The first thing Woodrow Cain sees when he steps off the train in New York City on February 9, 1942, is smoke from an ocean liner in flames in the harbor. It’s the Normandie, and word on the street is that it was burned by German saboteurs. “Ten lousy minutes in New York and already his new life felt as full of loss and betrayal as the one he’d left behind.”
What he left behind in a small North Carolina town was a wife who’d left him, a daughter in the care of his sister, and a career as a police officer marred by questions surrounding his partner’s murder. When he gets a job with the NYPD, he wants to believe it’s the beginning of a new life, though he suspects that the past is as tenacious as “a parasite in the bloodstream.”
It’s on the job that Cain comes in contact with a man who calls himself Danziger. He has the appearance of a “crackpot,” but he speaks five languages, has the manners of a man of means and education—and he appears to be the one person who can help Cain identify a body just found floating in the Hudson River. But who exactly is Danziger? He’s a writer of letters for illiterate immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—“a steadfast practitioner of concealing and forgetting” for his clients, and perhaps for himself: he hints at a much more worldly past. What and whoever he really is or has been, he has a seemingly boundless knowledge of the city and its denizens. And he knows much more than the mere identity of the floating corpse. For one thing, he knows how the dead man was involved in New York City’s “Little Deutschland,” where swastikas were proudly displayed just months before. And he also seems to know how the investigation will put Cain—and perhaps his daughter and the woman he’s fallen for—in harm’s way. But even Danziger can’t know that the more he and Cain investigate, the nearer they come to the center of a citywide web of possibly traitorous corruption from which neither of them may get out alive.
North Carolina police detective Woodrow Cain, the hero of this intelligent, if flawed, thriller, must overcome his provincial ways and navigate the corrupt, racist world of big-city law enforcement on his arrival in New York City in 1942. His first case, what appears to be a simple murder of a man found dead in the Hudson River, quickly leads Cain to an uncomfortable discovery: patriotic zeal has led the NYPD and the city's crime bosses to enter into a tacit understanding to work together to cleanse the city of troublesome immigrants. Fesperman (Unmanned) shows a skilled hand at creating the detail of wartime New York the vitality of the German Yorkville section, the hysteria following the bombing of the luxury liner the Normandie, the influence of mobster Meyer Lansky. Unfortunately, the plot splinters in several directions and never delivers on its initial promise. Still, the likable and well-drawn Cain will go over well with readers, especially those fond of historicals.