Holy Terror

This summer, BBC America will begin airing a new series called Copper. Set in the grimy downtown wards of mid-19th Century Manhattan, the series will follow an Irish immigrant police officer as he navigates the teeming streets of the Five Points, the notorious enclave which was a flashpoint during the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. Not so long ago, such a setting would have been an awful hard sell for a TV producer, filmmaker, or even a novelist. But from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York to Lindsay Faye’s debut historical thriller The Gods of Gotham, these tumultuous decades in New York history – with their highly complex ethnic, political, and racial dynamics – have proven to be fertile narrative ground.

Turning to the mid-1990s: there was Peter Quinn’s sprawling but excellent Banished Children of Eve, which – like Kevin Baker’s equally compelling 2002 novel Paradise Alley – explores the terrible Irish Famine before slowly building up to the Draft Riots, when immigrants and laborers engaged in days of gruesome violence aimed at blacks, the rich, Lincoln, Republicans, abolitionists and supporters of the Civil War, just to name a few. Joseph O’Connor’s 2004 thriller The Star of the Sea is set mainly on a ship transporting Irish immigrants to New York in 1847, while Peter Behrens’ 2006 epic Law of Dreams follows a Famine émigré from Wales to England to America. Acclaimed children’s book author Walter Dean Myers even got in on the act, dissecting race and immigration in mid-19th Century New York in his 2009 young adult book Riot!

Faye’s Gods of Gotham was not even the only 19th Century New York Irish immigrant novel to be released this season. Peter Troy’s May the Road Rise to Meet You (Doubleday) also looks at the Irish Famine era through the eyes of two Irish brothers who survived the horrors of the Great Hunger and struggled to create new lives in New York.

Lindsay Faye’s book is not quite as sweeping as Troy’s decades-spanning novel, which travels to the front lines of the Civil War and the slave-worked cotton fields of the South. Faye, instead, focuses on a dramatized version of real events in 1845, when waves of Famine Irish began arriving in New York, just in time for the formation of the modern New York City Police Department. Faye’s strength here is most certainly her recreation of the sights, smells and sounds of an old New York summer. During a particularly pungent walk to the Tombs prison, for example, “the heat send[s] sharp wafts of scorched horse urine and baked stone” into the air.

Faye also puts to good use George Washington Matsell’s The Secret Language of Crime, an 1850s tome dedicated to the insular street language known as “flash,” rumored to have originated among England’s criminal classes. (A fine complimentary volume is the late Daniel Cassidy’s How the Irish Invented Slang: Secret Language of the Crossroads, which posits that much of America’s urban underclass lingo actually has its origins in Irish Gaelic; surprisingly, we don’t hear much Irish Gaelic in Gods of Gotham.)

As for Faye’s characters and plot, they are absorbing and faithful to many of the conventions of the genre. The cast is led by Timothy Wilde, a not-so-wild, downright reluctant police officer with a soft spot for children because his own youth was far from idyllic. Wilde was brought onto New York’s new police force by his brother, a Democratic political operative with a weakness for women and the opium pipe.

One evening, while “crossing Elizabeth Street,” Wilde literally runs into a ten year-old girl “covered in blood.” After this, we spiral back to Timothy’s meeting with the Dickensianly-named Mercy Underhill, with whom it is “ridiculously easy” to “fall in love.” She is the proper yet plucky daughter of the Reverend Thomas Underhill, and spends her days “tending to low Irish families, against all sense,” as one anti-immigrant character puts it.

An enormous fire displaces and disfigures Officer Wilde, forcing him to a new residence where he meets up with one of the thousands of Irish street children left more or less to their own devices. We may well wring our hands at the state of the young urban poor these days, but Faye reminds us that the 19th Century situation was decidedly more outrageous.

As with Jonathan Lethem’s recent Chronic City, Faye seems to nod towards 9/11 by plunging downtown Manhattan into a state of chaos and destruction in the wake of the enormous fire. “Smoke assaulted my nostrils,” Officer Wilde notes, amidst “embers pulsating within the rubbish heaps.”

Faye also touches upon the complicated racial politics of the time. In the Five Points, the “blacks and Irish are too poor to care a bent penny about living together,” and indeed the neighborhood’s rate of interracial marriage was actually quite high.

All in all, however, Faye opts to avoid an extended look at the era’s racial and ethnic politics, in part (presumably) because it might bog down her narrative. The Gods of Gotham is thrust into overdrive when Officer Wilde’s bloody young friend reveals a grotesque turn of events: numerous Irish street children have been slaughtered and buried by a “child-loathing maniac.” To make matters worse, letters have been sent to the police signed by a mysterious group calling itself “the Gods of Gotham,” though it’s not clear if the letters have been sent by a zealous Irish Catholic bent on revenge or a nativist posing as such.

Wilde and Mercy set about the task of solving the murders, before religious hatred engulfs the city. Faye does a fine job establishing the era’s rabid anti-Catholicism, so much so that the snippets of hatred which kick off each chapter, from actual texts of the day, eventually seem redundant. Similarly, while the murders and the broader tension of the day build up to a riot (whipped up by one Bill “the Butcher” Poole, the inspiration for Daniel Day-Lewis’ character in Gangs of New York), Faye is ultimately more interested in the brothers Wilde hurling the skeletons from their respective closets and coming to terms with their traumatic childhoods.

Perhaps the most intriguing trick up Faye’s sleeve is the one she performs involving Mercy Underhill. It may not seem entirely plausible to some readers, but it creates a particularly difficult dilemma for lovestruck Timothy Wilde.

All in all, Faye has done a commendable job creating a sense of life in the city in 1845, as well as compelling individual characters motivated by distinct forces. In the end, of course, this is a thriller, so those seeking a certain measure of ambiguity, of quotidian insight unrelated to plot, may not get what they are looking for. Similarly, phrases such as “wearing naught but underclothes” might start to rub a few readers the wrong way. Still, Faye’s read is not only captivating, its history is sharp and should intrigue those unfamiliar with these colorful, important times. That this is Faye’s debut novel makes the accomplishments of The Gods of Gotham all the more impressive, and the anticipation for her follow-up that much stronger.

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