City of Liars and Thieves

A Novel

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A crime that rocked a city. A case that stunned a nation. Based on the United States’ first recorded murder trial, Eve Karlin’s spellbinding debut novel re-creates early nineteenth-century New York City, where a love affair ends in a brutal murder and a conspiracy involving Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr erupts in shattering violence.
It is high time to tell the truth. Time for justice. . . . How she was murdered and why she haunts me. It is not only Elma’s story, it’s mine.
On the bustling docks of the Hudson River, Catherine Ring waits with her husband and children for the ship carrying her cousin, Elma Sands. Their Greenwich Street boardinghouse becomes a haven for Elma, who has at last escaped the stifling confines of her small hometown and the shameful circumstances of her birth. But in the summer of 1799, Manhattan remains a teeming cesspool of stagnant swamps and polluted rivers. The city is desperate for clean water as fires wreak devastation and the death toll from yellow fever surges.
Political tensions are rising, too. It’s an election year, and Alexander Hamilton is hungry for power. So is his rival, Aaron Burr, who has announced the formation of the Manhattan Water Company. But their private struggle becomes very public when the body of Elma Sands is found at the bottom of a city well built by Burr’s company.
Resolved to see justice done, Catherine becomes both witness and avenger. She soon finds, however, that the shocking truth behind this trial has nothing to do with guilt or innocence.


“Gracefully written with exquisitely drawn, convincing characters, this is one of those rare historical novels that hit not one false note. City of Liars and Thieves offers a compelling tale of romance and intrigue, set in a fascinating era of Manhattan’s tumultuous past.”—Leslie Wells, bestselling author of Come Dancing
“A tense, revelatory tale of a case lost to time, City of Liars and Thieves lifts the veil of a great city’s dark and intricate past and brings it to life for a new generation.”—Rebecca Coleman, author of The Kingdom of Childhood

City of Liars and Thieves is both a historical murder mystery and the tragic story of a vulnerable woman snared in the ambition of New York’s most powerful men. Eve Karlin captivates at every step with a nuanced narrator, right-here-and-now details, and steadily mounting dread. But it’s the twist ending that leaves us gasping, like the narrator, with the vertigo of disillusionment and a craving for justice.”—Maia Chance, author of Snow White Red-Handed

“In this absorbing tale of lust, greed, and scandal set in postcolonial New York City, Eve Karlin is as adept at conjuring the yellow-fever-ridden streets of eighteenth-century Manhattan as she is at creating characters whose motives and yearnings feel timeless. I couldn’t tear myself away.”—Suzanne Chazin, author of Land of Careful Shadows

“Both suspenseful and emotional . . . Karlin does a great job weaving together her fictional accounts with actual historical ones.”—No More Grumpy Bookseller
“Precisely my sort of mystery: full of history and great writing . . . kept me on the edge of my seat . . . If you’re into history at all or love a great mystery, don’t pass up City of Liars and Thieves. You may know how it all ends, but what you find in the middle is definitely not to be missed!”—Bibliophilia, Please
City of Liars and Thieves is a well-researched, minutely plotted piece of work that will appeal to lovers of historical crime set in the New World. It offers a sharply focused sense of place and period and shines a spotlight on a dark and largely forgotten piece of New York history, making for a worthy debut.”Crime Fiction Lover
“[Karlin] brings to life the city and the age.”—Mystery Playground
“This is a fascinating story not only because of the mystery surrounding Elma’s death but also because it includes historical detail and struggles of an era of a very youthful America. . . . Much of the actual history is intact.  Much of the truth of that time surprised me.”—FictionZeal



The news reached Cornwall today: Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in an early-morning duel. The New-York Gazette and the Evening Post are brimming with speculation and gossip. It is said that a mob of eleven hundred has threatened to set fire to Burr’s Richmond Hill estate—that or hang him.

Either way, I know he will burn in hell.

As for Hamilton, the papers reported that the bullet pierced his right hip, tore through his abdomen, and shattered his spine. In and out of consciousness, he writhed in agony for nearly twenty hours before succumbing to a most unnatural death.

Is this justice?

Sixty miles north of the Weehawken dueling ground, I stand on the banks of the Hudson and listen to the waves against the rocky shore. A hawk circles high overhead. Closing my eyes, I can almost smell the spent gunpowder. I inhale deeply and imagine the fatal encounter.

It is dawn. Hamilton and Burr stand ten paces apart below the towering cliffs of the Palisades. Hamilton assumes the dueling stance: right foot in front of left, chin positioned over right shoulder, stomach drawn in. Burr, his broad shoulders set in a military manner, steps to the mark and takes aim.

Shots ring out as lead balls pierce the morning air. Crows scatter from a cedar tree; a branch splinters and falls, narrowly missing Burr. Hamilton is lifted onto his toes, lurches to the left, then collapses. His britches are torn and singed; the taut skin above his right hip is burned; his flesh is flayed.

With the same eloquence that defined his career, Hamilton declares, “This is a mortal wound.”

Sunlight glimmers on brass as Burr lowers his pistol. His dark eyes match the weapon’s walnut finish. His full lips compress into a thin, indecipherable line. Is it regret or satisfaction?

It is the same beguiling expression I witnessed four years earlier when he stood ten paces before me in a court of law. The room was overflowing with spectators. I can still feel their prying eyes. I can see Levi Weeks, his handsome features quivering with remorse. And I can hear Burr’s voice as if he were in front of me now.

“Have the witnesses spoken with candor or have they spoken from temper, hatred, and revenge?”

It is a cruel question. One I would prefer to ignore.

All I see is Burr’s penetrating gaze as he turns toward me. The crowd grows still. I hear my own shallow breath. “Madame,” he says, cajoling yet firm. “Pray tell us . . .”

Explain your beloved cousin’s senseless death.

I do not believe in ghosts, but spirits exist. Elma’s spirit haunts me.

She appears before me, youthful and frail. Her eyes are dark and moist like the depths of a well. There is a triangle of color in her cheeks, as if she has been running into the wind. It is a vivacious hue, one I rarely saw while she lived. Elma is dressed in the same green muslin gown she wore when we last parted. The fabric is too flimsy for such bitter weather, but it is her wedding night and she wants to look her best.

She is not the girl I thought I knew. She is secretive, her passion no longer masked by decorum. Her lips are plump, bruised red with kisses. The bodice of her dress is torn, and the soft contours of her bosom are exposed. Hat and shawl are missing. Wet hair hangs in tangles around her face. A single ivory comb remains.

I cannot say what thoughts or regrets flooded Elma’s mind during her final struggle. I am unable to fathom the extent of her pain or the length of her suffering. The only thing I know with certainty is that there was a sound. When I close my eyes, I hear a dull splash. It is the lonely sound of injustice, and it reverberates to this day.
My Elma has been dead nearly five years. It is high time to tell the truth. Time for justice. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton have sealed their own fate. I have no more need for revenge; I can answer Burr’s interrogation free of hatred. Here, with utmost candor, I will share the story of an innocent girl caught in the crossfire of our nation’s most powerful men. This is how she was murdered and why she haunts me. It is not only Elma’s story; it’s mine.

Catherine Ring, July 12, 1804