Book Review: The Dead Cry Justice by Rosemary Simpson
By Janet WebbDecember 20, 2021
The Dead Cry Justice by Rosemary Simpson is the sixth book in the Gilded Age Mystery series, where heiress-turned-sleuth Prudence MacKenzie and ex-Pinkerton Geoffrey Hunter step out of the elite society of Gilded Age New York and venture into the city’s crime ridden streets and most dangerous neighborhoods to search for two missing children.
If she so chose, heiress Prudence MacKenzie could have been a star in New York City’s high society. It’s certainly what her British aunt Gillian, the Dowager Viscountess Lady Rotherton, would have preferred, but Prudence isn’t interested in making a brilliant marriage. She is an active partner in the Hunter and MacKenzie Investigative Law Agency. She also has a complicated personal relationship with ex-Pinkerton Geoffrey Hunter, who was gravely injured a few months earlier and has not fully recovered.
As the daughter of the late and greatly esteemed Judge MacKenzie, Prudence has always been mentioned as a likely candidate for law school. Up until now, Prudence hasn’t had to consider whether she would attend law school if an invitation was extended. That changes in May 1890 when New York University Law School finally opens its door to female students. A member of the university’s governing council visits Prudence’s Fifth Avenue mansion to personally invite her to join the inaugural class of women.
Prudence has a lot to think about. What would happen to her investigative agency if she went to law school? She sits in Washington Square Park, pondering her options over sandwiches “wrapped in butcher paper and brown twine,” when a young urchin nabs the food right out of her hand. Prudence isn’t one to slough this off—she and her dog, Blossom, track the lad into the entrails of the nearby University Building’s basement. Prudence and Blossom come upon two emaciated young persons at the end of their rope, the girl beaten within an inch of her life.
The girl’s skin was hot to the touch in places, cold and clammy in others, as though her body fought its way alternately through freezing chills and burning fever.
Prudence shrugged off the light spring shawl she was wearing, covering the inadequately clothed girl who was stubbornly holding on to life despite what must have been a terrible beating. Looking up, she saw the boy’s wide-eyed stare flit from her to Blossom, then back again. Frightened yet defiant.
Prudence persuades the pair to come with her to the safest place she knows, a Quaker-run charitable hospital. As Doctor Charity Sloan gently cleans the young girl’s body, she tells Prudence the girl has “been viciously violated.” Prudence takes the boy back with her, letting him sleep beside Blossom, but early in the morning, cabby Danny Dennis tells her the boy has run off. Prudence rushes back to the hospital to find the girl’s bed empty. What frightened the pair so much that they would take off in the middle of the night?
Dr. Sloan tells Prudence that their unusual appearance—very pale skin, large brown eyes, and blond hair—indicates they might be brother and sister. Later, one of Prudence’s associates brings her a newspaper article.
He pointed to an article whose headline screamed DO YOU RECOGNIZE THIS BOY? And in slightly smaller print below, The City Asylum for Orphan Boys and Foundlings wants to know.
“What is it, Josiah?” Prudence asked.
“I heard one of the newsboys calling it out,” Josiah explained. “So I scanned the article on my way here. The Asylum staff found a dead body on their stoop early this morning when someone opened the front door to bring in the milk bottles. A boy of about twelve or thirteen years old. Described as a street urchin. Blond hair, dark brown eyes. Nothing on him to suggest a name or nationality. That sounds a bit like the boy you were talking about, Mr. Hunter. At least the blond hair and brown eyes are a match.”
Seems as if someone is trying to permanently silence the abused girl’s young protector. Rosemary Simpson weaves two historical figures into the story: photographer and social reformer Jacob Riis and the famous journalist Nellie Bly. Prudence combs through hundreds of Riis’s black-and-white photographs until she spots one of the girl that Riis took in the Five Points neighborhood. Five Points was the flip side of the gilded splendor of Fifth Avenue; populated by brothels and tenements, it was “once the most notorious slum in the United States.”
A break in the case comes when Prudence is sent an exquisite doll.
The doll stared up at them out of deep green glass eyes fringed with long, stylized lashes. Feathery painted eyebrows arched in perfectly symmetrical semicircles across a wide forehead. Pursed lips painted a delicate coral emphasized a tiny mouth beneath circles of matching cheek color. Thick blond hair fell in soft curls halfway down the doll’s back.
Is there a connection between “a pair of missing abused children and a bogus fashion doll?” When they track down the doll’s origins, Prudence and Geoffrey unravel a sordid criminal enterprise. They are warned repeatedly that they are courting danger by pursuing the case—even the knowledgeable proprietress of a high-class brothel tells them so.
That indignities are inflicted on young girls is not a problem confined to the Gilded Age of New York—sadly there are modern examples of abhorrent practices. The Dead Cry Justice is particularly vivid in its portrayal of the cruelty powerful men exerted on children incapable of fighting back. The story will linger with readers long after they’ve finished the book. It’s an excellent addition to the Gilded Age Mystery series.