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31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan Book Cover

Title:  31 Bond Street

Author:  Ellen Horan

No. of Pages:  352

First Released:  2010

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “The sensational murder of Dr. Harvey Burdell in his lower Manhattan townhouse was the biggest news story in the United States before the Civil War; Who killed Dr. Burdell? was the question that gripped the nation. Deftly interweaving fiction and fact, 31 Bond Street is a clever historical narrative that blends romance, politics, greed and sexual intrigue in a suspenseful drama.

When an errand boy discovers Burdell’s nearly decapitated body in the bedroom of his posh Bond Street home, there are no witnesses and virtually no clues. With the city up in arms over the vicious killing, District Attorney Abraham Oakey Hall immediately suspects Emma Cunningham, the striking young widow who has been living at 31 Bond Street with her two teenaged daughters, caring for Burdell’s home in exchange for a marriage proposal. But Burdell’s past is murky and his true intentions towards Emma Cunningham were questionable, leaving Emma with a plausible motive for murder. With the help of her defence attorney, Henry Clinton, Emma embarks on a legal drama to prove her innocence and spare herself from the gallows.

Set against the background of a bustling and corrupt New York City in 1857, 31 Bond Street is a fascinating archaeological dig, taking the reader through the minutiae of a buried past, only to uncover circumstances that are shockingly contemporary: a sensationalist press, burgeoning new wealth, a booming real estate market, and race and gender conflicts. Ellen Horan’s gripping novel vividly exposes a small slice of lost history as it explores New York City on the eve of the Civil War.”

Comments and Critique:  With 31 Bond Street, Ms. Horan presents the reader with historical fiction at its finest.  It is a story that is quite literally “ripped from the headlines”, with those headlines first printed in the 1850s.  A real-life murder mystery, Ms. Horan does an excellent job of filling in the blanks, imagining the story behind the headlines and fleshing out characters that have long since been forgotten.  Through her skill, the reader gets the pleasure of enjoying a well-written of literary fiction with enough fact interspersed to make the story truly compelling.

The story unfolds methodically, switching narrators to allow new evidence to come to light.  As a result, the reader never gets the chance to understand the full story until late in the novel, at which point in time the reader has become fully absorbed in the story.  This switching of narrators, the back and forth battle for information, and the methodical “follow the evidence” approach to solving the mystery enhances the power of perception, which in turn leaves the reader waffling back and forth in one’s sympathies for the various characters.  Enhancing the overall story is the addition of photographs of the real headlines from the actual murder.  This drives home the fact that this is one story in which the historical aspect of the story outweighs the fiction. 

Ms. Horan does an excellent job of bringing to live long-dead characters – Henry vs. Harvey, Elisabeth vs. Emma.  Her descriptions are breath-taking and exact, allowing the reader to clearly understand what it was like to live in 1850s New York.  The political undertone behind the murder itself remind the reader the tension that existed before the Civil War erupted.  These all combine to create characters that pull a reader’s sympathies in various directions, rooting for one character versus another.  Emotional involvement is always the hallmark of a well-written book, and 31 Bond Street meets that mark.

One of the most appealing aspects of the story are the questions remaining at the end.  Did Emma, and all of the characters, get their just rewards for their actions?  Where did each character go wrong?  Could this entire situation have been avoided under similar circumstances?  Ms. Horan could easily have addressed some of these questions in her novel but rather leaves them for the reader to ponder.  As with the emotional involvement, this is an added benefit that enhances the entire novel. 

Murder, mystery, intrigue, politics, a lush backdrop and rich setting combine to create an amazingly vivid, compelling novel.  However, 31 Bond Street is not just for historical fiction lovers.  Its study of criminal investigations and pre-Civil War detective work makes it a novel for fans of detective and suspense stories.  Its mass appeal will make 31 Bond Street a story for the summer and beyond.

Purchased with my own money, this is the last selection for the Buy 1, Read 1 Book Challenge.

Have you read 31 Bond Street yet?  What were your thoughts? 

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