Monday, February 28, 2011
Review: 31 Bond Street
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours
31 Bond Street is a fictional account of a real murder; in 1857 a wealthy dentist, Dr. Henry Burdell, was found murdered inside his home at 31 Bond Street, New York City. Dr. Burdell's attractive housekeeper, a widow with two teenage daughters, was charged with the murder.
Ellen Horan takes the premise of an infamous murder, set in a meticulously researched New York bustling with crime, wealth, immigrants, poverty, and political corruption, and creates a fast-moving and intriguing story. Emma Cunningham is a widow who is in desperate circumstances when she first meets a dashing, well-to-do bachelor dentist. She has two teenage daughters whom she is eager to marry off to respectable men. She is running low on resources, and has few options other than remarriage. After meeting Dr. Harvey Burdell during a summer visit to Saratoga Springs, Emma Cunningham ends up leasing the top floor of his townhouse and managing his household. Such arrangements were apparently not uncommon at the time. Burdell turns out to be an unsavory character in more ways than one, and when he is found brutally murdered, Emma Cunningham comes under suspicion.
Henry Clinton, the attorney who defends Emma Cunningham, is one of the more engaging characters in the novel. While the character of Emma is morally ambiguous--she's hardly a woman the reader will warm to--Henry Clinton is a likable and charming character. His relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, is in direct contrast to the rather mercenary relationship between Emma and Dr. Burdell. Other sympathetic characters have important roles in the narrative, especially Samuel, Dr. Burdell's servant and an escaped slave. Another character who garners sympathy is John, an impoverished boy who works in Dr. Burdell's household, then as an errand boy for Clinton.
Ellen Horan has obviously done her research. The details, large and small, ring true, and she does a marvelous job of creating the bustle and complexities of New York City just before the Civil War. The racial conflicts, polictical corruption, and culture of the era provide a vivid canvas for Horan's story. The first part of the novel, dealing mainly with the relationship between Emma and Dr. Burdell, seems somewhat distant and controlled--neither character is especially appealing, and the third-person narrative keeps the reader distant from the most intimate thoughts and feelings of the characters (this distance is necessary to maintain the mystery at the center of the plot). As other characters, especially Henry Clinton, come more to the forefront, the novel becomes more engaging. As the novel progresses, the narrative seems to build more force, and in the last half of the book, beginning with the trial, the narrative pull becomes compelling, and the novelist seems to hit her stride. The best, most fluid writing comes in the last part of the book, when several loose ends are tied up, and Horan's writing seems to flow effortlessly.
31 Bond Street is a well-researched and tightly woven historical novel that will appeal to readers who like mysteries and thrillers set in the past. The novel addresses themes that are still relevant today, and tells a satisfying and intriguing story with a strong and convincing ending.