Murder in Morningside Heights by Victoria Thompson is the 19th book in the Gaslight Mystery series, nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel.
Murder in Morningside Heights is the 1st book I’ve read in the Gaslight Mystery series by Victoria Thompson, but I was able to jump into this series with no problem. Despite being the 19th book in the series, it reads successfully as a standalone, and I never felt lost as can happen with certain series if you do not read them in order.
I was surprised to learn that the 1st book in this series was published in 1999. If I had found this series earlier, I would have loved to follow along. It's like getting a peek into life at the turn of the 20th century, which is fascinating. The setting was perfect—from the period clothing to the mannerisms and the political climate—and the cast of characters is wonderful and varied, representing the different levels of society.
The book follows Frank Malloy—a former police sergeant and current private detective—and his wife Sarah—a former midwife that now assists him with cases. The Northrups, a wealthy couple who are seeking assistance in solving their daughter Abigail’s recent murder, contact Frank.
Abigail worked at the school she had recently graduated from, The Normal School of Manhattan. It is a prestigious all women’s college that prepared the girls to become teachers. Her body was found on the campus; her face mauled with a screwdriver that was left protruding from one of her eyes. It was a brutal murder on a high-society female campus that—given the time period that the book is set in—basically went ignored by the police because there was no incentive money from the victims’ relatives. This is why Malloy is called upon.
There are a few different things happening in the story that are indicative of just how different times were. For instance, a young woman named Hannah is living in a safe house for girls with nowhere to go. She’s young, she’s single, and she just so happens to be pregnant and hiding it very well. Hannah has to keep the baby secret because it’s not acceptable for her to be carrying a child, even when it’s revealed that the pregnancy is the result of a rape. It’s these items peppered throughout that really drive home the differences between past and present.
There’s also a lot of talk of the New Woman. It’s a term ascribed to the women’s movement of the time. It refers to a woman being employed, maybe even getting an education, and not having to get married and rely on a man. It’s a very new concept here, and Thompson portrays this very well and consistently throughout.
Frank was getting a good picture of Abigail Northrup in his mind. She was a headstrong young woman, smart and ambitious. A New Woman. He knew all about them. He was married to one.
Thompson also dedicates a portion of the plot to the idea of lesbianism, which was mostly unthinkable at the time. Abigail lived with two other women—not counting a maid—in one home, sans any male figure. It turns out that one of the women, Miss Wilson, used to be Abigail’s professor at the college (the only female professor, at that), and she and Abigail had a special relationship—one that went beyond a schoolgirl crush. The fact that Thompson put so much scandal in this tale was spectacular and really pulled me in. There’s a term for women who lived like Miss Wilson and Miss Billingsly had for eighteen years:
“A Boston marriage. The name comes from Henry James’s book The Bostonians. A Boston marriage is when two women make a life for themselves together, without having to depend on a husband. We talked about this a lot when I was at school. It’s very difficult for a woman to support herself if she doesn’t marry, or at least it has been, historically speaking.”
From friends to family to male would-be suitors, there’s a decent list of suspects that Malloy and Sarah must comb through in order to find out who the killer is. It was a pleasing reveal in the end.
I loved this installment in the series. So much so that I will definitely be picking up the first one and reading through them the first chance I get.
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Amber Keller is a writer who delves into dark, speculative fiction, particularly horror and suspense/thrillers. You can find her work on her Amazon Author Page and she also features many short stories on Diary of a Writer. A member of the Horror Writers Association, she contributes to many websites and eMagazines and you can follow her on Twitter @akeller9.