Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity". Pope Francis/Pope Benedict
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Thursday, 2 May 2013

Book Review: The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

It's a little unusual to be doing a book review here, much less one involving a work of fiction. However, this particular book touched two subjects near and dear to my heart, New York City and the Catholic faith. It is a detective yarn set in 1845 New York City involving the genesis of the NYPD. At that time law enforcement was carried out by a patchwork quilt of rival agencies. Criminals would be arrested by one only to be rescued by another. In 1845 this was all swept away and replaced by a new metropolitan force which incorporated elements of the earlier forces. They were known by their badge of office, a copper star... hence the slang "coppers" or "cops". Timothy Wilde, his job, dwelling, and the $400 in his mattress lost in the 1845 fire, obtains a position in the new force thanks to his brother's connections to the Democratic Party.

The story is set against the backdrop of Irish immigration and the Catholic / Protestant conflict that ensued. While the book may be a little off putting because of the period anti-Catholic quotes that head each chapter, its portrayal of Catholics, and the rector of the cathedral in particular, is sympathetic and quite touching. In fact this priest, out of all the characters, comes off completely blameless and even a bit heroic in the mayhem that ensues. I found the chapter headers would pique my anger, as though the author wanted to set me on edge and leave me open to her very sympathetic character portrayals.

The plot involves a series of murders which could potentially set the nativists and the new Irish immigrants at each others throats. The murders appear to be religiously motivated and directed at the Irish but things get complicated very quickly when a letter is leaked to the newspapers in which the culprit claims to be Irish himself. Newly minted policeman Timothy Wilde must get to the bottom of the situation without unleashing a riot.

Any who have seen the movie Gangs of New York will know what a gritty and violent period this was in the history of the city. You should be warned that some of the subject matter is quite sensitive. It could hardly be more so since the main hero spends a good chunk of his time rescuing Irish kinchin mabs or child prostitutes from various brothels in the city. Sex is sometimes alluded to or spoken of in the course of the investigation but never portrayed. Our hero is virtually celibate, spending much of his energy on a romantic obsession with a childhood friend, the daughter of a minister who befriended him. He does not even dare to call her by her first name. Unfortunately the author's reticence about portraying sex does not carry over to intoxication. Timothy's elder brother is portrayed frequently intoxicated by more means than I thought possible.

The City of New York itself is painted in such realistic tones that it is virtually a character all its own. Moreover, this snapshot of the city in the throes of a Catholic / Protestant conflict most of us would think restricted to Northern Ireland is particularly compelling. This portrait of the city in August of 1845 gave me a real feel for life there in a way that a history text cannot. If you would understand the persecution of Irish Catholics, this book is an excellent place to start. It is not, however, for the faint of heart.

1 comment:

Montfort said...

This is a powerful post, driven by Irish libation...