Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: 31 Bond Street

31 Bond Street: A Novel
Ellen Horan
Harper Perennial
349 pages
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.


Mystica said...

I read about this book. Thank you for a wonderful review.

Beth said...

This is my book club's pick for June! So glad to see a review right after we pulled our picks out of a hat. I was unfamiliar with the title before now, and have recently been getting into mystery and thrillers. I'm especially excited about the historical element. Cant' wait!! Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

It seems like this is the perfect blend of historical detail and mystery, of fiction and fact. I'm glad to hear it is also a great read!

Thanks for being on the tour.

Kelly said...

This looks really good! Definitely adding it to the tbr list. I just wish I had time to read for pleasure instead of just for school because there are so many great books out right now!

Rummanah Aasi said...

This sounds really interesting. I'll add it to my ever growing tbr pile. Thank you for your review!

Ellen Horan said...

Thank you Lisa, for choosing and reviewing my book!! It's a great summary and review. I will repost!!

Suzanne said...

Sounds like an interesting story. Further proof that truth is usually stranger than fiction.

BookQuoter said...

Sounds like my kind of book! Have to look for it! Thanks.

Audra said...

Dying to get my hands on this one -- your review only has me drooling more!

Priya Parmar said...

sounds wonderful!!!!!

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Oooh, now this totally sounds like a perfect book to pick up soon! I love to read about New York and other major cities during the 1800s and early 1900s!

Audra said...

Great review -- I'm sold.