The year is 1877. Automatons and steam-powered dirigible gunships have transformed the nation in the aftermath of the Civil War. Everything on the other side of the Mississippi has been claimed for Russia. Lincoln is still president, having never been assassinated, but the former secretary of war Edwin Stanton is now the head of the Department of Public Safety, ruling with an iron fist as head of the country’s military.
Liam McCool is a bad man, one of the best Irish cracksmen there is when it comes to robbery, cracking safes, and other sundry actives—until he was caught red-handed by Stanton. Those in the South who don’t fit into Stanton’s plans for the Reconstruction, and Stanton realizes Liam McCool is more useful doing his dirty work than sitting in a jail cell. But when his sweetheart, Maggie, turns up murdered, Liam McCool realizes he’ll do anything, even if it means getting way over his head with bloodthirsty Russians, to solve the crime.
The King of the Cracksmen is an explosive, action-packed look at a Victorian empire that never was, part To Catch a Thief, part Little Big Man. It’s steampunk like you’ve never seen it before, a murder mystery in a foreign world where no one is who they seem to be and danger lurks around every corner.
Debut novelist O'Flaherty creates a well-rounded alternate 19th-century setting, in which Russia controls much of North America, for this otherwise unremarkable mystery. After the murder of boarding house owner Maggie O'Shea, her boyfriend, Liam McCool, sets out to find the killer. Along the way, McCool discovers a multi-level conspiracy that traces throughout the U.S. government and learns that he is an unwitting pawn of Edwin Stanton, the most powerful man in America. McCool is joined in his quest by Becky Fox, a Nellie Bly stand-in, as they travel across an authoritarian post Civil War country. McCool, a hard-bitten safecracker (the titular cracksman) who's trying to do the right thing, lacks the suavity to be a successful antihero. The dialogue often seems to be for the benefit of the reader rather than the characters. The world McCool and Fox move through demonstrates that O'Flaherty has done plenty of research and thought through the implications of the changes to history, but even the rich background can't quite balance out the book's other shortcomings.