Lyndsay Faye – The Gods of Gotham

Timothy Wilde hadn’t wanted to be a copper star. On the night of August 21st, on his way home from the Tombs defeated and disgusted, he is plotting his resignation when a young girl who has escaped from a nearby brothel crashes into him; she wears only a nightdress and is covered from head to toe in blood.

Searching out the truth in the child’s wild stories, Timothy soon finds himself on the trail of a brutal killer, seemingly hellbent on fanning the flames of anti-Irish immigrant sentiment and threatening chaos in a city already in the midst of social upheaval. But his fight for justice could cost him the woman he loves, his brother and ultimately his life…

When I read the description of The Gods of Gotham in Headline’s spring catalogue, I was immediately sold. It wasn’t just a historical crime fiction story, but set in a time and place that is both fascinating and relatively unfamiliar to me: nineteenth-century New York. I’ve read and watched many crime books and TV shows set in modern day New York and I’ve read Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World, about Manhattan’s Dutch history, but for this particular era, the closest I’ve come is watching the Scorsese film Gangs of New York. So I was super excited to get a review copy from the publisher. And I’m pleased to say that The Gods of Gotham lived up to my expectations and more!

Before diving into why I loved the book, I did want to mention one aspect that might be troublesome for some readers; the use of slang in the book. In reality, this is both a plus and a minus, since it lends a verisimilitude and liveliness to the dialogue and the characters, but at the same time can be quite confusing. Yes, there is a glossary, but not an extensive one and there were plenty of terms that weren’t explained where I needed to go back and read a passage again to make sense of what they were actually saying. I didn’t mind this, because to me it was also a treat to see where some of the words and phrases that we use every day actually came from. However, for people who don’t have a language quirk like me, this might be annoying and disrupt their reading flow.

On to the things I did love! The mystery at the heart of the book is compelling, not just because of the crime element, but because of its political implications. It paints a picture of a society ruled by politics, but a far more physical form of politics than we are familiar with in today’s world, at least in the West. Rife with nepotism, bribery, physical intimidation and election fraud, nineteenth-century political parties are portrayed more as gangs out for their own best interest than as respected organisations who aim to govern to the best of their ability. I did have to smile at the idea of one of the major contributors to one of the political parties being a well-known and powerful madam of a brothel. Can you imagine if that was the case in the current presidential campaigns and word got out about it? Oh, the outrage that would follow. At the same time, it is nice to see that politics hasn’t gotten any less cut throat since those early days! Some of the tactics employed in the current elections wouldn’t be misplaced in those of the book’s campaigns.

The Gods of Gotham is peopled by some fascinating characters. From the news boys out in the street, to the newly formed copper stars, the politico’s and the people living in the slums of the Sixth Ward, they paint a vivid picture of the New York melting pot and the resulting tensions. I especially loved the two brothers, Timothy and Valentine Wilde and the figure of Bird, the little girl in the bloody nightgown. Bird’s both adorable and eerily adult for such a pint-sized girl. She reflects her namesake in her frailty and skittishness, while at the same time showing strength of character and self-preservation – one of the first things Tim observes about her is her amazing ability to tell lies – that completely shatters the image of a small, innocent girl. Valentine is a self-made man, who doesn’t hesitate to use his position and connections to get himself and his friends ahead and who enjoys the pleasures of life, whoring, drinking and taking copious amounts of morphine. But there is far more to him than meets the eye, something which Faye lets us discover for ourselves and by the end of the novel, the picture composed of Valentine is remarkably different, even if the picture hasn’t actually changed that much in the appearance of its elements.

Our protagonist Tim is a compelling narrator, compassionate, smart and a fiendishly precise observer, who can piece together clues in an almost Holmesian manner, though his methods and insights are more based on the power of observation and psychological in nature than scientific. He tells us his story through a written report of the case central to The Gods of Gotham, but phrased as a normal narrative, not the cold and clinical way he has to write reports in his capacity as a copper star, because in his opinion, the official way doesn’t actually reflect the story in its entirety; it doesn’t include the emotions, the sounds and smells, just cold, hard and bare facts that paint a sterile picture of the truth. I loved this conceit and Tim’s desire to humanise his experiences, to show that there is more to life than statistics, to put it a more modern way. Tim shows us the importance of human relationships and the way these influence our every action, whether it is to mistakenly believe those we inherently trust or to blindly suspect and judge those who are Other. One of the relationships which plays an important part in the story, besides his relationship with Valentine and Bird, is his friendship with Mercy Underhill. He has loved Mercy since his childhood, but has never admitted it to her and has made her into his ideal woman. What I loved about this love story is that it has an unconventional ending, neither truly happy nor truly sad, and while it is an important part of Tim’s motivations, the romance part never takes over and actually enhances his abilities instead of hampering them.

The Gods of Gotham was an amazing read. I loved this look at New York and its history; the book has definitely made me want to watch Gangs of New York again. If you enjoy police procedurals and aren’t frightened off by the use of, perhaps unfamiliar, slang, this look at the earliest police force in the Big Apple will be right up your alley. This is a great book and I’ll be keeping an eye out for Faye’s other novel Dust and Shadow, because her writing definitely tastes like more!

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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