New York at the turn of the century (I think – can’t find an exact date). Sarah Brandt, a midwife and, as you might expect, an amateur sleuth, is asked by her mother to accompany her to a séance. Her mother carries a lot of guilt over the death of Sarah’s sister and has been introduce to Madame Serafina by her friend. Reluctantly, she attends the séance in Waverly Place, but things are left unresolved.
The next thing she knows is that she is summoned back to the town house – her mother has returned for a second meeting, only for one of the other attendees to be stabbed in the back during the séance. And of course, being a séance, it was pitch black and everyone was holding hands… so how could the murder have been committed? And can the murder be solved while Sarah’s mother, with her high standing in society, keeps her good name intact?
One of the first things I looked for in my rummaging around the NYC book shops was a mystery set in the city, so, a whole string of books called “Murder on INSERT NYC PLACE NAME HERE” caught my eye, and the impossible crime idea caused this one to leap into my shopping basket. So have I found yet another series of historical mysteries to obsess over?
In some ways, this probably counts as an historical cozy mystery. You’ve got two out of the three cozy boxes ticked – distinctive career, lack of gore – we’re one cat away from the full set. Not that being a cozy is a bad thing, as we established in the last review.
The historical aspect is well-used. In this era, the rich basically ran New York and had a lot of influence over the police – literally getting away with murder. Hence the need for Detective Frank Malloy to utilise Sarah’s sleuthing skills to open doors that would normally be closed to him. Also, due to the era, there’s an unrequited thing between Frank and Sarah – it’s clear they both love each other, but being from different social classes, they won’t even admit it to each other. Awww…
The plot moves about well, with suspicions bouncing around from suspect to suspect, and there are some nice turns in the plot as things advance. Twists may be over-stating matters, as I spotted most of the developments coming, but at roughly the right point – so it makes the reader feel clever rather than make the book feel predictable.
The impossibility of the murder? Well, the possibilities are considered throughout the story – I’ve read a couple of mysteries with this set-up before – one from Carr (or is it a radio play?) and one from Bill Pronzini – part of this collection – and both of those solutions are mentioned as possibilities. The actual solution is rather straightforward, but as far as I can see, there are only three ways to pull this off – two are disappointing and the third, in my opinion, wouldn’t work – although it is based on an actual séance trick.
Clues are thin on the ground and, at the end of the day, the murderer is trapped by (what else) a recreation of the séance, although it takes an unlikely coincidence to make the murderer strike again.
So, as a mystery, there are a couple of issues, but it’s a fun read with some enjoyable characters that uses the historical setting well. It’s light but entertaining and as such, comes recommended.