THE GODS OF GOTHAM
By Lyndsay Faye
One of the joys of reading any Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes mystery is their settings. It is unlikely Doyle’s purpose was ever to offer an historical travelogue but nonetheless we are given such in each and every tale. Whereas Lyndsay Faye, following in Doyle’s footsteps, which she does incredibly well in “The Gods of Gotham,” is decidedly intent on showing us the astounding world of New York City in the nineteenth century. The burgeoning metropolis on the Hudson is as much a character in this epic saga as its struggling inhabitants battling to eke out a living from day to day against overwhelming odds.
Timothy Wilde and his older brother, Valentine, are the orphaned sons of two Irish immigrants. Val works as a firefighter and is active in the Irish Democratic Party while Tim manages a bar and is saving his money to propose to Miss Mercy Underhill, the daughter of a protestant minister he has grown up loving. When a horrible fire destroys both his business establishment and his apartment building, Tim is suddenly destitute without a penny to his name. Without conferring with him, Val enlists them both into the newly formed New York Police Department being assembled by Judge George Washington Matsell. Like all good historical novels, fiction and fact have to work together smoothly and the birth of the New York Police is deftly handled here as it depicts the aversion to its creation by New Yorkers who saw it as just another gang in a city riddled with such.
Tim begrudgingly accepts his “copper star” until something better can come along. Then one night he bumps into a runaway child prostitute covered in blood. It is she who tells him of a mysterious black-cloaked man responsible for the murder and mutilation of over a dozen children; all of them employed at various brothels throughout the city. All of which leads to the discovery of a gruesome gravesite in the woods north of Twenty-third Street. As these events come to light, Matsell sees in Tim a moral stubbornness in his desire to pursue the case while at the same time exhibiting a keen mind for puzzle-solving; the type of skills required in this post-crime situation. Tim, much to his own surprise, is becoming a detective; a role that will lead him down the dark, depraved alleys of the human psyche.
“The Gods of Gotham,” is a truly remarkable writing achievement. It would not surprise this reviewer if Lyndsay Faye did not have a working time-machine hidden in her New York apartment as the scenes she describes are so brilliantly real. In every sense they transport the reader back to a world that, until now, only existed in dusty museums. She brings that past to life and in doing so enriches us all.