Fresh Meat: The Family Way by Rhys Bowen

The Family Way by Rhys Bowen, the newest book in the Molly Murphy historical mystery series, puts Molly on the trail of a missing servant (available March 5, 2013).

The 12th book in the award-winning Molly Murphy mystery series finds Molly happily married and heavily pregnant but also incredibly bored. It is the summer of 1905 and married life hasn’t been as exciting as she’d hoped, especially after giving up her detective agency for it.

Her husband, Daniel, is a police captain but refuses to share any information about his cases with her, much less allow her to help. In fact, he wants her to hire a servant to help with the house in the face of her impending delivery, but cooking and cleaning their small residence are about all she has to look forward to with her bohemian neighbors, Sid and Gus, having already escaped the stultifying heat by leaving town for cooler pastures. Daniel suggests that she ask his mother for servant recommendations anyway or, better yet, leave the city to stay with her in the countryside. Molly has little wish to spend time in the presence of a mother-in-law who has sighed more than once that Daniel could have married so much better than an unconnected, dowry-free Irish immigrant, so she compromises, saying she’ll look into the servant idea.

Before she can do that, however, she receives a letter meant for her old agency. A family in Ireland are desperate for news of their niece, Maureen O’Byrne. Maureen had come to America to work more than a year ago and swiftly found a place with a rich family called the Mainwarings, but hasn’t been heard from since. Her family begs the agency to track her down.

Molly is inclined to turn the letter over to another detective agency when she runs into a suffragist friend, Sarah Lindley, who offers her a lead on hiring a suitable domestic servant. Molly isn’t too keen on the possibility of having one of her mother-in-law’s creatures spy on her, and realizes that talking to a domestic service agency might help her find out more about Maureen. She decides to kill two birds with one stone by going with Sarah into the Lower East Side, but her inquiries are cut short by another woman’s catastrophe: a young mother has had her infant snatched from her carriage. Molly quickly discovers that this could be the latest in a series of kidnappings of babies for ransom, but before she can do anything but ask a few questions, Daniel shows up and immediately has her escorted home.

It isn’t long before his high-handed behavior has her committing herself to investigating Maureen’s disappearance, for lack of anything better to do. At one point, it seems as if she might have an intellectual outlet when Daniel unexpectedly brings home John Wilkie, head of the Secret Service and one of Molly’s former employers, to lunch one day:

I set to work beating the eggs, wondering all the while why Mr Wilkie had insisted on coming to meet me again. Perhaps he wanted me to do something for him. He had hinted at my wedding that he’d like to use me again sometime. Of course Daniel would flat out refuse. Once more it passed through my mind that Daniel didn’t have to know. If I worked for Wilkie I’d be some kind of spy, wouldn’t I, and spies weren’t supposed to confide in their spouses.

Then I laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of the thought. A fine spy I’d make with my bulging belly and then with a baby on my hip, demanding loudly to be fed while I tried to tail dangerous, international criminals.

It’s easy to sympathize with Molly’s predicament and longing for the life of excitement she’d previously known. Daniel’s insistence on her being the good housewife, and her own expectations of what comes with the role, are also very true to the times and society they live in. It’s refreshing therefore when she’s later reunited with Sid and Gus (who despite their masculine names are both women) and they candidly discuss the plight of twentieth century women, particularly those who have been wronged by their men and left with the stigma of being unmarried and pregnant:

“But what if they want to keep their babies?“ Gus said. ”I know that I should find it hard to give up a child.”

“Gus, dear, you have money. That alters everything. Most of them would have nowhere to go with a child,” Sid said. “They’d be outcasts. Shunned by society, denied employment. And think of the stigma on the child to be known as a bastard all its life.”

Gus sighed. “I suppose that’s true,” she said. “It seems so unfair, doesn’t it? The man in question gets on with his life and the woman is ruined. When will our society ever accept equality and fairness for women?”

“Not until we have the vote,” Sid said.

The Family Way goes on to examine familial and patriotic ties, as well as the lengths people will go to for the causes and people they love. It also brings back characters introduced in previous books to good effect. I was actually a bit surprised by the apologetic tone Rhys Bowen takes toward the end of the book, going out of her way to make excuses for a denouement that could seem contrived. I thought it all fit together very neatly, in a way no more outlandish than any other thriller, period or otherwise. Fans of Bowen’s, and of socially realistic historical mysteries, will be quite pleased with this addition to the genre.

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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.

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