31 Bond Street
Ellen Horan
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Buy *31 Bond Street* by Ellen Horan online

31 Bond Street
Ellen Horan
352 pages
March 2010
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Written with a sharply observed eye for time and place, Horan sets her historical novel in 1857 New York, where a widow and her two teenage daughters find themselves inexplicably placed at the center of a brutal murder. Pretty Emma Cunningham is destined to be tainted with criminal blood and the mysterious events surrounding the house at 31 Bond Street, the home of Harvey Burdell, a dentist and a bachelor of some repute.

Harvey Burdell’s errand boy, John, discovers Burdell’s body sprawled on the floor in the center of his study - arms outstretched, head in a sticky puddle, throat slashed with a wound so deep that it has nearly detached the head from torso. As the dim, snowy light progressively encapsulates this bestial crime, Emma Cunningham is quickly accused. Emma had been renting the upper part of Burdell’s large townhouse, and together with her daughters, Helen and Augusta, was overseeing the housekeeping and the servants.

The Police Captain places Emma in immediate detention, though it seems impossible for someone with her frail visage to have committed such a devastatingly brutal crime. But as Emma quickly descends into a stupor, languishing in despair, the coroner hopes that her anxious countenance will be followed by a quick confession. Solving the murder hastily is a political expediency that will hopefully quell the fears of an edgy populace. A fast indictment will also be another feather in the cap of Oakley Hall, the slick City Attorney who aches to throw his considerable influence into the ring of a population roused to a fearful state by a frenzied press.

The case takes on a new urgency when renowned attorney Henry Clinton puts his formidable legal skills to the test in the defense of poor Emma. Henry, advised by his loyal wife Elizabeth, is disgusted by an investigation where the prosecution is intent to mold a theory centering on a fake marriage certificate, reports of blackmail and swindling, a life insurance payment, a shady land-deal, and the questionable beneficiary of a sizable dowry.

Perhaps Emma was permissive or greedy for money and hungry for status, and almost certainly trying to elevate herself as the mistress of Burdell’s townhouse on Bond Street, smartening his surroundings with taste and flair while harboring secret dreams of strolling across a ship's deck, perhaps even crossing the Atlantic as Harvey’s respectable new wife. However, with no murder weapon, no direct evidence and no witness to the crime, there remains a lack of any cold, hard facts to implicate Emma.

Horan’s narrative is always clear and fresh, the poverty-tainted streets of New York contrasted against with the more affluent suburbs as the city is enveloped in a pestilential haze, entire neighborhoods stewing in the stifling heat of summer. This is New York, a dreamscape of opportunity presented as "a flimsy mirage" where sudden fortunes rise, dwindle, then disappear, “blown away like stage props.”

When Samuel, Burdell's Negro groom with a life “as fragile as loose pieces of straw,” is blown into the path of the murder, Clinton is convinced something ineffable lurks behind the scrim of this case that could derail even the best-laid plans. This is a world where men die for devious ends, where a sinister menace becomes a rabid force, where a fanatical press spin rumors and false tales, where a City Attorney moves with an oiled efficiency, the slick deception of ambition aligned to an unseen heart of power. Throughout, Horan’s tale is always entertaining and compelling, 31 Bond Street "standing in a tarnished blight on a polished block," a house of infamy where the stigma of murder has eternally permeated its formidable walls.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2010

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