Murder and intrigue in 1850s New York
A clever insert came with my copy of Ellen Horan’s novel. It’s a folded piece of blue notepaper, with a written request for legal representation. A respected dentist, Dr. Burdell, has been gruesomely murdered in his Manhattan office. The suspected murderess is his lodger, the widowed Mrs. Emma Cunningham, the lady who penned the note.
From here this thrilling book becomes not only a murder mystery, but a Wharton-esque examination of the mores and customs of antebellum New York society. The press coverage of the crime is lurid, with Emma all but found guilty in the court of public opinion. Emma may be a good woman, but she’s not a particularly nice one (she comes across as a tougher and coarser Lily Bart). And if she is a gold digger, then a gold digger was what a widow with two daughters and dwindling finances had to be in that time and place—since a lady of her social class could not go to work. Horan is brilliant at showing just how vulnerable such a woman was to male predation.
The other characters are just as memorable. There’s Henry Clinton, the idealistic lawyer who comes to Emma’s defense, and his loving wife, Elisabeth. There’s Sam, Burdell’s African-American coachman, who goes on the run after the murder. And there’s Burdell himself, who is, frankly, a miscreant, his real character masked and excused by his social standing. Horan’s portrait of Manhattan is also remarkable; she reminds us that in 1857 the island was still half wild, the vulgar mansions of the newly rich just blocks away from forests, farmland and a river teeming with fish and oyster beds.
Horan wraps up her story with an ending that one doesn’t see coming, but is perfectly, tragically right. Rich with historical detail, 31 Bond Street is one of the best debut novels in a long while.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.