When a fire destroys his home, his place of business, his life savings, and even a part of his face, barman Timothy Wilde has no choice but to abandon all hope of marrying his true love and instead accept his odious brother’s offer of a commission in the brand new New York City Police Department. As one of the first of the copper stars, Wilde is forced to confront the issues and the vices plaguing 1845 New York: prostitution, rampant poverty, filth, disease, lawlessness, and growing unrest between “native” Protestants and Catholic immigrants escaping the Irish famine. With no training in his brand new profession, Wilde nonetheless stumbles upon an unimaginable crime. A child prostitute covered in blood leads him to a murdered boy and eventually to the discovery of 19 more children’s corpses buried in the woods above 23rd Street. With the murders threatening to tear apart the city along religious lines, and with party politics pressuring the newly formed department to quickly solve the matter or forever brush it under the rug, Timothy Wilde is forced to embrace his new job while learning how to do it.
Faye’s novel is built upon copious research. Her characters use authentic period dialect, including a language of the criminal class known as flash. Sometimes the history can be intrusive. Every chapter begins with a quote from a historical document, nearly all relating to the menace presented by Irish immigration and their Popery. It gets a little repetitive. The beginning of the novel is marred a little by a conspicuous amount of “gee, life sure is crazy in 1845” style musings, but these diminish over time.
The real wonder of The Gods of Gotham is in the volume of memorable and well-developed characters. Timothy Wilde isn’t a tortured genius nor is he a world-weary cop, he is a flawed person trying his best in difficult circumstances. Aside from him there are street-smart newsboys, pugnacious priests, charitable hypocrites, political party bosses, and people capable of horrifying evil.
Though the novel is a bit long for a mystery at over 400 pages, the room was needed to contain such a large cast of characters. When the solution comes, it justifies all the time spent on developing the world Timothy Wilde lives in. It’s quite a clever answer to a complicated puzzle, and is also handled in a way unlike any mystery novel I can recall. The Gods of Gotham is the first of an already published trilogy, and I am looking forward to spending more time with Timothy Wilde of the NYPD.