The Waterworks by E L Doctorow Macmillan $255 WILLIAM Marcy Tweed, better known as Boss Tweed, leader of the 'Tweed ring' of his cronies, plundered between US$30 million and US$200 million from New York City's coffers during the 1850s, 60s and 70s. Not bad going for a politician, even if he had the municipality by the neck throughout this period. The shadow of Tweed hangs over the New York of E L Doctorow's The Waterworks, a pall over the swirling, seething mass of misfits, blackguards and robber barons who people the city writhing with its growing pains after the 'War Twixt the States'. Author of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate and with a clutch of literary prizes under his arm, Doctorow, a professor of English and American Letters at New York University, takes us on a moral journey through this immoral city, a roller-coaster ride of a detective story. Here I have to be careful. The plot, which unfolds at a relentless gallop, is a jigsaw of clues and recognitions, put together by a journalist and his policeman friend. McIlvaine is an editor at the Telegram, an afternoon paper in a city of newspapers, Martin Pemberton a struggling freelance contributor, arrogant and intellectual. (McIlvaine challenges him about a contemptuous review of a book: 'Some poor devil took a year of his life to write this book,' I said. [Pemberton replied:] 'And I gave up a day of my life to read it.') Pemberton's rich father Augustus, a slaver even after the Civil War, is a selfish tyrant of a businessman who disowns Martin when the wayward son confronts him with his evil record. Augustus subsequently falls ill and dies. Martin disappears. But not before catching sight of his supposedly dead father on two occasions. And in this reporter's story, McIlvaine leads us on a search for the truth behind these events. Through body-snatching, bribery, abducted children and medical experiments, it is a compelling pursuit made the more exciting by Doctorow's staccato prose and haunting descriptions, every pore of it oozing the moral degeneration of this powerhouse of a city. It is this vivid quality of Doctorow's narrative that enthralls. It is both breathless and elliptical. It is told by McIlvaine to an audience of another generation unfamiliar with the blood, sweat and tears that was the daily grind of New York life after the Civil War.