Murder on Astor Place (Gaslight Mystery No. 1) by Victoria Thompson. Berkley Prime Crime. 1999. Personal copy. Monday is Columbus Day, so this review is a Holiday Read for grownups; that is, it’s not a young adult or children’s book.
The Plot: This is the first in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn of the century New York City. Teddy Roosevelt has decided to reform the police department; Frank Malloy is a hard-working detective sergeant who understand how the system works and has doubts about what Roosevelt is doing. Not because Malloy is corrupt, even though he knows how to play the game and is saving the money needed to get a promotion. No, because he wonders whether someone like Roosevelt will really get anything done.
Sarah Brandt is a midwife, widow to a doctor. Her background is not typical, and not what one would expect. She is the daughter of a rich and well connected New Yorker, a child of privilege, who for many different reasons has turned her back on her family and her class (as they have on her).
Sarah is called to assist in the birth of a hard-working woman who runs a boarding-house, and sees a girl she thinks looks vaguely familiar. Taking care of the mother and new baby takes up all her time, and she doesn’t follow up on it. When Sarah makes a follow up visit to the woman and her infant, she learns that girl has been murdered. Malloy is investigating, and has no time for Sarah, even when she says who the girl looks like — a friend of hers, a rich, New York woman. It turns out that the girl is the younger sister of Sarah’s school friend, and Sarah finds herself pulled into the investigation, both because she has knowledge of the world Malloy knows nothing about and because she feels she owes the dead girl. Malloy reluctantly accepts Sarah’s help.
Spoilers! Sarah and Malloy form a partnership of sorts, and the Gaslight Mysteries (there are now fourteen of them) is about the two of them, from different worlds, working together.
The Good: I love, love, love historical mysteries like this. Bonus for it being about a place I love, New York City. I love how Thompson works all the details of life at the turn of the century into this book, and how she looks at many classes and types of people. Plus, of course, there is the history aspect. The setting — so good.
And the characters! Sarah, with a career, independent but not without friends. Frank, coming from a world where solving crimes is helped along by bribes and kickbacks. I look forward to reading the other books in the series, to seeing what changes Roosevelt makes and how that impacts Frank. Confession: while its set a good thirty years after the new BBC America show, Copper, I kept thinking of that show. What Frank said about the police department is giving me a greater depth to what I’m watching take place in Copper.
My only quibble? I totally guessed the plot. I’ve said before, I don’t like holding that against a book because it’s not a book’s fault I read and watch a lot of mysteries, and approach them like a puzzle I want to solve. In this instance, though, I really think I may have read this book when it first came out, because while I don’t remember reading it, so many of the details were familiar I think I must have. Still, that doesn’t matter, because it was tightly plotted; the setting is supreme; and Sarah and Frank are two people I want to spend more time with.