Lyndsay Faye’s book, The Gods of Gotham, is a historical fiction murder mystery.
Yeah. You heard me. A Historical Fiction Murder Mystery.
Does that not sound like an answered prayer to anyone else?
I mean, I’m not usually much for murder mysteries and things (there’s more interesting stuff for me to read, the re-read value of a book is important to me, and whenever I get to the part where the character has the “I solved it!” epiphany but refuses to tell me, I get really annoyed. I know it’s just to heighten suspense, but it drives me UP THE WALL. I KNOW YOU KNOW! I, THE READER, CANNOT POSSIBLY BE THE MURDERER, AND CAN’T EVADE CAPTURE, ETC SO JUST TELL ME!!!), but despite my usual resistance to murder mysteries, this I liked.
The place: New York City. The Island of Manhattan. The Big Apple itself.
The time: The year’s 1845, and the place is crawling with Irish immigrants, trying to get away from the potato blight. Times are tough. But then, that’s the city.
The trouble: It all started with a dame. It’s always starts with a dame.
No, not really. The trouble actually starts with a blood-soaked little girl. I won’t tell the rest (spoilers for mystery/suspense/thriller books are just plain-old uncouth).
And don’t worry, Faye doesn’t actually write that way (That’s just me being silly. If she did write that way, it would be super anachronistic fun-times…she went for a more serious approach. We may never know why). Actually, Faye does a great job of using slang from the time period (and by great, I mean that I am not a historical expert/linguist and for all I know she pulled the words right out of her tush, but she uses them easily and consistently, and they make the reading experience fun). Don’t worry, she also includes a little index of the colorful terms in the front for reference, but they’re usually pretty easy to glean from the context.
The story revolves around Timothy Wilde (no relation to Oscar), a bartender-turned-cop in the brand-spankin’-new NYPD (I know, you can’t even imagine NYC without an official police force. I had a moment in which I had to deal with the fact that Ice-T is NOT a real police officer, and that even if he were, he couldn’t have been there since the dawn of time. He’s so integral to my understanding of the landscape of NYC as a somewhat ordered entity. It was a very unsettling revelation). With an origin story shrouded in fire, Holmes-ian observational skills (bred of a life of bartending, we’re told), a heap of compassion, a heavy dollop of tragedy, and a silent unrequited love for his childhood sweetheart, Tim Wilde is pretty much everything you would expect (and want) from the hero of an old time New York cop story.
This is going to sound a bit weird, but if you’ve read Terry Pratchett’s books… Tim actually reminds me of a (barely) less jaded Sam Vimes. If you’ve read Terry Pratchett’s books, you know this is a compliment of the highest order. If you haven’t read Terry Pratchett books, first of all GO FIX THAT, and second of all, know this: If ever I had to elect a fictional public protector, I’d pick Sam Vimes (or Tim Wilde, depending on what genre we were decided to put the world in).
And yeah, Faye follows some of the tropes of the genre (mostly with the basic composition of Tim’s rough-and-tumble-yet-uber-moral hero, and somewhat with the formula of the plot twists), but while the basic set-up of Tim’s character is well worn, Tim feels comfortable/comforting, as opposed to worn out and tired. It helps enormously that Tim’s three major relationships—with his brother, with his one true love, and with his… blood-stained little girl—are dynamic, complex, and wonderfully rich. And actually, pretty much all of Tim’s relationships throughout the book are treated with the same subtlety and care. Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe Faye’s just awesome at relationships—because she describes the racial, religious, political, and cultural tensions from that time pretty well, too (not like I was there to verify or anything, but you know what I mean).
The Gods of Gotham was never going to be my favorite book ever—what with the mystery and whatnot (as a genre, it’s just not really my jam)—but I really enjoyed it. The characters delighted and surprised me, it’s well written, it gets political, and if it’s not the most original murder mystery plot ever… well, that didn’t much detract from the amount that I enjoyed reading it. Because unlike some other books of its genre, The Gods of Gotham focuses on how solving the mystery forces the character to grow. And for that, trust me, Tim’s the one you want, and regardless of your personal feelings about the mystery/suspense/thriller genres, you will be sad to say goodbye to him and his fellows when you have to put the book down.