Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Review: 31 Bond Street, by Ellen Horan

Pages: 343
Original date of publication: 2010
My edition: 2010 (Harper)
Why I decided to read: Heard about it online somewhere
How I acquired my copy: ARC through the Vine, February 2010

31 Bond Street is the fictional story of a real murder. Dr. Harvey Burdell is a respected dental surgeon in New York, who meets Emma Cunningham, a widow, in Saratoga, in the summer of 1856. After beginning a relationship with her, he invited her and her daughters to live with him at his home on Bond Street. When things soured between them, and Dr. Burdell was brutally murdered in his office, Emma was the first suspect. Henry Clinton, one of the foremost lawyers in the United States, was hired to defend her, in one of the most sensational murder trials of the mid-19th century.

The book is told in two different ways: first there’s the “present day” stand, which covers the events after the body of Dr. Burdell was discovered by his servants; and the second, which takes the reader from Dr. Burdell and Emma’s first meeting. The description on the back of this book describes it as being like Caleb Carr’s work; while I think this book is good, I don’t think it’s quite at the level of The Alienist, or its sequel, Angel of Darkness (there’s a lot more psychological stuff in those two books, which I highly recommend if you’re interested in the period). But, like in Caleb Carr's books, here mid-19th century New York is described in vivid detail. Lots of research and in-depth descriptions of the sights, sounds, and smells of the time make this an enjoyable read. The murder and trial are of course the focal points of the book, but I do love books that make New York City a living, breathing character, too.

And that leads me to another thing I really liked about this book: the trail scenes themselves. The author apparently learned about the subject matter of this book by reading about it the way that a nineteenth century person would have—by reading newspaper articles, and then researching the story from there. Henry Clinton as a character gets lost a bit in the shuffle (but who wouldn’t), but Emma Cunningham herself is the star of this book. I’m not quite sure that I like how the mystery was wrapped up, but I can see why the author had things turn out the way they do. The story is told from Emma’s point of view, but you never really know until the end what will happen, or what kind of person Emma really is. So what is she: innocent victim or a cold murderer?

I really enjoyed the story, but there was a lot the author left out, or put in that didn’t necessarily need to be there (Clinton’s wife, for example; he didn’t marry until long after the events of this book took place, but the author has him married here—not for any reason I can see). Also, apparently, Emma pretended she was pregnant during the trial, and there was another boarder at 31 Bond Street who was involved in the case— interesting little details that I would have liked to have seen here. Still, as I’ve said, I really enjoyed this wonderful novel about nineteenth century New York.


Butchery on Bond Street said...

Ellen is very talented, that's for sure ! If you'd like a non-fiction account of the Burdell case, take a look at Butchery on Bond Street that I published in 2007.

Clare said...

I've been seeing this a lot around the blogosphere recently- it sounds interesting, but not exactly my cuppa. I'm glad you loved it, though!


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