Murder on Astor Place

Gaslight Mystery Series | Written by Victoria Thompson

HISTORICAL. We first meet Sarah Brandt (nee Decker), in Murder on Astor Place. It’s 1895 and the young widow is estranged from her socially prominent Knickerbocker family. She lives in Greenwich Village where she works as a midwife. While delivering the sixth child of a woman who owns a respectable working class boarding house she glimpses a young girl who looks familiar. When she goes back the next day to check on the new mother and baby the house is surrounded by policeman. The girl is dead. Murdered. The policeman investigating the scene is Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy, a widower with a crippled son, who is working hard and saving every penny so he can buy a police captaincy in the very corrupt NYPD, a captaincy which costs $14,000. The harsh reality of NYC in that era is that crimes are unlikely to be solved unless a reward is offered. Sarah realizes the girl must be the sister of her school friend Mina VanDamm, from a socially prominent family, one she knows. But why was a young sheltered girl alone in a boarding house? And will her family pay to find her killer when it suits them to avoid scandal and have her death swept under the rug? In Sarah’s search for the truth she is drawn into helping Frank, in spite of how much she dislikes his rough Irish manner. Into the historic mix add the charismatic Teddy Roosevelt. The newly appointed Police Commissioner, he is determined to clean house in the notorious NYPD.

This case is the beginning of a useful but not always comfortable collaboration between the midwife and policeman. He is Irish at a time when signs were posted in windows– ‘No Irish need apply.’ She might have chosen an unconventional life but her birth still gains her admission to drawing rooms of the powerful—and to people who would never talk to a mere policeman.

Here, early in the first book, Frank and Sarah discuss some missing jewelry the dead girl’s family swears she had with her.

“ ‘Do you think the Van Damms will offer a reward for the missing jewelry?’
‘Mina seemed very anxious to get it back. Is it absolutely necessary to have a reward, though?’
Oh yes, Frank wanted to say, but instead he said, ‘Without it, I doubt we’ll see the jewelry again. If it was pawned, the pawnbroker will want his investment back. Even though it’s illegal to buy stolen goods, I won’t be able to prove he did unless he tells me. Since he’s not likely to do that, I can’t arrest him for it.’
‘So if he’s not afraid of being arrested, your leverage is to bribe him,’ she guessed. She didn’t approve but Frank couldn’t help that. That’s the way the world worked. Sarah Brandt could reform it on someone else’s time.
‘I do what I have to do.’ He only hoped she didn’t know that the customary arrangement was for the pawnbroker to split the reward with the police too.” (page21)

The main characters are complex yet solid, from different social milieus drawn together by a mutual passion for an often complex search for justice. Many of Sarah’s clients are the slum dwellers Jacob Riis powerfully portrayed in How the Other Half Lives. There is some grit about the era–when the characters in Gaslight Mysteries cross the street they usually are dodging piles of horse manure—but the author does not dwell on the grue and bloody details of murder. What finally sells the series for me (and a number of my mystery reading friends) is the historical New York City background against which the stories unfold.

NOTE: A complete series list can be found on the Magpie Recommends page.

Sandra Jordan

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