I was looking for a little something different from my usual romantic suspenses and mysteries set in history. Most are from the same period and place. This one had the distinction of being set late in 19th century America amongst the hustle and bustle of New York City. Famous personages roaming freely amongst the author’s original characters and a twisting mystery and a little romance was just the thing.
This is the second book in the Mary Handley series. While there were several references to the earlier case, there was no spoilers for it and also there was little connection so this could be read as a standalone.
The story opens with new woman, Mary Handley, attempting to lead an independent life in a time when the majority of women married and worked in the home. Mary is sharp, confident, capable, and desirous of being taken seriously as a lady detective even if her mother disapproves, her brother is jealous, and her father faintly encourages her. She has found a sponsor of sorts with the owner of the book shop where she works part-time and also keeps an office for her detective agency in his back room. After the notoriety of her successfully solving a previous case and helping out the police, she now twiddles her thumbs waiting for the next case.
And it comes in the form of a lady from Richmond, Virginia, hiring her to prove that her uncle was killed by his wife before she moved up the social class ladder to wed powerful Collis Huntington. Mary is eager to take the case even though her old mentor and her own good sense caution her about taking on the Huntingtons who are powerful and wealthy.
But others have plots and plans going on in the shadows working around Mary’s case. Collis Huntington and other great men of business empires battle over the annexation of Brooklyn to New York and other plots to bring each other down. Her brother is assigned the murder case of an older reclusive woman which brings a brutal killer out to keep the Handleys from getting close. An actress is found dead and Mary’s own case takes a turn for the bizarre. New York’s high society comes to call when debonair George Vanderbilt finds Mary delightful and offers to detect alongside her as her assistant.
When her brother is framed for murder and someone is pulling the strings of the justice system, Mary must work even harder and faster to solve the several murders and secrets she has on her plate. George is there and supportive, but Mary can feel the wolves snapping at her heels. Now’s her big chance and there is a lot riding on it.
This book left me with mixed feelings. On one level, I enjoyed it, but alongside my enjoyment was also some reservations. I thought the author did a stellar job of setting, blending history and fiction, and authentic dialogue. The mystery was well done and kept me entertained.
It gets off to a slow start with me struggling to connect with the story. There were a handful of narrative threads that seem to be running parallel to each other setting up the situations and introducing the large cast of characters, but eventually the reader starts to see how they connect and intersect as the story picks up the pace and gets going.
I had a hard time settling into the style of the writing. It felt stilted and it kept me at arm’s length so I could never fully engage. There were some potentially emotional scenes and those were the ones that drew me in the most, but even then I wasn’t fully immersed.
Then there was Mary, herself. I both liked and didn’t like her. Her ‘know it all’ attitude and prejudices against the wealthy (which she denied though her thoughts and actions prove her wrong) were a turn off. The author made her vulnerable in the sense that she made a few errors and she was remorseful and learned from them. But generally, she is convinced that she is all that. I did find her humorous many times when she got a bit stuck up about her superior intelligence). And to be fair, I would assume any woman trying to buck tradition and society’s rules about women would have to be pretty gutsy and strong-minded with a solid belief in herself.
For all my prickles toward Mary, her adventures were entertaining and she drew some interesting men in as admirers or haters. She was the sort that people admired or hated because she does everything with conviction and this I admired her for. I did cheer her on and wanted her to succeed as the underdog against some pretty powerful folk.
The backdrop is fascinating with details about true happenings and people of the time. The society, culture, and innovations of that time period were well depicted. I felt like I was there with the way the author deftly set the scenes.
In the end, though there were things that drew away from my pleasure, I would claim this as an enjoyable read. I would recommend this to those who enjoy historicals set at the nineteenth century with a strong mystery and a mild romance.
I received this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.
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