The Fatal Flame, by Lyndsay Faye, is the last book in its series and I am very sorry to see Timothy Wilde make his exit. Wilde served as one of the first “copper stars” in New York from 1845 to 1848, working as a detective even though the title didn’t exist yet. In the first book, The Gods of Gotham, Wilde took on a ring of procurers of child prostitutes. In the second, Seven for a Secret, Wilde ran up against the cruel Fugitive Slave Act. All three books are beautifully written and absolutely heartbreaking. The mysteries were well-constructed, which sounds like faint praise but means these books stand out from a lot of fluff in the mystery genre. And the setting! Even if the characters weren’t amazing, the setting would have hooked me. Faye shows the depth of her research lightly, reconstructing ante-bellum New York without bogging down the narrative. But it’s the characters that made me love this trilogy.
Because it’s the last book in a series, it was probably inevitable that The Fatal Flame would be full of reckonings. Robert Symmes, the alderman for Timothy Wilde’s patch of the city, slipped through the fingers of the police. He was too rich and too connected to be arrested for anything. Now a series of arson threats has brought Symmes back into Wilde’s sights. The only thing that Wilde hates and fears more than Symmes are fires. One fire claimed the lives of his parents. Another left him scared and phobic. As Wilde begins to investigate, it starts to look like Symmes deserves to have his property burned but, because he’s a landlord, innocent people could be killed. Still, the story of the threats just doesn’t add up.
While Wilde is trying to figure out which of Symmes’ many enemies might want to torch his properties, his brother, Valentine, has challenged Symmes for alderman. Valentine has long been a stalwart of Tammany Hall. His candidacy against another Tammany man threatens to split the party. And as if this isn’t enough for Wilde’s plate, his long lost love returns from England.
Wilde is a reluctant detective. He doesn’t want to be good at uncovering other people’s dirty secrets and villainies. He doesn’t want to watch his brother flirt with self-destruction. The machinations of Tammany Hall and politicians disgust him. What keeps Wilde going is an irresistible need to protect “his” people—his brother, the girl he rescued in The Gods of Gotham, his landlady and lover, his first love, his brother’s lover. Wilde’s enemies know this about him and use to their advantage. Most of the time, Wilde is walking a thin line between airing dirty laundry to correct gross injustices or staying quiet so that no harm comes to his people.
The Fatal Flame ends with an epilogue that reveals to the reader who manages to get out of Wilde’s adventures alive and who doesn’t. This epilogue relieves all the terribly delicious tension of this book and the rest of the trilogy. I can’t say any more without completely ruining the experience, but I will say that I left this book feeling satisfied and a little sad. It’s always a wrench to say good-bye to a character and a series one has come to love.