3.18.2012

Review: The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye

The Gods of Gotham
by Lyndsay Faye
Amy Einhorn Books
432pgs
$25.95 Hardcover / $12.99 Ebook
The Gods of Gotham, new from Amy Einhorn Books this week, marks a quick-paced, beautifully-styled debut for author Lyndsay Faye. Narrator Timothy Wilde is a member of the newly minted NYPD (or Copper Stars), New York City's first official police force. Beset with tragedy at an early age, Tim is all too aware of the irony of his most recent misfortunes in the fire of 1845, but his own troubles (though not his lyrically relatable heartsickness that runs like a river through the novel from beginning to end) are set aside when the copper stars discover a mass grave west of the city. 

Gothamites and non-gothamites alike are often keen on romanticizing Manhattan's foundations. But that's one thing that Faye refuses to do. The pages are covered with the dirt and dust and muck of the period and, like any good heroic detective novel, there's a coat of naturalism gives the work the texture of authenticity. 

The narrative begins and ends as a police ledger account of a particular crime. Somewhere, however, about a third of the way in, the structure unravels and reveals a kind of pulsing lyricism. This sway in tone is a reflection of what could be considered Faye's cleverest stylistic choice: by making Mercy Underhill (writer, charity worker, Timothy's childhood friend and love interest) integral to the story,  we are allowed to witness her influence on Tim in the narrative, giving Faye (and Tim) the freedom to tell the story free from police ledger stoicism. It spares us that sticky, glossy sheen too-oft found in historical fiction.

At it's heart, The Gods of Gotham is a Sherlockian detective story where the protagonist has an exceptional gift for observation but, whereas other Holmesian character imitations can come across as somewhat condescending, Faye's Timothy Wilde is unassuming and relatable, with just enough panache (or, in this case, flash) to make her freshman novel a ceaselessly enjoyable read. 

In addition to being a solid crime novel, its religious and historical instructiveness are not lost on this reader. In a time where religion seems on the forefront of every political discourse, a world where specific belief systems are meant to be optional but seem mandatory, Faye has tapped into a dark spot in the spiritual history of this country. This nation was not built by one people or one religion, and to suggest otherwise by propagating a system wherein any race or creed is purged or expunged is morally despicable and historically irresponsible. And if you're to take anything from this book aside from the clarity of the writing and the moral reprehensibility of murder, let it be that. 

 A note on the text: check out the lexicon that appears before the story in this edition--you needn't memorize it, but a quick glance will prove endlessly useful.

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