There are some parts of American history that are shameful to learn about. There’s the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. There’s the Indian Wars. And there’s the big one: slavery. Lyndsay Faye takes us to one of the more shameful chapters in American slavery in Seven for a Secret. Before the Civil War, African Americans were regularly kidnapped and returned or sold into slavery. As early as 1819, Faye notes in her Afterword, African Americans created Committees of Vigilance to protect themselves from being snatched off the streets of northern cities and sent south. Seven for a Secret is a mystery set against this brutal and unjust background.
After recovering (somewhat) from the events of The Gods of Gotham, copper Timothy Wilde and his colleague Jakob Piest are surprised when a black woman bursts into their office to tell them that her family has been taken by slave catchers. Lucy Adams, her son Jonas, and her sister, Delia Wright, all have their free papers, but that doesn’t matter to the kidnappers. According to the laws in 1846, helping escaped slaves is illegal and African Americans can’t give testimony in court. Even coppers like Wilde and Piest aren’t supposed to get involved. Wilde’s innate sense of justice rebels at this and, as usual, he decides to take matters into his own hands. He and Piest, along with Valentine Wilde, join one of New York’s Committees of Vigilance to rescue Lucy’s family. Timothy rescues Delia and Jonas, but that’s only the start of a tangled, deadly mystery.
Only a day after Wilde and his colleagues rescued Lucy’s family, Lucy is found dead in Valentine’s apartment. Wilde is pressured to stop interfering with the slave catching by his boss, who is in turn getting orders from the local Democratic Party political machine. Of course Wilde refuses to follow orders. I won’t say he uncovers a vast conspiracy; instead he uncovers a bunch of people looking out for their own interests who have far too much power. And, at the center of this deadly web, is a woman that Timothy and his brother have battled before: brothel madam Silkie Marsh.
As each wrinkle in the case unfolds, Wilde learns more about the unconscionable system of slavery. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from period news and slave narratives like Twelve Years a Slave to remind you that the story is not entirely the product of Faye’s imagination. Events such as the one described in Seven for a Secret actually happened, only there was no Wilde to stop them. All Americans learn about slavery in their history classes, but much of the detail is left out. Faye brings these details into stark focus in this book, though she doesn’t hit you over the head with them so much as to make you cringe with each new chapter.
In addition to giving you a thrilling mystery and a wrenching series of dilemmas, Faye sets you down smack in the middle of 1846 New York. The city comes to vivid life in Seven for a Secret, in all its glory and danger. Faye’s first book, The Gods of Gotham was terrific. Seven for a Secret just might be even better. I’m not sure if I can handle what she cooks up for Timothy Wilde in her next book.