One of the real joys of crime fiction blogging over the last seven or so years has been the opportunity to discover new writers right at the beginning of their careers. There is something delicious about discovering something special, and at first holding that secret tight before having the opportunity to shout it out to the world.
That’s exactly how I felt on reading Lyndsay Faye’s novel of 1840s New York policing, The Gods of Gotham last year. The review published shortly afterwards – “a heady raucous brew” – tried to communicate something of that excitement and ended by calling for more. Earlier this month, more landed in the shape of Faye’s sequel, Seven for a Secret, with its “explosive and compelling plot, rich with mystery, historical detail and political intrigue”.
Seven for a Secret confirmed what The Gods of Gotham had suggested: that Faye is set for great things. Her tales have just about everything you’d want from historical fiction, a rich and emphatic sense of place and time, wonderful characters and fast and action-packed plots. All of that is drawn together by effervescent writing that screams off the page.
It is the place and time that first grabs you in the book, in part because it is just so surprising. New York City is now the world’s city, a dominating centre of commerce and culture, one of the great human crossroads. But in 1845 it was a relatively small place, with a population of just 375,000 crushed into a squalid, chaotic corner of Manhattan.
“I find that fascinating—what did New York City look like before it was a worldwide phenomenon?” Faye says. “Meanwhile, as far as the infrastructure was concerned, they were much worse off squeezed into the lower half of downtown than we are today. I don’t want to downplay poverty in modern Manhattan, but generally if we walk past a corpse, we at least notice the fact. The New York I’m writing about is still a mixture of pastures, gutters, and palaces. It’s an amazing thought exercise to picture it. I’ve been very lucky to be allowed to live in that world for so long.”
The grinding and hopeless poverty of some communities – particularly immigrant communities – is a constant companion in the novels. Faye sees parallels with modern New York, even if the similarities manifest themselves in very different ways.
“We’re a sanitized version of the identical animal,” she says. “Now we have lovely measures to implement bike paths, soup kitchens, assist the needy, place the underfed in lucrative jobs, etc. None of that means we’ve moved past notions of the ‘deserving’ vs. the ‘undeserving’ poor. We still live in a My Fair Lady la-la land in this town. You’re not doing well? Well, what’s wrong with you?”
Nonetheless describing herself jokingly as a real New Yorker - “which means I was born somewhere else”- she is not completely giving up on the prospect of the City embracing universal brotherhood, even if New York’s altruism most often manifests itself in the grand gesture at time of crisis rather than small and random acts of kindness.
“I must say that I admire New York wholeheartedly for taking care of its own when the necessity arises. Ground Zero, Hurricane Sandy…everyone steps up to the plate, to a large degree become heroes when large things happen,” she says. “When a small thing happens, like a guy asking for change, for any number of reasons we tend to turn away.”
It is a broad and rich canvass for an author, embracing politics, corruption, crime and the social condition in a rapidly growing and changing world. For Faye the birth of the police service has particular appeal.
“Origin stories are fascinating,” she says. “Why does Batman wear the latex nipple suit? Why does Frodo care about the One Ring being destroyed? Did Walt have a good reason to start cooking meth? We want to know what happened on The First Day Things Went South.”
At the heart of the origin story is Timothy Wilde: impoverished, burned and nearly killed in the great fire of 1845, he turned to crime-fighting through lack of alternative opportunities rather than any great desire or conviction.
Wilde and his superiors – including George Washington Matsell, New York’s first Police Commissioner – find that he has an aptitude for detective work. Even if Wilde is not the equal of Sherlock Holmes – one of Faye’s literary heroes – he is logical, dogged and smart. More than that, he is driven by his fierce adherence to his own moral code and conscience – at times at great personal expense.
“People don’t read the Timothy Wilde series because he lives in poverty,” says Faye. “They read him because he is brave enough to care passionately about justice, and about his friends, and about his only brother. Sherlock Holmes also cares in a very visceral way about wrongs being righted.”
Faye’s admiration for Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s great creation is well-documented. Her biography lists her membership of “the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, the Baker Street Babes (and) the Baker Street Irregulars”. Her debut novel Dust and Shadow: an Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr John H Watson is a tribute to both Watson and the “fantastic” Holmes
“He’s a hero who stands aloof from the criticism of the established police,” she says. “He’s a very, very funny jerk who nevertheless cares about his clients and the way their lives play out, and refuses to work for money when he feels like waiving his fee. He wants women to kick his ass when they’re able. He has no one close to him, but he does, because Dr. John Watson follows his brilliance like a heat-seeking missile. They’re the truest of friends, and they’re beautiful, and I love them.”
Being embarrassingly poorly read in the Conan-Doyle canon, it’s impossible to judge how influential Holmes and Watson are in the Wilde books, although his nemesis Silkie Marsh, a conscienceless and murderous schemer has more than a passing resemblance to Moriarty, at least as brilliant and icily portrayed by Andrew Scott in the BBC’s Sherlock.
“Yes, she’s Timothy’s mirror opposite in a way Moriarty never was to Holmes,” Faye says. “Holmes was always a bit fond of Moriarty, a little, ‘How’s your business going, mate?’ Tim and Silkie loathe each other. It’s so much fun.”
Faye, an actress earlier in her career - Why did she give up? “You wouldn’t ask that if you’d ever tried to be an actress in Manhattan” – says she could see herself playing Silkie.
“I’d need a blonde wig. But no matter how far I’d distance myself from their choices, all of these people are me in some way. She’s me without a conscience. I wrote her as an undiagnosed sociopath,” she says.
And perhaps Wilde is her conscience?
“He’s bits of me, bits of radical historical abolitionists, bits of my friends, bits of the person it was necessary to create for the story to work,” Faye says. Ultimately, he’s the man I invented who was the right person to investigate these crimes. I love him so much—he’s now wholly his own man, at least in my head he is.”
The passion with which Faye speaks – the love for Wilde, for Holmes and Watson – shines through in her effervescent prose, which has enough energy to power New York (the 1845 version at least).
It was the writing that has most drawn me to the books and the novelist, who clearly has a tremendous facility for words – she makes clever use of the “Flash” language of the times – but whose work suggests she enjoys them has fun with them.
“Yes, that’s fair,” says Faye. “But also—that’s conscious. I hope that John Watson sounds like John Watson (who Faye wrote of in an earlier book). I hope likewise Tim Wilde sounds like Tim Wilde. Most of the people who detest my books detest the style. Well, the style is an unabashed imitation of a 19th century diarist, and if you hate it, I applaud you and your choices. But I wanted Tim to sound like he walked out of 1845, and all respect to Mr. Elmore Leonard, I’m not going to forego adverbs in a narrative like that. I’m having a blast with language, thank you for noticing, and I’m not sorry.”