Wednesday, October 13, 2010

RIP CHALLENGE: Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson

This is the first in the Gaslight Mystery series set equally in lower and higher society New York City at the turn of the 20th Century.

Historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt and Jacob Riis populate the book in a subdued way to give flavour to very well-researced murder mystery about the murder of a young socialite fallen-from-grace.

Frank Malloy has his own secret reasons for wanting to climb the chain of command to make Police Captain in an altogether hopeless police force: decrepit, shady and undermining any semblance of justice. Sarah Brandt is an intelligent widow who makes her living as a midwife: most often in the slums where residents of tenements can barely scrape together her fee.

Sarah comes from an upper crust family and immediately relates to the plight of innocent murder victim, Alicia Van Damme. Frank, whose hard demeanor and sardonic manner speak to tragic experiences in his recent history, finds Sarah’s interest in the case unsettling. But, together they bring the right ingredients to see the killer brought to justice in a largely unjust town.

The spark and fire between Frank Malloy and Sarah Brandt alone is what makes this intriguing historical mystery worth reading. Thompson is a very atmospheric writer and the sights and smells of gaslit New York spring perfectly to light… yet, it is the characters that jump off of the page. At first, seemingly having nothing in common, Sarah and Frank are oil and water; but the more they discover about their common interest to bring justice and the more they reconcile with the similarities in their pasts, the more they are able to harbour each other’s strengths and reach a common outcome.

I really enjoyed this murder mystery. The plot of the fallen socialite: found dead and pregnant and the snub of her family trying desperately to bury scandal is, albeit nothing new, very well-plotted. Moreover, Thompson’s obvious love for this period of history helps her etch the perfect setting for her grim tale.

I learned a lot about the police force and criminal justice of the day and Brandt and Malloy do a magnificent job of bringing a voice of reform that echoes their contemporaries Riis and Roosevelt.

Fans of Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy Mysteries will find themselves on common ground.

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