Mid-19th Century New York City Comes Alive in ‘Seven for a Secret’

New York City in 1846 was an extremely unwelcoming place; the divide between rich and poor would have made today’s statistics pale in comparison. Just four years later, fully one quarter of the city’s population would be made up of Irish immigrants, driven to America by the Great Famine.

The Irish were as unpopular in the new metropolis as the free blacks, both groups heavily discriminated against and both becoming ever more antagonistic against each other. Upping the volatility considerably was the fact that this was the dawn of the age of gangs, like the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits, which seized areas of the city and fought bitterly over their respective turfs.

Lyndsay Faye’s historical novel Seven for a Secret, part two of a series which started with the highly acclaimed Edgar-nominated The Gods of Gotham, takes place in these dark times. In the first book, Timothy Wilde had just joined the newly formed New York City Police Department with the aid of his older brother, the politically uber-connected Valentine. The police were known as “copper stars”, so named because of the badges they wore, with none of the checks and balances built into the system at this early stage in US history. Corruption was rampant; the police force was as likely to be staffed by evildoers taking advantage of the powerless and downtrodden as not; perhaps more so.

Wilde is one of the good guys; his mission is to serve and protect. In the first book he took a stand against child prostitution, a common practice of the time. Seven for a Secret finds him drawn into a nefarious plot in which free blacks are captured by “blackbirders” and sent South to work on plantations after becoming the victims of a lucrative (for some) “mistaken identity”.

As Wilde races against the clock to save a family that has been captured by slave catchers, there are several other twisty-turny plotlines going on, as well. The book is a delicious thrill; it’s also rife with wonderfully lyric prose like “Something was pooling in my breast, hot and treacle-thick and bitter like burnt sugar.” One can’t help but like – and root for – Timothy Wilde. He’s a sane man trying to do good in an insane world.

Unlike a lot of series, one doesn’t need to read the first book in this case to find oneself totally immersed in the well-drawn characters and their world in Seven for a Secret. A third book is apparently in the works, as well.

Faye has done her homework; her painstaking detail in the descriptions of the time is riveting. This is a fascinating book about a murky time in American history, pre-Civil War, when race politics was catch as catch can. The Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad were the only hope of those who were unfairly targeted. Skirting the fringes of the law, Wilde allies himself with these freedom fighters to try and save the lives of a young boy and his aunt.

Seven for a Secret is particularly resonant at the moment because of the recent success of the feature film 12 Years a Slave, the true story of Solomon Northup. Northup was a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Best Picture Oscar predictions have been rampant on the film, which was released in late August.

It’s a real thrill when a new writer (this is Faye’s second book) comes upon the scene as strongly as she has. In addition to The Gods of Gotham , Faye published Dust and Shadow in 2009, which took as its subject Sherlock Holmes hunting down Jack the Ripper. Clearly her forte is the thriller with exquisitely accurate historical fiction as its spine. Anyone who enjoys reading about the mid-19th century, early American history, a New York City well before its prime, or just a good mystery, will find Seven for a Secret a pleasure to read.

RATING 7 / 10