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Book Review: 31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan

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Every author should have Ellen Horan’s luck – and her ability to recognize gold among the pyrite. The inspiration for her debut novel, the historical thriller 31 Bond Street, struck Horan during a leisurely perusal of the bins at a print shop. She came across a newspaper article detailing the “crime of the century” – the 19th century. An affluent dentist had been killed at an address only a few blocks from the print shop, 31 Bond Street in New York City. A widow with children had been renting the upper floors of the house; this “housemistress” was arrested for the crime, sparking one of the first tabloid sensations.

An extensive trek through the microfiches of the newspapers of the time, revealed to Horan a degree of sensationalism familiar to any modern reader, and immersed her in the world of the trial. For the most part, Horan’s research stood her in excellent stead.

Horan’s descriptive writing immerses the reader in mid-19th century New York. From descriptions of the harbor and chill, drab housing of the poor to the structure of an affluent home, Horan nails the details with a minimum of needless exposition. The gruesome murder of the dentist-owner of the house at 31 Bond Street propels the plot from the start.

The murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell took place during the heyday of the Tammany bosses, and 31 Bond Street is peopled with politicians looking to capitalize on the shifts of power taking place in New York City. A power-hungry coroner, a prosecuting attorney who seizes a sensational case to bolster his bid to become mayor, a journalistic feeding frenzy, and shady real estate speculation — all lend a curiously modern air to this period piece. However, these elements existed in the real-life death of Dr. Burdell, forcing us to realize, once again, that nothing is truly new.

A pale blue envelope was enclosed in the advance copy of 31 Bond Street. Addressed to Mr. Henry Clinton, the enclosed missive read:

Dear Mr. Clinton,
I have gotten your name from my solicitor and I hope you might come and see me. I am in need of legal assistance, but I am told I can speak to no one, and have not spoken with anyone who can counsel me. This is about a murder, occurring Friday night, at the house where I am sequestered, perhaps you have heard.
Please respond, as I am confined to house arrest.
Mrs. Emma Cunningham
31 Bond Street

From this letter, one might reasonably assume Emma Cunningham to be a heroine, a damsel in distress, or, alternatively, a black-hearted villainess. However, despite Horan’s use of a shifting intimate point-of-view, we are prevented from ever truly identifying with the rather venal Mrs. Cunningham, a woman devoted to the preservation of a lifestyle beyond her means or upbringing and to the advancement of her daughters through marriage. This refusal to make Emma a true protagonist, while adding a note of realism, does cause the book to falter in places. Emma is unsympathetic and deluded enough that, by the end, we don’t really care if she hangs.

The lawyer, Henry Clinton, provides a moral center for the novel. Taking on the defense of Mrs. Cunningham at the risk of his own livelihood, Clinton epitomizes the noble defender of the underdog, protector of justice. Clinton’s relationship with his wife shows some of the only true romance of the novel, while highlighting the behind-the-scenes roles forced upon intelligent women of the time.

One of the most fascinating characters is Samuel, the footman of Dr. Burdell. Samuel’s story illustrates the precarious nature of freedom for blacks in the pre-Civil War north. Clinton’s attempts to locate and question Samuel for the case are stymied by an abolitionist minister who gives him a brusque lesson in the realities of race-relations. “Clinton knew that it was not just the South that was aflame; crimes against freedmen and ex-slaves were escalating at an alarming rate in New York City, including a practice whereby Negro citizens who had never been slaves were being kidnapped and sold South, to be turned bodily into gold.”

While Horan’s dialogue falters occasionally, and some of her plot twists, particularly toward the conclusion of the novel, strike an improbable note, her fascinating glimpses into mid-19th century society and a few key characters keep the plot moving at a rapid enough pace to make 31 Bond Street well worth the read.

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About Christy Corp-Minamiji

  • That first sentence got me and I enjoyed the review.

  • A Geek Girl

    Sounds like a fascinating read. Just the time period alone would make it an interesting look at historical crime. Thanks for the review.