It’s 1896 New York and star copper Timothy Wilde, with his drug taking brother Valentine, works for the newly formed New York Police Department. Times are hard and wild, and tensions are running high following a recent mass immigration of Irish fleeing the potato famine; escaped slaves and free blacks alike are on the run from the slave catchers, or blackbirders, out to make a quick buck as they haul them off the streets, dragging them to the slave markets. Their action isn’t illegal and many regard it as law enforcement: returning to the plantation owners their rightful property. When a beautiful black woman, Mrs Lucy Adams, stumbles into Timothy’s police headquarters claiming that her family has been stolen, Timothy finds that his investigation leads him into New York’s corrupt underworld where no one, not even his fellow copper stars, can be trusted.
Seven for a Secret is the second book to follow Timothy Wilde. The first, Gods of Gotham, was set six months earlier when the NYPD was first established. Faye definitely knows this period of history inside out. Her evocation of a lawless, corrupt New York amidst a time of social and political turmoil is truly stunning. Faye has said in her endnotes that she used original source material for her research wherever possible and this shows through in the writing. She’s lived in this period and she writes as someone who was actually there. The characters speak in the current vernacular (flash). Faye has helpfully included a vocabulary list at the beginning of the book although it isn’t often necessary, as the unfamiliar words are so skilfully embedded in the text that their meaning is obvious.
The opening to the book is pacey, exciting and gripping. Unfortunately, no sooner have we learned that Lucy Adams’s family has been stolen, then we have to endure a long sequence where Wilde is sent by his chief to locate a stolen painting. The point of his exercise is apparent later on in the text, but the inclusion of this section and its long length so close to the beginning is mis-judged and could, I suspect, end with many readers giving up reading. That would be a shame.
The narrator Timothy Wilde is an interesting character and his light, often humorous tone is endearing. As with often true of detectives Wilde is scarred: facially from a fire that killed his parents and also mentally from the consequent grief and the absence of the woman he loves (a hangover from the previous book and a sub-plot which isn’t properly resolved here, despite the fact that her absence creates in him ‘a voracious hole’). He has great moral strength and is appalled by the fact that ‘in the North, blacks are a free but steadily trod-upon race. And in the South they are livestock’. His sense of injustice at the treatment of blacks in New York causes tension not only between him and his fellow copper stars, but also with current political opinion, a dangerous Madam called Silkie Marsh and even at times his own brother who tells him:
‘If you’re an abolitionist, you are mouse on the subject. Can you manage just that much for my sake? We are the quietest abolitionists in the world. Do you savvy?’
The relationship between Valentine and Timothy is one of the highlights of the book. Sibling rivalry is always fertile ground for writers and here Faye has created two opposite characters: Valentine often drug addled and of questionable sexuality, but with a sharp mind and wit and Timothy who takes his new role as a copper star seriously, but often comes across as inadequate and bumbling. The two of them often clash, disgusted at the other’s behaviour, and yet as siblings there’s a close bond, a deep love that wins out.
For all the beautiful writing (descriptions such as this about his black friend Julius: ‘I can’t imagine jackets are comfortable when your back resembles a shallow-ploughed field’), interesting characters and a backdrop of seething vice and social and political drama, this book lacks something at its heart. We never really get a sense of the jeopardy Wilde is in: there’s no obvious antagonist for him to rail against other than a jumble of secrets and lies he needs to unravel and the final denouement is disappointing. More importantly, however, we never properly hear Lucy Adams’s voice. Her life and what happened to her and her family is the central drama of the book and yet it’s difficult to care. We don’t really learn anything about her apart from cursory details towards the end. There’s no sense of her as a living, breathing character that we want to root for. In murder mysteries such as this I think we need to feel the anguish of a life taken early, a horror at such an action that must be avenged by our protagonist who will solve the crime. Here that doesn’t happen and the book is less for it.
Any Cop?: A wonderfully evoked world populated by interesting and unusual characters, but nonetheless a little disappointing. Faye shows great promise as a writer, but sadly hasn’t quite pulled it off here. There’s not enough raw, tear at your heart emotion to make this a truly satisfying read.