Book review: Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye

Not even the hard-earned purchase of freedom can save black people from the clutches of New York’s vicious slave-catchers…

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 5th August 2014, 10:00 am
Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye
Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye

If the ordeals of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave touched a raw nerve, then the second book of Lyndsay Faye’s amazing Gods of Gotham series is guaranteed to put you through the same emotional wringer.

The former actress turned highly-acclaimed author returns to the fledgling New York Police Department in the mid-1840s to paint a memorable portrait of a riotous, racially divided city slowly growing in confidence but bedevilled by the South’s immoral slave trade.

First book in this spectacular series, The Gods of Gotham, and now the superb sequel, Seven for a Secret, follow former barman Timothy Wilde as he navigates the rapids of his violently turbulent city and learns the perils of police work alongside his brother Valentine.

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What lifts Faye’s remarkable historical novels above the norm are their outstanding characterisation, a narrative style which includes original ‘flash’ slang and a breathtakingly authentic landscape.

Add plots steeped in mystery, murder, betrayal, political hot potatoes and good old-fashioned detective work, and you have the perfect ingredients for a rich and exciting reading adventure.

In 1846, Timothy Wilde’s beat is Manhattan Ward Six and he is the only ‘copper star’ assigned to solve crimes rather than to ‘walk rounds.’ It’s a dangerous job in a police force that is less than a year old and the work is still ‘a coat that doesn’t fit.’

Timothy thinks he is hardened to the darker practices of the city where he grew up… until he encounters the ‘blackbirders,’ slave-catchers with a right to seize runaways from the Southern states but who are also taking freed blacks if the profit is high enough.

When flower shop assistant and freewoman Lucy Adams reports that her seven-year-old son Jonas and her sister Delia have been stolen, Timothy is outraged at the trade that ‘festers like an open cancer in our national skin.’

Timothy has something of a reputation for saving people after rescuing a black oysterman from being burned at the stake but soon he and his wayward brother Valentine find themselves plunged into an underworld of violence and deceit where police are complicit and politics savage.

If he is to protect all those he cares about, Timothy must unravel the corruption at the heart of the authority he was hired to defend...

The mid-19th century New York conjured up by Faye is a melting pot of cultural and political tensions as the authorities battle to cope with an influx of people from all over the vast country as well as slaves from the South and Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine.

Struggling to make a difference amidst all the chaos, poverty and violence are the likes of Timothy Wilde with little more than his badge, his notebook and a determination to fight crime at every level.

There is cruelty here and plenty of dark deeds but there are also brave souls willing to go that extra mile to help others, to bring a little humanity to the streets and to try to repair the evils of an iniquitous slave trade.

A tale of soaring imagination, memorable imagery and extraordinary insight…

(Headline Review, paperback, £7.99)