Set in 1845 New York City, The Gods of Gotham is a dark tale of the brutal murders of Irish child prostitutes set against the backdrop of an expanding city coming to grips with immigration (especially Irish Catholics), racism bigotry, the role and rights of women in society, religious zealotry and intolerance. TGOG also features the founding of the New York Police Department. Officers were known as “copper stars” for the badges they wore and were treated with derision and distrust.
Our hero, Timothy Wilde, is prodded into joining the force by his older brother Valentine, who is well known in the city for his involvement in the democratic party and for his work with the fire department. Faye really provides some fascinating history in this area. I had not known that the NYFD was a political organization used to sway voters to support democrats. Valentine and Timothy have a combative relationship. Val possesses many vices, including a morphine addiction, and the fact that he became a fire fighter angers Tim. Val and Tim became orphans due to fire, and a city fire in 1845 disfigured Tim and forced him to change his life plans. It’s Val who gets Tim a job on the police force when he has no other options, recognizing that Tim has skills that will be very useful for detective work — he speaks “flash”, which is a sort of street slang, and his previous job as a bartender helped him hone his skills as a listener and a reader of character.
Within his first week on the job, Tim encounters 9-year-old “kinchin mab” (child prostitute) Bird Daley, covered in blood and fearing for her life. Shortly afterward, the body of a boy, another kinchin mab, is found in a garbage can, with his chest carved open in the shape of a cross. Then, 19 more bodies similarly marked are found in shallow graves on the outskirts of town. Is this the work of an anti-Catholic zealot? Someone trying to discredit the democratic party, which is associated with the newly formed NYPD? A deranged lunatic? As panic and mob violence rise on the streets of New York, police commissioner Matsell puts Tim in charge of an unofficial investigation, making Tim New York’s first detective.
Faye did a lot of work to make her novel as historically accurate as possible. Each chapter begins with a blurb from a newspaper or tract of the time, usually highlighting the virulent anti-Irish/anti-Catholic sentiments of the period. In addition to the plight of Irish Catholics, she explores the world of African Americans, prostitutes, religious crusaders, and women. Two strong female characters are featured in TGOG: Mercy Underhill, daughter of a protestant minister, budding writer and doer of good works for the poor (no matter their religion, color, etc.), and love interest of Tim; and Silkie Marsh, the powerful madam of a house of prostitution which employs children, generous contributor to the democratic party, former love interest of Val, and a real snake-in-the-grass.
There’s not exactly a happy ending to this novel, although Tim does figure out what happened and why. Equally important, though, Tim learns some dark and hard truths about Val, Mercy and himself. It seems that Faye is setting readers up for a series featuring detective Wilde. I look forward to the next in the series, if there is to be one.