Set at the end of the Victorian era in New York City (for the most part), Rhys Bowen’s series of mysteries featuring Irish immigrant Molly Murphy are enjoyable period pieces that, by the way, have crimes to solve. Though by no means Steampunk – the settings are intended to be realistic, within the bounds of the sorts of coincidences and allowances of the mystery genre – the books are fun to read.
The series starts with Murphy’s Law (2002), in which we are introduced to young Molly Murphy, a lower-class Irish girl living on the estate of a wealthy English aristocrat. Unfortunately, the aristocrat has just tried to rape her and Molly, in self-defense, has pushed the young man backward, causing him to hit his head and collapse. Wanting to avoid being hanged for murder, Molly escapes to London. There she meets a woman with two small children and passage booked to America where they are supposed to meet the children’s father. The woman has tuberculosis, however, and, fearing that she and the children will be turned back by Customs, she induces Molly to take her place on board the ship. Molly, only too happy to escape the law, agrees. (This scene strained credulity, but bear with me.) On board the ship, she has a run-in with an unpleasant passenger who is found dead when the ship arrives at Ellis Island. Molly is under suspicion, and has to clear her name before the police discover her true identity. Along the way, she meets police Captain Daniel Sullivan, who becomes her romantic interest throughout the series.
This book suffers from several problems, including the lengthy backstory before Molly arrives in New York, the lengthy passages wherein Molly tries to find her way around the city, finds a place to live, tries to find a job, and so on. All of these may add realism to the book, but take away from the space devoted to solving the crime. (It’s not a coincidence that amateur private detectives in fiction are independently wealthy, a la Lord Peter Wimsey. A book that features the detective’s day job would be dull indeed.)
Having made it through the first book, however, the persevering reader will find that the series improves. Molly, inspired by her first case and unwilling to take one of the jobs available to women immigrants of the time, decides she wants to be a detective, and tries to get a job with a private detective, Paddy Riley, in Death of Riley (2003). This is an unsuitable job for a woman (in P.D. James’ phrase), Molly is told again and again. When she finds Riley murdered, though, she sees this as an opportunity to tell potential clients that she is his “associate” and, of course, must solve his murder. In later books, Molly goes undercover in a sweatshop (For the Love of Mike, 2004), finds herself in upstate New York attempting to debunk a pair of clairvoyants (In Like Flynn, 2005), investigating Irish gangs when Captain Sullivan is suspended from the police force (Oh Danny Boy, 2006), travels to Ireland and gets mixed up with Irish revolutionaries (In Dublin’s Fair City, 2007), investigates mysterious goings-on in the theater while attempting to find the identity of an amnesia victim (Tell Me, Pretty Maiden, 2008), marches for the right to vote (In a Gilded Cage, 2009), and attempts to protect Harry Houdini from harm (The Last Illusion, 2010). Along the way, we meet a wide cross-section of turn-of-the-century New York, including Molly’s lesbian friends, Sid and Gus; Captain Sullivan’s upper-class fiancée and her family; an influential U.S. Senator; a Jewish labor organizer; a variety of theater people; a psychiatrist who has worked with Sigmund Freud; and the reporter Nelly Bly.
I find that the best parts of these books are the descriptions of New York (something I also enjoyed about Jack Finney’s Time and Again, set a decade or two earlier): the ethnic neighborhoods, the streetcars and elevated trains, the poverty of the lower classes contrasted with the extravagant lifestyles of the wealthy (which should quiet anyone whining about present-day income inequality), the bohemian lifestyles of Sid, Gus, and their Greenwich Village friends. Most of all, the series emphasizes the opportunities, or lack thereof, for women. Marrying well was a good career choice, but, beyond that, options were limited. At one point, Molly was arrested on suspicion of prostitution merely for being on the streets after dark. She was well-educated through a quirk of her upbringing – she was raised with the daughters of the estate owner, and home-schooled with them (however unrealistic that might have been for the time) – but was clearly an anomaly among women of her class. (In contrast, Captain Sullivan is a pill. Not content to merely complain about her desire to earn a living as a detective, he seems to be something of a control freak, is occasionally ungentlemanly, and appears completely indifferent to Molly’s reputation. The cad.) The mysteries themselves are fairly flimsy things, often wrapped up quickly and implausibly, and seemingly taking a back seat to the atmosphere and the characters’ other problems. Elizabeth George seems to have taken a similar approach with her recent Inspector Lynley novels, unfortunately. Still, Molly is an interesting character – no Phillip Marlowe clone so pervasive in the genre – and the period may be of interest to residents of the Steamlands.