Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Having enjoyed Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde trilogy, I was both intrigued and dubious when I heard that her new novel, Jane Steele, was going to be a retelling of Jane Eyre. I always have doubts about books that are based on or inspired by classic novels and usually try to avoid them, but because I loved Faye’s other work so much I was happy to give this book a try.

Jane Steele Once I started to read, I quickly discovered that Jane Steele is not so much a retelling of Jane Eyre as a homage or tribute to Jane Eyre. Jane Steele herself is a fan of the Charlotte Brontë classic, which she reads over and over again, and she can’t help noticing that there are some unmistakable parallels between her own life and Jane Eyre’s.

Like the Brontë heroine, Jane Steele has an unhappy childhood. She and her widowed mother live in a cottage in the grounds of Highgate House, the home of her late father’s family. When her mother dies a sudden and unexpected death, Jane finds herself at the mercy of her cold-hearted Aunt Patience and vile Cousin Edwin, but unlike Jane Eyre she takes drastic measures to defend herself against them. I won’t go into too much detail, but the words “Reader, I murdered him” on the front cover should be a clue!

Sent away to Lowan Bridge School, Jane’s life again seems to be following the same pattern as Jane Eyre’s. Lowan Bridge is a harsh and forbidding place, presided over by the tyrannical Vesalius Munt, and the only positive thing Jane takes away from her time there is a close friendship with a younger girl known as Clarke. Forced to resort to murder again – not just once but several times, though always to protect herself and her friends – Jane eventually has the chance to return to Highgate House as governess to Sahjara, the young ward of the house’s new master, Mr Thornfield.

As Jane settles into her new position – and begins to search for evidence that will prove she is really the rightful heir of Highgate House – she gets to know the new inhabitants of her childhood home. Mr Thornfield has recently returned from the Punjab and all of his servants are Sikhs, including the butler Sardar Singh, whom Jane suspects of not being all he appears to be. Mr Thornfield himself, as you’ve probably guessed, takes the role of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, but before Jane Steele can allow herself to love him, she wants to know how he will react to the revelation that his new governess is actually a serial killer…

You may be thinking that I’ve given away the entire story here, but I can promise you that there’s still a lot I haven’t told you. More than half of the novel is devoted to the time following Jane’s return to Highgate House, the development of her romance with Mr Thornfield (a more instantly likeable character than Mr Rochester, by the way), and an intricate mystery involving stolen jewels, of which I’ll say no more other than that it felt like something Wilkie Collins might have written.

I liked Jane Steele but I can’t say that I loved it as unreservedly as most other readers seem to have done. The first half of the book was great – Jane has a very distinctive, darkly funny narrative voice and it was fun to spot the echoes of Jane Eyre in the childhood and school chapters. I also enjoyed reading about Jane’s adventures in London (before starting her governess job) and the Dickensian characters she meets there, such as Mr Grizzlehurst, publisher of the “Daily Report of Mayhem and Mischief”.

The second half of the novel felt quite different from the first, with the focus on the stolen treasure and the history surrounding the Anglo-Sikh Wars. I have read a lot of historical mysteries set in the Victorian period, as well as a lot of Victorian sensation novels, and I just didn’t feel that I was reading anything new here (apart from the details of Sikh culture, which were interesting to read about). It didn’t help that this part of the story includes a lot of long accounts of past events and people we previously knew nothing about. I found it difficult to care about this new set of characters and just wanted to get back to reading about Jane and her life.

This is only a small criticism, though, of what was otherwise a very enjoyable novel and I do love the fact that Lyndsay Faye avoided writing a simple retelling and instead came up with something so brave and imaginative. I would personally have preferred another Timothy Wilde mystery, but having written three of those books I can understand why Faye might have wanted to write something else, and I think Jane Steele will have wider appeal. Reader, you’ll probably love it.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of Jane Steele for review.

The Fatal Flame by Lyndsay Faye

The Fatal Flame Since reading The Gods of Gotham, Lyndsay Faye’s first novel to feature New York ‘copper star’ Timothy Wilde, I’ve been looking forward to each new book in what I’d hoped would be a long series. I was disappointed to discover that it’s actually a trilogy and The Fatal Flame is the last we’ll see of Tim and his friends – but pleased to have had the chance to read what has been a very enjoyable set of books.

Timothy’s story began in 1845 when his home in Manhattan was destroyed by fire and his brother, Valentine, helped him find work as a copper star in the newly formed New York City Police Department (the name comes from the copper stars the officers wore to identify themselves). In The Gods of Gotham you can read about the early days of Timothy’s career and how his crime-solving skills gained him a position as one of the NYPD’s first detectives, while the second book, Seven for a Secret, followed his investigations into a gang of ‘blackbirders’ (people who hunted down runaway slaves and returned them to slavery in the south). Ideally, these two books should be read before The Fatal Flame as there are some recurring characters and storylines, but it’s not essential.

In this third and final book, set in 1848, a mysterious arsonist appears to be targeting properties belonging to the unscrupulous politician and businessman Robert Symmes. The main suspect is one of his former employees at the New American Textile Manufactory, a woman with a grudge. But as Tim begins to dig deeper into Symmes’ business dealings and his treatment of his female workers, things quickly become much more complex than they seemed at first – especially when Tim’s brother, Valentine, announces that he will be running against Symmes in the next election. Meanwhile, Mercy Underhill, the fascinating, eccentric woman Timothy loves, has returned from London and it’s not long before she befriends Dunla Duffy, a young Irish girl who could hold the key to the mystery.

Most of the other characters we got to know in the previous novels are also back again in this one, including Bird Daly, Silkie Marsh, Jim Playfair and Elena Boehm. With this being the end of the trilogy, the personal story of each character is brought to a close, in one way or another – I would have hoped for a happier ending for one or two of them, but was satisfied with the way most of their stories concluded. I’ve particularly enjoyed watching the relationship between Timothy and Valentine (my favourite character) develop throughout the three books and I loved their scenes together in this book, especially towards the end.

I have mentioned in my posts on the previous two Timothy Wilde books the use of flash (the language of the criminal underworld) and how it adds to the atmosphere and authenticity of the story. Each novel includes a glossary which translates the flash terminology, although by the time you reach the third book in the series you’ll find yourself relying on it less and less (and the meaning can often be worked out from the context anyway). In this book, we see flash being used for the purpose for which it was originally intended – as a secret language to enable the speakers to hold a conversation that is unintelligible to anyone else who may be listening.

Another of the highlights of this trilogy has been seeing how Lyndsay Faye brings to life the New York City of the 19th century and tackles some of the important issues facing the people who lived there during that period. I have hinted at two of the main themes in The Fatal Flame already: political corruption and the exploitation of female employees (particularly Irish immigrants). Sometimes, though, Timothy’s attitudes towards the injustices of 19th century life make him feel slightly unconvincing as a man of his time, which is really my only criticism of the book and of the trilogy as a whole.

The language, the setting, the atmosphere and, most of all, Tim and Val Wilde – I’ve found so much to enjoy in these three novels! Now I’m wondering what Lyndsay Faye will be writing next.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review.

Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye

Seven for a Secret One of the most surprising books I read last year was The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye. Surprising because it didn’t really sound like my type of book, yet once I started reading I loved it from the first page. Seven for a Secret is the second in the series and just as good as the first. While I like discovering new authors and meeting new characters, there is something comforting about reading a book that is the second or subsequent in a series and returning to a world you’re familiar with and characters you already know.

This series is set in 19th century New York City and follows the adventures of Timothy Wilde, a ‘copper star’ with the newly formed New York Police Department (the name comes from the copper stars the officers are required to wear for identification). After Timothy’s crime-solving skills in The Gods of Gotham brought him to the attention of Chief George Washington Matsell, he has now been given a special position as one of the department’s first detectives. In Seven for a Secret, Timothy is on the trail of a gang of ‘blackbirders’ (people employed to catch runaway slaves and return them to slavery in the South). The gang have captured the family of Lucy Adams, who insists that they are free New Yorkers and not slaves. Timothy promises to help and with the assistance of his brother Valentine sets out to investigate the crime.

Some of the characters we met in the previous novel are back again in this one including Julius Carpenter, Gentle Jim, Bird Daly and Silkie Marsh, but there are plenty of new characters too, from six-year-old chimney sweeps to corrupt Democratic Party members. But one of my favourite things about this series is the relationship between the two Wilde brothers, Timothy and Valentine. Tim continues to be torn between admiration for Val and disgust with his less savoury habits; Val continues to be the exasperated but protective older brother. I love them both, but I have to say I think Val is a wonderful creation and the more interesting character of the two.

The thing that really sets this series apart from other historical mystery novels I’ve read is the setting and the plots that arise from that setting. Before discovering these books I had virtually no knowledge at all of the early days of policing in New York or the work of the ‘copper stars’. And although I have read quite a lot of novels that deal with the subject of slavery, I hadn’t read anything that looked at this particular aspect of slavery. But much as I love Timothy Wilde and think he’s a great narrator, I did sometimes feel that his attitudes towards slavery and other issues raised in this book seemed more like the reactions of someone living in 2013 rather than the 1840s. Other than that, the atmosphere of 19th century New York is completely believable; as in the first novel, the feeling of authenticity is enhanced by the inclusion of ‘flash’, a sort of slang used mainly by criminals but also spoken by both Wildes. There’s a useful flash dictionary at the front of the book to help translate any unfamiliar words, but in most cases it’s easy enough to work out what is being said.

If you’re new to this series you could certainly enjoy Seven for a Secret without having read The Gods of Gotham first, but I would still recommend reading them in the correct order if you can. And really, they are both so good I’m sure whichever one you read first you will want to read the other anyway. I really hope there are going to be more books in this series as I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for Tim and Val!

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

New York City, 1845: When Timothy Wilde loses everything in a fire that destroys a large part of Manhattan, his brother Valentine helps him get a job as a ‘copper star’ in New York’s newly formed police force. Due to his knowledge of ‘flash’, a slang spoken largely by criminals, Timothy is assigned to the Sixth Ward, one of the city’s most notorious areas where crime rates are high and where racial and religious tensions are increasing with the influx of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine.

Timothy is unenthusiastic about his new job until one night when he’s walking home from work and a ten-year-old girl runs into him, covered in someone else’s blood. Soon Tim finds himself on the trail of a child killer and discovers that he has an unexpected talent for detective work.

I must admit that when I received a copy of The Gods of Gotham from the publisher, I wasn’t sure this was going to be the type of book I would enjoy. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong, because I loved it! I could tell from the first page that I liked the writing style and by the end of the first chapter I knew I was going to like the narrator too. But the thing I enjoyed most about The Gods of Gotham was the wonderful setting. Every time I picked up this book and started to read I felt I had left the modern world behind for a while and was actually there, walking through the streets of 19th century New York, which is the highest praise I can give to any historical fiction novel. I’ve read so many books set in Victorian London, and it made a nice change to read one set in New York during the same period.

We also meet lots of strong, interesting characters – Mercy Underhill, the reverend’s daughter and the woman Timothy loves; Bird Daly, the little Irish girl he met in the street at the start of the novel; and Silkie Marsh, who runs the brothel at the centre of the murder investigations. And at the heart of the story is the relationship between Tim and his brother Valentine. Timothy himself is easy to like but he isn’t perfect and has enough flaws to make him a believable character. Although he doesn’t always interpret things correctly, he’s intelligent, observant and compassionate. Val is a very different type of person – tough, aggressive, addicted to morphine and drinking – but by the end of the book we learn that there’s more depth to Val than there seemed to be at first.

The use of flash is something that you will probably either love or hate – personally I thought it added to the atmosphere of the book and made the dialogue feel lively and fun. I was surprised to find that I was already familiar with some of the words and it was interesting to see how many of them have now come into everyday use. But there were other words and phrases that meant nothing to me and so the glossary at the front of the book (based on George Washington Matsell’s Vocabulum, or The Rogue’s Lexicon) was very helpful, especially at first!

For me, the actual crime plot was secondary to the setting, the atmosphere and the characters but it was still good enough to keep me guessing until the truth was finally revealed. The Gods of Gotham was something different and original – I loved it and was pleased to discover that there’s going to be a sequel!

I received a review copy of this book from Headline Review.