31 Bond Street
by Ellen Horan
Harper: March 30, 2010
my copy: B&N e-book
I've been traveling recently, so I haven't posted in 10 days! Ugh! On the upside of that, I managed to consume two novels while I sat in airports, airplanes and solo lunches. The first of those was 31 Bond Street, which I've been chipping away at for some time now. I mentioned quite a while ago that I would give this book a read since it was pitched to me as a "must read" for fans of The Alienist. The promos compared it to The Alienist in every way. As many of you know, Caleb Carr's The Alienist is my favorite work of modern fiction. So that's a gusty way to pitch a book to me. Did it deliver?
The Synopsis (from IndieBound): Who killed Dr. Harvey Burdell?
Though there are no witnesses and no clues, fingers point to Emma Cunningham, the refined, pale-skinned widow who managed Burdell’s house and his servants. Rumored to be a black-hearted gold digger with designs on the doctor’s name and fortune, Emma is immediately put under house arrest during a murder investigation. A swift conviction is sure to catapult flamboyant district attorney Abraham Oakey Hall into the mayor’s seat. But one formidable obstacle stands in his way: the defense attorney Henry Clinton. Committed to justice and the law, Clinton will aid the vulnerable widow in her desperate fight to save herself from the gallows.
Set in 1857 New York, this gripping mystery is also a richly detailed excavation of a lost age. Horan vividly re-creates a tumultuous era characterized by a sensationalist press, aggressive new wealth, a booming real-estate market, corruption, racial conflict, economic inequality between men and women, and the erosion of the old codes of behavior. A tale of murder, sex, greed, and politics, this spellbinding narrative transports readers to a time that eerily echoes our own.
The Review: Let's just clear up the comparison issue right out of the gates (in case the star ratings above didn't already clue you in): This ain't no Alienist. Not even close. The only thing it really has in common with Carr's book is that it is also set in 19th century New York. Oh... and there's a dead guy. Other than that, they have very little in common. It's a shame that some publicist set this book up for the epic fail that is inevitable when comparing it to a vastly superior book. It's a shame because this is really a decent read... it just doesn't live up to it's own hype.
That said, let's forget the Alienist thing and discuss THIS book. The 19th century NYC setting is reasonably well constructed, particularly social customs and class relations. The fate of a widow without means in Victorian-era New York and the social necessity of marriage is thoroughly examined in terms of both Emma and her daughters. The geography of lands surrounding New York were interestingly constructed here as well and were also relevant to the unfolding of the plot.
31 Bond Street is a fictionalized account of real-life murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell. I've no doubt that developing fictional characters around people whose only real record now lies in old newspaper accounts is a daunting task. But these characters were weak and didn't seem to run much deeper than the impressions that any of us would get were we to learn of them solely through those old news clippings. The only possible exception was Emma, around whom the story centered. She's the only character whose motivations, history and thoughts we are ever treated to. All others remain one-dimensional throughout the book.
It's hard to criticize a plot that is based on reality because hey, you work with what you've got. But this is fictionalized reality, so maybe I can. The story of the murder was interesting and I really didn't see the identity of the true murderer coming. While that's usually a credit to the skill of the author, I can't help but think that it may be because the murderer's character was so poorly developed. Regardless, I was surprised by the culprit. One thing I loved about the way this story was constructed was the way it jumped from the "present" of the investigation and trial to the "past" in the form of the events in Emma and Dr. Burdell's lives leading up to the murder. It was a very satisfying and engaging way to present the story and Horan did it very well... revealing just enough with each switch to keep you wondering what's next. I gave the hit to plot in my star ratings only because there were side lines and other points that just got abandoned or were only partially unexplained. For instance, central to the opening chapters was the disintegration of her attorney's relationship with his partner, his striking out on his own and how hard all of that would be - both personally and professionally. It was a huge gamble and he didn't know if he could pull it off. He didn't understand why his partner had this opposition to his new case etc, etc. Then the relationship between the former partners was just never mentioned again. Aside from the fact that he suddenly popped up in a new building with new partners, there was no attention given to the starting of the new firm, and the extent of the "hardship" was the brief mention that his wife had to make do without servants for a while and their roof leaked. It was hugely unsatisfying and weak for a plot point that was introduced immediately and seemed like it would have something to do with the rest of the book. When it didn't, I just kept wondering why Horan introduced those conflicts at all. While the central story was quite good, dead-ends like this made for an average overall rating.
The Bottom Line: An average historical murder mystery/legal thriller: a good story with no memorable characters, but with some interesting historical asides and a good central plot. Worth a read if you're a fan of the genre.
This review originally appeared on The Lit Witch: A Book Blog