I was lucky enough to be given a proof of Gods of Gotham last October and having read it through straight away (was meeting the author at a dinner so thought it would be a good idea to sound intelligent), have had to sit on the review until now as I didn't want to write about it and then have it lost in the Mists of Random.
Well, publication day is almost here, 15 March 2012 (ooh Beware the Ides...) and this really is a book that comes under the heading of Must Read. It is set around New York's Five Points in the mid nineteenth century, during the summer of 1845 when the Great Irish Famine began and NY is flooded with desperate immigrants. Social chaos ensures and the founding of the NYPD is an attempt to bring order. The central character, Timothy WIlde, is one of the first brave 'copper stars' in that early police force.
The first chapter gets off to a cracking start:
"On the night of 21 August 1845 one of the children escaped. The little girl was aged ten, dressed in a delicate white shift with a single row of lace along the wide, finely stitched collar. She exited through the window of her room by tying three stolen ladies' stockings together and fixing the end to the lowers catch on the iron shutter"
Timothy Wilde is out in the night "the girl slammed into me, aimless as a torn piece of paper on the wind. I caught her by the arms. She had an unforgettable face, square as a picture frame, with somber swollen lips and a perfect snub nose..........but the only thing I noticed clearly when she stumbled to a halt against my legs as I stood in front of my house that night was how very thoroughly she was covered in blood"
Now you have to admit that is quite a start and I was hooked straight away. The sights, sounds and smells of the old city are there, they leap off the page at you and there is a lushness and febrile intensity to the writing which put me in mind of The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, it has the same slight edge of decadence and something vaguely rotten in the air.
Timothy searches out the truth from the child's wild stories. She has escaped from a brothel and it seems a brutal killer is on the loose and it is not long before a field where the grisly remains of multiple bodies is uncovered. All those dead were children "Did they kill the other kinchin slow or quick?"
Difficult to do justice to this wonderful book. I have mentioned in the past that there are some book reviews where I find it impossible not to use the word 'teem' and this is another such. The streets of New York do teem, there is no other word for it: "Colored footman sitting atop phaetons and wearing summer straw hats and pale green linen coats whirred past me, one nearly colliding with a Jewess selling ribbons from a wide hinged box hung round her neck. Ice delivery men from the Knickerbocker company, shoulders knotted with painful seeming muscles, strained with iron tongs to hoist frozen blocks onto cards.....and weaving in and out, mud crusted and randy and miraculously nimble, trotted the speckled pigs, rubbery snouts nuzzling the trampled beet leaves. Everything begrimed, but the storefront windowpanes, everything for sale but the cobblestones, everyone pulsing with energy but never meeting your eye"
Transport Dickens to New York and this is the sort of descriptive narrative you would get. I was bowled over by this book and, though I would love to write more on this post, it is almost impossible to pull out all the strands of the plot, so closely and intricately do they interweave with each other. If I tried I would do it very badly and this post would be never ending. Suffice it to say, that I think this is a marvellous book, full of colour and vivid imagery, beautifully written, characters that just leap off the page and grab you by the throat and the denouement and resolution is nothing, simply nothing as I imagined it would be.
I have already mentioned that I had the pleasure of meeting the author at a dinner given by her publishers, Headline, and here we are.
I found her to be charming, witty and great company. But then if you had written a book like The Gods of Gotham, you are unlikely to be boring...