The year is 1845, and crime, poverty, and political corruption are rampant in New York City. The potato famine has driven thousands of Irish immigrants into the city’s slums, and anti-Catholic sentiment is high. The streets are filled with brothels, opium dens, and hundreds of orphaned, abandoned, and runaway children.
It’s in the face of these conditions that the city’s first police department is formed. Timothy Wilde has no desire to become a “copper star,” but he also has no other choice. A fire destroys the bar where he works, burns his savings, and disfigures his face, and suddenly, all Timothy’s hopes for the future - buying a little parcel of land and marrying Mercy Underhill, the minister’s daughter - seem out of reach. So when his charismatic, drug-addled brother calls in a few favors from his Democratic party connections, Timothy joins the force.
Almost immediately, he stumbles onto a horrific crime. While making his rounds one night, Timothy finds a 10-year-old girl in the street covered in blood, and murmuring, “They’ll tear him to pieces.” They find the first child's body, then 19 more buried in a shallow grave on the outskirts of town.
The chief of police (the real-life figure George Washington Matsell) assigns Timothy to the case in secret, telling him that failure to find the killer will spell catastrophe for the nascent police unit. To solve the murders, Timothy has almost nothing at his disposal but his brains and help from a few unlikely sources: a pack of vagrant newsboys, a brothel owner, and his old love Mercy Underhill, who knows every face and every corner of the slums because of her mission work.
The historical detail in The Gods of Gotham is every bit as compelling as the mystery that unfolds, and for all its grim subject matter, the novel features a lively and bustling New York that’s still somewhere between modern metropolis and overgrown farming town. Fans of page-turning historical mysteries like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist will enjoy this one.