It is set in New York City just after the Civil War. Like the 2002 film Gangs of New York, this novel centers on the Five Points and the surrounding area. It paints a similarly ugly picture of the city—filthy, smelly, violent, and churning.
The lead character is William Bartholomew, a former Union sniper who had the lower half of his face blown off. He’s a dark but decent character who walks the streets at night and makes a fortune in investments. He drinks and talks literature with Herman Melville a lot, and spends lots of steamy time with a Caribbean prostitute.
The Night Inspector is both gritty and high brow—an unusual combination. I found myself looking forward to getting back to it each night.
But let me be clear—this is not a breezy read. Nearly every page carries dialogue that tries to hit upon some deeper truths about the characters (especially Bartholomew and Melville) or life. It works at literary, social, and political levels. The bantering between Bartholomew and Melville, for example, treks the high and the low in literature. And, the relationship of the mangled Bartholomew and the prostitute, the promise of Reconstruction and reality of capitalism are explicated.
Indeed, this might be one of those books that one needs to read twice—the first read providing the basics of the plot and narrative, and the second read to make one think.
New and used copies of the Night Inspector can be found here. Busch, regrettably, died in 2006, but fans of this novel will be happy to learn that Busch left a large corpus of novels for them to explore.