The Gods of Gotham, Lindsay Faye. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012.
Summary: The first in the author’s Timothy Wilde series, in which Wilde, a newly installed New York Policeman in 1845, encounters a blood-covered girl, whose story leads to the discovery of twenty dead children and an assignment to find the killer before anti-Irish rage consumes the city.
Timothy Wilde and his older brother Val were orphaned when their parents died in a fire. The brothers survived by their wits, especially Val’s, who nevertheless became a New York City fireman, while dousing his pain in opiates. Timothy struggled with the life Val had chosen, and pursued a different path, tending bar on the lower end of Manhatten.
Until the fire. Until the bar was destroyed, he was burned in an explosion, and rescued by his brother. The fortune he’d accumulated was lost in the fire–a fortune with which he hoped to marry Mercy Underhill, a Protestant minister’s daughter who he had admired since childhood for both her looks and her charitable work among New York’s poor.
Val, ensconced in politics, gets both himself and Timothy a job on the newly formed New York City Police Department, the “copper stars” or “coppers.” Maintaining order in the city has become much more difficult with a mass influx of Irish immigrants driven to seek a new life by the Irish Potato Famine. Timothy is not crazy about the work, particularly after he arrests a poor woman not in her right mind who had killed her infant son and takes her to the Tombs, the New York City jail.
Returning home to his apartment above Mrs. Boehme’s bakery one night, a young girl covered in blood collides with him at his door. Gradually, he gets the story out of her, not only of little Liam’s gruesome death by the dark hooded man at Silkie Marsh’s brothel, but the other children who died similarly and were buried in a mass grave on the north edge of town. Subsequent investigation reveals that the girl, Bird Daly, is telling the truth for once, each child being cut open brutally in the shape of a cross. Chief Matsell tasks Wilde with finding the murderer before the news breaks and anti-Irish sentiment reaches a flash point.
The story takes many twists and turns from there as several letters are received, including one to the New York papers, and one to Dr. Palsgrave, the some-time coroner who determined the cause of the deaths. There is another murder, a child hung on the door of the Catholic Church, seemingly incriminating Fr. Sheehy. Timothy is warned off the investigation, and faces death several times as well as riots as feelings reach a boiling point. His relation with his brother is strained, as he thinks the brother has taken away Bird Daly, or may even be the murderer.
The novel reveals a seamy side of New York involving brothels, child prostitution and Protestant-Catholic hatreds and racial prejudice. We witness a police department that is an organ of party patronage. Yet in the end, Wilde solves the crime with the help of some butcher paper on which he works out all the evidence until he finally realizes where it points. For his troubles, Chief Matsell assigns him to solve crimes rather than prevent them. And so a new series is born!
Much of the dialogue is in “flash,” a secret language that derived from the British criminal underground and used among the working classes of the day. Chief Matsell is a historical figure and actually compiled a lexicon of the language, which he is seen doing during the story. The author provides an abbreviated glossary at the beginning with a number of terms.
Tensions between brothers, a possible serial killer of child prostitutes, the grit and bustle of mid-nineteenth century New York, and characters who are not always what they seem all make for a gripping read. I’m glad for the Barnes and Noble bookseller who recommended this book. Don’t be surprised if you see subsequent numbers of this series (now up to three) reviewed here.