The premise of Lyndsay Faye's fascinating novel, The Gods of Gotham, was always going to be difficult to resist. Set against the backdrop of the great fire of New York City in 1845 it tells a story of the birth of the famous NYPD amid a great political dispute and the tidal wave of immigrants arriving from Ireland to escape the catastrophic potato famine.
There's a great deal to like about Faye's book - not least a cracking murder mystery investigated by the nascent "Copper Stars" force - but chief among them is a great wealth of historical detail outlining one of the pivotal periods of development of one of the world's great cities.
Faye's story takes place at a time when lower Manhattan is a combustible - quite literally in 1845 - cocktail of commerce and poverty, in which great fortunes are being made and laying the foundations of the City's global financial dominance but while tens of thousands of immigrants, blacks and native (not Red Indian, you understand) Americans are hovering on a desperate breadline.
Many passages of the book take the reader into quite desperate corners of humanity: brothels exploiting orphan and other lost children; the most deprived and depraved slums, such as the Five Points where misery is a constant companion to many who have fallen through the cracks of a brutal and merciless society. These passages reminded me of The People of the Abyss, Jack London's stark 1903 account of life in late Victorian East London, which detailed the struggle of the poor living on the doorstep of what was then the world's wealthiest city.
The Gods of Gotham is also an extaordinary reminder of the youth of the United States of America in general and of New York City in particular. In 1845 New York City had a population under 375,000 but was expanding at a staggering rate (by 1860 it had more than doubled) as waves of immigrants landed from the old world in search of a better life or in flight from persecution or economic disaster. But while Faye describes life in a densely packed Manhattan she also describes the orchards, woods and farmlands that separate the City from Harlem - scenes that's are unimaginable now.
The huge and unfettered growth of Gotham creates the conditions that make it necessary for the City's fathers to instigate its first police force: not least the religious and economic tension between the new arrivals with their "popery" and the city's existing residents who fear for their jobs, their way of life and even their lives at the hands of the demonised, dehumanised Irish.
Into this heady mess our hero Timothy Wilde is pitched. After his savings and his dreams of marriage go up in flames during the fire, his politico brother Valentine arranges a commission for Tim in the newly former Copper Star force, walking the beat in the dangerous 6th ward - "hell's privy pit".
As Tim adjusts unhappily to his new life and circumstances, he has his world turned upside a second tiem when a young, terrified girl, covered in blood, runs into him during his rounds. Tim takes the girl to his landlady for care and shortly after is confronted with a second, bllody child - this one dead in suspicious circumstances.
Tim's investigations, gently encouraged by George Washington Matsell, a historical figure later to become the City's first Commissioner of Police, open up a can of worm that the City's political agitators are determined to turn into a religious war on the Irish.
It's a heady, raucous brew, enlivened by extraordinary characters such as the City's army of paperboy entrpreneurs, an early anatomist and Matsell himself. Early NYC is vividly brought to life and the story is further enriched by the liberal use of the "Flash" language, the Rogue's Lexicon recorded for posterity by Matsell.
Faye keeps an ambitious and involved plot moving at a good speed and doesn't let her clear fascination for the history hinder the unfolding of her story. The Gods of Gotham is a worthy addition to the historical crime canon, and I hope a second installment follows.