I have said before that one of the hallmarks of a properly done historical novel is the presence of maps, diagrams or family trees before the story itself begins. Such inclusions imply thorough research and that the author has taken care to help place the reader more comfortably within the historical context; unfamiliar locations, countries that no longer exist and complex, intertwined family relations become clearer and more easily navigable with such inclusions. Lyndsay Faye’s latest book, Seven for a Secret, opens with an offering of two and a half pages of selected “flash terminology”, the street slang of 1840s New York, to prepare the reader for the historically authentic speech used by her characters. I liked it.
Chapters are likewise headed with quotes from period accounts, an unusual but remarkably effective device at setting the right tone and atmosphere for the heavyweight plot. I liked that, too. Without such factual interludes it might be hard to imagine that such things as we encounter fictionally could ever have happened in any form in reality.
Seven for a Secret is a story set against the backdrop of the American slave trade. Opening in February 1846, just a matter of months after the establishment of the New York Police Department, the new policemen are struggling to impose their authority on the city and its problems. Most of the “copper stars” (so named from the metal lapel badges denoting their office) are simply “roundsmen”, paid to spend hours each day walking rounds along designated streets to deter crime. Timothy Wilde started out this way, but has lately been appointed to some more unusual duties, the strange matter of trying to solve crimes after the fact. The book opens to his feeling flushed with competence at his new profession, having just recovered some stolen property, when a woman rushes into his station crying out that she has to report a theft. Upon asking what has been stolen, she replies: “my family”.
In the US at this time, slave ownership was still common in the Southern states, and those slaves that lived in the North were obliged to carry papers confirming their status as legally free. This did not stop “blackbirders” kidnapping free blacks from the North, claiming to any courts who got involved that they were escaped slaves and then selling them on for a considerable profit; at a time when the testimony of black witnesses as to a person’s identity was not admissible in court, there was little such victims could do to prove that they were not the runaways they were being taken for. For Lucy Adams, her concern is that her missing family – sister Delia and young son Jonas – have been taken with just such a future in mind for them. As an abolitionist, Wilde is keen to help her and protect the citizens of his city, but where to start in somewhere as big and chaotic as New York?
What follows is no holds barred journey through pre-Civil War New York, in all its gory detail: violence, corruption, poverty and crime. Much of the city is ambivalent to the fate of slaves, and those kidnapped from its street to become slaves, instead intent on their own survival at a time when there doesn’t seem to be enough of anything to go around and new people are pouring into the city wanting housing and jobs every day. This is a New York very different to the one we are familiar with, and Wilde is a detective very different to those we often encounter in novels. He is neither a brilliant maverick nor a man cursed with a difficult private life; he is simply an ordinary fellow doing his best, sometimes making clever deductions, sometimes relying on his flamboyant political brother Valentine for help. He is far from perfect and is a better character for it.
This is a long, complex book but one that will reward fans of both historical and crime fiction with a meaty story and plenty of action if you invest the hours into reading it.
Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye
Published by Headline, September 2013
With thanks to Headline for providing a review copy.
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