Today’s Mystery Monday novel is the second in the Mary Handley series by Lawrence H. Levy, Brooklyn on Fire, which will be available beginning the 19th of this month. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series, Second Street Station and was excited to find this book available from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.
Set in 1890s Brooklyn, Levy uses real people and real events and interweaves them with his fictional characters, chief of whom is Mary Handley, a brilliant young lady not afraid to step outside the traditional female role of her time (much to her mother’s chagrin) and put her deductive skills to work to solve crimes. Her success in solving the high-profile Goodrich murder case for the Brooklyn Police Department has made her a readily-recognized person if not yet an exceedingly busy private detective.
Working out of a small back room in Lazlo’s Books for her private investigations and in the bookstore as a draw due to her notoriety, Mary’s high hopes for her career had not yet borne fruit, her complete set of business cards intact save one. When Mary arrives at work one morning to find one, Emily Worsham, waiting to engage her services, Mary is eager to get on with the job. Her client set out the facts: her uncle, John Worsham of Richmond, Virginia, and been enamoured of a young lady of “questionable repute”, got her with child, married her, used his wealth to move her and her other children to New York City (his new wife being a social climber), and a year later dropped dead, supposedly of a heart attack, leaving all his wealth to the young lady and her offspring. Ms. Worsham suspected foul play.
As in Second Street Station, Mary is brought into contact with the rich and famous, an exclusive society of people who deem themselves to be above the law. Before long, Mary has made the acquaintance of George Vanderbilt, an exception to his class, a man ahead of his time, without prejudice, in favour of conservation and a fair deal for the working man. With his help, Mary meets John Worsham’s widow, one Arabella Huntington, still social climbing. As Mary pursues her case, we are introduced to a group of wealthy influential men who want to merge New York City and Brooklyn, and the two political factions bullying and threatening in the background — Collis Huntington, part of the consolidation committee, and Hugh McLaughlin, driving force behind the Brooklyn Ring, and his gopher, Liam Riley. Through the consolidation committee we meet Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt II, all of whom inherited their wealth accumulated by fathers or grandfathers who used ruthless tactics and blatant disregard for the plight of their employees and any competitors who might stand in the way of profits. Levy tries to portray the real people in his stories as they actually were which adds to the realism and interest of his novels.
I found the Prologue to the novel alternately interesting and annoying. (I don’t want to spoil the story for you.) I felt the way it ended was a bit of a cheat, and then I found the following chapters bounced around, introducing new characters in a bit of a flurry and I was impatient to see how it all connected. But then the novel settled down (my view) and, as Mary’s case progressed, things slowly began to connect and the novel became truly compelling. We meet the killer fairly early on, and he is a completely revolting character. There are all sorts of possibilities of who might be hiring Shorty to do the dirty work that he enjoys so much, especially the fires from whence the book title comes.
Mary’s client, Ms. Worsham, is both more and less than she seems and would be a comic figure if she wasn’t so tragic. The plot is further complicated by Mary’s brother Sean, a rather good policeman and detective in his own right, being arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, and the late Mr. Worsham being buried in two graves, one in NYC and one in Richmond, both of which contain nothing but stones. The plot is riveting and full of the diverse sights and smells of the time, enhanced by the insights into the younger Vanderbilt and his attempt to do something worthwhile with his inheritance and the developing romance between him and Mary. A very cool thing, if you click the map it will take you to Levy’s site where you can get a larger map that shows the Brooklyn of Mary Handley’s time. There are lots of red herrings, real events and people, and surprising twists that keep you on your toes throughout the story. You can read this as a stand alone, but I suggest you pick up Second Street Station first, and preorder this sequel from Amazon today. * * * *
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.