Few, if any, characters outside the confines of fiction have made such profound impacts on the world of horror and inhumanity as Jack the Ripper. To the cursory reading John Does of the world, the name might bear the image of a black clad figure in deerstalker hat plunging a knife into a caterwauling victim. It’s an effective predate to the modern slasher flick, as it were, and it defines the phantom killer as something like a glorified Michael Myers–not an outright misinterpretation so long as the residual gore of the murders is liberally dispensed. Yet it does little justice to the obscene phenomenon that the Ripper sparked: a phenomenon that a writer like Lindsay Faye, hardened by endless research and fascinated by the criminal persona, is only too ready to embrace.
Thus is the essence of her first novel: Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings (2009); a small, blood-soaked yarn pitting the eponymous villain against the deducing wit of Sherlock Holmes and his tagalong Watson. There are lots of things that could be said about Faye’s breakthrough: how her Holmes combats his modern day counterparts Robert Downey Junior and Martin Freeman, in Sherlock Holmes, A Game of Shadows and the BBC Crime drama Sherlock, respectively; or perhaps how well Faye writes the murky London streets and the Stygian Thames into her prose. This would be tedium, however, and pointless tedium at that, when all reader interests really lie in the black heart of the Ripper.
Bifurcated and mutilated bodies hold a strange allure for many readers, whose sense of fascination with the subject outweighs their own horror. Faye, whose dust jacket picture depicts her in Gothic austerity, poised, frowning, and with lips drawn in a slash of coral, indulges all secretive bloodlusts with ample anatomical devotion. Readers of Dust and Shadow will find the Ripper and his five “canonical” victims conforming more or less to the factual tradition. We have, therefore, throat-cut Mary Nichols slumped in Buck’s Row, abdominally razored Annie Chapman behind Hanbury Street, curiously un-mutiliated Elizabeth Stride in Berner, disfigured and mostly faceless Catherine Eddowes sprawled in her own intestines in Mitre Square, and lastly, the completely eviscerated remains of Mary Jane Kelly assembled into a bloody pile on her own stained cot.
Never one for idleness, the Ripper was prompt to goad Scotland Yard with documents flaunting his newest “work” after the harlots had been slashed to ribbons. Faye is not a foolish writer, and she recognizes the tantalizing nature of these correspondences, staggering the Dear Boss, Saucy Jacky, and From Hell letters as buttresses upon which she holds the reader’s interest. Hysterics on this level of madness have a way of catching and effectively holding attention.
Yet what doesn’t hold well for the reader is the Ripper’s lack of suitable intent of purpose outside from what Holmes can deduce and what the eventual criminal (diverging from the tradition of a faceless killer) admits. Murder, in the nature that inspired such infamous future ‘prodigies’ as Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, and Dr. Herman Holmes (who goes hideously well-characterized in Erik Larson’s 2003 faux-novel The Devil in the White City) should be characterized by the demented fantasies of a precedent-setting sociopath rather than by the visceral whims of a lurid citizen. As if afraid of moral implications, Faye hesitates to name the Ripper as an artist: the title for which he obviously hungered and, for all of its monstrous inhumanity, achieved. It’s something that a more weathered writer could wield without fear of sadistic associations; Larson’s Ripper, a Ripper who in the style of Grendel, “gorges himself on warmth and viscera” also “slashed through [Mary Kelly’s] throat with a Van Gogh stroke” before he proceeded to artfully organize her severed breasts and skinned thighs, as if piecing together a human Guernica.
And yet it’s a shortcoming for which Faye can be easily forgiven, as she keeps her sights set on the linear and invigorating storytelling, rather than let her imagination of grisly lacerations and their masterminds get the best of her.
She is careful however not to let any of her primary characters suffer such lapses into prosaicness in her newly released Gods of Gotham; a heftier (at 408 pages) crime thriller that sets its focus down in the shit-soaked streets of 1845 New York City, right in the heights of the ravishing potato famine that sucked more than half the population from Ireland and deposited a good number of them square in the hells of megapolitia. If it’s a setting that sounds familiar, it should. Martin Scoresese spent big money in 2002 turning Daniel Day Lewis into a savage schizoid and Leonardo DiCaprio into a reluctant ‘Dead Rabbits’ gang leader (with a poorly fabricated Sligo accent) during the bloody climax of the 1862 New York Draft Riots.
With a writer’s verbose flair, Faye is quick to sketch and steer her story away from Scorsese’s. She, like Watson, has a propensity for in medias res, and gives her shaken protagonist Timothy Wilde the chance to establish the motifs of depraved children and New York bloody backwaters before he divagates into such formalities as introductions, policing mantra, and the place-setter platitude “Here’s how it began.” Introductory conventions serve the reader fine, and lots of useful assumptions can be siphoned out of Wilde’s words from the more scrutinizing reader. There’s an unusual purveyance of facts and details that give Faye, or rather Wilde’s, narration the cold-shackle dispassion of a police report; a jargon known as “Flash” (to which words and phrases such as ‘pal’ and ‘so long’ owe their genesis) which Wilde dons expertly as a sort of disguise for his ministered plebeians; investigative corollaries plucked expertly from the self-drawn sea of evidence. One really never strays too far from Sherlock.
What one does stray from is Timothy Wilde’s obliging life as a pourer of spirits when a Manhattan inferno incinerates his lifestyle, his hopes, and ambitions, plunging him partially deformed and ill-tempered, into the Copper stars, the legendary foundation police unit of the NYPD. But these aren’t stalwart gentlemen of moral austerity and finely tuned squad-geldings; they’re a rabble of broad-muscled brutes with burnished copper star pins declaring an authority whose only backbone lay in pugilistic prowess. It is in these characters that Faye delights: the gritty, hard-fisted degenerate who fits flawlessly into the seedy epithet of novelist Graham Greene. Valentine Wilde, Timothy’s brother, is Faye’s finest creation; a partially deranged, thin-grinning eccentric with a vice list that encompasses “narcotics, alcohol, bribery, violence, whoring, gambling, theft, cheating, extortion, [and] sodomy.” Faye indulges her craft most in the veritable symphonies of banter that occur between Valentine and Timothy; symphonies that swell with the kind of harshly rendered fraternal fracas which could only be so perfectly exploited by a writer with a beloved brother.
These details shadow the main macabre plotline: the unsolved murder mystery of nineteen limb-rotting children each with crucifixes sliced through their torsos. Grim religious ceremony, political insurrection, or ruthless fun all materialize as possibilities, to the Copper stars and their impromptu detective Timothy, and several poorly penned notes declaring ruin from a scourging zealot with possible mental defection (signed as the God of Gotham) begin to fuel an investigation. It would seem that one never leaves the Ripper, either, although these correspondences hardly come close to purporting the same revulsion and intrigue as the From Hell.
Coinciding with this discovery is Timothy’s chance literal run-in with a “slip of a girl” Aibhilin “Bird” ó Dálaigh whose involvement as a child “stargazer” (“Flash” for a sort of Molly, which is probably “Flash” for a prostitute) leads him down the salacious rabbit hole into the love-stained brothel of Silkie Marsh, an insidious and unprepossessing character, like Joyce’s whore matron Bella/Bello Cohen, who doubles as a honey-tongued thief, a sewer of discord, a purveyor of catamites, and a supplier of very nearly everything else that dwells within Dante’s Dis and perfidious environs.
Armed with even more unsavories, Faye hardly even needs her nineteen child-victims to compose a page turning thriller. Juggling her cast of hearty males and mistresses, especially in a city painted with such atmospheric flair, can be a full-time job. One even begins to think that the story might gain buoyancy if the murderer was simply done away with and the handling of anti-Irish sentiments, brawls, and harlots took precedence.
And then there is the matter of the rich language itself; a staunch upholder of verbosity, Faye stifles her reader who see her assorted scatterings of characterizations, descriptions, epithets, maxims, and generalizations, such as “August air bloated and pulsing”, “everything crude and two-dimensional…brick buildings dropping watercolor edges,” and “idiots treasure[ing] their facts like newborns” as overbearing. What’s more, Faye’s penchant for rugged masculinity lend to her smithy truculent verb-bombs and punching nouns: a sheen “punishing my eyes” and a street “terminating to the north.” The language itself is able almost to provide the intensity, which the murders lack.
However, for readers who wish to see Faye’s ensemble back on the streets without any knifed “kinchin” cluttering their way, they will have to wait until her sequel hits shelves sometime next year. A rugged piece of crime work, doused in beautiful language and peppered with a rare combination of characters, Gods of Gotham is an auspicious undertaking for any writer, particularly one such as Faye, whose ambitions comprise a Burgessian devotion to language and slang, a keen sense of crime murder structuring lifted from Matthew Pearl (The Dante Club), and the amazing investigative talents of character employed so effectively by Conan-Doyle. It’s a pastiche that will keep readers enthralled not only by its storytelling, but also by its sheer novelty. And yet, Faye is no mere upholder of tradition, despite her homage. She has poured much of her talents into her novel, and far from resulting in a sordid mess, the streets of mid-19th century New York, in all their beautiful soiled imperfections, belong wholly and deservedly, to her.