Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review: 31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan

31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 368
Date Published: March 30, 2010
Publisher: HarperCollins
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book description (from the publisher):
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.
From the first moment I saw the synopsis and trailer for this book, I knew I had to read it. Historical fiction, a murder mystery, and all connected to actual events? It went on my wishlist right away. So when I got a chance to review this book for TLC Book Tours, I was excited but cautious. With my anticipation and excitement for reading this book, I was worried it wouldn't live up to my expectations. Fortunately, this book did not disappoint.

31 Bond Street is a fascinating look at antebellum New York and its politics, racial tensions, society, and gender relations. Based on the actual murder of Harvey Burdell, Ms. Horan creates a fictional story that succeeds in pulling the reader in and fully immersing them in the historical atmosphere. The story opens with the discovery of Burdell's body and jumps back and forth in time between the events that followed the murder and the events preceding it. Some readers might not like the time jumps, but I think it is done well here and serves to help fill in the blanks and explain the characters' actions after the murder. It also provides a wider variety of possible suspects beyond Emma Cunningham, who was the prosecution's main suspect. What really impressed me about the story, though, beyond the historical detail, was that the mystery kept me guessing right to the end--I was very surprised by who ended up being the murderer, how they accomplished it, and why.

When it comes to the characters, I thought they were interesting and complex. I had mixed feelings about Emma Cunningham, feeling sorry for her on one hand and disliking her on the other. I loathed Harvey Burdell, as well as prosecutor A. Oakey Hall. I admired Emma's lawyer Henry Clinton, though I can't say I came to particularly like him. His wife was a much more likable character, but she didn't play a large part in the story. Some of the less central characters were not fleshed out as much, but played interesting and unexpected parts in the drama as it unfolded. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I enjoy books with characters that are more complex and where it is difficult to draw the line between the "good guys" and "bad guys." In this story, that line is blurred and that made it more thought-provoking.

One of the things I love in a historical fiction novel is when the author includes a note at the end to help the reader separate fact from fiction, and Ms. Horan does that quite ably. She explains which characters in her story were fictional and which were based on actual persons. She also explains the ways that she altered the lives of the characters for her story and provides a brief summary of the lives of the three main characters after Ms. Cunningham's trial ended. Very interesting stuff, and it made me want to read more about this event and the actual people involved (Butchery on Bond Street by Benjamin Feldman is a non-fiction book on the trial that I may have to take a look at).

Something I wasn't expecting from this book was that it had a bit of a macabre feel at the end. Fueled by the consumption of opium, one of the characters has a creepy encounter with the ghost of Harvey Burdell--an encounter that gave the book a bit more of a gothic flair than I expected, and made it hard for me to go to sleep after finishing the book at 1 am. I admit I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to ghost stories though, so my reaction may have been a bit more sensitive than the average reader.

As I mentioned, the book did keep me up late because I just couldn't put it down, so I would definitely recommend it. If you are a fan of murder mysteries in any time period you will like this book, and fans of historical mysteries should not pass this one up either. On the back of the cover, Beverly Swerling, author of City of God says, "It's Caleb Carr meets Scott Turow." I haven't read either of those authors, but if you have enjoyed them you might want to give this book a try as well.

Ellen Horan's 31 Bond Street Book Tour officially began on July 6 and will end on August 3. You can visit Ellen's blog stops at her TLC Book Tours page to find out more about this great book and talented author.

To purchase the book, visit The Book Depository or an independent bookseller of your choice.

Source: Thank you to TLC Book Tours for including me as a part of this tour and to the publisher for providing me with a review copy of the book. 

Related Linkage:
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction Challenge, Thriller & Suspense Reading Challenge


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