In her pitch-perfect sequel to the Edgar-nominated mystery The Gods of Gotham, Lyndsay Faye returns to the 1840s with newly minted “copper star” Timothy Wilde once again hitting the streets as an intuitive investigator, positioned high among the ranks of New York City’s first police force. Faye’s eye for detail brings to life the city streets and the people who live there, from poor immigrants looking for shelter to conniving politicians looking for votes. The accurately rendered historical setting anchors Faye’s story in time and gives her characters a regrettably plausible mystery to solve: Where are Mrs. Lucy Adams’ sister and son, free blacks who have been kidnapped from their home by lawless slave traders? And what other crimes, and criminals, will Wilde expose in his quest to bring Lucy’s family home again?
Faye skillfully juggles a number of multifaceted characters and keeps readers just a little unsure what each might do next. Wilde appears righteous and law-abiding, for instance, but isn’t above relocating a corpse if it might prevent his brother Valentine from becoming a murder suspect. Said brother is, on the surface, reckless and rude, but he’s also brilliant and endlessly loyal to the brother whose often-awkward problem-solving methods drive him crazy. The banter between the siblings is one of the novel’s great delights, as their mutual aggravation and affection become clearer with each step they take toward solving the crime. Other colorful characters round out Wilde’s world, like ruthless Madam Silkie Marsh, no-nonsense landlady Mrs. Boehm and the precocious wise child, Bird, who has a lot to learn about the world but also a lot to teach.
It’s the people who inhabit Wilde’s world that keep the historical setting from ever feeling like a mere backdrop. Instead, the city is part and parcel of their everyday lives, and Wilde’s case reflects the realities of the day. We meet a starving Irish family begging at Val’s doorstep, and we hear Wilde’s arguments in a court as he attempts to clear a hardworking free man of false accusations. Even the dialogue reflects the times, as Faye makes liberal use of “flash,” or street language, an amalgamation of British, German, Dutch and Yiddish that has characters calling houses “kens” and sitting at the dinner table to “yam” their pigeon pie. It’s like Faye has dropped us directly into the ebb and flow of city life circa 1846, which makes solving the crime a personal quest not just for Wilde, but for readers as well.