Yesterday was had a rather intense storm here in New Orleans; there was flash flooding all over the city, cars ruined, water inside buildings; that sort of thing. I don’t know if my street flooded or not (guess I’ll find out if my car got ruined tomorrow morning when I am ready to go to work), but we certainly were lucky and didn’t get water inside of our house. The rain is going to continue some today; there’s an advisory for everyone to stay inside and off the roads, just in case. We get these kinds of storms and flash floods every once in a while–the price of living in a low lying city surrounding by water where parts of the city used to be swamp and are now floodplains, and our pumping system tends to get overwhelmed when we get a lot of water in a short period of time. I’ve been caught out in these storms before, having to wade through water up to my hips at times. My car was flooded when I was on my way home from work the first year we lived here and I got caught in one of these storms. There’s no point in railing against these storms and short-term floods; they happen periodically and you have to deal with them, unfortunately. Last night was also supposed to be White Linen Night, an annual event every August in the Arts District where all the galleries serve food and alcohol, booths are set up on Julia and Magazine streets to sell food and drink, and people wearing white go from gallery to gallery looking at (and hopefully buying) art. Satchmo Fest was also this weekend; clearly, both annual events were cancelled yesterday because of the deluge. I ran my errands early–thank God–and so intended to spend the rest of my day inside and working on the line edit, doing some writing, and reading as well. I did no line editing and no writing yesterday; instead, I was caught up in the last half of Lyndsay Faye’s staggeringly brilliant The Gods of Gotham, and could not put it down until it was finished.
When I set down the initial report, sitting at my desk at the Tombs, I wrote:
On the night of August 21, 1845, one of the children escaped.
Of all the sordid trials a New York City policeman faces every day, you wouldn’t expect the one I loathe most to be paperwork. But it is. I get snakes down my spine just thinking case files.
Seriously, is there anyone who enjoys paperwork?
The Gods of Gotham is the perfect historical crime novel. I’ve read a number of them, and there are some truly excellent ones (one of my favorite novels of all time is The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy, set in the 1930’s), but I’ve also staggered my way through some seriously bad ones. But even with the bad ones, I always have tremendous respect for the writer for even trying; I can’t imagine trying, much as I love history, because there are so many gaps; so many things to research, from small to large, intricate intimate details that may be impossible to find out–or you might find them out when it’s too late. To be truly successful, a historical piece of fiction has to be completely immersive; the author has to bring that world to life but make the reader understand it and how it was to live in that period without giving in to the temptation to put everything you’ve researched into the book/story, aka hitting the reader over the head with a history lesson. Writing a convincing, involving story with characters the reader can identify with, appreciate, and root for, is hard enough without setting it in another time period.
Lyndsay Faye has managed this incredible juggling feat, and pulled it off with aplomb. The Gods of Gotham is set in New York City (obviously) in the late summer of 1845; when the city has newly created a police force, identified by the copper stars they wear (which, obviously, is where the slang term copper, and its derivative, cop, came from; this is clearly made obvious throughout the story without Faye stopping to explain; a lesser writer certainly would have made that egregious take-the-reader-out-of-the-story error). Our hero, Timothy Wilde, is a bartender when the story opens; his older brother, Valentine, is a good-time Charlie who likes to get wasted, frequents whorehouses, and also works as a fireman. The relationship between the brothers isn’t great; they lost their parents to a fire when they were children, and they butt heads alot. Valentine is also involved with the Democratic Party. After an enormous fire leaves Timothy jobless and homeless and broke, he rents a room from a widowed German baker, Mrs. Boehm, and is then pressured by his brother into becoming a copper star; a beat cop in the newly formed city police, which not everyone in the city wants or approves of. Soon, Timothy is wrapped up in a bizarre mystery involving a child prostitute he runs across one night; wandering the streets in a nightdress, covered in blood; and soon the investigation expands to involve a possible serial killer of child prostitutes. Politics, nativism, religious and ethnic and racial bigotry all play a part in this tale; as do sexism.
The truly great historical novels not only shine a bright light on the past, but thematically show how little has changed over time. The Gods of Gotham could easily be set in the present day, with Timothy Wilde as a modern police detective. The bigotry against the Irish and Catholics could easily be translated to Middle Eastern refugees and Muslims; it is truly sad to read and see how we as a society and a people fail to learn from the mistakes of the past, repeating the same errors over and over to our own disgrace. Faye has brought New York of 1845 vividly to life with careful brush strokes that never are too big or too broad or invasive to the story; her city streets are alive with noise and people and sights and sounds and smells. Her characters are all-too-real; even the worst of her villains (particularly the diabolical madam, Silkie Marsh) are believable three-dimensional and live and breathe on the page.
I hated seeing the book end, quite frankly; but there are two more Timothy Wilde novels to savor and look forward to, as well as her Edgar nominated Jane Steele (The Gods of Gotham was also an Best Novel Edgar finalist), and her Sherlock Holmes work. (And yes, my recent interest in Holmes was triggered by Lyndsay’s interest in Holmes…and there were times when this book itself reminded me of, in the best possible ways, of Nicholas Meyer’s Holmes pastiches from the 1970’s, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The West End Horror.)
The Gods of Gotham, if you haven’t read it yet, needs to be added to your TBR pile immediately.