Friday, March 16, 2012

When NYC was the Frontier, and the Law was Wild

Review, Lindsay Faye, The Gods of Gotham

The legendary NYPD wasn’t always a beloved emblem of the rule of law; New York, one of America’s last East Coast cities to found a municipal police department, resisted keeping a “standing army” for years. Heaven only knows how many crimes went unsolved in that time. Lyndsay Faye discovered a crime that shocked the nascent NYPD, and spins it into an alternatingly gripping and sluggish yarn.

In 1845, Timothy Wilde loses everything in a fire that demolishes much of lower Manhattan. His brother Valentine, a Tammany Hall maharajah, saves him from a relentless funk by making him a “copper star,” a ward patrolman in the new police department. Though Timothy considers this a stopgap, he comes into his own when a poor Irish girl, soaked in blood, leads him and his fellow lawmen to a rotten brothel and a mass child grave.

Faye crafts a compelling story of law enforcement at a time of social upheaval and rudimentary technology. Set at a time when forensic science was new and untested, her story turns on subtle examinations of individual coppers’ trailblazing insight and unstinting will. Without precedent to fall back on, or technology to do the heavy lifting, procedures most TV cops would consider routine become revolutionary triumphs.

Timothy Wilde lives in a New York we would scarcely recognize. Less than one percent of its current population clings to the southern tip of Manhattan, surrounded by bucolic farms and virgin woodland, complaining about overcrowding. An explosion of poor Irish, displaced by massive potato failures, have initiated race riots, anti-Papist populism, and a two-tiered economy almost unmatched for casual inhumanity in world history.

Amid this, America still struggles to define its mature role in an industrial world. As the Revolution passes out of living memory, its principles have become a secular religion. Politics often consists, not of debate and resolution, but of bloody noses and of stolen ballot boxes fished from the Hudson. And the NYPD, far from a bastion of city heroism, is a network of patronage plums and of working stiffs getting spat on by nativist zealots.

Wilde makes inroads in a hideous crime despite mind-boggling obstacles. His superiors, connected men mostly born well, have little interest in a criminal hunting mere Irish child whores. Naked bigotry among the poor turns the city into racial and ethnic enclaves, and Wilde’s brother, who could clear the path, would rather cull votes. In spite of this, Wilde perseveres, making legal history every step of the way.

I admit, I’m the jerk who shouts the culprit out during Act II in every CSI episode. Mystery, because it relies on identical tropes reassembled like Lego blocks, tends to be very predictable. Not this one. Because Timothy Wilde and his fellow copper stars have no precedent to rely on, every situation is new. Every revelation is surprising. And at any moment, the story could literally go in any direction, or none at all.

But, as in all historical fiction, Faye performs a high wire act, trying not to bore readers explicating the obvious, while also struggling to clarify a world wildly different from our own. Many writers with longer résumés stumble on this goal, and Faye, too, leads us down some cow paths. She spends sixty pages clearing her throat and explaining her setting. We nearly reach page 200 before we even have a crime scene.

Consider this expository quote, at the beginning of the fire that realigns Timothy Wilde’s life: “‘Jesus have mercy,’ he said. ‘If the fire hits his stock of whale oil—’” Faced with a commercial fire headed for the volatiles, how many of us could construct a prepositional phrase? But in this, as in other discursive passages, Wilde as Faye’s mouthpiece must explain the world of 1845 to us tech-weaned provincials.

I wish I could say this was only a minor distraction. But Faye’s exposition, which often consists of characters explaining the world to each other, repeatedly derails the narrative. I understand that Faye must keep us apace, but if an editor judiciously trimmed the long expository passages, Faye could lighten a fairly long book by as much as a fifth. In books, as in cinema, the cutting room has saved many a story from itself.

Which is a shame, all things being equal. Faye constructs an interesting story with fascinating characters and an electric situation. If she just wielded the red pen as firmly as the black one, this book would surpass being merely good, and approach possible greatness.

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