Sherlockian Girl Goes Wilde: An Interview with Lyndsay Faye

By Nancie ClareSeptember 15, 2013

Sherlockian Girl Goes Wilde: An Interview with Lyndsay Faye

ON THE CUSP of the publication on September 17, 2013, of Seven for a Secret (the second installment of the trilogy that began with the Edgar Award–nominated The Gods of Gotham released in 2012), you might be tempted to ask author Lyndsay Faye: “What’s a nice Sherlockian girl like you doing with the dark goings-on at the dawn of the NYPD in New York City circa 1845?” And so, in fact, I did. Late last month I spoke with Faye at her home in New York City by phone. I also spoke to some notable critics about her work.

On the recommendation from her dad for some post-Nancy Drew reading, Faye fell hard for Sherlock Holmes at age 10 and continues to be an active part of the Sherlockian community. She is a Baker Street Irregular and a part of the 11-member Baker Street Babes collective. She frequently contributes to Sherlockian journals and often writes Holmes-Watson short stories for The Strand Magazine. Faye’s first novel, Dust and Shadow, is a Holmes-Watson pastiche that pits the consulting detective and his Boswell against the terrifying serial murderer Jack the Ripper, who was eviscerating the “unfortunates” of Whitechapel at the same time Holmes would have been detecting, were he real.

Dust and Shadow was an audacious undertaking for someone who, in spite of a dual degree in performance and English, had never written so much as a short story. Faye, 33, who is from Longview, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon, had moved to New York City from the San Francisco Bay Area in 2005 to take her acting career to the next level. Finding acting work was, she told me, “very, very daunting.” During a lunch break at her day job in a restaurant, Faye picked up one of the many Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper pastiches. The unnamed novel suffered from what Faye calls “the kitchen sink syndrome”; that variety of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper fiction that includes not just the detective and one of the most notorious serial killers of all time, but Freemasons, the Royals, Satanists, and/or Transylvanians. She wanted to read a different book, in her words, “Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper: ‘The Alienist’ version.” She wanted a book like Caleb Carr’s, one “where psychoanalysis and modern sensibilities of psychology didn’t even exist yet.” She knew part of the key was the difficulty of tracking down this type of killer, because it was senseless violence, “where the crimes were not of benefit to anyone.”

Faye had made note of the literary voices of previous pastiche writers — noting how close, or rather far away, she felt they were from Arthur Conan Doyle’s. In the end, after six months of research, consultations with Ripperologists such as Stewart P. Evans and Donald Rumbelow, and a well-timed receipt of unemployment benefits after the restaurant where she worked was bulldozed, Faye sat down to write her Sherlock Holmes–John Watson novel. She was 29 years old.

While writing a novel during a period of subsidized unemployment is not unusual, success in the endeavor usually is. Initially Faye hoped that the book could be published by a small press that catered to the Sherlockian market; ultimately she found an agent and the book a publisher, Simon & Schuster. In her words, she felt as though she had been struck by lightning.

Leslie S. Klinger, longtime member of the Baker Street Irregulars, editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The New Annotated Dracula, and the recently published The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft, remembers meeting Faye for the first time about five years ago. She sought him out at a cocktail party for Sherlock Holmes’s birthday weekend in New York City; Faye wanted him to read her book. Klinger said he expected to find many things that needed correction and found virtually nothing. “She had really done a meticulous job of picking up the details of the Ripper murders and Holmes,” said Klinger. “That says something about her interest in Holmes. She really did come at it from a scholarly standpoint. Holmes and the Ripper had been done before, of course, but nobody had done it with the detail that she did.” Then Klinger expanded on the thought:

It’s one thing to turn out Holmes and Jack the Ripper, the foundation is there, you don’t have to make up the story from whole cloth. Then along came Gods of Gotham and it was: wait a minute, this girl can actually write.

Klinger is not alone in his thinking. Otto Penzler, the mystery genre’s éminence grise and owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, calls Faye the “cutest pixie of a girl.” Describing his reaction to The Gods of Gotham, “I was astonished,” he said,

to see this dense, dark kind of story — the texture seemed so antithetical to the person who was writing it. It’s the kind of work you would expect from a scholarly, bearded writer, a professor rather than from a young woman.

Penzler admits The Gods of Gotham falls into the sweet spot of his literary tastes:

I love the Victorians, so to read something written contemporaneously by a very young woman who brings you back to back to a different period so well, so richly — to be so evocative of a dark and complex time in the history of America and of New York specifically, is almost impossible for me to believe. It blew me away. A lot of people try it and they fail. But Lyndsay tried it and succeeded beyond any expectation.

Penzler agrees that Faye is a literary heir to Caleb Carr: “I would say she’s about as close as you can get.” In comparing Faye’s writing to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Penzler said:

I read Gillian Flynn’s book, which is so terrific, and it would have been terrific whenever it was written. But there’s something different about Lyndsay’s Gods of Gotham. The use of language, the cadence of the prose. Not just the descriptions of the attitudes and the characters and the place, but the way she uses language. It’s so sophisticated.

Seven for a Secret continues the story of former bartender-turned-copper star Timothy Wilde. In The Gods of Gotham, Wilde, a detective for the nascent NYPD before such a job description existed, unravels the mystery behind the discovery of a field of bodies of young children as well as the gruesome murder of yet another “kinchin,” or young ‘un, in the slang of the time. It’s Bird Daly, a blood-soaked runaway child sex worker — a mab or stargazer — who Timothy literally collides with, a collision that alerts him to the crimes. The dark subject matter continues in Seven for a Secret, the trilogy’s second installment: the capture and sale of free people of color in New York City enabled by the Fugitive Slave Act. The characters — Timothy, scarred physically and emotionally from a fire; his drug-addicted, sexually ambiguous, very politically connected fellow copper star brother Valentine; Bird, the former child sex worker; and Silkie Marsh, the madam, also politically connected, and with a heart of lead — all have complicated, intersecting lives in a city that is reeling from external forces, like the huge influx of Irish immigrants in the wake of the potato famine, and internal struggles that include the build-up to the Civil War. Faye’s recreation of 1845 New York City for her trilogy — the manuscript for the third installment has just been turned into the publisher — is J. K. Rowling-esque in its completeness. But unlike Rowling, who could conjure her world from whole cloth, Faye’s is based on painstaking historical research and its rendering is multi-dimensional: a wholly recreated world that you can hear, see, smell, and almost taste.


NANCIE CLARE: Your Holmes and Watson pastiche, Dust and Shadow, was well received. What made you change literary course and choose New York City in the mid-19th century?

LYNDSAY FAYE: I was drawn to it because origin stories are resonant in a mythological sense — the beginning of something that has become an infamous law-enforcement body. I was asking myself: what did the NYPD look like on the first day? Because when you think about the NYPD and how many television shows, movies, books have been devoted to exploring the modern NYPD, the 1970s NYPD, the 1940s NYPD, the Prohibition era NYPD — it’s a fascinating law-enforcement body, but I approached it as “huh, I would like to read a book about the first Copper Star on the beat,” and when I discovered I couldn’t find that book, I had to write it.

NC: What else about this particular time and place made it compelling as a setting?

LF: What really drives me to write historical fiction, is that we keep screwing up the same way over and over. There’s always something politically going on [that’s current] that is extremely relevant to the themes that take place in the novels that I’m working on. Yes, they are set in the past; yes, the past is a foreign country, but so many of the themes that run rampant through my historical fiction are there because they are still with us. During the time I was writing Gods of Gotham, they were trying to build a Muslim rec center down by the ground zero site. If you read the anti-Catholic screeds I [quoted from original sources] at the beginning of the chapters, people were saying the same thing about Muslims. It was difficult for me to believe that at one point Catholics should have experienced that level of vitriolic religious persecution. At the same time, I’m looking around and we’re still doing the same thing to other groups of people.

Also, New York City in particular has such a distinct personality because it wasn’t a town that was founded on religious freedom and escaping from persecution. The point of New York City from the first day was as a moneymaking venture. The Dutch founded New Amsterdam as a for-profit enterprise right from the get-go. And that sort of thread runs, culturally, through every era in New York.

The inspiration you draw from living in a place, it’s absolutely true. George Washington Matsell, who’s a major character in the Gotham Trilogy, is buried five blocks south of my house at Trinity Cemetery in the high 150s.

NC: Valentine Wilde, your protagonist’s brother, is addicted to drugs and bisexual. His lover, Jim, is a character in both stories. Is there a reason you introduced Jim specifically, as well as this part of Valentine’s personal life?

LF: Walt Whitman lived in New York City during the time period Valentine lived in New York City, so I’m not really inventing anything there. It was a strongly homosocial town. [As for the drugs] they weren’t controlled substances at the time.

But it’s a very interesting question and not one I’m asked too often. I think that part of the reason people write historical fiction is there is, at least for me, an urge to impart a voice to people who would have been voiceless at the time. So writing an openly gay character into the Gotham trilogy — Jim’s in all three books — is interesting for me because there were gay people, certainly, so why not write about them? And I also feel a certain amount of responsibility as an author who is also a social activist — although when I’m writing these novels, I’m not intending to stand on any sort of soapbox because that would make my books inherently unreadable, when it comes to representing people who are in minority groups, I think it’s important.

NC: And Timothy Wilde, your protagonist, is accepting of his brother’s proclivities? Isn’t that a modern interpretation?

LF: I think mostly it’s what a brother would do. He has a single family member left to his name so he’s certainly not going to abandon him simply because he has eccentric sex habits. On occasion, and this is fairly rare, I’ve been criticized for Timothy having more of a modern sensibility than a historical sensibility in terms of his tolerance. I find that to be a very interesting criticism. To the extent that people imagine that we have cornered the market on virtue in the modern world, I would say “that’s wrong.” There were extraordinarily intolerant people historically; just as there are today in the modern world. But it’s as if people imagine that folks who were able to overcome their own prejudices didn’t exist [in the past] which is just flat not true.

NC: Your books do tell their stories through the prism of politics…

LF: My books are extremely political.

These issues are still happening today and there are aspects of my novels that are still topical. I wish that wasn’t the case. Prigg v. Pennsylvania is no longer particularly relevant to black people, but striking down the Voting Rights Act certainly is relevant to African Americans [today]. Timothy Wilde in Gods of Gotham was surprised to find out that black men could vote in New York City if they met the property requirement. You had to own at least $200 worth of property, which was an enormous figure when it came to the types of jobs that people of color were even allowed to work in. It was unlikely that the population of people of color would ever have that amount of riches necessary for them to be able to vote. Now you have all of this voter ID nonsense going on, you have redistricting. It’s still really relevant, unfortunately.

If you look at the rampant corruption of Tammany Hall — necessary because there was no social safety net — you had a lot of starving people, and one of the ways you could get them to vote was to give them a hand, find them a job, and serve soup at political rallies. The system was broken in terms of the gap between the very, very wealthy capitalists and hordes of immigrants who were streaming into an urban metropolis from a very rural setting, half of them illiterate and most of them already starving. Tammany did a lot to relieve that. But at the same time, they were massively corrupt. Tammany was half a political party and half a moneymaking operation. Politics have always been inextricably bound to money. When you look today at how difficult it is to get anything done in Washington when corporate lobbyists are really the ones calling the shots, it’s really not different from the Tammany Hall structure, it’s just more sanitized. Tammany Hall might be a bit more colorful, but the principles are the same: money buys influence.

NC: Is there any connection between your Gotham trilogy and the BBC America series Copper?

LF: No. Chronologically speaking, it was interesting that Copper came out so close to the time Gods of Gotham did, but it takes so long to produce a television show that they would have had to have all their ducks in a row for Copper at the same time Timothy Wilde was a twinkle in my eye.

NC: Will you write another Sherlock Holmes–John Watson book?

LF: Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper: how do you top that? Do you put him on the Titanic? But I never say never. I do actually write a lot of Sherlockian stuff. I’m working on my seventh Sherlock Holmes short story. Eventually when I have enough of them I would love to put them in a collection. I really, really like writing comic books. I have a concept for a six-issue comic series that is the backstory leading up to Reichenbach, the cases that involved Holmes, Watson, and Moriarty before the infamous waterfall plunge. But my answer, and it’s so kind and generous whenever anybody says, "please write another Sherlock Holmes novel," is I can’t write a crappy one. I have to have a high enough concept for it. I would write at some point — and this is something far, far off in the future — I think a World War I–era Sherlock Holmes novel would be really cool. Because Sherlock Holmes was a spy in World War I.

NC: You are very active on social media…

LF: Maybe I’m eccentric — or maybe there are other writers like me — but as I’m researching I find so many tidbits that I know are not going to make it into the book, and I have a really good time sharing them with people throughout the research process. I have to be by myself when I’m writing. Just me and the two cats and it’s easy for me to get really discouraged. I don’t want to turn into the stereotype of the chain-smoking, miserable, iconoclast writer hunched over the laptop with a bottle of bourbon at my elbow, you know. It’s a way to syphon off some of that angst. If I write 1000 words and I’m having a discouraging day and I go on Twitter and I talk about it, there’s a whole network of writers and other people who are creative who are cheering each other on. I really appreciate being able to live tweet that experience and to interact with people online as I’m doing it, because I spend so much time by myself.

I use it as a tool; I also crowdsource on it as well. I don’t use research assistants — I do five to six months of extremely intensive research all on my own — but if there’s a question that I cannot find an answer to, nine times out of 10 if I put it on social media someone will help me. I have a lot of really erudite friends and followers on Twitter. It can be extremely useful and a very fun and a community collaborative feeling. Twitter is my watercooler.


Nancie Clare is the co-founder of the iPad publication Noir Magazine.

LARB Contributor

Nancie Clare is the co-founder of the iPad publication Noir Magazine. She is the former editor in chief of LA, the Los Angeles Times Magazine.


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