Home > History, Literature, Reviews > The Gods of Gotham: Murder Mystery in the Muck of Mid-1800s Manhattan

The Gods of Gotham: Murder Mystery in the Muck of Mid-1800s Manhattan

Equal parts gothic whodunnit, pulpy melodrama, and scrupulously-detailed historical novel, Lyndsay Faye‘s debut original novel is no mystery masterwork but demonstrates its author’s great potential as a crafts(wo)man of the genre nonetheless. Set in the richly-drawn muddy cesspit that is New York City in the middle of the 19th Century, The Gods of Gotham is the author’s hopeful launching point of a detective fiction series with obvious echoes of that giant of the genre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Faye, after all, cut her long-fiction teeth on Dust and Shadow, a fanfic-sounding narrative of Sherlock Holmes’ pursuit of Jack the Ripper). This origin story for her apparent serial hero – observant, street-smart NYPD proto-detective Timothy Wilde – places macabre, sensationalistic violence at the centre of a mystery of labyrinthine misdirection and drops it into a fascinating and defamiliarized historical context whose well-researched intricacies prove more absorbing than the gradual revelation of the solution to the narrative puzzle.

This intriguing place and time is New York City in 1846. The metropolis that would one day be the vibrant hub of the United States (if not the entire world) was already the still-young nation’s largest city, counting around 400,000 inhabitants but swelling with European immigrants, especially Irish fleeing the Great Famine. Maintaining a ludicrous population growth rate of over 60% for much of the mid-1800s, New York City would top a million residents by the start of the Civil War. But the city would not be recognizable to modern eyes: sailing ships ringed the island of Manhattan, wooden structures and fetid tenements leaned against each other in legendarily decrepit slums, and the city petered out before reaching what is now the southern limits of Central Park (Harlem was nothing but a farming village a short train journey’s north).

New York did not lack vibrancy in its juvenile delinquent years. Indeed, it was practically too vibrant. Factories and storehouses crowded together in Lower Manhattan, while along Broadway stockbrokers and merchants and miscellaneous swells jostled for capital and sported the latest fashions. Mere blocks away, however, was the Sixth Ward and the infamous Five Points, one of the most terrible ghettos in the history of human cities. The poor, unemployed, starving, and homeless (many of them recently Irish immigrants or free African-Americans) dwelt there together in unmatched squalor, working hard labour for a pittance if at all. It was the dark, rotting underbelly of the American Dream.

The corrupt political machines of the city, especially the Democratic Party of William “Boss” Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies, exploited these poor voters through comprehensive electoral fraud even while posing as their champions. They also controlled many of the gang factions who carved out territory in the city and often clashed in bloody, brutal street battles that enacted the natives vs. immigrants conflict that defined this era of social upheaval in the city. The members of the Party-friendly gangs, the thugs with the sharpest minds and strongest arms, began to form New York City’s first public services: first the fire department, then the New York Police Department, its officers known in the force’s infancy as “copper stars” after the badges they wore to identify themselves in public.

The aforementioned Timothy Wilde is one of these copper stars. A longtime barkeep at a basement-level oyster tavern near the Battery at the island’s very southern tip, Timothy is carefully saving his silver and planning to marry the beautiful and bookish Mercy Underhill, the daughter of a fiercely anti-Catholic Prostestant minister (if she’d ever acknowledge his affections, that is). But he loses his home, his job, and part of his face in a catastrophic fire that burns whole blocks in the First Ward. Becoming a copper star is a fall-back that is thrust on the reluctant Timothy by his imperious, dissolute older brother Valentine. The elder Wilde took care of the younger after their parents died in a house fire, but now spends his time as a Democratic Party operative and firefighter. Timothy resents Valentine’s attempts to direct his life (as well as his willingness to risk his own in infernos and with the consumption of copious narcotics), but without any other employment options, he takes the position as one of the city’s first policeman.

Timothy Wilde’s observational and listening skills, honed behind a bar for years, prove to be of no small utility as a copper star. His abilities will be sorely tested, however, by the first major, sensational crime of the NYPD’s long history. Child prostitutes (called “kinchin-mabs” in the city’s obscure and expressive “flash” street dialect) seem to be vanishing from the city’s brothels, or from one in particular, run by diabolical madam and major Democratic Party contributor Silkie Marsh. Taken by a man in a black hood who rides in a black carriage, they are carved open with a cross-shape in their chests, and their bones wind up in a mass grave north of the city. Or so says one escaped child, Bird Daly, who runs smack into Timothy during his rounds, covered head-to-toe in blood, and unspools the whole sordid tale to him. Soon, unstable and dangerous letters are delivered to the Wildes and to newspapers, claiming that the murders are the work of a zealous Catholic cleansing the city of its sinful filth. Appointed the force’s first detective by the imposing chief George Washington Matsell, Timothy Wilde must solve the murders before xenophobic sectarian riots engulf New York and take down the fledgling police with them.

This place and time has been treated in onscreen fiction before, most famously by Martin Scorsese in Gangs of New York but also by the BBC America television show Copper (both set two decades later). Faye has obviously studied many of the same primary historical sources as Scorsese and his team did, as the locations, political and social tensions, and even some of the characters feature prominently in each text. Indeed, Faye even employs Bill “The Butcher” Poole, the model for Daniel Day-Lewis’ William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York. Featured at the head of a Nativist gang that takes on Irish fighters and a force of copper stars in a bloody street battle in the Five Points’ Paradise Square, Poole’s appearance strongly recalls the memorable (and roughly contemporaneous) battle that opens Gangs. Much of the colourful “flash” vocabulary will also be familiar to fans of the film, and Faye even includes a glossary at the start of the book to help the reader follow along, based on Matsell’s own dictionary of the dialects of New York’s criminal underworld. It’s never overly difficult to suss out the meanings, mind you, and on the rare occasion that it is (such as when Wilde crosses paths with the city’s most artful dodgers, the newshawkers), glosses are provided in dialogue or narration.

Many of these convergences are, as mentioned, down to shared historical context. As also mentioned, that context is rich and fascinating, moreso than Faye’s mystery plot. This factor, imparted in her alternately brisk and purple descriptive prose, most certainly follows Conan Doyle’s model closely. Wilde is the obvious Holmes figure, and though he has no clear Watson (Matsell, Valentine, and resourceful “finder” Mr. Piest each represent disembodied elements of the great sleuth’s Boswell), he does at least boast a Mrs. Hudson (his steely German baker landlady). 1840s New York is the complex, atmospheric proxy for Late Victorian London (which does not feature quite so centrally in the Holmes canon as subsequent adaptations have made it appear). The resolution of the murder mystery is ingenious and clever and full of Conan Doyle’s patented misdirection. That’s not to say it isn’t maybe a little disappointing, as The Gods of Gotham is as a whole. Though definitely worthwhile for devotees of the mystery genre, Faye’s novel doesn’t really pay off its rising action in a satisfactory way, and its incident never overcomes the absorbing atmosphere of its setting. These may be weaknesses that can be ironed out in sequels (the first of which, Seven for a Secret, came out last September), but on the evidence of The Gods of Gotham, Faye remains a mystery writer to watch who does not yet display the prodigious writing skills to transcend her genre of choice.

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