Early one morning on a street corner of Old New York in 1845. a young girl collides with a “copper-star”, or cop, dramatically changing both of their lives. She, Bird Daly, a “kinchin-mab” (or child prostitute to those amongst us not equipped with the knowledge of “flash” talk), is fleeing from something she would rather remained a secret, soaked to the skin in blood that is not her own. He, Timothy Wilde, a member of the newly formed New York police force, is on the verge of dedicating his life to unravelling the secret Bird stumbled upon that night.
Obviously Lyndsay Faye has never experienced 1840s New York firsthand, but her intriguing and darkly brilliant novel The Gods of Gotham would have you believe different. Bird is just the tip of the iceberg of reviled and sinister corruption the city has to offer. Crime, exploitation, disease, poverty, desperation, politics and religion are all explored in a novel not suitable for the faint-hearted. Faye cuts no corners in her vivid portrayal of life for those scraping by during hard times in a hardened city. The use of “flash” is exercised to greater support the illusion that the novel is not actually a work of fiction, but rather a factual autobiographical account.
Timothy is haunted by memories of a fire that destroyed his parents and home, and it is fire that returns to destroy everything he has built and saved in the years since then in order to win the love of his beloved Mercy. It is fire that drives him to join the police force, and fire that drives his brother to take a headfirst leap, seeking to burn away the demons of his past. Following the fire that tears through Timothy Wilde’s neighbourhood, he picks himself up with a dent in his ego, a scar on his face and a chip on his shoulder, intent on building his life up again from the gutter. What he doesn’t intend to discover is the good that can be found amidst the evil, and the complexities in those deemed the most innocent.
This novel is engaging from the first page, from the first sentence in fact. Initially Faye reveals just enough about Timothy Wilde to firmly pique your curiosity. Every chapter ending is tantalising and dramatic, forcing the reader to want to know more. The language is snappy and intelligent; Faye describes each character so vividly it seems as though they are present in the room—from Timothy with his burnt and scarred face to the mysterious hooded figure prowling menacingly, creeping out at night to steal the bodies of young children.
The Gods of Gotham also explores grief and the overwhelming power of guilt, and how they can shape the course of people’s lives. Both Timothy and his brother are complex and thoroughly interesting characters, and it is the story of their lives, combined with gripping plot lines and wonderfully written prose, that lead to a thoroughly captivating tale of murder and morals.