GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
A cold war between the United States and Great Britain led to technological advancements during the Victorian period in George Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan. By the mid-1920s, steam powered cars are crowding the streets of a Manhattan firmly in the jazz age while gangsters run rampant on the streets. Inspector Felix Donovan must try to solve a series of murders which seem to involve a shady underworld boss called "The Roman" as well as a vigilante the newspapers call "The Ghost."
Living out on Long Island, playboy Gabriel Cross is living the life of Riley, entertaining masses of New York's elite at his estate, although the woman he has fallen in love with, jazz singer Celeste Parker seems disdainful of his way of life. Nevertheless, Celeste sees something in Cross that keeps her coming into his circle of friends. When the Roman's activities threaten Celeste, Cross is pulled into the battle between gangster, vigilante, and detective as he attempts to rescue the love of his life.
Mann's Manhattan is gritty as he follows Cross, the Ghost, and Donovan through the sooty alleys of Greenwich Village to the lights of Broadway where gangsters run the clubs. Even the nearly rural landscape of Cross's Long Island estate is covered in soot as the ubiquitous steam engines leave their trail, which mirrors the evil of the Roman's men, everywhere. However, the steampunk aspect of Ghosts of Manhattan almost takes a backseat to Mann's mystery story, which is multi-threaded. The identities of both the Roman and the Ghost are among the mysteries as well as what the Roman is trying to achieve and how Celeste fits into the entire picture. Mann does an excellent job of producing red herrings.
The Roman, remaining in the background, sends his lieutenant, Gideon Reece, to do his dirty work, whether murdering prominent citizens in embarassing ways, trying to corrupt city officials, or simply robbing banks. Reece is assisted in his tasks by a clichéd band of gangsters, but also by strange moss golems that are at the Roman's beck and call. Built over a brass armature, the Ghost and Donovan must find a way to neutralize these creatures who only follow Reece's orders.
Despite the twists and turns of the mystery, Mann's novel is surprisingly straightforward. Ghosts of Manhattan is set in a world were a well-placed fist or a barrage of flechettes shot from a gun can take care of any number of problems. Politics, when it invades Mann's world in the form of the Police Commissioner, is relatively simple, although Mann allows his reader to wonder whether anyone, from Donovan's sergeant Mullins up to the Commissioner himself is straight or enthralled to Reece and the Roman.
Ghosts of Manhattan wraps up the Roman's story quite nicely, leaving in its wake a potential team of police inspector and vigilante, but perhaps the most intriguing character at the end of the novel is Gabriel Cross, whose history is explored against the murders committed by the Roman's men, the parties thrown at Cross's estate, and the violence in the steam and coal filled streets of Manhattan.
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