Murphy's Law by Rhys Bowen is the first entry in the popular Molly Murphy Mysteries series. It won the 2001 Agatha Award for “Best Novel.”
Winner of the 2001 Agatha Award for “Best Novel,” Rhys Bowen's initial entry into the Molly Murphy Mysteries series, Murphy's Law, begins with Molly proving true her mother's frequently repeated sentiment that she “would be getting…into big trouble one day.” Her poor sainted mother is dead now, and “one day” has arrived. Defending herself from the unwelcome advances of the local landowner's son, Molly Murphy, not yet twenty-three, becomes an inadvertent murderer on the run, forced to emigrate from Ballykilleen, Ireland and become an amateur private investigator in the waning days of New York's Gilded Age.
With a murder on the very first page and a heroine on the run, this reader expected Molly's arrival in New York City to happen in double quick time, but instead, the plot nearly grinds to a stop while still in Ireland.
Molly gets to Belfast, but the police catch up to her pretty quickly. In Belfast, fate introduces her to Kathleen O'Connor and her two small children, Seamus and Bridie. Mrs. O'Connor, dying from tuberculosis, has tickets for a ship to America, where she had planned to join her husband. She persuades the desperate Molly to take her children to American in her place.
My own grandmother came via ship to America from Galway in 1916. She travelled steerage and always claimed that she and her fellow passengers danced and laughed their way across the ocean. Perhaps that's true; my grandmother was a grand dancer. But Molly, now known as Mrs. Kathleen O'Connor, and cohort don't have quite as much fun.
On board, the spunky Molly Murphy crosses paths with a bad egg named O'Malley, but this rumpus is still not enough to get the plot moving. That doesn't happen until Molly's rotter gets himself killed on Ellis Island after their public argument. Molly is stuck on Ellis Island while the police, giving her prime suspect status, investigate the murder. However, with no evidence but plenty of suspicions, the handsome police captain in charge of the case, Daniel Sullivan, finally allows Molly to depart for Manhattan.
Despite Daniel Sullivan's warning to avoid any amateur detecting, Molly feels she must clear her name of the Ellis Island murder, for she is haunted by the shadow of the gallows that await her in Ireland. The murder victim was well-hated by almost everyone, so there is no shortage of suspects.Alone in a new country with no one to lean on, Molly hits the teeming streets of New York, intent on finding out what really happened. Sleuthing her way through a sometimes lurid, yet colorful Tammany Hall-era New York, Molly moves seamlessly from the Lower East Side's Cherry Street Irish Ghetto to Hell's Kitchen. With stubborn persistence, she goes about asking questions, stumbling into dangerous places, and gathering information, while frequently crossing paths and swords with Daniel Sullivan in the process. When she finds a possible suspect, she goes to Sullivan with her theory about an Ellis Island watchman.
Sullivan wants to know how she acquired the knowledge:
“I checked it all out for myself.” I gave him a triumphant smile, not admitting the precarious nature of my visit there. “And what's more,” I finished before he could ask too many questions, “his own wife says that he didn't come home all that night.“
”The man lives in Hell's Kitchen, doesn't he?” Sullivan demanded. “You went around there asking questions? You were taking a big risk, Mrs. O'Connor. These are not the kind of people you'd want to invite to take tea with you.”
“I know that,” I said, “but someone has to help . . . if you're not going to . . . I'll do what it takes.“
”You're a gutsy woman, I'll say that for you,” he said, “but have you ever thought what would happen to you if you were right and did unearth the true killer? Someone who has slit a man's throat in a room full of other men is a reckless gambler. He's already taken at least one life. He'd make short work of you.”
“I know,” I said. He was looking at me with such concern that I felt tears stinging my eyes. “But I have to keep trying don't I—unless you'll do something to help us.”
Having read several of Rhys Bowen's, Royal Spyness series, I was expecting some humor or wit in Murphy's Law, but there is little to be found. I guess if one is a citizen of the British Isles, it is more amusing to be Lady Georgiana, 34th in line to the throne, great granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and penniless in a London mansion than it is to be Molly Murphy, wanted murderess of a rape-minded blackguard in Ireland, related to no one of note, and penniless in poverty stricken Gilded Age New York's lower East Side.
I did however enjoy the sense of place in the story, with the vibrant backdrop of 19th century New York and its gritty, pulsating underworld of recently arrived immigrants. This world suits Molly Murphy perfectly, and the book has enough charm in its characterizations of her and the city that I plan to read the next in the series.
Molly's success at finding the killer is celebrated at the end of the novel with a parade; it just happens to be March 17th. Erin Go Bragh!
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Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.