|listen to a Penguin Audio excerpt|
A love story wrapped around a murder mystery, set in seventeenth-century Manhattan
In 1663 in the hardscrabble colony of New Amsterdam—today’s lower Manhattan—orphan children are going missing and residents suspect a serial killer. The list of possible culprits is long and strange. Among those looking into the mystery are a shrewd young Dutch woman, Blandine van Couvering, and a dashing Englishman, Edward Drummond, whose newfound romance is threatened by horrible accusations.
In this spellbinding work of historical fiction, Jean Zimmerman relates the harsh realities of life in early Manhattan, re-creating the sights, smells, and textures of the rough settlement surrounded by wilderness and subject to political turmoil. Compulsively readable and filled with New York history, The Orphanmaster will delight fans of Caleb Carr, Hilary Mantel, and Geraldine Brooks.
October 8, 1663
On the same day, two murders.
In Delémont, in Switzerland's Jura, the regicide William Crawley lived with his sister, hiding in plain sight in a pensionne on Faubourg des Capucins, near the hospital.
As the bells of Saint-Marcel sounded vespers, Crawley's sister Barbara watched the dark descend upon the town from the second-floor terrace off the kitchen. Although ever vigilant, she failed to notice three figures slip from the Rue des Elfes, come through the black back yards across the street and approach the ground-floor entry of the pensionne.
A Saint Martins summer, unseasonably hot. Barbara went into the kitchen, stood at the sink, sopped her face with water from the basin. As she bent over, holding a cooling rag to her neck, they grabbed her from behind, muffling a shriek of alarm.
Crawley, working at his desk upstairs in the cramped and stifling third floor garret, heard the disturbance. A crash of crockery.
"Barbara?" he called, rising to his feet. He went to the stairwell and saw them coming up toward him, taking the steps three or four at a time, a pair of blade-thin men in identical black waistcoats and small caps.
"No!" Crawley shouted, lunging backwards into his attic study, groping for his dog-lock pistolet, kept at hand on a shelf near his desk.
They were too quick. They burst in on him, the first attacker wrenching the barrel of Crawley's gun upwards. The hammer dry-fired, the powder-pan fizzled, then finally exploded. But the lead ball embedded itself impotently in the garret's low ceiling, showering them all with plaster dust and bits of lath.
Thus he was caught, fourteen years, eight months and eight days after he affixed his seal ("Ego, Hon Wm Crawley") to a document that doomed Charles I, a sitting king sentenced to have his head separated from his body. Puritan zealots, appalled by the Catholicism infecting the monarchy, demanded royal blood. The death warrant Crawley signed gave it to them.
And, inevitably, the revenge. It took a while. Charles Stuart, the murdered monarch's son, escaped (barely) the Puritan furies on his trail, slipped across the Channel to the Continent and entered into a decade of exile. Unimpressed by the young man's chances to regain his kingship, European royals turned their backs on him. Impoverished and ignored, he wandered, mostly in France and the Low Countries, anguished by his father's execution, feeling bruised by history.
But the dynastic destiny of the Stuarts took a turn. On September 3, 1658, the Lord Protector and rebel ringleader, Oliver Cromwell, […] died while attempting to pass a kidney stone. After two more years of succession chaos, the English Parliament invited Charles II to return home and assume the throne.
As a gesture of royal largesse and reconciliation, the newly restored young monarch issued an Indemnity and Oblivion Act, pardoning all former rebels against the crown.
All except the fifty-nine commissioners who signed the death warrant of his father, Charles I.
The living signatories, William Crawley among them, were hunted down like outlaws. Located by men of the king's chancellor, George Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon, who had them assiduously tracked to the provinces, Scotland, the Continent, America, to wherever in the world they attempted to hide themselves. Puritan protectors of the regicides made the task difficult as well as dangerous.
"Il se cache parmi les papists," one of the men come to kill Crawley hissed. He hides among the Catholics.
The other assassin closed his hands around the regicide's throat. The victim would have pled for a last moment of prayer, but found it impossible to speak. The attacker not busy strangling Crawley rifled quickly through the documents on his desk, stuffing them by hurried grabfuls into a greasy leather pouch.
[…] Crawley thrashed impotently, a minute, one minute more, the iron grip crushing his windpipe, a silent, terrible struggle. Then, blackness, blankness.
The corpse of William Crawley, regicide, soared from the second-floor terrace of the pensionne on Les Capucins. The body landed not quite on the hospital grounds, but close enough that the infirmary nuns took charge of it, burying the Protestant king-killer in unconsecrated ground the next afternoon.
Altogether elsewhere, in the new world, morning. The Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam on the southern end of Manhattan Island. No indian summer there, but rather raw cold, with lowering clouds threatening an early first blizzard of the season.
A frail child, Piteous Charity Gullee, eight years old.
Alone in the forest near the Kollect Pond, north of the wall, yoked with two empty buckets, Piddy followed the beaten-earth path toward the water. Stood on end the yoke she carried was taller than she was.
No one around. The dead of dawn.
She slipped down her secret path through the reeds and out onto a finger of crusted mud that crooked into the shallows. As she crouched to fill her buckets, she startled at a figure watching from the jackpines near the shore.
A devil of some sort, half-man, half-beast. To her small eyes, the apparition towered as tall as a tree. The figure wore European dress, a low beaver hat and a wilted lace collar around his neck.
Above the collar, fixed in the place of a human face, a deerskin mask. Flat, made of peeled skin, with blank, staring eyes.
Fear rose in Piddy's gorge. Still she thought that she could get away, that he would let her be.
The figure stepped into the water and splashed across the icy shallows between them. Just a few long-legged strides.
She turned her head, not to see, but his breath came near and sour. From the mouth-hole of the mask, an odd sound, "dik-duk, dik-duk"—like the nursery rhyme the littlest [Dutch] children recited.
"Oh, please God, no," Piddy managed, tripping backwards over her yoke.
She made her body still smaller than it was, merging with the chilly mud and turning her face down into its grit, with the wish that if she could not see, then the monster would not see her.
For a long moment all she heard was the rattling breeze that pushed the tops of the reeds. Then, "Dik-duk, dik-duk." He picked her up from the ground by the throat, shook her like a doll, and the air went out of her in little mewling cries, uff, uff, uff. Gripping her windpipe as though it were the handle to a satchel, the creature drew Piddy close.
Behind the scabby mask, red eyes. Her own gushed tears. […]
When it was over, the killer dragged Piddy by her bare feet to the spongy edge of the pond. The corpse refused to sink. He leaned into the pond, weighting the small form with a stone folded into the thin linen of her dress.
Piddy did not hear the creature softly mouth two words, nor would she have understood them if she had.
"Deus dormit." God sleeps.
It began to snow.
Praise for The Orphanmaster:
“The Orphanmaster is a sweeping novel of great and precise imaginative intelligence; it's also the most entertaining and believable historical novel I've read in years. Jean Zimmerman is a debut novelist who already writes like an old master. Read any page of The Orphanmaster and you'll become an instant fan.” – Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life and Chang and Eng
“Jean Zimmerman's seventeenth-century New Amsterdam teems with enough intrigue, lust, and madness to give our twenty-first-century Big Apple a run for its money. And money is what drives this book – liberating, corrupting, forming the only bulwark against a terrifying, chaotic New World. Zimmerman's wit and humanity shine light in a dark woods, creating an uncommonly rich debut.” – Sheri Holman, author of The Dress Lodger
“Here’s American history turned inside out, animated by Jean Zimmerman’s prodigious imagination. Monsters lurk in the shadows, chaos presses in, legends come alive, and one adventure leads with irresistible force to the next. The Orphanmaster is a breathtaking achievement.” – Joanna Scott, author of Arrogance and Various Antidotes
“[A] compulsively readable, heartbreaking, and grisly mystery set in a wild colonial America.” – ALA Booklist
“A feisty young Dutch woman, an English spy, and a local demon all cross paths in 1663 New Amsterdam, in this Ludlumesque historical thriller…a successful mix of historical fiction, spy thriller, and horror.” – Library Journal
"As in the best historical fiction, [Zimmerman] has created a kind of truce between the authority of the past and the accessibility of the present, revealing to us what it once meant to be alive, and what that history means to us now ... on nearly every page there is some unobtrusively offered word or description, of food, of architecture, of dress, that brings the period and its people into clearer focus." – USA Today
"Absorbing period fiction with the requisite colorful characters of the era." – The New York Daily News
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