You Reader, Me Jane

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A final and quick review for the Edgar Award in the Best Novel Category: Jane Steele, by Lyndsay Faye, is a historical romp with a fan fiction sensibility about it as it riffs on Jane Eyre. Faye has been nominated before by Mystery Writers of America in the same category for her book The Gods of Gotham, which I also enjoyed. But our Jane is rendered with a modern sensibility when she takes it into her own hands to serve vigilante justice on men who have wronged women. The first is her cousin who tries to molest a young Jane and finds himself shoved to the bottom of a ravine, where he dies. Jane is wracked with guilt but steadfastly lies her way out of it.

When her mother dies not long after, orphan Jane is banished from Highgate House (which her mother raised her to believe is her rightful inheritance) and sent to board at Lowan Bridge School, a beastly place that starves the all-female students (requiring them to narc on each other in order to eat) and is run by super-creepy Mr. Munt, a guy who has nothing but sex, sex, and more perverted sex on his mind and in his journals. Jane discovers these, Munt discovers her, and gives her a no-win choice: be committed to an asylum or he will starve her best friend Clarke to death. Jane chooses door number three and dispatches him with alacrity. She and Clarke escape the school and flee to London, where they both grow older and wiser. Jane commits two more murders (both men had it coming in spades), but Clarke learns Jane lied to her and abandons her.

Jane casts about London writing invented bawdy news to support herself and finally answers an ad to be a governess at Highgate House. She gets the job (meeting Charles Thornfield in a horse mishap in a sly nod to Jane Eyre meeting Mr. Rochester). Of course, she falls hard for the master but he is distant and only wants her to home-school his ward Sahjara and keep her safe. There’s a intriguing sub-plot about a trunk of jewels that are missing, Faye doing a masterful job recounting Punjabi history through this storyline. Ultimately, Jane saves her charge’s life (as well as Sardar’s, Charles Thornfield’s childhood friend, even though he loses his hand), finds the jewels, and they all end up happy at Highgate House.

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this book a nine. This is a tough book to compare to Reed Farrel Coleman’s Where it Hurts (also a nine) because the two are markedly different. I ran out of time and was not able to read the other two nominees in the category (The Ex by Alafair Burke; What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin), and Before the Fall by Noah Hawley only rated a one. I am going to predict Where it Hurts to take home the Edgar Award for Best Novel, although it’s a real toss-up. My writing pal Karen Burgess makes her prediction here http://www.litlunchbox.com. The Edgar Awards will be announced on Thursday, April 27!

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

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ImageThe Gods of Gotham is an historical mystery set in New York City during the mid-1800’s, a time when the population of 60,000 sees a ten-fold increase (mainly Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine) that exacerbates local political corruption, lawlessness and extreme poverty.  Against this backdrop, the formation of the early NYPD is established.  These “copper stars”, named for the same ornament they wear on their jackets to indicate their status, work to keep order in the crush of immigrant humanity who are scraping by performing any manner of work to survive and yes, you guessed it, that means drugs, prostitution, theft and ultimately murder.

Timothy Wilde, of late a bartender who has lost all of his hard-saved silver and become facially disfigured from a fire in his living quarters, is given a job as a copper star by his older brother Val, a captain of the copper stars and a larger-than-life character.  Tim is desperate to earn a living in order to marry the unrequited love of his life, Mercy Underhill, and so joins up.  He is immediately pressed into service when a ten-year-old girl named Bird collides with him one night as he walks home.  She is covered in blood.  Tim takes the girl home and he is touched and angered by her story:  she is a child prostitute (back then called a kinchin-mab, also a star-gazer) who tells him her friend Liam and many of the other children at Madam Marsh’s brothel have been murdered by a man in a black mask.  The rest of the story involves Tim doggedly pursuing leads to crack the case and chasing Mercy.

The premise and time period of this book seem promising but the actual execution does not succeed for several reasons.   The author tries an experiment with the “flash” language used by the newsboys of that era, giving the reader a glossary at the beginning for reference.   Having to use it too often becomes intrusive rather than evoking a feeling of the time.  It’s an interesting bit of history but should have been used more sparingly.

The actual investigation of the murder is too ham-handed.  Granted, Tim is new at this policing work, but we meet Bird all bloodied in the opening scene and it isn’t until page 290 that Tim decides she’s finally ready to be questioned about that night.  Bird is not a typical kid, having been a child prostitute all her life, and is presented as plucky and street-smart—she could’ve handled being questioned sooner.  There are several sub-plots, one involving Tim’s brother Val and his drug use, penchant for sexual escapades (male or female) and political aspirations.  Again, interesting but not gripping or seemingly tied to the murder investigation much.

Finally, Tim’s devotion to and worship of Mercy Underhill is odd and questionable.  She does not lead him on or even seem particularly interested in him.  We learn much later in the story that older brother Val has bedded Mercy several years earlier and then abandoned her.  Tim and Val fight about many things throughout the story, and Val’s character would have thrown that information in Tim’s face long ago.  The entire book (408 pages) could have used an authoritative editor’s incisive eye to make the story tighter and more accessible to the reader.  On a scale of 1-10, The Gods of Gotham rates a 3.