Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

31 Bond Street – Ellen Horan

Historical Crime Fiction
4*s

Last year I was seeking out books covering true crime either as a non-fiction read or those that have used a real crime as a starting point for a fictional novel. Well all the time I’d had this book sitting on my kindle, overlooked! Happily that has now been remedied and this sensational crime set in New York in 1857 has its place in my own spotlight.

Dr Harvey Burdell, a dentist was murdered at 31 Bond Street in the early hours of 31 January 1857, yes over 160 years ago, and yet there is still sufficient interest in the case for writers to hold the interest of their readers. The dentist was found with his throat slit and stab wounds, the fatal blow being one to his heart in his office. He was found later that morning by a servant who raised the alarm. The coroner’s office was called and the entire household were placed under house arrest with no access to legal representation. Before too long there was a forerunner for the role of the murderer and that was the beautiful Emma Cunningham, a widow who claimed the pair had married just two weeks previously but no-one knew because the union was to remain a secret until the spring. Hmm…

The coroner has a vested political interest in declaring the perpetrator and in our fictional tale a brave and principled defense lawyer Henry Clinton comes to Emma Cunningham’s aid. It may or may not surprise you to find with the law and politics having so much in common that the prosecutor at Emma Cunningham’s trial, Abraham Oakley Hall, became the Mayor of New York later on although he had his own political downfall to contend with too!

Ellen Horan plays completely fair with her fictionalised tale clearly indicating the characters who were ‘real’ and also interestingly those characters who played a key part in the trial and are not featured in her fictional account. I say interestingly because when I read up on the crime afterwards, there were some details and characters which seem to have added to the media frenzy which are omitted in the book. Perhaps those didn’t fit the narrative the author was trying to portray which doesn’t just consist of the household but the roots of the Civil War and slavery too. This is as much about the political landscape in New York as it is about this particular murder.

The trial of Emma Cunningham

What is or isn’t true is technically irrelevant when you accept that you are reading a fiction even if they do depict elements of real events, and I’m glad to confirm that the author had me captivated by Emma’s determination to make sure her life, and that of her children, continued as it had before she was widowed at such a young age especially as Dr Harvey Burdell wasn’t quite the upstanding gentleman you’d hope for in a man who probes around in other people’s mouths.

The reader gets an insight into her character by reading about the pair’s early meetings in the fashionable resort of Saratoga Springs and how Emma outwardly acted compared to her inner thoughts – she wanted the best marriage possible in part to ensure her eldest daughter also could make a good marriage and for that she needed a dowry – and so the book flicks backwards to enable us to see the Emma before she was accused of the heinous crime.

31 Bond Street is a great example of a story woven around a group of characters and I was totally absorbed by both Emma’s story and the less morally blurred one of her defense attorney, Henry Clinton. The author really bought the time and place to life with details such as clothing and decoration lending an authenticity to the scenes she created.

31 Bond Street is the seventh book I’ve read for my Mount TBR Challenge 2018 having been purchased in March 2011 so I gain another third of a book token!


First Published UK: 4 May 2010
Publisher: Borough Press
No of Pages: 372
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Carnegie’s Maid – Marie Benedict

Historical Fiction
4*s

Andrew Carnegie is best known for being one of the richest men in America having made his fortune by leading the expansion of the steel industry, and towards the end of his life he was a leading philanthropist. Marie Benedict’s book has been written as a fictional account of how this man was moved to better the lives of others when his early years had been spent focussed on lining his own pockets. To do so she looked at her own ancestors and imagined a young, bright Irish girl becoming a Lady’s Maid to Margaret Carnegie, Andrew’s mother.

We first meet Clara Kelly in December 1868 as her journey across the Atlantic is coming to a close and she’s got to find a way to get to her relatives in Pittsburgh. Clara despite being the second child of her parents has been sent to America to provide a ‘Plan B’ for the family since their leased farm is being carved up following the potato famine and now there are real concerns that the Landlord has it in for Clara’s father.

The premise to the book where a farmer’s daughter ends up being a Lady’s Maid is a great vehicle for studying the man at the centre of the book, Andrew Carnegie. It don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that there is a relationship of sorts between Clara and Andrew, after all both were immigrants, Andrew moving the US from Scotland when he was barely in his teens. With the Carnegie family coming recently to wealth the need to never descend into poverty again is one of their key drivers for continued success. I’m pleased to say that the author doesn’t skimp on the less than moral and perhaps legal actions of this great business leader either before his later transformation into someone who champions the education of all.

It’s also nice that this book is populated by strong and intelligent women. Margaret Carnegie, whilst maintaining a tight grip on her household is also very much involved in her son’s business and Clara is also keen to learn more about business as the book progresses.

This is a heavily fictionalised account and shouldn’t be read as anything other than that but that doesn’t stop it being a fascinating insight into the lives of immigrants to America during and after the American Civil War. The descriptions of life both in Ireland and Pittsburgh make for illuminating reading especially the lives of Clara’s distant relations Patrick and Maeve who bring up an ever growing brood in a small and dirty ramshackle home. Patrick working at the Iron foundry whilst Maeve takes in needlework to be completed by poor light in the evenings. By contrast Clara’s efforts to become indispensable in the Carnegie household may mean long hours brushing hair, cleaning and darning clothes but she lives in luxurious surroundings although I pitied her the lack of friends apart from the former slave Mr Ford within the almost prison-like existence.

A fascinating historical tale which is indeed one explanation for Andrew Carnegie’s transformation into one of the best known philanthropists with the book ending with the opening of the free library in Boston built by Andrew Carnegie.

I’d like to thank the publishers Landmark for providing me with a copy of Carnegie’s Maid ahead of publication date of the 16 January 2017.

First Published UK: 16 January 2018
Publisher: Landmark
No of Pages: 288
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US