Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Great characters and mystery
Cons: Ending a bit over the top
The Bottom Line:
Travel back in time
Twisting, compelling story
Strong main characters
Step Back in Time and See Just Why This Series is So Popular
When you buy two or three books for every book you read, you wind up with books you fully intend to read but haven’t gotten around to yet. (And now with my blog, it’s even worse.) One such book is Murder on Astor Place. I don’t know for sure when I bought it, but I figure I’ve had it sitting on my shelf for at least a decade, probably longer. After meeting the author, Victoria Thompson, at Malice Domestic this year, I finally dusted it off and dove in.
This is the first book in the Gaslight mysteries, set in New York City 1896. That’s just a few years earlier than Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy series started, and it was fun stepping into a city I know (fictionally) just a few years earlier.
Sarah Brandt is a midwife working in the city. One night, she is called out to deliver a baby for a family that has turned most of their home into a boarding house to pay the bills. She sees a young woman living there who reminds Sarah of a friend she hasn’t seen in years.
When Sarah goes back to check on the mother and new born, she discovers that the young tenant had been murdered. Sarah identifies the victim as Alicia VanDamn, the younger sister of her friend. Frank Malloy is the detective assigned to the case, but Sarah doesn’t trust the police to solve the case so she starts trying to find clues herself. Can the two of them solve the case?
This really is a book with two detectives. Despite the corruption of the police at the time (Teddy Roosevelt is trying to reform things as the book opens), Frank investigates as well. The book splits time between the two in third person narration, giving us great clues and twists. When Frank and Sarah come together and share information, we aren’t treated to rehash, but the two of them brainstorm what the clues mean.
Now, if this is sounding like the police are purposefully involving a civilian in a murder investigation, don’t worry. Frank is actually less than impressed with how Sarah inserts herself into the case early on. And their first scenes are almost funny with how the tension unfolds.
The plot really is strong with a steady pace of twists and surprises. I did guess a couple of the twists early on, but I didn’t have the killer worked out at all. I did find the climax a bit over the top and sad, but that is my only complaint about the book.
The characters are already strong. Sarah and Frank are from two different worlds in New York society, which gives them access to different people. It’s a great way to show just how fractured society was at the time. Both characters have their own backstories, which we get over the course of the book. The other characters are just as memorable.
Being a historical novel, there are plenty of details that transport us to not only another place but another time period. And yet, they never slow the book down. The characters and plot are first, just the way it should be.