One of my reading goals for 2012 is to branch out: to read some books and genres that I would've turned my nose up at in earlier years. When I first made this goal, I also told myself that trying new things didn't mean I had to go as far as reading a mystery. No way, no chance.
I have to give credit to the art department behind Lyndsay Faye's The Gods of Gotham for helping me reach my goal—even if it meant reading a mystery. As a reader of literary fiction, the cover caught my attention before I noticed the genre sticker that adorned the book's spine. Your average reader of popular mysteries probably isn't going to like it, but I loved it.
My dislike for mysteries goes way back. No, I've never read much of what could be considered a mystery novel—Julian Barnes' Arthur and George is probably the closest thing—but I have read several short stories and seen enough in drama to get my fill. American culture loves crime and justice. They love a good mystery. I do not. Too trite. Too predictable. Too boring. Yes, I think it's boring.
I did have some of these feelings while reading The Gods of Gotham. As a mystery, it probably excels. I did guess the “killer” one-third of the way into the story and I'm sure that wasn't intended, but the intricacies that made up the crime were harder to grasp. The protagonist is a likeable and talented detective, but this is a flaw to me; I cannot believe the detective who is able to connect A to B to C all the way to V just because the girl in the cafe next to him is eating a spinach omelet (this doesn't actually occur in this particular novel, but similar, albeit less absurd, connections do happen). Now, before someone pipes up and says, “But aren't you the guy who loves The X-Files and isn't Mulder the exact definition of this sort of detective?” let me say that first of all, I can accept such ridiculous connections in a show about aliens, werewolves, and killer kitty cats, and second, Mulder's “sense” of piecing the facts together from nothing was one of my pet peeves of the show. But, I digress.
The Gods of Gotham shows extraordinary research. Pieces of history blend with the story in a setting and atmosphere that feels and looks genuine. This is a wonderful look at New York City in 1845. The dialogue is snappy and many of the secondary characters—primarily Matsell and Piest, secondarily Mrs. Boehm—are entertaining and deserve more time on the page. The primary characters seem to be more developed and faceted than they tend to be in the average mystery, but they still were a bit too cardboardish and easily pliable for my tastes, that is they're one thing until the plot needs them to be another and then they change. Change is okay if I understand it or believe it. Too often in The Gods of Gotham I didn't understand or believe.
Overall I thought the book was well written. My attention waned from time to time, but this is more a personality issue than a critique of the book. I probably won't read any further “Timothy Wilde” novels, but if someone asks me to recommend a good mystery, I'll first tell them “I don't really read mysteries.” Then I'll add, quietly so no one who knows me will overhear, “But this one here, The Gods of Gotham, isn't so bad.” It'll be our little secret.