Lyndsay Faye moved from California’s Bay Area to New York City in 2005, intending to advance her stage-acting career. Instead, she turned to fiction writing.
Her debut novel, Dust and Shadow (2009), drew Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson into a suspenseful pursuit of London’s most notorious and mysterious murderer, Jack the Ripper. That wasn’t a wholly unique plotting concept; Ellery Queen (in A Study in Terror, 1966), Michael Dibdin (The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, 1978) and Edward B. Hanna (The Whitechapel Murders, 1992) had all imagined an identical pairing of bloodhound and blackguard. Yet Faye found in the Ripper investigation numerous ways to illuminate both Holmes’ character and his Victorian milieu.
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After mimicking Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Faye was better prepared to tackle her second book, The Gods of Gotham. It takes place in New York City in 1845 and introduces Timothy Wilde, a fire-scarred and love-starved ex-bartender who—thanks to the intervention (or meddling, as he first sees it) of his politically connected elder brother, Valentine—joins the then-new New York Police Department.
Wilde is quickly embroiled in the case of a 10-year-old girl who escaped from one of the town’s tonier brothels, covered in blood. Plumbing her story leads the young “copper star,” as Manhattan’s early patrolmen were known, to a field of concealed corpses and into the company of resourceful paperboys, and tosses him into the midst of anti-Irish violence that could destroy his city just as surely as the fires periodically besieging its skyline.
I talked with Faye recently about her evolution as an author, crime solving in the mid-19th century and the street jargon that suffuses her new novel’s dialogue.
Dust and Shadow found Sherlock Holmes hunting Jack the Ripper. The Gods of Gotham, while also a historical crime novel, is a creation wholly of your own imagining. Was it harder to compose a book without Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s storytelling template?
Well, I’d never have been able to write a novel in the first place if it hadn’t had a very exact template. I was a double major in English and acting, but I’ve never taken anything resembling a creative-writing course, though I was an editor for the campus literary magazine.
So I’d no idea what I was doing, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of the greatest storytellers of all time—writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche essentially gave me an intensive crash course in the basics. And of course, the Ripper crimes actually happened; to an enormous extent the storyline is set. With Dust and Shadow, I was weaving fiction into fact, but what made my great hubris in thinking I could actually complete a novel possible was the fact that the events themselves were linear and inalterable…
To some extent, writing Gods of Gotham was easier because no one was looking over my shoulder, telling me I’d gotten it wrong. But to start with a tabula rasa like that—it’s a terrifying void, creating your own universe. Starting with nothing and conjuring people. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Holmes and Watson are iconic—you know where they’re at from page one. Gods of Gotham was mythmaking, not retelling, so I had to learn the ropes all over again.
Although Holmes was brilliant, even he faced crime-solving challenges—and that was in the 1880s and later, when there was at least some scientific element to criminal investigations. Your own detective, Timothy Wilde, works in comparative blindness during the 1840s. What research did you do to make the sleuthing practices in The Gods of Gotham accurate?
It was horrendously difficult to dredge up accounts of the day-to-day lives of the first policemen—plenty of people recorded the fact of the NYPD’s formation but not the techniques used. I studied the methods employed by the constables during the Mary Rogers case in 1841, the infamous mystery of the “Beautiful Cigar Girl.” And I found a diary at the New York Historical Society written by a copper star named William Bell, who actually wrote down what his rounds entailed.
But to an enormous extent, crime solving was about common sense—there was so little science involved, they relied on an intimate knowledge of their community and its particular gallery of rogues.
Religious tensions figure into your story, because Wilde fears the child murders he’s investigating are rooted in anti-Catholic ire. To what degree was the animosity toward Catholics back then symptomatic of a more widespread fear of rising Irish immigration, and how much was a specific objection to Catholicism as a faith?
To a certain extent, a country partially founded by people who were fleeing religious persecution from Papists was bound to think harshly of Catholicism—a reference in the New England Primer of 1690 to the “arrant Whore of Rome” is a good example. Catholics were not considered Christians; they were cultists, followers of a perverse corruption. So up to a point, Americans were culturally disposed to fear the religion and those who practiced it.
In another sense, Catholicism had nothing whatsoever to do with the persecution of the Irish. It was about economics. In times of economic uncertainty, immigration is always denigrated in favor of “natives” keeping what little they have, which is to some extent laughable during the era I was dealing with because the “natives” had only been here for a generation or two, in many cases. They were one step away from being Dutch or English—they certainly weren’t referring to the Mohawk or the Delaware or the Mohican tribes when they called themselves Nativists. You see it with every immigrant group in its turn—it would happen to the Italians, and the Chinese, and the Poles, and the Puerto Ricans, and many others, the arguments against their being here couched in alarmingly predictable terminology. It happens to Hispanic people and Muslim Americans today, sadly.
There are two significant relationships in Wilde’s life: one with his tougher and more licentious brother, Valentine; and the other with Mercy Underhill, a clergyman’s daughter he thinks is devastatingly attractive and entirely unattainable. What do those relationships bring to this tale?
For me, Gods of Gotham is actually much more about Timothy and his relationships with his brother and the woman he loves than it is about crime. I don’t want to go so far as to say the crime is incidental, but an argument could be made that’s the case—what’s important to me isn’t the series of circumstances, but the way they reveal character and break Tim’s heart and change his perspective and turn him into a different person. That being said, we’re always the most affected by those we love most, and so the obvious route to creating a compelling story is to feature those relationships that are going to uplift and devastate and annoy and gladden and infuriate your hero.
Valentine is necessary in a technical sense because I couldn’t come up with any other way to get a largely apolitical man like Tim onto the copper stars than through nepotism. He’s necessary in an emotional sense because he’s everything Timothy admires and loathes all wrapped into one package, and there’s something incredibly beautiful about complicated love.
Mercy is necessary in a technical sense because she’s the romantic interest—the unattainable star the dark detective sets his cap for. She’s necessary in an emotional sense because Tim adores her and that’s all there is to it, without conditions or even very much introspection, and there’s something incredibly beautiful about uncomplicated love.
There’s much in your novel about “flash talk,” or the lexicon employed by thieves and other street ruffians. I found it interesting that many of today’s common slang terms originated in that underworld argot. Do you have favorite examples of how “flash talk” has endured?
Oh, absolutely. As slang developed and infiltrated and spread, people began to notice and to mock it to some extent. This practice included a group of people in New York and Boston who liked to abbreviate common phrases, but spelled incorrectly in imitation of heavy working-class accents. They took the phrase “oll korrect” and abbreviated it to “O.K.” We’ve been saying it ever since.
You certainly left open the possibility of there being a sequel to The Gods of Gotham. Can I assume that we’ll see more of Timothy Wilde and his copper-starred compatriots in the future?
The first draft of the sequel is finished, actually. It’s the winter of 1846, about six months later, and in it I merrily continue to do terrible, terrible things to Tim and Val.