Book note: The Waterworks

THE WATERWORKS by E.L. Doctorow (1995)

The Waterworks is an enjoyable hard-boiled detective story, set in early 1870s New York.  I came across it a few weeks ago in a neighborhood free book exchange.

The protagonist is a cynical newspaperman with a heart of gold, who has a sidekick, one of the new honest cops on the city police force.

They try to solve a minor mystery, an apparent sighting of a dead millionaire riding a city bus, and find themselves unraveling a far-reaching conspiracy, involving the top echelons of New York City, led by a criminal genius.

The villain gets to make a speech explaining the rationale for his crimes.

Doctorow makes it all convincing, based not just on his skill as a writer, but his ability to evoke the New York of 150 years ago.

It is not just his research and his skill as a descriptive writer (he is a fine wordsmith, as we used to say), but also his immersive understanding of the era.  As somebody said, he does not put any thought into the mind or mouth of any character that comes from our time and not theirs.

He’s not nostalgic. The high-level corruption, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the homeless newsboys, the crippled Civil War veterans begging in the streets—Doctorow’s descriptions make me glad to be living now and not back then, in spite of all the dire problems we face now.

At the same time, there’s a grimy glamour to his New York,  just like Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. 

Being a former newspaper reporter, I particularly liked his description of newspaper life back then. The rotary press had come into operation, but not the Linotype machine.  Newspapers used compositors who set type by hand. The compositors thought they knew more than reporters and frequently did.

There were no newspaper layouts, and newspaper articles did not have to be trimmed (or lengthened) to fit a particular space. Each newspaper page had seven columns, each article had a single-column headline and was as long as needed, and the next article followed wherever the previous article left off.

Newspapers had changed a lot when I started out as a reporter in 1959, but in many ways they were more like they were in the 1870s than like the newspapers of today. There was a news room, a composing room and a press room.  The latter two are no more and the first is on its way out.

I liked this novel.  You may like it, too, especially if you enjoy historical fiction or crime fiction.

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