About halfway through Lyndsay Faye's second novel of 1840s New York policing. Seven for a Secret, I wondered if it was possible to sustain a novel through high-octane writing alone. Dispense with plot and characterisation and just write, free form. A daft notion, clearly, but Lyndsay Faye's prose is so electrifying that if anybody could do it, surely she could.
Those who were smart enough to read The Gods of Gotham, one of the best novels I read in 2012 (review), will not be surprised to learn that Seven for a Secret has an explosive and compelling plot, rich with mystery, historical detail and political intrigue.
Timothy Wilde, New York's first detective in the nascent Copper Star force - as much the security wing of the Democratic party as it is the defender of law and order - becomes embroiled in the disappearance of two free blacks, a woman and child, in what appears to be a case of kidnapping by a pair of over-zealous slave-catchers from the south.
Wilde, an ardent abolitionist, quickly comes to realise that the return of slaves to the south is a contentious and politically charged issue. To his digust, Wilde finds his superior officers are prepared to sacrifice free blacks to maintain peace with their political paymasters, who do not share Wilde's liberal notions.
What follows is a dangerous, violent and fascinating journey through pre-Civil War race politics that offers a view of the mores and attitudes of the time through the lens of one family's struggle to maintain their freedom. It's a surprising story in many ways, given that within 15 years tens of thousands of New Yorkers would march south to their deaths in the cause of ending slavery. In 1846, the City is at best ambivalent to the fate of slaves as each community struggles to assert its own right to exist and thrive, not least the thousands of immigrant Irish fresh from the famine.
Wilde is cut from a different cloth, irresistibly drawn to the suffering of the weak and vulnerable with an almost fatal determination to follow his conscience wherever it takes him. With him - some of the time at least - goes him flamboyant and political brother Valentine, who is in turns devoted to and exasperated by his fraternal responsibilities as his younger sibling refuses to sacrifice his morality at the altar of political expediency.
As with The Gods of Gotham, I continued to be fascinated by Faye's portrait of a younger, smaller and less grand New York, which is only beginning to show signs of the self-confidence and commercial power that would propel it to be one of the world's most influential cities within a generation.
But most of all, I was just blown away by the quality of Faye's writing, which is sparkling throughout. Faye is surely destined to be a major star in this genre and in American literature in general.