One of the most surprising books I read last year was The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye. Surprising because it didn’t really sound like my type of book, yet once I started reading I loved it from the first page. Seven for a Secret is the second in the series and just as good as the first. While I like discovering new authors and meeting new characters, there is something comforting about reading a book that is the second or subsequent in a series and returning to a world you’re familiar with and characters you already know.
This series is set in 19th century New York City and follows the adventures of Timothy Wilde, a ‘copper star’ with the newly formed New York Police Department (the name comes from the copper stars the officers are required to wear for identification). After Timothy’s crime-solving skills in The Gods of Gotham brought him to the attention of Chief George Washington Matsell, he has now been given a special position as one of the department’s first detectives. In Seven for a Secret, Timothy is on the trail of a gang of ‘blackbirders’ (people employed to catch runaway slaves and return them to slavery in the South). The gang have captured the family of Lucy Adams, who insists that they are free New Yorkers and not slaves. Timothy promises to help and with the assistance of his brother Valentine sets out to investigate the crime.
Some of the characters we met in the previous novel are back again in this one including Julius Carpenter, Gentle Jim, Bird Daly and Silkie Marsh, but there are plenty of new characters too, from six-year-old chimney sweeps to corrupt Democratic Party members. But one of my favourite things about this series is the relationship between the two Wilde brothers, Timothy and Valentine. Tim continues to be torn between admiration for Val and disgust with his less savoury habits; Val continues to be the exasperated but protective older brother. I love them both, but I have to say I think Val is a wonderful creation and the more interesting character of the two.
The thing that really sets this series apart from other historical mystery novels I’ve read is the setting and the plots that arise from that setting. Before discovering these books I had virtually no knowledge at all of the early days of policing in New York or the work of the ‘copper stars’. And although I have read quite a lot of novels that deal with the subject of slavery, I hadn’t read anything that looked at this particular aspect of slavery. But much as I love Timothy Wilde and think he’s a great narrator, I did sometimes feel that his attitudes towards slavery and other issues raised in this book seemed more like the reactions of someone living in 2013 rather than the 1840s. Other than that, the atmosphere of 19th century New York is completely believable; as in the first novel, the feeling of authenticity is enhanced by the inclusion of ‘flash’, a sort of slang used mainly by criminals but also spoken by both Wildes. There’s a useful flash dictionary at the front of the book to help translate any unfamiliar words, but in most cases it’s easy enough to work out what is being said.
If you’re new to this series you could certainly enjoy Seven for a Secret without having read The Gods of Gotham first, but I would still recommend reading them in the correct order if you can. And really, they are both so good I’m sure whichever one you read first you will want to read the other anyway. I really hope there are going to be more books in this series as I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for Tim and Val!