This month in the Reader's Den we are reading a mystery set in New York City, The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye. The year is 1845 and the story revolves around the establishment of the first official New York City Police Department, what was happening then to initiate its existence, and who served as the first policemen.
Here's a brief foreword from the book:
"In the summer of 1845, following years of passionate political dispute, New York City at long last formed a Police Department.
The potato, a crop that can be trusted to yield reliable nutrition from barren, limited space, had long been the base staple of the Irish tenant farmer. In the spring of 1844, the Gardener's Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette reported anxiously that an infestation "belonging to the mould tribe" was laying waste to potato crops. There was, the Chronicle told its readers, no definite cause or cure.
These twin events would change the city of New York forever."
The story begins with former bartender turned fledgling police officer Timothy Wilde writing a case report: "On the night of August 21, 1845 one of the children escaped." At ten o'clock at night a ten year old girl, running madly down Walker Street, dressed only in her nightgown, collided with Wilde as he was crossing Elizabeth Street in the horrendous Sixth Ward, home to the notorious Five Points neighborhood.
One other point: the little girl's nightgown was drenched in blood, not hers. Whose blood? Was somebody murdered? Where did she escape from? Why was she escaping? Did this child commit murder? If so, why and how?
There are several reasons why I chose this book for Reader's Den. First of all, the story is set in New York City, my adopted home. I love reading about NYC, almost anything actually, including Edith Wharton, Dorothy Parker, Jack Finney, and Matt Lewis (author with Renato Poliafito of the Baked series of cookbooks). (Full disclosure, I feel the same way about Paris. If Paris is in the title or the Eiffel Tower is on the cover, I'm there. Not recommending this method of choosing reading material, just saying. But I digress.)
Secondly, the plot is compelling, full of suspense. (Please make me keep turning pages!) Personally I don't want to be able to figure out the ending in advance, surprise me. This story does that, on more than one level. (No spoilers here!)
Third, the characters are quirky and likeable, especially Timothy Wilde, his older brother Valentine Wilde (talk about sibling rivalry!), and Mercy Underhill, the minister's daughter and Timothy's secret love. If I don't care about what happens to the characters, why spend time reading the book? (Unless the plot is really, really good; I'm a sucker for a good plot.)
What I liked most about the book, however, was the rich historical detail: the flash slang (brief dictionary included in the front of the book), the detailed ward maps of Lower Manhattan on the book's endsheets, the descriptions of what people wore, what they ate and drank, what they read in the newspapers, how and where they lived, worked and traveled around the city. This book brings Old New York to bustling, brawling, vigorous life.
Considering the (arguably) four major appeal factors that most readers use in choosing what to read next (language, setting, story, and characters), this book appealed to me on three out of four. (Not that the fourth was lacking, just that language isn't what most appeals to me in choosing what to read.) Another personal appeal factor is that this is the first book in a trilogy. In September 2013 Faye published the second book, Seven for a Secret. I just started reading it and was hooked by the end of the first chapter. Next week we'll spend some time getting to know the author, why she chose to write about NYC in 1845, and when the third book in the trilogy will be published.
Meanwhile, if you want to immerse yourself in this period even more, watch the Martin Scorsese (a native New Yorker) film Gangs of New York or read Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace, especially the section on Irish immigration. (It won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for History; Wallace is currently working on Gotham Volume II: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1945.) For a briefer history, check out the recent NYPL blog post, "So, why do we call it Gotham anyway?"
Although the groundbreaking photojournalist study by social reformer Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, was published in 1890, the photographic illustrations are still shocking and haunting.
Until next week, I suggest you burn some midnight oil with NYC "copper star" Timothy Wilde; keep those pages turning.
If you have a favorite book about NYC, please let me know, I'm always looking for another book to read about my favorite city.