The year is 1845. Timothy Wilde has just lost everything he had in the fire that destroyed much of lower Manhattan, left with a quarter of his face burned and no home or job. Due to connections through his brother, Valentine, and his ability to understand the flash vernacular, Tim accepts a position as a Copper Star on New York City’s newly established police department. His beat borders the Five Points neighborhood (highlighted in the film “Gangs of New York”), one of the most crime-infested parts of the city. On his way to work one morning, a little girl covered in blood runs into him, leading Tim into an investigation and deeper into the part of the city he’d sooner avoid.
Tim’s relationship with his brother is volatile – he is grateful to Val for looking after him when their parents were killed in a fire, but despises him for his work as a fireman, unable to understand why Val would risk his life in such a way. Timothy also pines for Mercy Underhill, daughter of the Protestant minister who aided the Wilde boys when their parents died, who tends to ill children regardless of religion or nationality. But the burns on his face, the loss of all of his possessions and his job as a Copper Star keep Timothy from pursuing her.
The Copper Stars are not wildly accepted in Manhattan, the inhabitants resent the presumed need for law enforcement and believe they are capable of policing themselves. The mass arrival of immigrants from Ireland due to the potato famine, many of whom take jobs as Copper Stars, doesn’t help the public’s disapproval of the police force, as the Irish are largely despised by the Americans.
The The Gods of Gotham is told solely from Timothy’s point of view, as if he’s writing his memoir of his start as a Copper Star, and the format works well. The story unravels slowly, with details only becoming apparent when necessary, and while some more perceptive readers may figure out some of the mystery, there are enough threads to unravel to keep most people guessing. One sympathizes with Timothy while also encouraging him to find his place and move on with his life.
While stories that take place in NYC have always interested me, those that take place while the city was still developing and expanding fascinate me. I’ve seen The Gods of Gotham compared to Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, and I think the comparison is an apt one. Both revolve around the development of procedures that are still in use today. For some reason I picture that time in history in a sort of black and white, with horse-drawn carriages and street urchins rounding out the picture.
I recommend The Gods of Gotham to those who enjoy well-drawn characters, lively backdrops and a good mystery.