Monday, July 29, 2013

The language of the street

It's ridiculous to write a book in a language you don't understand.
Lyndsay Faye at a New York City book signing for The Gods of Gotham

George Washington Matsell was notable in mid-19th century America for two things: 1) He was the first chief of the New York City Police Department. 2) He wrote a book called The Secret Language of Crime: Vocabulum, or the Rogue's Lexicon.

His book amounted to a lexicon of flash, an underworld slang term meaning "underworld slang." Matsell thought his fledgling police force might have more success arresting criminals if they understood what criminals were saying.

Lyndsay Faye, a former actress, makes both Matsell and flash important elements in The Gods of Gotham, her 2012 novel about the origins of New York's police. Matsell is not the book's main character, however. That role falls to Timothy Wilde, a bartender whose wilder brother, Valentine, talks into taking a job with the newly forming police force. Tim has his doubts about his new job, yet it soon develops that he alone among the recruits possesses any natural ability to solve crimes.

Tim's first big case is a lulu. He finds a little girl in a bloody nightdress running through the streets. The story she tells leads to the discovery of numerous bodies of children, The new cop risks everything to find out what happened to these children, wherever the trail might lead.

Faye uses flash extensively in her novel, making it difficult reading at times. Fortunately she places her own lexicon, based on Matsell's, at the beginning to help readers better understand what's going on. Here are some excerpts from the lexicon:

BAT. A prostitute who walks the streets only at night.
DIARY. To remember.
EASY. Killed.
HICKSAM.  A countryman; a fool.
HUSH. Murder.
JABBER. To talk in an unknown language.
MAZZARD. The face.
MOUSE. Be quiet; be still.
PEPPERY. Warm; passionate.
QUEER. To puzzle.
STOW YOUR WID. Be silent.
TOGS. Clothes.

Faye admits she wrote The Gods of Gotham without understanding the language her characters were using. Readers don't need to understand it either to enjoy this novel, which was nominated for an Edgar Award. In fact, you may find you already understand many flash terms. As Faye explains in an afterward, many of these terms found their way into the language most Americans speak today.

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