Why NYC is Called Gotham

public domain

When many people hear the name “Gotham”, they’re reminded of the Batman comics and movies. When I hear it, I think only of New York City, often wondering how it got that nickname. As it turns out, author and NYC native Washington Irving, of Icabod Crane fame, made the association over 120 years ago. 

Irving published a satirical periodical, Salmagundi, in which he wrote articles that poked fun at and lampooned the city and its more eccentric residents. He learned of a medieval English village called Gotham, meaning “goat town”, whose inhabitants conspired to keep a king from bringing chaos and higher taxes to the home they loved. An ancient folk tale called The Wise Men of Gotham likely served as Irving’s inspiration. While Batman’s Gotham is a dark, dangerous, and brooding place, Irving’s couldn’t have been more different.

The legend relates how, when King John planned to build a hunting lodge in their woods, Gotham’s residents greeted a planning visit from the king’s knights by feigning madness. They took turns doing things like trying to drown an eel in their pond and fencing in a bush to prevent a cuckoo from escaping. A man was seen carrying 2 bushels of grain on his back while leading his horse, telling everyone that the bushels were too heavy for the horse to carry. Madness being considered highly contagious, the knights soon left to advise the king to look elsewhere for a building site.

In 1907, Washington Irving adopted the name Gotham for NYC. New Yorkers embraced it, and it stuck. As for Gotham, which was originally pronounced Goat-um, that town has a Cuckoo Bush inn, Cuckoo Bush Mound, and a weathervane with a Batman figure on it.

It’s a Mystery: A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins

This latest novel from Paula Hawkins truly is a slow burn. A disturbed young man, Daniel  Sutherland,  is found brutally murdered in his decrepit longboat in Regents Canal. The prime suspect is an impoverished young woman, Laura,  who suffers fromTBI and who admits to having had a one night stand with Daniel shortly before his death. The police are finding it difficult to find hard evidence against her, and soon Daniel’s neighbors and  close relatives come into the picture, none of whom appear to have motives. Laura and Daniel himself are the most fully developed characters in this mystery, and throughout most of the book, are the most  sympathetic. 

Reading Slow Fire requires patience, and the ability to keep track of suspects and motives as it progresses is no simple task. I liked this book well enough to finish it, but had to reread certain sections to keep things straight, sometimes more than once. As a study of human emotions, however, it works quite well. Once I was able to pin a specific motive to a specific character, it was not that tricky to figure out which one was the culprit.

A Few Unusual Victorian New Year’s Traditions

Happy New Year! In case you can’t make it to Times Square to watch the ball drop, here are a few unique ways to usher in 2022. Most of these practices come from the British Isles. (Excerpted from a Mental Floss article by Keith Johnson).

First Footing: Throw NYE party at you home, but to avoid bad luck, be sure not to allow a woman to be the first to cross your threshhold.

Take in, then take out: Don’t take anything out of the house without first bringing something in. “Take out, then take in/ Bad luck will begin. Take in, then take out/ Good luck comes about.”

Throw bread at the door: People baked a “barmbrack ”, an unusually large loaf of bread, on New Year’s Eve. The man of the house took three bites, then threw the loaf against the door, while those gathered prayed ”that cold, want or hunger might not enter” in the coming year. Hope they didn’t waste that bread.

Attend a “Watch Night” service: In the 1740’s, John Wesley (founder of Methodism) revived the ancient tradition of holding long, contemplative church services, to give coal miners something uplifting to do lieu of drinking the night away in a pub. By the 19th century, this had become a NYE tradition.

“Dipping” : Open a Bible to a random page and, without looking, point to a random passage. The excerpt selected was thought to predict the fortune of the dipper. This custom was widely used at other times to predict things.

Silly Resolutions: This custom sounds like a fun party game. Each player writes a silly resolution on a piece of paper and places it place in a bowl with all the others. Everyone draws a resolution and reads it aloud. Some suggestions from an 1896 games book include “I must stop smoking in my sleep” and ”I must walk with my right foot on my left side.”

Send some New Year Cards:

In case you’re not tired of addressing all those Christmas cards. You’ve gotta wonder about this one, though……

No matter no you choose to celebrate, best wishes for a happy, healthy 2022!

Historical Fiction: All Will Be Well, by Amy C. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All Will Be Well is Amy Martin’s debut novel, inspired by her ancestor John Alden. Speaking generally, I can say that the book is well researched and competently written. Told in the neutral third person, it is in its first half that the story of the Mayflower passengers, in particular John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, really shines. The reader experiences the perils of a late fall Atlantic crossing in realistic detail, perhaps the best fictional description of the harrowing journey since that offered by Anya Seton her 1958 classic, The Winthrop Woman. The struggles to find a suitable location for the new settlement , survive the harsh winter with limited food and widespread illness, and finally , to contend with an appalling death rate makes for captivating reading. What could be a grim reading experience is lightened by the growing attraction between John and Priscilla and by a myriad of other diverting characters, especially Miles Standish. The author’s treatment of prominent Native Americans Squanto, Massasoit, and many others is fair, balanced, and inclusive. For once, their roles are not ignored. Indeed, the second half of the novel covers in detail the growing friction between the Europeans and the tribes.

All Will Be Well is a promising debut by a young writer to watch, and is recommended to readers who enjoy well presented historical fiction

It’s a Mystery: Aspire to Die, by M S Morris

My Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aspire to Die is the first book in the Bridget Hart mystery series, co-authored by husband and wife writing team Margarita and Steve Morris. As of 2021, the series contains seven titles, and Aspire to Die makes for a worthy intro. I worried at first that it might be a cutesy cozy, but it captured my interest very quickly. as DI Hart is assigned to her first major murder case. The body of a beautiful, popular student has been found in her college room at Christ Church College, Oxford, brutally murdered. The newly promoted DI Hart, an alumna of Christ Church, is attending the opening dinner of her class reunion, when she receives the call assigning her to lead her first major case.

What follows is an intricate puzzle of a mystery, made complicated by the college setting itself and the hundreds of alumni celebrating their reunion. Many intriguing suspects are investigated by Bridget’s equally intriguing team. Bridget’s traumatic backstory is gradually revealed, and she turns out to be a talented and formidable DI indeed.

Character development couldn’t have been better, with each major player, police or civilian, having interesting personalities and viewpoints. A plus for me is that many of the key characters are strong, intelligent, and self assured women, whether younger or older. Additionally, the details incorporated about historic Oxford and its prestigious colleges are fascinating. Finally, I appreciate that the presentation of the murder is graphic without being too blood-and-gutsy.

I’m happy to recommend Aspire to Die; now about to start the second book in this series, Killing by Numbers. Will let you know if it is equally compelling.

Mystery & Suspense: Something in the Water, by Catherine Steadman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, I can say with absolute certainty that I’ve never read a novel that opened with the first person account of a woman digging a grave for her husband in the remote English woods, a dramatic, emotionally charged scene that hooked me from the first sentence. Something in the Water then flashes back to the early days of the relationship between Erin and Mark, which, in Erin’s view, is mostly idyllic. Both of them are riding high in their careers and planning a dream honeymoon in Bora Bora. Then Mark loses his job. They pare down their over the top wedding plans to save money, but, since the trip is prepaid, travel to Bora Bora anyway, where newlywed life is also idyllic. Until, that is, Mark finds that something in the water.

This book is filled with dynamic, colorful characters and unreliable narrators, and contains more than enough action to make a great movie or tv series. Some things are exactly as they seem, others, not so much. It is entirely up to Erin to interpret what she sees, and she often reacts impulsively and downright foolishly, especially for a woman who knows that she is pregnant . The surprises keep popping up, right to the final page, and, to call the book a page-turner is an understatement. Great entertainment by a capable, imaginative writer.

Historical Fiction: Rags of Time, by Michael Ward

                                      
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thomas Tallant is a promising young spice merchant who has a lot going for him. After all, he is personable, intelligent, and handsome, his father owns a thriving spice business, and he enjoys working in the family trade. Returning to London from a buying trip to India, however,  he is shocked to find the city in a chaotic state. The religious and political struggles that will eventually explode into civil war are growing increasingly violent, and King Charles is too busy fighting with Parliament to intervene.  Expecting to return to business as usual, Tom soon finds himself named the prime suspect in the bizarre deaths of two business rivals. As the evidence mounts against him, he becomes desperate to clear his name, aided only by his best friend and a beguiling young woman whom he has only just met. 



Tom’s search for justice gives us a broad view of London society in the 1630’s – how to engage a Thames wherry man, attending opulent parties alongside powerful courtiers, political intrigue, crowded prison cells swamped in muck, tricks of the trade in falconry, the terrible inequalities of class.Ward clearly  knows how to research for historical detail. Particularly memorable sequences include “shooting” London Bridge; the descriptions of “taking the clergy” while pleading in a court of law, and of training falcons to hunt in pairs, were also diverting. The murder case itself is satisfyingly intricate. The thinness of the evidence against Tom makes one wonder how the accusation could be taken seriously, but because thr charges were made  by persons of influence, it was. (Some things never change.)

If you’re wondering what “rags of time” means, check out the poetry of John Donne. If you’re interested in murder mysteries set in historical times, check out Rags of Time.



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Nonfiction Worth Reading: The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jack the Ripper, that most infamous of serial killers, was never caught or even identified. If he had been, it’s doubtful that his legend would still enthrall people more than a century after he disappeared. Few of us, other than those who call themselves “Ripperologists”, know the names of any of his victims, not even the canonical five. Though it never occurred to me before reading this book, that fact is appalling. But it did occur to author Hallie Rubenhold, who was prompted to remedy that by researching and writing biographies of  the lives of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

Written with compassion and scrupulous attention to historical detail,  The Five is as much sociological study as biography. What becomes clear is that these women fell victim to a merciless killer not because of who they were, but because of the horrific conditions the entirety of  working poor had no choice but to endure. All of the women had been born into respectable working class families. With no access to reliable birth control, their economic circumstances worsened appreciably, often disastrously,  as each new child was born into the family.  Their standard of living was appalling. This was the widespread, repetitive  cycle experienced by each of the The Five. They did not know each other but faced the same struggles. Homelessness is a huge problem today in the U.S. just as it was in Victorian England, for many of the same reasons. Add rampant misogyny to the mix, and destitute women were left with few choices. Hallie Rubenhold has done a masterful job of debunking the myths that have masked the humanity of each of them. Among her new findings was the documented fact that only two of them were prostitutes by trade,  but all were reduced, despite their best efforts at subsistence, to regularly sleeping on the streets.  She posits the plausible theory, based upon the absence of defensive wounds and official inquest reports,  that each woman was set upon as she slept. On other nights, any of the multitude of other women who struggled to survive in Whitechapel would have been the victim.

Among the hundreds of books that deal with the Ripper murders, The Five is the first and only to study the victims. In doing so, Rubenhold has removed the onus of immorality from them, showing them for the first time as real women who did not “deserve ” their fate. It is a well researched, evocative study that restores to them their identities and a kind of justice.

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Books About Books: The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

The Bookman’s TaleThe Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Books about books always grab my interest, and the addition of an English setting and a Shakespeare controversy made The Bookman’s Tale a must read. The story plays out along three different timelines, one contemporary, one Victorian, and one Elizabethan. All three involve the 1558 play Pandolfo, by Richard Green, which is widely accepted to be the source for A Winter’s Tale.

Nerdy American protagonist and ultimate bibliophile Peter Byerly, still reeling from the death of his wife, relocates to England, hoping to resume his career as an antique book dealer. When he happens upon a volume of Pandolfo, which contains marginalia that appear to have be written by Shakespeare himself, Peter can’t believe his luck and sets out to confirm its authenticity. This could have been a compelling adventure, full of danger and intrigue. And there is some of that. The problem is that the two back stories, relating the history of the owners of the Pandolfo volume and the history of Peter’s love affair with his wife, continually impede the momentum of the central premise. The historical details are about Pandolfo are interesting enough, but the love story is so schmaltzy that it swamps the mystery.

The Bookman’s Tale contains a lot of material that appealed to the bibliophile in me, but the book is more romance than  mystery .

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It’s a Mystery: The Body in the Dales, by J.R. Ellis

The Body in the Dales (Yorkshire Murder Mysteries, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Body in the Dales is the first entry in a mystery series by an author new to the scene, J.R. Ellis. Very much a police procedural, its setting, the cave riddled limestone hills and fields of the Yorkshire Dales makes for an intriguing crime scene. The experienced and cerebral CDI, Jim Oldroyd, a man both experienced and cerebral, is strong, well developed protagonist who relies upon hard facts and intuition to solve his cases, and expects his juniors to do the same. In this case, they don’t make the grade, and as characters, fall pretty flat. Most of the dialogue is stilted and sometimes incredibly simplistic. The novel’s other standout feature is the presentation of the cave system almost as a character itself. The author must have made a thorough study of this deep, dark, and dangerous underground world, and its hazards played a huge role in both the commission of the murder and in Oldroyd’s quest to find the killer. This aspect was unusual, hugely informative, and enjoyable, snagging and captivating my interest to the very end. It also prompted me do do some googling about the Dales and its limestone secrets, which resulted in pictures and information that enriched the story even further.

Off to check out the setting in the second book in this series.

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