TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Book critic Maureen Corrigan says two just-published books on New York City and crime are potent antidotes to lazy nostalgia about the good old days.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Some years ago, I was visiting Disneyland and had a culture clash encounter there with one of my fellow Americans. I was standing with my daughter on the miles-long meandering line for "It's a Small World After All" and I fell into a conversation with another mom. When this woman found out I was a native New Yorker, she treated me to her verdict on the city: It's so dirty there.
Well, yeah, of course it's dirty. Dirt is the price you pay for a place being interesting. If, unlike that woman, you want to know anything about America's greatest city, you've got to be willing to get grimy. Two new books about New York - a novel and a narrative history - do more than put up with filth, they positively wallow in it. Anyone looking for some good unclean literary fun should step right up and lay their money down.
It's been almost 20 years since Caleb Carr's best-selling old New York crime novel "The Alienist" was published and I can't count the number of times since then that someone has asked me if I can recommend a suspense story anything like it. Well, New York has inspired lots of terrific thrillers, but I've just stumbled on one of the worthiest successors yet: Lyndsay Faye's novel "The Gods of Gotham" is set in 1845, a year that transformed New York for two reasons.
It saw the founding of the city's first police force and it marked the failure of the potato crop in Ireland. The ensuing great famine propelled hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants over to America, where many landed deep in the muck of New York City. Faye clearly revels in crowded period detail and in pre-CSI methods of deduction.
Her narrator is named Timothy Wilde and after a fire destroys the Oyster Cellar where he tends bar, Wilde reluctantly pins on a copper star and begins working the standard 16-hour police shift. His beat: the infamous Five Points neighborhood that was the setting for the Martin Scorsese film "Gangs of New York."
On one of his first patrols, Wilde runs into a panicked 10-year-old girl covered in blood. That gory encounter sends our rookie on an investigation into the secret lives of some of New York's most upstanding citizens. One of the most entertaining aspects of "The Gods of Gotham" is its language. Faye imbues her tale with period criminal slang. Thus, a hen is a woman; a squeaker, a child; and a stargazer, a prostitute.
If I had had this lingo handy at Disneyworld, I could've told that New York City critic to stow your wid, meaning be silent. The classic contest of cops versus criminals also provides the plot of Richard Zacks' "Island of Vice." This fascinating narrative history traces Theodore Roosevelt's doomed struggle to put a lid on crime in New York during his tenure as police commissioner starting in 1895.
Zacks follows T.R. and other reformers along on their nighttime rambles into the New York underworld. Smut of all sorts prevailed. For instance, months after Edison invented the phonograph, X-rated wax cylinder recordings were being produced to be played through ear tubes for a nickel a listen in saloons and arcades.
Some 40,000 prostitutes wandered nightly around the city's neighborhoods, and New York's finest had gotten a solid reputation for corruption. The press of the day dubbed them New York's filthiest. Into this chaos rode Theodore Roosevelt. One of the achievements of "Island of Vice" is that Zacks penetrates beneath the bluster into the psychology of this strange, restless man.
Roosevelt was hell-bent on cleaning up the police force, and he enjoyed a mixed success. He was also determined to enforce Sunday blue laws against drinking, a campaign that was so unpopular New York City never forgave T.R. and did its best to end his political career before it really began. Zacks humanizes Teddy's obsession, describing how it was sparked by his awareness of the role alcohol had played in the pathetic downfall of his brother, Elliott.
In addition to his observations about T.R., Zacks also has plenty of smart insights into the enduring enigma that is New York City. The very last sentence of his book is a gem. Zacks says: Like in ancient Rome, the vitality of New York City sometimes seems to come more from the crooks than the do-gooders. Depending on how you feel about the city, that judgment will either confirm your worst prejudices or slap a crooked grin of appreciation on your face.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Gods of Gotham" by Lyndsay Faye and "Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York" by Richard Zacks. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.