Monday, March 25, 2013

MURPHY'S LAW by Rhys Bowen

I came across Rhys Bowen at random in the library, and was intrigued by the notion of an Irish immigrant detective in New York of a century ago, and after figuring which one was the first (because I'm a bit anal that way), grabbed it and checked it out.

Molly Murphy is an Irish lass who's on the run. At the beginning of the book, she's fleeing her home village after accidentally killing an English nobleman who tried to rape her. She makes her way to Belfast, and quickly befriends a young mother with children who's going to board a ship for New York. Stroke of luck: the mum has TB and knows she won't be allowed on board, so she gives Molly her ticket. Molly poses as the children's mother as they go to New York to meet their father.

OK, yeah, I admit it, it's rather contrived. Actually, the least believable is how quickly the mother comes to Molly's rescue (she was being confronted by a policeman) and her unbelievably quick trust of her. But it's a minor element of the story, so I'm willing to forgive.

Molly goes as a steerage passenger to America, and Bowen's depiction of life in steerage is vivid and uncomfortable, much unlike the romanticized vision we get in the movie Titanic. And landing in America, and the processing at Ellis Island, are all very well-depicted.

Molly was harassed on board by a swaggering bully, and his throat is slit in the immigrants' dormitories on Ellis Island. Molly, who was fetching back a sleepwalking child, is suspected, as well as Mike, a steadfast young Irishman she befriended, who got into a scuffle with said bully on board ship.

As Molly connects with the children's father and tries to explain the situation, she also is filled with concern for Mike's welfare as he's arrested for the crime. She takes it on herself to seek out the real killer.

Now, I have to say this much: the mystery is a bit flimsy; it's resolved rather hastily and the perp is someone who's off to the side and not much of a player. That being said, I loved the book's depiction of New York of 1900 is vivid and fascinating. Molly observes that it's really not a truly American city, but a conglomeration of European neighborhoods, which probably isn't far off the mark. And the depiction of the struggle of immigrant women is affecting; there's the difficulty of finding a job, of squalid lodgings, of coming to America to meet a long-gone husband and realizing the marriage is over, of police shelters and women's homes run by Bible societies, of snobbish placement agencies, and work as a servant.

And I'm a bit amused, after my last post about compassion and the detective as societal outsider, that we get a detective motivated by compassion, and who is quite the societal outsider.

The book ends with a blossoming romance between Molly and an Irish policeman, and with her deciding to take up a career as a sort of private eye specializing in finding lost relatives of incoming immigrants. And to be honest, despite the failings plot-wise, the milieu is rich enough, and I like the character enough, to want to read the next book. And that's something right there.

Not bad at all, good for historical mystery buffs.

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