Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye

The only way that I can describe The Gods of Gotham is ‘delicate,’ which is odd, considering it is about violence and sex.  But there it is.  The Gods of Gotham tells the tale of Timothy Wilde, newly unemployed bartender in need of work.  Tim’s brother makes arrangements for him to have a place on the newly created New York police force, and the tale is off to the races.  Tim’s skills are a bartender (that is to say his compassion and ability to observe without drawing attention) come in handy in his new role, and he finds himself enjoying it.  Until he makes two gruesome discoveries in the space of twelve hours… With that, the sheen is off the copper star badge he’s been given, and his compassion kicks in – Tim makes it a mission to get to the bottom of crime that’s stumbled into his lap.

I first discovered the author, Lyndsay Faye, with the work Dust and Shadow, which is a nod to the Sherlockian literary tradition; The Gods of Gotham also fits this tradition.  Timothy Wilde is like an Americanized version of Sherlock Holmes (but less obnoxious).  His skills of observation and ability to read lips gives him the advantage of reading a man or woman and taking their measure from a distance, and this goes a long way to solving the crimes he encounters as a copper star (or copper, or cop in the modern lexicon).  Where Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing style of deduction is in your face, Faye’s is almost insidious and definitely delicate – there is no moment when the reader feels an answer is to easily provided to Wilde, but rather he works for every square inch of ground he takes in solving the crime.

Tim Wilde is an interesting anomaly in terms of literary characters.  He seems to straddle the fence between the Sherlockian mold, and the modern-day detective.  Faye made a brilliant choice to set her tale where these two worlds meet; the nuances she brings out between the pre-professional detective and the modern-day cop were done with a deft hand.  With the plot being reliant on the first major crime following the creation of New York’s professional force, Faye delicately had to ensure that her pendulum didn’t stray too far into the Sherlockian mind set, or too far into the NYPD Blue spectrum.  And yet, oddly enough, The Gods of Gotham does both.  It’s an interesting and intriguing dynamic.

This book benefits immensely from a high-level of historical research and details.  It’s very clear, from almost the first line, that Faye has lived in the world of 1840s New York for quite some time while writing and developing these characters and this plot.  But this is another instance of delicacy – rather than getting a cloying and oppressive lecture on the history of antebellum New York, the immigration phenomenon, and the racial tensions, the reader is introduced to the subjects almost inadvertently.  It’s like Faye has assumed you know as much as she does about the topic and, while she doesn’t condescend to her readers, she still educates them about the setting.  It takes a deft had to do this, and Faye delivers in spades.

The only complaint I have about this book is that it could have used some judicious editing in the first third or so.  There were a lot of observations and a couple of characters that could have been dropped from that section of the book to tighten it up in favour of the development in the second half.  Even with these (minor) missteps, Faye’s sense of delicacy comes through, and we are given an impression of the cadence of the era, in terms of speech, thought, and actions commonly found in the people.  However, when Wilde fully gets on to unraveling the case at hand, the concerns surrounding pacing are lost, and things continue at a great pace.  

Needless to say, Faye is going on my list of authors that I’ll be keeping a weather eye on for upcoming books.  I get the impression that Tim Wilde could very easily become the character that she builds her cannon around, and I hope that’s the tack she intends to take.  Tim is a detective that is at once Sherlock Holmes and Lennie Briscoe, and that could be developed for years to come.  Final verdict?  Go out and read both of Faye’s books, and keep your eyes pealed for those to come; Lyndsay Faye’s is a name I’m sure you’ll be hearing soon enough!

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