap sacks in the middle of the night—he knew he must take his landlord’s offer: paid passage to America for the rest of his family. Life in New York City was difficult in its own way—for kind and gentle Robert and his remaining clan. But he finds dignity and friendship when he joins the all-volunteer fire department. As more tragedy strikes, Gillian grows bitter with his lot in life, until he earns the attention of a mysterious figure, The Fire Marker Man. This man’s a tortured soul, burned to disfigurement, vengeful to those who cross him, and strangely, a source of prosperity for those chosen to play his game. Gillian is handsomely paid for the pleasant task of placing brass fire marks on the facades of newly insured buildings, markers guaranteeing the protection of the Chelsea Surety Company. He gleefully pads his bank account for five years, never having met the Fire Marker Man – in the flesh. Suddenly he’s passed the test, and he’s trapped into playing the real game. Can he live with himself as both fireman and arsonist? Finally, the day comes when he must decline an assignment. But is it too late?
In Flower’s fast-paced debut, an Irish immigrant faces the promise, corruption, and danger of life as a New York City fireman in the days before the Civil War, when gangs ruled the squalid streets of the Five Points, and competing fire companies demand insurance payment from building owners before unleashing their pumps and hoses in a crisis. Robert Gillian and his wife and children fled the famine in Ireland for the U.S. in 1847, and soon Gillian’s a volunteer at Engine Company 5, a position that doesn’t pay a salary but offers respect and opportunity—as Gillian puts it, he'll receive “notice of the best jobs in town for an Irishman.” Soon, he’s a local hero for his rescue of a woman from a burning tenement, but a discomfiting darkness looms over Gillian’s ascent, especially as he’s drawn into the world (and wealth and business practices) of the mysterious Fire Marker Man.

A framing device cues readers to be on guard. The novel opens in 1869, with Gillian imprisoned in New York’s infamous Tombs, refusing offers of legal help, and expressing dismay at his son’s eagerness to become a fireman himself. Dark hints about Gillian’s possible crime—and his apparent sense of guilt—shade the main body of the story, an exciting tour through 19th century New York that’s attentive to changing times and the technology of firefighting and mill work, plus a sweeping range of class stations and the looming inevitability of what some characters call “Lincoln’s war.”

For all the arresting period detail, the storytelling is swift, and Flower’s interest is in morality, especially as the story bends, perhaps inevitably, toward murder, arson, and Gillian’s fear that “’working for the Fire Marker Man,’ meant, quite bluntly, ‘becoming an arsonist.’” Readers of historical dramas will be fascinated by the question of what it takes to succeed in a brutal, money-mad society like Gillian’s—and what exactly is the state of his soul.

Takeaway: Kevin Baker’s Dreamland, Caleb Carr.

Great for fans of: A 19th century New York fireman faces blazes, politics, and danger to his very soul.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A