Review of “The Gods of Gotham” by Lyndsay Faye

This historical fiction crime novel is set in 1845 New York, corresponding with the potato famine in Ireland; the consequent mass immigration of the Irish to America; and the beginning of the New York City Police Force. The explosion in population ignited a warlike situation in New York, with Protestants venomously protesting the “infestation” of these Catholic “vermin” who well might corrupt their children, take their jobs, and in general contribute to the moral degradation of the city. As one “God-fearing” businessman spouted:

“We ought to round these papists up somehow, send them back where they belong. If God wishes them to starve there, then who are we to stand in the way of divine justice?”

A police force really becomes a necessity, and into the fray steps Timothy Wilde, at age 26 a newly minted “copper star” or policeman, who seems to be one of the few people in the city without prejudice. His ecumenical attitude toward people is reflected in a glass darkly by his older brother Valentine, who, in spite of being a police captain and a Democratic party heavy, has an ecumenical acceptance of any and all forms of debauchery. Tim hates Val for it, and yet they continue to take care of each other, just as they have since their parents died in a fire nineteen years before.

the_gods_of_gotham-1

Some ritual slayings of young children are uncovered, with a cross carved into the dead bodies. The conviction that there is room for only one God of Gotham (“and Him a Protestant”) complicates the search for the killer of these children, or “kinchin” in the “Flash-patter” street argot of the era. The young victims appear to have been not only Irish, but Irish prostitutes, or “kinchin-mabs.” An anonymous letter to the papers – allegedly from the murderer – claims the killings are being carried out by someone Irish who is dong the work of “our most blessed Pope” to “cleanse our own filth before God’s eyes.”

Timothy, who is more interested in doing the work of a detective than anything else, doesn’t believe the letter to be authentic, but many people do, and he knows the city could be convulsed by riots if the police don’t get to the bottom of these murders fast. So he does his best to find the killer before (a) more children are killed and/or (b) the city explodes in a religious war. He is aided in his quest by a motley group including the little girl Bird Daly he recently rescued from her life as an Irish child prostitute, the formidable Chief of Police George Washington Matsell, and Tim’s new friend and fellow policeman the “crab-faced old scoundrel” Jakob Piest.

Discussion: I wasn’t totally surprised by the denouement, but I thought that solving the crime seemed secondary to the author’s intention of depicting what it was like, especially for the Catholic immigrants, in mid-nineteenth century New York.

The author does just fine with making sure we know what the characters mean when they speak “Flash” but ironically for me, there were other times when her prose, albeit written in plain English, just seemed garbled to me – most often when she was trying to describe how people looked. On the other hand, she did a beautiful job setting scenes, as with this description of New York in the fall:

“By two weeks later, September had made itself better felt. The charcoal-sketched notions of trees in City Hall Park burst violently red and then faded back into line drawings.”

The characters are appealing, although Tim alternates between saintly, savvy, and dumb. I can’t decide if that’s a realistic combination or not! Val meanwhile, is ostensibly a bad man, but my heart hurts for him so much I can’t hate him, and would like to shake Tim a bit for not being more charitable toward his brother. I also can’t understand what Tim sees in his love interest, Mercy Underhill. But I still liked both the brothers, and I love the historical aspects of the book. I can’t wait to see what the next in the series will be like.

Note: If you’ve seen the movie “The Gangs of New York,” which begins in 1846, you’ll recognize not only some similar plot elements but some of the “Flash” dialect. The action in the movie quickly jumps ahead to 1862, but not much changes in that time. Thus this book and the ones to follow it in the same series are still a good way to understand what was behind the ongoing warfare depicted in the movie between the “Nativists” and the immigrants, and to get a good sense of the hatred and violence characterizing that era.

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Evaluation: This historical crime novel is as entertaining a way as any to learn about antebellum American history, particularly in the urban North. The combination of economic hardship, scarce jobs, crowded living quarters, and an immigrant population to serve as the scapegoats for all that pent up stress and anger created a volatile mix; one that politicians did not hesitate to exploit. Hmmm. Sounds familiar….

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2012

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17 Responses to Review of “The Gods of Gotham” by Lyndsay Faye

  1. Mystica says:

    So much of history is downright unpleasant but it is history. as long as it does not repeat itself.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I struggled with this book because of the Flash dialect – I found it jarring so it took me out of the story.

  3. Brooke says:

    This is one that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, but something about the premise has put me off. And I’m not a huge Gangs of New York fan. I think this could be a good one to borrow from the library to give it a try. I know many have really enjoyed it. Great review!

  4. One of my book club friends recently recommended this title. Didn’t realize it was from Amy Einhorn… that makes me more likely to pick it up.

  5. Heather says:

    I’m intrigued. I’ll have to find a copy soon!

  6. bookingmama says:

    I think I enjoyed this one a lot more than you did! Can’t wait to read the next one!

  7. Belle Wong says:

    I’m not that fond of historical fiction, but I tend to really like it if there’s a mystery thrown in. This one sounds good, and I really like the excerpt you posted from it – very nice description!

  8. I just picked up a used copy of this the other day. I’m a huge fan of Gangs of New York and the time period in general, so I’m hoping it works out for me!

  9. I listened to this on the audiobook and I wasn’t a fan of it. The narrator was flat and emotionless and didn’t sound like someone from that time period. I think I would have preferred reading it instead.

  10. Caite says:

    I did not see the movie…but even with the issues you raise the book sounds interesting. Especially since my maternal great grandparents would have been part of the Catholic vermin.
    Happily by the time my father arrived from Ireland, our place in society had risen a bit.

  11. sandynawrot says:

    Well I was going to suggest that maybe I try the audio because listening sometimes helps with dialect issues. But then I read Natalie’s comment and forgot about that. See, I just heard enough of these issues when this book first came out that I nixed it from my lists. I don’t think I’ll be chasing it down.

  12. stacybuckeye says:

    As I was reading your review I was thinking Gangs of New York! That probably means Jason would like it more than I would.

  13. aartichapati says:

    Meh. This doesn’t sound like it would interest me – for some reason, my religion radar is on. I don’t like when the plot just seems like a vehicle to get across some other message.

  14. Beth F says:

    I really liked this one and am looking forward to the next one. The dialect didn’t bother me and I like that time period.

  15. Athira says:

    I haven’t watched this movie mainly because that period didn’t quite intrigue me much. Not sure if this book is for me but it definitely sounds very atmospheric, which tempts me to check it out.

  16. Heather says:

    This book actually surprised me, in that I thought I’d hate it, but ended up liking it a LOT. Glad some of the elements worked for you!

  17. litandlife says:

    I’m glad you brought up The Gangs of New York. My boys love that movie so I think they might really enjoy this one.

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