The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman is a historical thriller set in Colonial America (available June 19, 2012).
It’s 1663 in the tiny, hardscrabble Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now present-day southern Manhattan. Orphan children are going missing, and among those looking into the mysterious state of affairs are Blandine von Couvering, a quick-witted twenty-two-year-old trader, herself an orphan, and a dashing British spy named Edward Drummond.
Suspects abound, including the governor’s wealthy nephew, a green-eyed aristocrat with decadent tastes; an Algonquin trapper who may be possessed by a demon that turns people into cannibals; and the colony’s own corrupt and conflicted orphanmaster. Both the search for the killer and Edward and Blandine’s newfound romance are endangered, however, when Blandine is accused of being a witch and Edward is sentenced to hang for espionage. Meanwhile, war looms as the English king plans to wrest control of the colony.
The Orphanmaster is the debut novel of Jean Zimmerman, a historical thriller set in 1663 New Amsterdam (i.e., Manhattan!). This is a setting which I’d never encountered before in fiction and was fascinated to read about. The story has many layers, befitting the complexity of a locale and period when Dutch and English traders, African slaves and freedmen, and Native Americans of various tribes all interacted uneasily on the same narrow island. Zimmerman’s historical detail is rich and intriguing, and makes the hunt for a serial killer, a common thriller plot these days, seem new and, well, thrilling.
I’d like to offer a caveat: if you’re a squeamish reader, this might not be the book for you. There is violence against children as well as adults; children are the killer’s victims.
I very much enjoyed the historical detail and how it was included in the story. The heroine, Blandine, is a trader, one of only a few women to work at that trade. An orphan, business is her path upwards in society. The opening scenes describe the items she trades in, which gives a picture of the world she lives in. At the same time, the warehouse scenes reminded me how very alien her world is to mine, and gave a delicious sense of discovery to my reading.
Beneath the din of voices, a musical ringing of coins and hollow clink of wampum, pleasing to all ears . . . Everywhere were stacked colanders and kettles, pins and vinegar, blankets and Bibles and toys.
Blandine pried open the [cask] and displayed the contents, thick wool cloth . . . “I have a smaller cask of duffel there,” she said.
The inspector nodded and went on, ticking off the items one by one. “Two pony barrels of molasses. Brass thimbles, one score. A dozen long knives, a dozen jackknives.”
“Sheffield Barlows, sire,” Blandine said.
“Good,” Pembeck said, popping open one of the English made blades. “The river Indians like these.”
“Six barrels Barbados rum. Five staves lead. Twenty pounds powder. A hundred ells cloth, red and plaid.”
“I’ve got osnabrig, serge, diaper, Hamburg linen. Lawn and silk.”
“And the duffel.”
“Yes.” Pembeck made a note. “Hand tools, nails, saws and hammers.”
Also coming in on the trading vessels are orphans.
The Dutch orphans brought over by the Margrave, the first mate indicated, could be located in the ship’s forward hold. These were almshouse cases, burdens on the public purse in Patria. New Netherland felt the dire need of willing hands, lots of them, to make the colony work. The population of Europe was not yet convinced that decamping for a rocky, windswept island in America would improve their lot. Life in Holland proved all too comfortable. The new coffee houses were just coming in, joining the tobacco houses already there. The cheese was as good as ever. No one wanted to leave.
. . . Aet Visser recruited his orphan charges from three sources. Deaths of parents in the colony, deaths of parents on transocean voyages to the colony and these orphan shipments from Patria. Fortune proving to be a rascally mistress, the pool of orphans never dried up.
. . . No orphanages existed in New Amsterdam. The boys would be taken in by settlement families who needed laborers and servants.
When some of the orphans start to go missing, it’s Blandine who first tries to find out what happened to them. Are they being taken by a human villain? Or is an evil spirit to blame? The fate of the orphans, and Blandine’s fate as well, are mingled with the deadly mission of English spy Edward Drummond, and the threat of war. The Orphanmaster is sometimes a grim book, but it’s hard to look away.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War I-set Spice Brief is titled “Under Her Uniform” and is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.