Becoming a policeman of the Sixth Ward of the city of New York was an unwelcome surprise to me.
It’s not the work I imagined myself doing at twenty-seven, but then again I’d bet all the other police would tell it the same, since three months ago this job didn’t exist (p. 7).
The Gods of Gotham was a fantastic, gritty and engrossing read. Not only are readers introduced to complicated and compelling characters, but also the immersed in the historical period of 1845 New York, and it’s not pretty.
Timothy Wilde tends bar, makes a good living, and is on the verge of making his intentions know to his beloved, Mercy Underhill. When a fire rips through his workplace and home, leaving him scarred, Tim finds himself without a living and his savings gone. Tim’s older brother Valentine, a politically connected man, secures Tim a new vocation, one that he claims Tim will take to “like a bird to air”. Timothy Wilde reluctantly finds himself one of the first copper stars of the newly formed police force of New York.
Tim’s not too keen on his new job. He’s not politically minded like his brother, but having no other choice at the moment, Tim takes to his beat. Coming home one night, he’s accosted by a young girl coated in blood. Rather than take her back to the station or to one of the charity houses, Tim brings her home to his landlady. Through Bird, Tim learns that someone has been murdering the kinchin at the bawdy house where Bird resides. Determined to find out who’s responsible Tim sets out to investigate, only to find himself going against a strong Democrat ally, Silkie Marsh, Madame of the house where Bird came from.
The Gods of Gotham is an extraordinary historical mystery. First and foremost, the setting of 1845 New York comes alive. Faye spends a lot of time setting the stage for her mystery and the characters that inhabit it. Readers are made aware of the political situation and the tense atmosphere that divided the natives of New York and the increasing Irish immigrant population. The history isn’t pretty and it’s not sugarcoated here, but serves to explain the motivations of many of the characters central to the mystery.
The novel also focuses on the harsh reality for those living in poverty, which is primarily the Irish and black Americans in this book. Again the author does not sugarcoat this. The young girl that is central to the mystery, Bird Daly, is a child prostitute who started working when she was eight years old. The reality of Bird’s life is heartbreaking, as it is for many of the other kinchin that Wilde encounters in his investigation. There’s a lot of horrible stuff going on in New York, and it seems that there’s very little being done about it. The creation of the copper stars seems more like putting a Band-Aid on a fatal wound. When so many people don’t care about the Irish or the other poor in general, why should they care about crimes being committed against them? It seems an impossible task set before the new police force.
With the copper stars and the character’s whose job it is to uphold the law, Faye really shows her strength as a mystery writer. The villains and the heroes and everyone else that is introduced are no caricatures, but complicated characters that you can both sympathize with and revile. For me, it was the complexity of character that was the strongest and most compelling part of The Gods of Gotham. Watching as Tim navigated these murky waters was what was so engrossing about this book. So many of the characters were morally ambiguous, including the so-called “good” ones. Even Tim was not wholly “good” and I think that’s an excellent characteristic since I think it could have been all too easy for Tim to become to do-gooder crusader. Tim’s clearly a decent person but even he is not able to bring complete justice to those that deserve it. Tim is bound by the conventions of his time, which means justice only goes so far.
Lastly, I have to remark on the audiobook version of The Gods of Gotham. The narration by Steven Boyer was unexpected, but it fit the character of Tim so well. Since the novel is narrated in first person by Tim, the narration of the audio version is important and I think this was cast perfectly with Boyer. Boyer gives Tim a youthful quality that serves to convey Tim’s naivety. While Tim has certainly experienced the harsh realities of poverty following the deaths of his parents, there’s still an idealism in Tim that comes across in the narration. Tim’s quite willing to set some people on a pedestal (i.e. Mercy) and disregard the good qualities of others (i.e. his brother Val). If you’re an audiobook fan at all, The Gods of Gotham is an excellent choice for those that like good narration, a compelling character, and a historically gritty atmosphere. I’m ready for book two!
For an equally compelling character, although a very different historical period, I highly recommend checking out the excellent She’s Leaving Home by William Shaw. Like Tim, Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen seems a bit reluctant about his job, but that doesn’t stop him from investigating and going against corruption in 1960s London. See my full review here.
While I haven’t read A June of Ordinary Murders yet, I can’t help but see a connection that makes me want to move it up my to-read list. While this one is set a little later (1887) I’m interested in it because it’s set in Dublin. The Irish immigrants were such a big part of The Gods of Gotham, and it was an element that I found very interesting, hence my interest in A June of Ordinary Murders. Here’s hoping it lives up to the awesomeness of Faye’s novel.