Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"31 Bond Street: A Novel" by Ellen Horan -- a historical legal mystery

This enjoyable book is a little difficult to categorize. It is a historical novel but it is more about the murder and trial than about the period. It is a courtroom drama but in a legal system without the familiar rights and processes we see in modern legal thrillers. One of the jacket blurbs likened it to a combination of Caleb Carr and Scott Turow, which I think fits for the subject matter. (I don't think it is as good as The Alienist: A Novel.) I love legal mysteries and quite enjoyed the historical nature of the book. That it was set in one of my favorite cities, New York City, added to the enjoyment.

The story is based on an actual murder case from 1857 and several of the characters are based on the actual people involved in that case. The main characters are the suspect Emma Cunningham (a widow with two daughters and the "wife" of the victim), Henry Clinton her attorney and Dr. Burdell the victim. Important secondary characters are Emma's teenage daughters Augusta and Helen, Samuel (Burdell's driver), John (a young boy who does errands for Burdell), and Ambrose Wicken (a Southern gentleman who Emma wants as a suitor for Augusta).

The story starts with the discovery of the body and Clinton's early involvement in the case and the moves back to the beginning of the relationship between Dr. Burdell and Emma. The story continues by alternating chapters on the murder investigation and trial with chapters covering the lives and activities of the victim and suspect before the murder. Unlike modern legal thrillers, Clinton does not go looking for the real killer; his focus is on using evidence to prove that it is someone other than Emma. Also, this book is much more centered on the people involved than on the trial itself. As the book progresses, the reader will see a lot of motives for killing Dr. Burdell and wonder whether or not Emma is the killer or if Clinton will be able win her acquittal either way. Many parts of the ending came as a surprise to me.

Because of the focus of the book on Emma, I think women may enjoy this more than men, but I recommend it to anyone who enjoys either historical novels or legal novels. I think it would also be a good book for book clubs because there is plenty to discuss in it.

I got this book free from the Amazon Vine program for purposes of reviewing it.

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