Lyndsay Faye’s first novel, Dust And Shadow, set Sherlock Holmes on the trail of Jack the Ripper—not a bad idea for a pop-historical mash-up, but not an original one, either. Faye’s The Gods Of Gotham is a paranoid thriller set in Manhattan in 1845, with a protagonist-narrator who’s one of the first members of what would become the New York City Police Department. Timothy Wilde is a 27-year-old bartender with no interest in police work and no particular aspirations of any kind. At least, apart from popping the question to the love of his life, Mercy, a saintly proto-feminist who crusades for a just society, while dreaming of becoming a writer. But then a fire wipes out Wilde’s place of employment, his savings, and part of his face, and he’s forced to accept a handout from his well-connected brother, Val, in the form of one of the “copper stars” being passed around as rewards of the political patronage system. But when he stumbles across a mystery involving an imperiled 10-year-old prostitute and the mutilated corpses of several children, Wilde discovers he’s a born detective, with a fiery sense of justice.
Faye seemed much more comfortable doing a pastiche of Arthur Conan Doyle than she does here, trying to find a plausible voice for a hero navigating the chaos of a Gangs Of New York setting. Much of this book is devoted to setting the table for a planned future series of Timothy Wilde adventures, and Faye lays her groundwork with a sledgehammer. It’s clear that Val and George Washington Matsell, the city’s first chief of police, are charismatic, larger-than-life figures, because the narrator keeps saying they are. It’s also clear that Faye has done her homework, because sometimes she simply dumps the contents of her notebook all over the page. In a book that doesn’t suffer from any shortage of dead children, she squeezes in one more that’s unrelated to the plot, apparently just because she came across the actual case in her reading. And a scene featuring a character who talks in “flash,” the street slang of the time, is as awkward as a scene in a book set in 1978 in which every third word is “disco.” (It’s there partly because the actual George Matsell was interested in flash talk, and in 1859 published a study of it called Vocabulum, Or The Rogue’s Lexicon.)
Faye’s storytelling picks up steam halfway through the book, and she doesn’t belabor the obvious points of comparison between Timothy’s time and the present. (In 1845, New York is constantly threatening to buckle under the pressure caused by fear and hatred of the rising immigrant population—i.e., the Irish, who are fleeing the potato famine.) But her period dialogue is melodramatic at best and flat-out goofy at worst, and she doesn’t convey a real sense of horror at the social misery that roots her story. The book is a violent romp through a historical theme park, where infanticide and child prostitution are just part of the set design.