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.
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!