New York City, 1845, a city in the midst of a population explosion. Timothy Wilde, a member of the newly established New York City Police Department, stumbles upon a horrific crime – and goes from being a beat cop to the city’s first detective, who must investigate the murders of orphaned Irish children.
Immaculately researched and plotted, with intriguing history and no shortage of period atmosphere, Lyndsay Faye has a created one of the most compelling historical mysteries in recent memory.
Mark your calendars for March 20th. Destined to be one of the best historical mysteries of the year: Indigo Recommends Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham. We’re pleased to present an excerpt from Chapter One of this extraordinary novel, and introduce its narrator, Timothy Wilde.
The little girl was aged ten, sixty-two pounds, dressed in a delicate white shift with a single row of lace along the wide, finely stitched collar. Her dark auburn curls were pulled into a loose knot at the top of her head. The breeze through the open casement felt hot where her nightdress slipped from one shoulder and her bare feet touched the hardwood. She suddenly wondered if there could be a spyhole in her bedroom wall. None of the boys or girls had ever yet found one, but it was the sort of thing they would do. And that night, every pocket of air seemed breath on flesh, slowing her movements to sluggish, watery starts.
She exited through the window of her room by tying three stolen ladies’ stockings together and fixing the end to the lowest catch on the iron shutter. Standing up, she pulled her nightgown away from her body. It was wet through to her skin, and the clinging fabric made her flesh crawl. When she’d stepped blindly out the window clutching the hose, the August air bloated and pulsing, she slid down the makeshift rope before dropping to an empty beer barrel.
The child quit Greene Street by way of Prince before facing the wild river of Broadway, dressed for her bedroom and hugging the shadows like a lifeline. Everything blurs on Broadway at ten o’clock at night. She braved a flash torrent of watered silk. Glib-eyed men in double vests of black velvet stampeded into saloons cloaked from floor to ceiling in mirrors. Stevedores, politicians, merchants, a group of newsboys with unlit cigars tucked in their rosy lips. A thousand floating pairs of vigilant eyes. A thousand ways to be caught. And the sun had fallen, so the frail sisterhood haunted every corner: chalk-bosomed whores desperately pale beneath the rouge, their huddles of five and six determined by brothel kinships and by who wore diamonds and who could only afford cracked and yellowing paste copies.
The little girl could spot out even the richest and healthiest of the street bats for what they really were. She knew the mabs from the ladies instantly.
When she spied a gap in the buttery hacks and carriages, she darted like a moth out of the shadows. Willing herself invisible, winging across the huge thoroughfare eastward. Her naked feet met the slick, tarry waste that curdled up higher than the cobbles, and she nearly stumbled on a gnawed ear of corn.
Her heart leaped, a single jolt of panic. She’d fall—they’d see her and it would all be over.
Did they kill the other kinchin slow or quick?
But she didn’t fall. The carriage lights veering off scores of plate-glass windows were behind her, and she was flying again. A few girlish gasps and one yell of alarm marked her trail.
Nobody chased her. But that was nobody’s fault, really, not in a city of this size. It was only the callousness of four hundred thousand people, blending into a single blue-black pool of unconcern. That’s what we copper stars are for, I think . . . to be the few who stop and look.
She said later that she was seeing in badly done paintings— everything crude and two-dimensional, the brick buildings dripping watercolor edges. I’ve suffered that state myself, the not-being-there. She recollects a rat gnawing at a piece of oxtail on the pavement, then nothing. Stars in a midsummer sky. The light clatter of the New York and Harlem train whirring by on iron railway tracks, the coats of its two overheated horses wet and oily in the gaslight. A passenger in a stovepipe hat staring back blankly the way they’d come, trailing his watch over the window ledge with his fingertips. The door open on a sawdusty slaughter shop, as they’re called, half-finished cabinetry and dismembered chairs pouring into the street, as scattered as her thoughts. Then another length of clotted silence, seeing nothing. She reluctantly pulled the stiffening cloth away from her skin once more.
The girl veered onto Walker Street, passing a group of dandies with curled and gleaming soaplocks framing their monocles, fresh and vigorous after a session with the marble baths of Stoppani’s. They thought little enough of her, though, because of course she was running hell for leather into the cesspit of the Sixth Ward, and so naturally she must have belonged there.
She looked Irish, after all. She was Irish. What sane man would worry over an Irish girl flying home?
Well, I would.
I lend considerably more of my brain to vagrant children. I’m much closer to the question. First, I’ve been one, or near enough to it. Second, star police are meant to capture the bony, grime-cheeked kinchin when we can. Corral them like cattle, then pack them in a locked wagon rumbling up Broadway to the House of Refuge. The e urchins are lower in our society than the Jersey cows, though, and herding is easier on livestock than on stray humans. Children stare back with something too hot to be malice, something helpless yet fiery when police corner them . . . something I recognize. And so I will never, not under any circumstances, never will I do such a thing. Not if my job depended on it. Not if my life did. Not if my brother’s life did.
I wasn’t musing over stray kids the night of August twenty-first, though. I was crossing Elizabeth Street, posture about as stalwart as a bag of sand. Half an hour before, I’d taken my copper star off in disgust and thrown it against a wall. By that point, however, it was shoved in my pocket, digging painfully into my fingers along with my house key, and I was cursing my brother’s name in a soothing inner prayer. Feeling angry is far and away easier for me than feeling lost.
God damn Valentine Wilde, I was repeating, and God damn every bright idea in his goddamned head.
Then the girl slammed into me unseeing, aimless as a torn piece of paper on the wind.
I caught her by the arms. Her dry, flitting eyes shone out pale grey even in the smoke-sullied moonlight, like shards of a gargoyle’s wing knocked from a church tower. She had an unforgettable face, square as a picture frame, with somber swollen lips and a perfect snub nose. There was a splash of faint freckles across the tops of her shoulders, and she lacked height for a ten-year-old, though she carried herself so fluid that she can seem taller in memory than in person.
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.
Excerpted from the book The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye.
Copyright © 2012 by Lyndsay Faye
Reprinted with permission of Penguin Books Canada.
The Indigo Blog thanks Penguin Canada for their assistance with this piece, & wish Lyndsay best of luck with his exceptional novel.