Book Review: Murder on Fifth Avenue

murder on fifth avenueMurder on Fifth Avenue, Victoria Thompson

Midwife/amateur detective Sarah Brandt and Irish detective inspector Frank Malloy return to the streets of New York in this fourteenth book in the Gaslight series, and it’s an odd reversal of strengths and weaknesses for the author. First off, if you’ve never read any of Victoria Thompson’s suberb mystery novels set in turn-of-the century New York City, you should, because they are beautifully atmospheric, and start with Murder on Astor Place, the first. However, if you have, this isn’t the best in the series.

A society man has died in the highly exclusive men’s club managed by Sarah’s father, and he calls in Frank trusting him to both solve the murder and be discreet about it. The first mystery is how and where the man was killed, as he was stabbed before arriving at the club and then slowly bled out with out pain. Frank follows a bizarre trail of secrets that leads him to the Italian mob, an innocent-seeming mistress, and the dark underbelly of wealthy New York society. The plot and pacing are significantly stronger – despite a melodramatic center, the reveals are made gradually and deftly and underscored with enough evidence and character development to make sense. The pacing is sharp and the book is as gripping and perhaps even more gripping than most Victoria Thompson novels – a mini page-turner that is hard to put down.

Yet, for all that the plot is finer-tuned and more confident than in previous Gaslight novels, the relationships and emotional element are oddly muted. Sarah and Frank have multiple interactions in the novel, even several at her house, but they discuss strictly business with nothing else in the air at all, and despite significant changes happening in Frank’s relationship with Sarah’s parents, the relationship that itself stands at the heart of the series – that between Frank and Sarah – is neither developed nor even really included. It’s not just that it’s static – it’s that their interactions are dry. After thirteen novels, shouldn’t we be getting something more than this? It would be one thing if we were given to believe the characters are happier apart than together – yet Thompson is at pains to show us they are not, without ever delivering any romantic or familial advancement at all. It’s puzzling and frustrating.

Sarah’s mother provides the one human note in the novel, and is very refreshing and occasionally funny in her determination to insert herself into the investigation. Yet with murder suspects and other characters who are well-written but not particularly sympathetic, and a denouement, which, to keep from spoilers, let’s just say hardly gives one a reassuring sense of justice being resoundingly done, there’s not a lot to engage with in this novel. It’s a solidly constructed murder mystery and a very sound historical novel, as per usual, but it’s missing the heart Thompson generally includes. Here’s hoping the next one is a return to form.

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