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Book Review: 'City Of Liars And Thieves'

It’s hard to believe that Eve Karlin’s “City of Liars and Thieves: Love, Death, and Manhattan’s First Great Murder Mystery” is her first novel. The Author’s Note, alone, could stand as exemplary of how to incorporate research into historical fiction.

Karlin’s subject is the real-life murder of a beautiful young woman, Elma Sands, on December 22, 1799, and a trial that involved two of the nation’s most famous founding fathers – Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Karlin credits sources – particularly Gore Vidal’s “brilliant novel “Burr” – and states clearly what she appropriated from various records, including trial transcripts, and what she changed as creative license.

Readers who have seen “Hamilton” or have read Ron Chernow’s splendid biography, on which both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Karlin relied, will recognize Chernow’s complex portraits of Burr and Hamilton, particularly as they played out their rivalry over the forthcoming 1800 presidential election. The irony is their coalition as a dream team defending a young carpenter, Levi Weeks, from the charge that he brutalized Elma, who loved him, and that with help he thrust her body down a well belonging to the fraudulent Manhattan Water Company.

Levi was the handsome younger son of Ezra Weeks, a prominent builder and friend of men in power who had arranged for Levi to stay at the boardinghouse where Elma was also living. According to Elma’s older cousin, Catherine Ring, who with her husband, Elias, owned the boardinghouse and narrates the tale, Elma had been on her way that fateful freezing December night to be secretly married to Levi. But she never returned. Her body was found in the well several days later. Was she pregnant? Depressed? An unwitting confidant of Levi who told her about lies and thievery at the water company? Was she someone who needed to be silenced?

Elma was sweet, young, innocent, hardworking but a romantic whose liveliness could be seductive. Catherine comes to depend on her, however, grateful for her spirited presence and cared deeply about her. 

The story begins with a prologue dated July 12, 1804. Catherine notes that she has just heard that Burr killed Hamilton in a duel. And then she recreates in her mind’s eye scenes that look back five years to when she saw both men in a courtroom defending Levi against accusations from hostile mobs that he did it. Though Catherine is a lukewarm member of the Society of Friends, while her husband, Elias, holds fiercely to the movement’s language and beliefs, Catherine emerges as a strong and sensitive character, intelligent and capable of reexamining her own prejudices. She wonders about “justice” as Elma’s name is besmirched in court and then five years later what kind of “justice” was accomplished by the Burr-Hamilton duel.

“City of Liars and Thieves” adroitly brings together post-Revolution politics in New York, romance, domestic conflict and cultural history, especially about the yellow fever epidemic and extreme water shortage in New York at the time. Not to mention slavery. The prose is effectively spare and simple. And for sure, the epigraph Karlin chose tellingly appropriate, then and now: Burr’s cynical definition of law as “whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained.” As the author says, this is “a cautionary tale with modern-day relevance.” 

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.