Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye is the second historical crime novel featuring Timothy Wilde, a copper of Gotham's fledgling police force in 1846, sworn to uphold slave-catching laws while confronted by a vile trade that abducts even free people of color into bondage (available September 17, 2013).
Timothy Wilde knows New York City intimately, and it's spoiling for a fight. Heaving with change, beset by the tensions of industrial expansion, ethnic groups clash as the Civil War looms in the not-too distant future. His hometown is being inundated by Irish refugees of the potato famine, as well as free colored people, also vying for work and undercutting employment among the rest of the city's striving mish-mosh of residents. The reinforcement of nasty old bigotries and spawning of new ones would worry any man sworn to uphold order, but Timothy Wilde's also innately curious about people, a man who's rubbed shoulders with outcasts and empire-builders alike.
This city plays with its residents a mortal game of musical chairs, and when the langing pianofaorte shops, the consequence for the loser is either a slow death or a short one. There is simply not enough here. Not enough work, enough food, enough walls with roofs topping them. Maybe there would be if we filled in half the Atlantic. But today, there aren't enough chairs for the tens of thousands tearing their way into the parlor for a try.
Like the series debut, last year's Gods of Gotham, this novel is also richly peppered with the language of its day in myriad forms, including advertisements, hawkers's calls, crime reports, yellow journalism, and street patois. Concerning the latter, the jargon of “flash,” there's now a brief dictionary up front to tune the reader's ear for the slang symphony to come.
But the language is only one layer of the astounding detail that differentiates the adventures of reluctant lawman Timothy Wilde. There is no cardboard Olde Tyme set dressing here. Oh, no. Often, readers will be rushing headlong with the thrilling action, because there are large and crushing, terrible forces at work, but if readers ever stop to pant for breath, to focus for even a moment on the passing scenery, their attentions will be rewarded with something worth noticing. Because this story involves a woman who works in a flower shop, I'm tempted to compare the detail with spring daffodils. The sensory and cultural particulars must have been planned, exactingly cultivated by their author, and yet, they appear while reading to bloom casually from everywhere with nature's own excessive and glorious abandon. But the tragedy of this novel begins on a fatefully stormy Valentine's Day, so we're too early to expect happy-faced daffodils.
The shop windows ticked past Lucy Adams's vision like the unnoticed beat of a bedroom clock as she hastened homeward. A safe rhythm, familar as your own pulse. M. Freeman's Old and New Feathers Emporium, Needle and Fishhook Manufactory, The Museum Hotel. The snow whirled above the cobbles, as if gripped by an undertow, and she pulled her fur cloak close. She passed a man driving a cart piled with burlap sacks and calling, “Sand-O! White sand-O!” A shopkeeper dove out of his dry goods store at the cry, nearly running into her. But she stepped neatly aside, and the whiskery gentleman apologized as he fed coins into the sandman's palm for the Rockaway silt that would keep his storefront pavements safe a while longer.
Five minutes later, Mrs. Adams hurtled out of her house into West Broadway, her skirts in her fists and her mouth torn wide in a scream, flying through the gathering storm in the direction of police headquarters at the Tombs.
In these novels' comprehensive evocation of a time and place, the comparisons to Caleb Carr's Alienist novels are apt. It's no wonder some professors are already teaching 19th-century history with Gods of Gotham. But even if a reader chooses never to stop and smell the flowers (or brine and horse apples, as the case may be), because Faye's narrative style isn't pedantic, the generous specificity simply reinforces one's immersion in the characters' perspectives. And however wonderfully revelatory the historical detail, Seven for a Secret is not a novel primarily of place and time. It is—as all the best stories are—first and foremost about people.
On the day the worst happened to her—and by worst I mean the tragedy you'd die to prevent, kill to prevent, the cruelty beyond endurance—Lucy Adams was working in a flower shop, arranging scarlet and orange hothouse roses whose colors could have put a midsummer sunset to shame.
How little I learned about her, that day when we met. How tragically little. The details would come later. Long after I'd told her that I, Timothy Wilde, copper star badge number 107 and defender of whomever I damn well pleased, would set it all right again.
Something horrible had happened to her. I didn't need a barman's sleight of hand to realize that. Lucy Adams's eyes were the color of lichen on a stone wall, mossy flecks of green shot through with greay, and they stared wide as if she'd just been pitched into the Hudson off a steamer deck. Mr. Piest and I stared at her, shocked. Her lips were very full, very round, and she peeled them open to speak as if the motion agonized her.
She was beautiful. That part of the story is impossible to discount. It matters, unfortunately.
Her family has been preyed upon by illegal slavers, “blackbirders,” and there will be more heartbreak than the kind caused by a lovely face.
Though a seasoned creature of the streets, Timothy Wilde keeps being disappointed by life, love, and people, perhaps especially his brother Valentine, a larger-than-life man of huge appetites, as well as tremendous connections and flexible morals. But even so, Wilde stubbornly persists in defending the weak and disadvantaged, and that means he loses as often, in fact rather moreso, than he wins. Even in these raucous and rigged circumstances, we readers should not select a champion because of his towering stature, lofty influence, or imperviousness to harm. We who've prowled the streets with Timothy Wilde will bet on him again because of his keen powers of observation—canny and pitiless, even with himself—and because of his wounded heart and the patterns of scars, inside and out, that tell us what he's already fought and survived.
Bizarrely, I still dreamed at night of tending bar as I'd used to—of running dry of rum with Wall Street speculators piled twenty-deep in a hissing, writhing snake pit before my cedar plank. Not of stolen goods I couldn't find or of street brawls I couldn't tame. Not murders I couldn't solve. In my usual visions, my face wasn't yet so scarred by the fire that erased half of downtown that no decent watering hole would ever hire me, my home and fortune hadn't evaporated, and my keenest concern was serving champagne to stockbrokers who were already half-stupefied.
Despite seeing his world without the solace of numbness, our hero and sleuth doesn't disappear into the laudanum and debauchery his brother favors, doesn't permamently escape the pressure in his skull, despite memories of horrors that make him want to resort to “screaming my lungs raw about it in a public square.” In order to occasionally set wrong things right, Timothy Wilde keeps on swinging and endures, because, as he says in Seven for a Secret, “...humans are largely inexplicable and I'm no exception. So there it lies.”
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Clare Toohey is a literary omnivore who wants a taste from your plate. Aside from editing The Malfeasance Occasional and site wrangling here, she's a freelance editor who's written short and surreal crime stories, blogs at Women of Mystery, and tweets @clare2e