I finished Lyndsay Faye’s The Fatal Flame last night, and I gave it 5/5 stars on Goodreads. I usually reserve that perfect score for mind-blowing reads like Cloud Atlas and The Goldfinch, but I just loved how Faye wrote about fraternal and romantic love(s) in The Fatal Flame. In fact, I loved the love more than the actual mystery in this mystery book.
I was dreading from the reflectively, slightly regretful tone at the beginning of this book that this might be the final Timothy Wilde adventure, and by about the last thirty pages I realized that Faye was indeed wrapping up Timothy’s story arc quite tidily. I wonder if, as a writer, Faye didn’t want to trap her authorial identity into “the Timothy Wilde series writer” and that’s why she’s moving on to other storylines. In this trilogy, Wilde has dealt with child sexual abuse, slavery, and women’s rights, as well as the politics stretching the new country (Mexican-American war, westward expansion, democracy, immigration, labor laws, ethnic and gender equality), let alone Manhattan where the story is set. There’s still fertile ground for future Wilde stories (the Civil War would break out in another decade), but I like that at three books she’s wrapped up the story arc without stretching Wilde’s character into thinness.
The mystery at the heart of this book is Wilde’s investigation into who has been torching a famous alderman’s properties in Manhattan. In the course of his investigation, the young copper star (of the newly formed NYPD star police force) falls headlong into the labor strife between women seamstresses and the status quo: working men, who prefer their women to remain the angel in the house. Like my critique of the previous two books, Wilde’s morals are very modern. Not only is he quite OK with his brother’s bisexuality, not only is he an abolitionist and a protector of the innocent, but he also thinks incredibly (by which I mean it tests my credulity a wee bit) like a woman. If you had blocked out the author’s name in this book and asked me to read it, I would be able to guess at certain parts that a woman had written it; Wilde’s moral leanings are just that…modern-woman-liberal-ish. In any case, the mystery wasn’t what drew me in.
This third book delved deeper into Wilde’s relationships with his larger-than-life brother, Val, and with Mercy Underhill, love of his life. The most heartbreakingly beautiful writing in this book deals with those two, Val and Mercy. Val seems like a big brute on the outside, but has such a solidly good soul in truth. He blames himself thoroughly for what he perceives as his past sins and shortcomings, though Timothy remembers that Val did the best he could to raise the two of them after their parents died (the cause of which Val also lays at his own feet). There was a scene that wrenched out my heart: Val says that he blames himself for Timothy’s short stature because they were living on scraps and scavenged food trash during Timothy’s most formative years. When the force of this admission hits Timothy, we feel the blow too, especially because Timothy remembers that Val had stolen a crate of oranges for them and that they had lived as kings on it for a little while. What Val had interpreted as his failures as a big brother and sole guardian, Timothy remembers as pure love and good intentions. Val had been feeling guilty for things beyond his control, but he is actually a thoroughly decent man (for all his sexual proclivities and drug use).
And Mercy Underhill, whose tenuous grasp of reality and sanity mark her as tragic, nevertheless yanks out Timothy’s heart too (and thus, also ours). Since the first book, Timothy has put Mercy on a pedestal–distant and to be worshiped, rather than “marked” as his landlady and sometime lover, Mrs. Boehm, explains to him. This is also a very modern take on love, I think. The women Timothy loves, including the young Bird Daly, all teach him that women are not to be cherished at arm’s length like fragile creatures, to be protected and kept out of harm’s way. If a man is to truly love a woman, then he must love her messily, aggressively, so thoroughly that it leaves a mark. All the missed opportunities and regret Timothy feels when he learns this lesson just crushed me, since Faye wrote of it so eloquently.
So, the love is really what won me over in this book. The mystery wasn’t much compelling, but Timothy’s relationships and his self-awareness were written about very well. I can see Faye’s growth as a writer of the human condition in this book, and I’m very excited to pick up her fifth, due next year.
*Suggestion: I think you should pick up the earlier two books first, before you jump into The Fatal Flame.