I am always looking for realistic historical fiction, which is both accurate and creative. It must reflect the time period it encompasses, and its fictional and non-fictional characters must be believable. In the case of Lynsay Faye’s novel, THE GODS OF GOTHAM I was pleasantly surprised. The book introduces Timothy and Valentine Wilde, two brothers that are as opposite as day and night. Orphaned in childhood because of a fire they survived in New York City’s underworld in the 1820s and 30s. Timothy will emerge as a strong individual who is hard working and honest, his brother Val will become what his brother describes as an alcoholic, drug addict, extortionist, thief, gambler, cheat, corrupt and violent, but he loves him in his own way.
Faye’s novel is the first of a trilogy involving Timothy Wilde as her main character. After surviving a devastating fire in New York City in 1845, loosing everything Timothy rebuilds by accepting a position as a police officer in a department that was newly created because of what seemed to be daily murders on the city’s streets. Wilde will make an excellent policeman as he is able to maximize his intuitive skills he learned as a bartender. His brother Val becomes an officer on the force and the two of them make quite a combination as Val does not exhibit the same empathy and altruism of his brother. Faye’s plot is fully integrated with the atmosphere in New York City in the 1840s. The issues of Irish immigration, nativism, the corruption of city government, and the debauchery that runs rampant is background to what appears to be a mass murder of twenty two people, a number of which are children who appear to be Irish and are employed at Silkie Marsh’s brothel.
(Newspaper row (Park Row) in New York City in the 1840s)
Faye posses a superb knowledge of New York City politics, night life, characters endemic to the city, its culture, and its numerous ethnicities. The odors of the city come across vividly to the reader and helps establish an ambiance that places one in a different time period. Faye is able to capture the bigotry against Irish Catholics in a meaningful way from the outset of the novel, as she delves into the hatred for the Irish poor that saw over a million people leave their homes in Ireland because of the almost genocidal attitudes of the British government in the 1840s and their response to the potato blight and famine. The corruption of ward politics is on full display reflected in the machinations of the Democratic Party and how its dispensed jobs and social services to the city’s inhabitants. In fact, that patronage system is how Timothy and Valentine became policemen in the first place.
The new police department would be headed by Justice George Washington Matsell, a rather short, balding, large man who will surprise the reader with his cleverness and intellectual dexterity. Other important characters include the reverend Underhill and his daughter Mercy, who Timothy will love no matter what behaviors she engages in. Bird Daley, a precocious ten-year-old who witnesses the burial of most of the bodies and accidentally runs into Timothy on the street creating an interesting friendship. Mrs. Boehm, a wonderful woman who makes end meet as a baker. Dr. Peter Palsgrave whose actions will shock the reader. Father Connor Sheehy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Jacob Piest, a brilliant investigator. Silkie Marsh, a madame who knows where all the secrets are buried, and numerous Irish immigrants and street toughs whose lives are in a constant battle for survival.
Faye has created an interesting juxtaposition between two brethren with different moral codes. One a tool of a corrupt political system, the other a bit naive with a strong sense of right and wrong. Faye has also captured the street vernacular that existed at the time and lends itself to the book’s authenticity. The undercurrent that pervades the novel is carefully crafted and historically accurate as Chief Matsell and his force try and keep the bodies secret for fear that if the truth emerged and the murderer was Irish it could touch off violent riots that would result in the deaths of countless people. In addition, if the murders took place under the auspices of the Democratic Party, the Whigs would replace them in power. As you read the book one wonders who the possible serial killer might be. Is it Valentine, perhaps a Protestant trying to create a situation that would send the Irish back across the Atlantic, or is it Silkie Marsh and her hired hands? The end result will surprise you as Faye weaves a web that is difficult to dissect.
If you are a fan of Caleb Carr’s works or the film “Gangs of New York” the novel should whet your appetite and be very satisfying. It is an unsettling read at times, but if you want a feel for a city that grew from about 60,000 in 1800 to half a million in just fifty years this book will offer many insights that can explain what such a demographic explosion could lead to.