Review: 31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: April 1, 2010
Source: Personal Copy
AN EMINENT CITIZEN ARRESTED
INTENSE EXCITEMENT IN BOND STREET
An atrocity, almost unparalleled by any of the atrocities committed in this City, came to light on Saturday morning in the house at No. 31 Bond Street. Dr. Harvey Burdell was found in his office, foully murdered, and frightfully and fiendishly mutilated. Dr. Burdell was a man of considerable wealth, and respectably connected. -The New York Times, 1857
Sounds exciting, huh? Yeah, that's what I thought too...until I finished the book. I mean, when you have a Victorian murder mystery based on a real life case and set in one of the greatest cities in the world, what's not to like? While being quite a fast read and somewhat entertaining, 31 Bond Street, unfortunately, had too many negatives to keep it from being stellar.
Set in rapidly growing New York City during the 1850s, the novel opens up with the discovery of Harvey Burdell's deceased body by a young servant boy named John. After notifying the local authorities, Emma Cunningham, whose status within the house is questionable, and her two daughters are quickly quarantined inside the brownstone by a brash and hostile coroner. It is during the coroner's investigation and inquisition that lawyer Henry Clinton begins representing Emma. From here, the novel uses a flashback format that depicts Emma's viewpoint for the chapters set in the past. These chapters detail how Emma came to be living in the upstairs of Dr. Burdell's home and helps provide a little insight into her character. The trial is the focus of the present day chapters with the innocence or guilt being determined over the following weeks, and also serves to highlight the rampant corruption within both the government and the well-to-do citizens of the city.
Some of the best parts of this book were the description of the city at that time in history. Horan does an excellent job of revealing and detailing daily life, and expressing the dichotomy of the fast modernization of a people that still hold on to certain traditions. The inclusion of actual newspaper quotes and clippings added a layer of authenticity and helped set the tone for the story. The novel definitely underscores the sensationalistic media of the day, which I found quite interesting and not quite so different from the media of the current day. The medium may have changed, but the methods remain the same.
The descriptions of the actual trial were what stood out as most compelling. The practice of law is quite fascinating to me, and I definitely enjoyed the back and forth between the lawyers. Henry Clinton's thoughts and actions while composing and delivering his arguments came across as genuine. This may be due in part to the book he wrote depicting the trial. Horan mentions reading Extraordinary Cases and Celebrated Trials while doing her research, and I think this comes across in the narrative. Without the first person account, I don't think this section would have been nearly as strong.
While 31 Bond Street was a page turner, I didn't feel a connection to any of the characters. I felt the depiction of Emma was a little too 'nice.' She came across as very naive, but I just don't buy that. In the author interview at the back of the book, Horan talks about the struggles of middle aged women during that time who did not have "protection" in the form of husband, and how they were quite likely to descend into poverty. Based on this assessment, I don't see Emma, a woman struggling to stay afloat, as being so innocent in every facet of her life. After doing a little research on my own, I realized there were many facts about Emma's actions during the trial that Horan left out. I think that if these scandalous bits had been included the book would have been more enticing.
As it stands, I was ok with the book until part four. I do wish there had been more flashbacks to Emma's past, as I found these chapters vastly more entertaining than the ones describing Henry Clinton's life outside the trial. The first 2/3 of the narrative was a little cut and dry, which wasn't terrible, but it didn't match up with the runaway train that was the last part of the story. I felt that both the story and the writing took vastly different directions once there were no more facts and complete fiction took over. The ending seemed very rushed and didn't feel very well thought out. The book wouldn't have lost as much in my eyes if it had stopped after the trial, instead of descending into unrealistic territory.
Although Horan doesn't shy away from including the social, racial, and gender issues of the day, the unmemorable characters and unseasoned writing kept this one from being a winner. I was expecting more of an engaging telling of the facts regarding this real life murder mystery. I can't say I recommend this one unless you have an undying love for Victorian murder mysteries and must read all that have been written.