This week’s choice for Mystery Monday is called Whispers in the Reading Room and it is the third in the Chicago World’s Fair series by Shelley Shepard Gray. I received an ecopy of this novel from BookLookBloggers in exchange for an honest review. It is the only book in this series or by this author that I have read to date.
Whispers in the Reading Room brings five unlikely characters together and takes place in Chicago in the months following the closing of the Chicago World’s Fair (1893). Librarian Lydia Bancroft loves her work, loves being able to have so many books available for her to read, and is also beginning to fantasize about the mysterious stranger who comes into her reading room several afternoons a week, spends his time sitting quietly reading in the corner, and then, just as quietly disappears. Despite the fact that she’s engaged to be married, she finds herself thinking more and more about the debonair gentleman.
Sebastian Marks is no gentleman. He grew up in the tenements with only a mattress on the floor, and a mother who kept him fed and clothed the only way she knew how — by bringing men home. As owner of the Silver Grotto, his hours are irregular, his patrons sometimes rude and drunk, and his employees loyal and respected, with a tinge of fear. When he leaves the Lincoln Lending Library or the swanky Hartman Hotel where he lives, and enters the narrow, dangerous streets of Camp Creek Alley, his walk takes on a swagger and he is recognized as a man who can take care of himself, and gamblers who owe him money know to stay out of his way.
One such gambler is Mr. Jason Avondale, a wealthy man from an influential family who becomes “loud, sloppy, unruly, and a sore loser”; sometimes, in a bad mood after an unlucky foray into the basement of the Silver Grotto, Avondale will hook up with a woman and beat her up. He is also very demanding of people who serve him, as two of Mr. Marks employees are only too well aware.
Bridget O’Connell had worked at another establishment where Avondale had tried to force his attentions on her. When she resisted, it was she who had been dismissed without a reference, and by good fortune, had become Mr. Marks’ personal maid. Marks’ assistant, Vincent Hunt, had worked as a clerk in a law firm. When his wife was ill with Scarlet Fever, Hunt had made some serious mistakes in handling part of Avondale’s account and was dismissed without references. He decided to become a stronger more assertive person, and so his change in circumstances had served him well, as he, too, was respected with a tinge of fear everywhere he went now.
When Marks sees Lydia having tea with Avondale at the Hartman, we realize that this brutish wastrel is her fiancé, and he proves himself to be just that with Lydia when he, in turn, sees Marks staring at Lydia.
The mystery is foretold by brief excerpts from a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Times-Courier about beatings, robberies, and even murders in this tawdry area called Camp Creek Alley. When Avondale’s corpse is found on the doorstep of the Silver Grotto at a time when Lydia happens to have cajoled Marks into bringing her to the club, they both become murder suspects.
This novel is really more of a romance than a mystery and is interesting partly because the two main characters are both avid readers and there are many literary references, and because of the excitement surrounding the World’s Fair and the details that give us an inkling of the time and place. Lydia, although quite naive, is coping with reduced circumstances following her father’s death, and a mother who plans to marry her off to the highest bidder, in a manner of speaking, in order to have those circumstances reversed. Marks, although not exactly a gentleman after having to fight his way up from the tenements, reluctantly discovers that he is quite tender-hearted and needs a steadying figure in his life.
I didn’t find very much in Gray’s writing to classify this as a Christian mystery/romance, although the four central figures all have a background of Christianity which they have rather let slip away until things come to a head with the murder investigation. The plot drew me along and was a quick read but lacked the suspense generally associated with a mystery, hence my characterization that it was more romance than mystery. The characters were interesting, the time and place intriguing, and the story somewhat fanciful but believable. * * *
It’s very easy to participate in my Mystery Monday meme. Just post a review of your latest mystery read on your own site, and then a comment on my post with a link to yours. Drag or copy my meme logo and add it to your post along with these few rules. Simplicity itself! I look forward to learning about more great mysteries to add to my ever-growing list of To Be Read.