They built the wall in 1914, and down the middle of Broadway in Manhattan.
W.M. Akers’ debut novel Westside opens in this city divided, and on a young private investigator caught between the resultant two worlds. Stories about walls are particularly trenchant in 2019, and by chance or design, more common. In this one, Akers’ vision of an alternate Jazz Age New York City is split by a barrier fence nominally constructed to protect the generally well-to-do East of from the much less appealing Westside. It’s not as unreasonable as it sounds—the Westside neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen was a hub of organized crime in the early 20th century—hardly the artsy high-rent district it is today. (There’s a handy period map at the front of the book, tracing the barrier along Broadway and down to The Battery.)
Twenty-seven-year-old Gilda Carr is a native of the Westside, and one of only a few New Yorkers with the disposition and interest (as well as the proper permits) to comfortably travel between East and West. She specializes in what she describes as”tiny mysteries”—investigations of minimal consequence that nonetheless provide her with a small living. She’s resourceful, connected, well-meaning, and slightly cynical, in the style of all the best detectives of the era. This all might sound like the setup for a charming, quirky series about a resourceful detective in an off-kilter alt-NYC, and even if it were just that, the book would be quite a bit of fun. But Akers has something darker in mind.
For her latest case, Gilda is tasked with finding a single glove. Fearless but relentless in her opposition to getting involved in anything significant, she sets out on a small tour of her world and of the networks of people—many of them petty thieves and criminals—who traffic between the two sides of the island. At first determined to either find the glove (possibly at an Eastside market for thieves) or an exact replica, she’s gradually drawn, despite her best efforts, into something significant indeed: first to the story of an extramarital affair, then a murder, then to clues involving the disappearance of her long-since presumed dead father.
In the best mystery tradition, one clue builds seamlessly upon another, which makes it hard to say too much about the plot. Safe to say there’s magic at play, as well as a budding turf war between rival gangs. Gilda is ultimately unwittingly pulled into the very heart of the darkness that eats at the Westside and its residents, and ultimately discovers that every fence has two sides—the ones kept out are just as impacted as the ones kept in.
Though the mystery is compelling, its setting is a true delight, as is the descriptive prose with which Akers brings it to life. Both halves of his New York City are evocative of our own history’s 1920s, at least as we dream them in our collective imagination, but the Westside is something else altogether. There, machines don’t work quite right, nor do plants grow. People, objects, and sometimes even parts of buildings suddenly just disappear. Because “modern” technology is so unreliable, the Westside is stuck in the past in some ways.
These qualities and more lend the novel a dreamlike quality, even as it’s tethered in the Manhattan’s real history. Victorian sensibilities hung on at least until the Great War, but rapidly gave way to more recognizably modern ways of living around the time of the book’s opening. The shift included an end to the era of the Five Points gangs of New York and the rise of the dominance of Prohibition-fueled rumrunners. The rapid change, occurring over just a couple of decades, makes it relatively easy to imagine a pocket of America that might have blurred those eras together, one foot in the past and one in the Roaring ’20s. Akers’ Westside never really existed, of course, but the imagined version is incredibly potent, with supernatural elements that not only add flavor but are ultimately critical to the plot. The prose is both luxuriant and evocative, but never indulgent, and as Gilda is drawn quickly and inexorably into the central mysteries, there are no wasted words.
What begins with an innocuous mystery of a missing glove snowballs into something darker, scarier, and more illuminating as Gilda is forced to confront not only her own history, that of the Westside and the city entire. Westside is a genre-bending blend of whodunnit, hardboiled crime, urban fantasy, and supernatural thriller in the city that never sleeps like you’ve never seen it before.
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