This week’s Mystery Monday offering is by a newly published author: Lawrence H. Levy. This is his first novel and it appears to be the first in a series as it is subtitled A Mary Handley Mystery. Second Street Station is set in the eastern United States, mostly in New York City or Brooklyn as this is the nineteenth century, and before Brooklyn became a borough of NYC.
In the Prologue, we meet two of the main characters — a 12-year-old girl, and a man known only as Bowler Hat — and a French inventor, who all converge on the train from Greenport, Long Island to Manhattan. The inventor is found hanging in his compartment by the little girl, the only one who realizes that something amazing she had seen there earlier is missing — a speaking box! The little girl is Mary Handley, a girl not quite pretty enough and far too bright and unconventional for her mother to be happy with her, and therefore, she receives little praise or encouragement except from her father.
This is the time of suffragettes, and the emergence of modern inventions — the telephone, the incandescent light bulb, and the electric chair — and we meet real historical figures as Mary Handley, sister of Constable Sean Handley of the Second Street Station, goes to the murder scene of the brother of an important, wealthy alderman. Charles Goodrich was engaged to Mary’s friend Kate, and in order to bring her some solace, Mary went there to see what she could learn. This brings her to the attention of Chief Campbell who, impressed by her observations, decides she is the one he will hire at the commissioners’ insistence even though he realizes they only want to discredit women (and possibly himself). But he feels Mary will acquit herself well, and so, he becomes her only ally on the force.
There are several different threads going on in this cleverly crafted mystery and we meet a number of real historical characters like J.P. Morgan, Nikola Tesla, and John Pemberton who are not necessarily portrayed in a kind or conventional way. I was particularly surprised to see Thomas Edison portrayed as being someone who will stop at nothing to achieve success and beat his competitor, and in such an unscrupulous way that it leads to him being a suspect in the murder of the French inventor.
Bowler Hat is a hired assassin who works for the wealthy, making problems disappear quietly (if he can) in order smooth the way to high achievement at limited liability. Unfortunately (depending on your point of view), he seems to be losing his touch, but not before he manages to kill several people and to make an attempt on the life of Mary herself.
There are lots of surprises in this story, lots of action, and just a touch of romance. We’re left with the hint that, although Mary is working in a bookstore now, she may not be through with police investigations. This was a thoroughly enjoyable glimpse into the late 19th century/early 20th century with all its social upheaval and prejudices. It was a quick read and I highly recommend it. Historical fiction/mystery. * * * *
Watch for Brooklyn on Fire, the second in the Mary Handley Mystery series coming January 19, 2016.