Friday, October 30, 2009

Review: Rhys Bowen, Murphy’s Law (2001)

At the turn of the 20th century, Molly Murphy is on the run after accidentally killing the laird of her small village in Ireland, after the man made improper advances toward her. She flees to London, where she secures passage to America by agreeing to deliver two children to their father in New York City. While on Ellis Island, waiting to be processed, she learns that a fellow traveler was murdered. Because Molly had been seen to slap the man and threaten him, Molly becomes a suspect even while falling under the charms of handsome police captain Daniel Sullivan. After Sullivan arrests a man who befriended Molly during the crossing, she decides to hunt for the murderer herself in order to clear her friend’s name, as well as her own. At the same time, she has to find her way in the sprawling and dangerous neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan.

The book – the first in a series of mystery novels now seven strong – is a quick read, short and engaging. I picked up the book because I like mysteries, I like the Victorian era, and I like plucky heroines. What could possibly go wrong?

First, the good news: the prose is well-crafted, the characters are interesting (if heavily Irish) and, better yet, readily distinguished from one another – something with which authors often seem to have trouble – and the action keeps moving.

At the same time, the plot strains credulity all too often. Of course, novels in the mystery genre need a certain degree of implausibility to contain everything in a novel and make the characters interesting. The crime is often unusual, as is the motive. The detective has to uncover key clues in a manner that is often unrealistic. He may have a character flaw, such as drinking until he blacks out, that would cause any ordinary detective to be fired, and he can shoot at least one suspect per book without fear of reprimand. Across a series, readers have to believe the same detective investigates one grisly crime after another – requiring additional suspension of disbelief if the detective is not a police officer, FBI agent, or employed by another law enforcement agency. Readers forgive these tropes as part of the genre.

Within those confines, however, readers expect a reasonable degree of realism and internal consistency. Characters have to respond to events the way a reader might, unless the author has created a personality quirk that would allow the character to respond differently. For example, after witnessing a crime, an ordinary citizen would likely call the police. A trained investigator would not place himself in danger unnecessarily.

Murphy’s Law has too many jarring moments, where a reader might stop and wonder why events are unfolding the way they are. For example:

  • Molly just happens to run across a fellow Irishwoman in London, just as Molly is trying to evade the police. This woman not only lies to the police, but tells Molly she had planned to sail to New York with her two children the very next day, but that she has tuberculosis. She agrees to allow Molly, a complete stranger, to impersonate her and take her children on the ship.
  • She somehow manages to conduct the investigation in a city that is entirely unfamiliar to her.
  • Molly is attractive enough to be nearly raped on three different occasions but continues to allow herself to be alone with men. And despite her substantial education (which the book does explain), she is slow to catch on when offered a job as a prostitute.
  • Speaking of jobs, Molly arrives in New York knowing no one, and understands she needs a job. Despite this, she is repeatedly distracted by her desire to continue investigating a murder. She rejects a low-level job out of hand, and makes only a feeble effort to look for work.

That said, the book is a sprightly read, and fits comfortably in a briefcase for those dull trips to and from work. While that sounds like damning with faint praise, one could do considerably worse.

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