Thursday, July 28, 2011

Murder on Sister's Row: A Gaslight Mystery by Victoria Thompson

Sarah Brandt is a professional midwife. She comes from a socially prominent and rich family, but when she married her husband, a doctor who worked with the poor and indigent, she left that lifestyle behind. Her husband's death didn't change anything, as she went on working with the same sorts of people her husband once treated. She lives apart from her family in a working-class neighborhood with two young girls she has adopted as daughters, and makes her living by helping women with childbirth, which means that she is usually called out at all hours of the day and night.

Sarah is asked to look after a young woman about to give birth by the madam that she works for, and while examining the young woman, the girl claims that the madam is keeping her against her will and that as soon as her baby is born, it will be taken away from her. Sarah, who knows that the girl is a prostitute, knows that this is almost certainly true. But the girl asks her to deliver a special message for her, to Mrs. Vivian Van Orner, who can help Amy, the girl, escape.

Sarah does as Amy asks, and meets Mrs. Van Orner, a lady of means who spends her days helping women who want to escape the life of the brothel and the cribs (low priced whorehouses) find work as maids and other domestic servants. Mrs. Van Ortner and her organization, Rahab's Daughters, are perfectly willing to help Amy, but they also have to make sure that Amy really wants to leave the life. Too many former prostitutes are seduced back into their old lives because it is so much easier than the hard work of a servant. All a prostitute has to do is lie back and pretend that she enjoys the sex- a much easier way to make money than slaving hard. But Sarah is convinced that Amy truly wants to leave and tells Mrs. Van Orner so, so the Daughters of Rahab go to work and do what they do best, managing to not implicate Sarah Brandt in Amy's release, as brothel owners don't take kindly to anyone removing the women they see as their "merchandise". They have been known to kill those responsible for rescuing their workers.

And shortly after Amy is rescued, Mrs. Van Orner is found dead in her office, a victim of murder. But who did it? Was it the owner of Amy's brothel? Or was it the owner of some other brothel that Mrs. Van Orner had worked against in the past? Or could it be possible that she was killed for some other reason entirely?

Sarah Brandt, feeling responsible for Mrs. Van Orner's death, also feels that she must find out who is actually responsible for killing her. Allying with her friend, and the Detective of the New York Police Department, Frank Molloy, she must plumb the depths of the Daughters of Rahab and Mrs. Van Orner's friends to find who is ultimately responsible for her death. But Mrs. Van Orner wasn't as kind and aboveboard as she seemed at first glance, and Amy isn't as innocent, either. It's apparent that the Daughters of Rahab has all sorts of dirty linen that they don't want aired, and Mrs. Van Orner's home life is not in any way as idyllic as it seemed. Can any of these people involved in the case be trusted to tell the truth? And can Sarah and Frank Molloy work together to find the truth and the person or persons truly responsible for the death of Vivian Van Orner?

Many of the books in the Gaslight mysteries have focussed on deaths in the poorer parts of Tammany Hall New York City, but this volume shows that things weren't much better, or indeed, any better, in the richer parts of town. Corruption, both moral and financial, are rife, and even those who look like Saints on the outside can be veritable devils (or at least, going about their saintly work for less than saintly reasons). And it's up to Sarah Brandt and Frank Molloy to peel back the whitewashing to reveal the truly seamy stuff that is hidden from public view.

This book shows us why prostitution isn't easy to wipe out. While some prostitutes may desperately want to leave that sort of life behind, there are many things holding them back, from truly brutal pimps or brothel owners, to substance addiction and simple laziness and fear. Likewise, those who would rescue them aren't always doing their work out of a sense of moral obligation or a true determination to help those imprisoned, and this book shows that in spades. I have seen very few books where so many people were lying almost all the time, but this is one of the few in the series where you can trust none of the principal characters. It was almost depressing to read, and the murder turned out to be something I found saddening, because it made me lose some faith in human nature. Everyone gained something out of what they were doing or the role they were playing, and it wasn't what you would think.

This book may have been depressing to me on a personal level, but at the same time, it was still good, excellent and engaging. In fact, how depressing I found it to be is a factor of how the book held my interest and how believable yet horrifying I found the characterizations. This is not a book to read to make you think that human beings are worthy of being exalted or praised, but as a mystery, it was impossible to put down or turn away from. Horrified fascination, like watching a car accident, is the best way to describe my reaction to the story and the characters. Highly recommended, but be aware that this book can be depressing to read. Not for everyone.

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