Thursday, July 29, 2010

Murder on Lexington Avenue by Victoria Thompson

Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy works for the frankly corrupt New York Police Department during the early 1900s. His son, Brian, was born with a malformed foot (since corrected by surgery) and deaf. Frank long thought that his son was destined to be in an institution, taken care of all his life, but with the help of Midwife Sarah Brandt, he has realized that being deaf does not mean his son is an idiot, and has put him in a school, the New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, teaching him sign language.

Now, Frank is called out to a murder at a business office, where he meets Edward Higginbotham, the principal of the Lexington Avenue School, another place where the deaf go to school, but there they aren't taught sign but how to read lips and to speak. The man who was killed is a businessman named Nehemiah Wooten, and his daughter, Electra, is deaf and attends the Lexington Avenue School. Higginbotham and Wooten had an appointment for 1 PM, but by the time Higginbotham arrived, Wooten was already dead.

After looking around the office, Frank finds parts of a mechanical pen in two separate areas, and that Wooten was killed when someone hit him in the back of the skull with an old trophy that he kept in the office. On going to Wooten's home to inform his family of his murder, his wife denies any knowledge of who would have killed him. Wooten has two children, and neither are home at the moment, but as he is leaving, his daughter, Electra, returns, and on finding out her father is dead, has only one word to say. "Good."

Frank tries to talk to Electra, but her mother won't hear of it, so Frank returns to the crime scene, where he questions the clerks who are in the office, but none of them know anything about who he might have been meeting- not that they will admit, anyway. But there was another man who should have been in today, the son of Wooten's business partner, Mr. Young. On asking where he is, the clerk says he must be at the Wootens, offering his condolences. Frank welcomes another chance to question Mrs. Wooten, and when he returns finds her in her room, practically in the arms of the younger Mr. Young- Terry.

It's obvious from how they jump apart that they had been embracing before the door was opened, and Mrs. Parmer, the sister of the dead man, and Valora Wooten's sister-in-law, suspected that something was going on. But the commotion brings on a flood of water under her skirts. Valora Wooten isn't just a big woman, but pregnant, and her waters just broke. Her sister in law is shocked and horrified at this evidence of Mrs. Wooten's infidelity, and insists on calling the Doctor, but Valora Wooten won't hear of it- the Doctor is a terrible gossip, and she won't have this bandied around about her.

As a compromise, Frank tells them to send for his friend, Sarah Brandt, the daughter of Felix Decker. The fact that her father is rich seems to decide them, and she is sent for. Meanwhile, at home, Sarah is dealing with the hysterics of one of her adopted daughters, who she took in after a horrible crime was perpetrated around them. The youngest girl, Catherine, didn't speak for a long time after Sarah Brandt took them in, but she seems to have recovered nicely. Now, when playing in the backyard of the neighbors house, she goes into a crying, screaming fit, saying that the bad men have returned. But Sarah, Maeve and their neighbor see nothing. Soon, Catherine stops crying, but it troubles Sarah a bit.

Soon, the note arrives from Molloy, and Sarah goes to the Wooten home, where she delivers Valora Wooten's baby boy. Mrs. Wooten tries to get Sarah to kill the child, or, if she won't do that, to take it to a foundling home or give it to someone to adopt. Sarah won't do any of them, but eventually gets Mrs. Wooten to accept the child by constructing the convenient fiction that it was her husband's, but they kept it secret over a fear that it would be stillborn, like her last child. Sarah gives Mrs. Wooten nappies and diapers for the child, and sends around for a woman to breastfeed the child, but Mrs. Wooten begs her to stay and keep an eye on the household and the funeral of her husband for her. Sarah agrees.

The problem with Wooten is that his daughter Electra is deaf, and yet, she has fallen in love with a teacher at the school that teaches sign language. She wanted to learn sign language to be able to communicate with other deaf people, but her father wanted her to only move in the hearing world. He believed, along with Alexander Graham-Bell, that two deaf people marrying and having children would only lead to more deaf people, and Graham-Bell, who developed the telephone out of his own efforts to aid his deaf mother and wife, wanted to eliminate deafness and thought that having deaf people intermarry would lead to more children being born deaf.

Wooten bought into that idea hook, line and sinker, and wanted his daughter to marry a man who could hear and live in the hearing world. So, when she went against his wishes to learn sign language and fell in love with her teacher, who was also deaf, this would have made him very angry. And she was found out and reported on, but who would have gone against Wooten's wishes and found a teacher in sign language for her?

The answer, surprisingly, is Electra's brother, Leander. But at the Funeral, Leander is surprised when Electra's signing teacher, Adam Oldham, shows up to support her. He starts to get into an argument with Oldham, but Oldham, who can only communicate through signing and by writing, writes something on his pad that calms Leander down. Leander still tells Adam to leave, and he does, apologizing for interrupting the funeral.

But why would Electra want to learn to sign when her father so vehemently opposed her doing so? Is it simple rebellion or something else? And why did Higginbotham, who she originally went to to teach her, refuse and tell her to use Adam? Did he collude in helping them to fall in love with each other? And if so, to what purpose?

But when Electra's brother Leander goes missing after the funeral, can Frank find him in the Bowery, where he was last seen? And who is responsible for the death of her father? Can Frank and Sarah unweave the tangled web and find out who is really responsible for the death of Mr. Wooten amid the many people who might have wanted him dead?

Another excellent gaslight mystery. I was quite surprised to find out that the views of Alexander Graham Bell were exactly as they were portrayed in this book. Although Graham Bell was a teacher of the deaf, married one of his deaf students and had a mother who was herself deaf or hearing impaired, he thought that deafness could be eliminated through eugenics. But he was wrong about the causes of deafness, as most deaf children have both parents perfectly well able to hear, and two deaf parents have children who can hear.

Nevertheless, Eugenics was the "in" thing at the turn of the century, mainly formed from wrong ideas about evolution, and yet, it is the idea that much of this mystery turns on. Graham Bell and Wooten's ideas about what causes deafness and the idea that deaf people shouldn't be allowed to marry for fear of producing even more deaf children could have been fought by simply looking at how many deaf children had deaf parents- but it never occurred to Graham Bell or his followers to do so, apparently.

Getting a look inside the tensions in the deaf community and finding out who killed Mr. Wooten made for a great mystery. This is something I knew very little about, and I always love learning in the midst of a story. I found the mystery to be intriguing as well as allowing me to learn. Very well done. Highly recommended.

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