Pros:Excellent story, well-developed characters and good examination of the social mores of the time
The Bottom Line: While the first book does not have to be read first, I recommend it so that the story has a strong base.
This is the second Victoria Thompson novel that I've read. I liked the first one but thought it resembled Anne Perry's "Monk" mysteries. That pattern continues with this novel although there are obvious differences. The two main characters in the "Monk" books are a nurse and a detective. The two main character in Thompson's books are a midwife and a detective. However, "Monk" is set in the middle of the 19th Century in England while Thompson's books are set in the late 1800's in New York City.
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Sarah Brandt is a young widow who has chosen to live on her own and practice as a midwife. This enrages her wealthy parents who don't believe a woman should "lower" herself to such a profession. The 16 year old sister of one of Sarah's patients is brutally murdered and Sarah realizes that the police will not be interested in the case because the girl is a poor immigrant. The girl is also known as a "charity girl" because she bestows favors on men who give her gifts.
Sarah decides to recruit Detective Frank Malloy who she worked with in a previous murder case. Malloy respects Sarah but doesn't like her "brash" ways. Malloy also tells Sarah that the murderer will probably never be found because there are too many suspects.
It turns out that the murder victim is not the first local "charity" girl to be murdered. There are at least 3 others such cases in the last few months.
The bulk of the book concerns Sarah's and Malloy's investigation of the killings.
WHY I LIKED THIS BOOK
Although there are obvious similarities with Anne Perry's books, Ms. Thompson not only writes an interesting murder mystery but also includes the mores of the times with a skillful style.
Her main two characters are "fleshed out" more in this book as we find out that Malloy's son (whose mother died at childbirth) has a disability that Sarah discovers. Sarah is estranged from her family for most of the book (and for the three years preceding it) but manages to make a decent living on her own.
The book describes many of the unsavory conditions of the late 1800's (many of which still exist to a lesser extent today). I don't want to spoil the book but Malloy's son's disability is looked on as something shameful in the late 19th Century.
Sarah must not only fight to have an police investigation into the young girls' murders, she also has to take on the prevailing attitude about spousal abuse and the prevailing belief that young girls who aer in the wrong place "deserve" what they get.
Not surprisingly even the victims of spousal abuse in the novel blame themselves for the abuse. Unfortunately, that problem still exists today. Ms. Thompson's writing about the subject is a succinct statement of the problems I still see in my law practice (and as a former prosecutor.)
When Sarah's patient excuses the beatings her husband "gives her" as a result of her "lack of being a good wife", Sarah reacts as follows:
"Sarah wanted to scream. She knew all the logical arguments, but rarely did they work on women like Agnes (the abused wife). Not only did their husbands injure their bodies, they also injured their minds, twisting them until they actually believed they deserved the beatings they received."
There is a lot of passion in the book but I don't mean in a sexual manner. Ms. Thompson describes conditions that existed over a century ago with a straight, hard-nosed style.
There are moments of levity in the book, primarily between Malloy and Sarah and Sarah's busybody next door neighbor but the book is a good examination of "crime-solving" in the days before any women's rights were acknowledged.
My only real problem with the book is that I figured out who the killer (killers) were fairly early. However, the author still manages to build a suspenseful story with Sarah in the middle of the mayhem.
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