The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye

Article published on March 20, 2012.

It is the summer of 1845 and in New York City the NYPD is born. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Ireland, the potato blight brings the prospect of starvation to thousands and those who can, flee their home country for the land of opportunity, landing in New York where they’re anything but universally welcomed.

After a fire that destroys his home, his place of work and his savings Timothy Wilde is reluctantly recruited into the newly established copper stars by his brother Valentine. Tim has had an ambivalent relationship with his older brother ever since their parents died in a fire when Tim was eleven and has no interest in the Democratic politics his brother is involved in or his life-style centered around drink, drugs and women. On one of his first nights on parole, a young girl wearing only a nightdress covered in blood runs into Tim. He brings the girl with him to the place where he’s renting a room only to discover that none of the blood on her dress is hers. Before the girls feints she murmurs the words “They’ll tear him to pieces” leaving both Tim and his landlady bewildered.

When Tim questions the girl the next morning he initially gets nothing but lies from her but eventually she leads him to the mutilated body of a young boy and subsequently to a field in which the bodies of nearly 20 other children with similar mutilations are found. The newly formed police force finds itself with a horrific case on its hands and unrest erupting in the City when word about the dead children spreads. In a town already worried about the mass influx of Roman Catholics it doesn’t take a lot for people to start believing that those depraved followers of the Pope are killing their own children in demonic ways and even less for unrest to erupt.
With the copper stars still new and unproven, not solving a case of this magnitude would be disastrous and thus those in charge decide to deny the case exists at all while at the same time instructing Timothy to singlehandedly investigate the murders. Timothy soon finds himself up to his neck in an investigation that appears to be going nowhere, unable to trust almost everybody around him and in danger of losing his brother, the girl he loves as well as his life.

This is a fascinating story not in the least because a lot of the events described in it are based on historical fact. Lyndsay Faye paints a very realistic and life-like picture of New York in 1845. Not only could I see the place, I could almost smell the stink and hear the noise. No romanticized portrait of New York in this book. Instead the reader is given a raw and at times heart-breaking description of what life was like for those who had little or nothing and did whatever needed to be done in order to stay alive.

In Timothy the author has created a credible main character. Here we have someone who wants to be and do good, but also someone who is filled with anger, doubt and suspicion. Tim is a man in his twenties who is in many ways still an innocent about to have his eyes cruelly opened for him.

My only reservation about this book concerns the language used by Faye. The whole story is told as if written down by Timothy and therefore in the language as it was spoken at the time. And not just that, she also includes a lot of contemporary street talk or “Flash”.

While I admire the author for the consistent way in which she uses this language I did find that it interrupted the flow of reading for me. There were too many times when I had to stop reading and translate what I’d just read before I could continue. It is for that reason and for that reason only that I would rate this book 5- rather than 5 out of 5 while fully aware that this may be a shortcoming on my part and not the author’s.

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