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THE GODS OF GOTHAM by Lyndsay Faye: Book Review

It’s 1845 in New York City.  And lower Manhattan, as we now call it, is about to be engulfed in flames, spreading to a warehouse filled with saltpetre, an ingredient used in the making of gunpowder.  Hundreds of houses are destroyed, thirty people are killed, and the life of the hero of The Gods of Gotham is changed forever.

Timothy Wilde had been a barkeep, saving his money to buy a ferryboat to make the crossings from Manhattan to Staten Island.  After the fire, the bar he worked at is no more, the tenement where he lived is destroyed, the life savings he kept under his mattress is melted away, and his face is badly burned.  It’s time to look for a new line of work, and his older brother Valentine signs him up, without his permission, as a rookie in the newly-formed Police Department of New York City.  So, reluctantly, Timothy puts on the copper star and joins the force.

Shortly after becoming one of the “star detectives,” as police officers were originally known, Timothy is patrolling the infamous Sixth Ward when he’s nearly bowled over by a young girl running frantically down the street.  When he picks her up, he sees she’s covered with blood.  Unsure of what to do with her, but certain he doesn’t want to hand her over to an orphanage, he brings her to his new home, the one room he rents over a bakery.

Her given name is Aibhilin o Dalaigh, which translates from the Gaelic as Little Bird.  Being a ten-year-old vagrant in New York City is not a good thing to be, especially if you’re Irish.  Anti-immigrant and anti-Irish hysteria is building quickly in the city, fueled by the Protestant population’s fear of both the Catholic Church and of new immigrants eager to take on any job at a lower rate than the salary that would have to be paid to an American citizen.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Little Bird turns out to be a kinchin-mab, a child prostitute. She escaped from Madame Silkie Marsh’s brothel, and if the madam finds her she’ll be brought back to the brothel, or worse.  So Timothy keeps her hidden.

At the same time, Timothy becomes aware that there’s a serial killer loose in the city. Bodies of children have turned up in a mass grave, children marked with enormous crosses on their nude bodies.  And when it’s discovered that the children were Irish, the new chief of police, Justice George Washington Matsell, wants Timothy to get to the bottom of it without setting off a religious riot in the city.

While all this is going on, Timothy is dealing with his feelings for Mercy Underhill, a childhood friend.  He had hoped to tell her of his love when he had amassed enough money to buy the ferryboat, but now his financial independence seems unrealistic.  And Mercy is the daughter of Reverend Underhill, a well-respected and well-to-do clergyman,  which puts her in another social and economic class.

The Gods of Gotham is an incredibly well-researched novel, but it never feels like a treatise. The story carries the reader along with its fast-moving plot and fascinating characters.  Lyndsay Faye has written a terrific mystery.

You can read more about her at her web site.

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