This is the 15th and latest installment of Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mysteries, telling of a series of murders in 1890s New York City, ingeniously solved by the fairly odd couple of widowed midwife Sara Brandt and Police Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy.
Rich in historical setting, these books transport the reader into a very different world, where women were distant second-class citizens and the gulf of social class was a yawning chasm. Sarah Brandt is the daughter of very wealthy parents but she left that life to marry a poor doctor.
After he was murdered a few years later, Sarah became a midwife to help the poor and for many years was completely estranged from her parents who could not understand why she simply did not move back with them and let them take care of her. Although Sarah and her parents eventually achieved a tentative and uneasy reconciliation in earlier books in the series, the distinctive ways that one of the wealthiest and most influential couples in New York approach problems is a continuing contrast and annoyance to Sarah, who has directly seen how the poor majority live. Working through this relationship in the context of solving crimes is a fascinating snapshot of class differences of the era.
As “Murder in Chelsea” opens, Sarah realizes that her guardianship of 4-year-old Catherine may be in jeopardy. A few years earlier, the infant Catherine was left unclaimed at a foundling home where Sarah volunteered. Sarah has been raising her as her own, with the help of an older orphan girl as a sort of nanny. However, someone has come forth looking for Catherine; this woman claims the child was put in her care by her mother who now wants her back. This is horribly distressing for Sarah, who had assumed Catherine’s parents were dead and that she would be raising the child. Obviously this turn of events precipitates a crisis, which, before it is all solved, leads to two murders, a kidnapping and a plot-critical natural death.
It is up to Sarah, always with the help of Frank Malloy and sometimes her parents as well, to investigate this claim and the crimes that follow. Sara eventually comes face to face with Catherine’s biological parents, who are not at all what she would have expected, and some very greedy family members who do not want their family’s sizable inheritance to go to this child.
Throughout the series Thompson has made it clear that Sara and Malloy, also widowed with a young child, are attracted to each other.
However, they both know that such a relationship could not go anywhere, since the social class gap is too wide for them to ever marry and both are far too principled to conduct a clandestine affair. Police officers of the time had very low status and are almost always corrupt (crimes are not solved without a bribe from some powerful person to ensure it) and wealthy perpetrators seldom served any prison time.
Sarah Brandt is caught between her super-wealthy society parents and the gritty streetwise Frank Malloy. In the meantime, however, they enjoy spending time together as an awesome crime-fighting team.
As author Thompson explains in an epilogue piece, she has been trying for some time to figure out how to get Sara and Frank together in a credible way given the realities of the time.
To her credit, she does not have “true love” triumph over all in what would be an unrealistic and unbelievable match.
In “Murder in Chelsea,” however, she finally figures out how to overcome these barriers with an amazing, and mostly believable, plot twist growing out of Sarah and Frank’s latest case. Devoted readers of this series will have to read this latest installment to learn what that is. There are plenty of unanswered questions remaining for the next volume in the series.
Those unfamiliar with the Gaslight Mysteries should probably not start with this book but rather one of the early ones - “Murder on Astor Place” was the first.
They are quick and engrossing reads that are hard to put down. Thompson is a master of setting the time and the place, particularly in allowing the reader to experience how horribly unequal the lives of those at the top and the bottom of the social ladder were at that time. Having read all of her books, I believe Victoria Thompson is growing as an author. The only sad part of finishing this book was knowing I will have to wait for her to write the next one to find out what happens to Sara and Frank.
Richard Harris is a professor of psychology at K-State and a Manhattan resident.