Saturday, May 19, 2012

East side, west side

Let us take a moment to ponder the holds list.  The Hunger Games has 800+ holds on it right now, and the book on CD version is just tipping over the 300 mark (statewide holds on the downloadable version are at 800).  The new buzz-y book The Lifeboat has 143 holds, and the book that was featured on today's Weekend Edition, Bunch of Amateurs, suddenly has seven.  The Gods of Gotham currently has 40 holds, but the audiobook was sitting on the shelf (and is back there today) when a reader who often reads what I like recommended it to me. (Although she -- like many -- compared it to The Alienist (five holds), which I read, enjoyed but didn't think I needed another [I'm vaguely remembering a disappointing sequel?].)

I felt so lucky!  Maybe I'll move it to Staff Picks later today .... Lyndsay Faye has written a (literal) barnburner, where her command of historical research is evident in a huge cast of lively characters, an oppressive and humid, yet vivid setting, and bad deeds by pretty much everyone.  If the audiobook is residing unloved at your library, go get it now.

Timothy Wolfe was orphaned at 12 when a fire raged through his family's homestead in 1830s New York City.  Raised by his ne'er-do-well older brother, Valentine, and succored by the kindness of the Reverend Underhill and his beloved daughter, Mercy, Tim has been contentedly tending bar and saving his money so he can propose to Mercy and maybe take her to London, where she can write books.  His dreams go up in smoke again, during a conflagration on July 19, 1845 that destroys both his workplace and his home, badly scarring his face as he attempts to retrieve his savings.

Forced to take a job, courtesy of Valentine's (and the Democratic Party) patronage, with the newly formed New York City Police Department, Tim dons the copper star and makes his rounds of the Sixth Ward, home to the notorious Five Points slum (immortalized in the movie [which takes place later in time] Gangs of New York).  The Sixth Ward is where most of the Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine are settling, much to the chagrin of the City's upstanding Protestants.  One of his first cases involves sending a young Irish woman to The Tombs for strangling her infant.

Disheartened he considers quitting, but on his way home early one morning (he patrolled 16 hours a day), a little girl (a "kinchin") barrels into him.  Her fancy nightgown is soaked in blood, and she whispers, "They'll tear him to pieces."  After determining that it is not her blood, Tim takes her to his German landlady and the two of them clean her up and slowly earn her trust so that she tells them her story.  Bird has escaped from the house of a popular madam, Silkie Marsh, who claims that the children in her care are servants, not "stargazers" (prostitutes).  Silkie claims to know nothing of the hooded figure Bird has seen carrying large bundles -- bundles the size of a small child -- out of her house, not even when 19 corpses are found buried in the country, a little bit north of West 30th Street.  Police Superintendent George Washington Matsell decides to pull Timothy from his rounds and give him the job of solving the crime, not preventing it hopefully before anti-Catholic hatred reaches its boiling point.

Faye's research seems impec-cable to me.  She begins each chapter with a primary source quotation (mostly from anti-Catholic screeds), but there is not a speck of the dust of history in her story.  Everything is fully realized here -- from the privy where the insane Irishwoman stuffed her baby to the opulent dresses of Silkie Marsh to the sweet, stifling bakery where Tim rents his room.  The use of the street "flash-patter" is appropriate and doesn't get in the way of narrative (when Tim has to explain what something means, it's smoothly done).  The characters will surprise you -- no one in this book is who you think they are -- and while most are not motivated by anything other than profit or survival, they are largely sympathetic.  No one can be completely evil in a society that is so corrupted.  According to a review in the Washington Post, "Timothy Wilde is apparently polishing his copper star for a second outing."  Can't come soon enough for me!

Steven Boyer, a narrator whose steady, unglamorous work didn't immediately bring him to mind as the reader for this book, does his usual fine job here.  He's gives Timothy a calm delivery that also makes clear the many, many emotions roiling beneath the surface: his love for Mercy, his complicated relationship with Valentine, his growing affection for young Bird, and a commitment to his work that surprises him.  There's no really dramatic voicing in his narration and Boyer delineates gender and age clearly but without caricature.  That's what I mean by "unglamorous," which -- once I began listening -- I soon realized that the novel doesn't need drama from its reader, there is plenty to go around!  Following conversations isn't difficult and Boyer keeps the tension up.  (Bird is removed from Tim's care without his knowledge in one scene and his mad dash to rescue her was riveting.  It was one of those listening moments where you aren't going to stop until it's over.)

Faye's previous novel brought Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper together, and that one's narrated by Simon Vance.  I am still waiting for my transcendental S.V. experience.  Tempting ...

[N. Currier's "View of the terrific explosion at the Great Fire of New York. From Broad St. July 19th, 1845" is housed in the New York Public Library's Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.]

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
Narrated by Steven Boyer
Penguin Audio (cover says Dreamscape Media), 2012.  12:11

No comments: