I love books that are set in old New York City and this one, based on an actual historical event, doesn't disappoint. It's the story of Emma Cunningham, a widow with two daughters who is pressed for money and struggling to hang on to her place in middle class, "respectable" society. The year is 1857, right before the Civil War, and like other women of her time and class, Emma is severely restricted by the social customs -- not to mention the laws -- of the day. If she is not able to find a husband for herself and her eldest daughter, their very survival will be in question.
Enter Dr. Harvey Burdell, a wealthy dentist with whom Emma attempts marriage. He ends up dead and Emma is accused of his murder, which takes place in his home at 31 Bond Street in what was then a fashionable area of Manhattan. Emma is defended by the dashing young lawyer Henry Clinton, not of the famous Clintons of New York, but married to one of them -- Elisabeth Clinton, granddaughter of Governor DeWitt Clinton of Erie Canal fame. The plot unfurls from there and it is an entertaining tale of intrigue, but for me the highlight of this novel is less the plot than the setting, with its historical detail about NYC.
The characters are great too and author Ellen Horan includes among them an African "Negro" who has escaped from slavery in the South and a family of Lenni Lenape natives who are watching their ancient lands in the sacred river marshes fall prey to greedy land speculators. When so many period novels completely omit people of color from the scene, it's refreshing to read a book that presents a more realistic picture of the times, as well as one that crafts these characters not as "others" but as full players in the ever-unfolding drama that is New York City.
The 1850's. Manhattan's elite are only just setting out to make 5th Avenue their enclave. The rest of the population is simply trying to earn a living. Displaced Native Americans, runaway or freed slaves, and unmarried women are particularly vulnerable to the twists and turns of fortune. Emma Cunningham, mother of two adolescent daughters, is desperately searching for a man to replace their now deceased father. Emma believes she has found him in prosperous dentist Harvey Burdell, who wines and dines … more
I own a communications consultancy in NYC called MAKE WAVES, which serves nonprofit organizations and foundations. I also hold a Visiting Lecturer position at Milano: The New School for Management & … more
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*Starred Review* Scandal, social climbing, and corruption in Manhattan during the 1850s come alive in Horan’s historical mystery. Emma Cunningham, a widow with two teenage daughters, becomes financially and emotionally involved with Harvey Burdell, a wealthy dentist and land speculator. Without witnesses, he is murdered brutally in their Bond Street townhouse, and Cunningham is accused of the crime. An ambitious lawyer, Henry Clinton, risks his reputation and livelihood to defend her and solve the crime. Meanwhile, Horan describes living conditions in mid-nineteenth-century Manhattan: government corruption is rampant, Tammany Hall is coming to power, the Fugitive Slave Acts threaten to undo the work of the Underground Railroad, and poverty and wealth run equally rampant. Horan’s characters, like Edith Wharton’s, are motivated by social class and survival in a world ruled by wealth and national uncertainty. This unique look at history and the private lives of those affected by it makes for captivating reading. --Heather Paulson