Murder in the Bowery by Victoria Thompson is the 19th Gaslight Mystery, where Sarah Brandt and Frank Malloy search for a connection between a murdered newsie and a high-society woman with dangerous habits.
Having recently reviewed Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mystery Murder in Morningside Heights, I eagerly jumped for the opportunity to check out her newest book in the series. This tale met and exceeded my expectations, and I found myself enjoying it even more than the previous book.
Set at the turn of the century, these stories give a wonderful and gritty glimpse into life during these tough times. I’m always intrigued by the descriptions of how peopled lived and went through their daily routines, getting a sense of even their base approaches and ways of thinking. It puts the reader back in time, allowing them to feel the dirt of the streets and smell the pungent aromas of back alleys and bad hygiene.
Now, it’s not all bad, of course, but Thompson has a way of making it all feel familiar, like a lost memory. At the same time, we also see the more privileged side of life through main characters Frank and Sarah. In this installment, Thompson highlights the amazing and challenging lives of the newsboys in New York City.
Frank is a private detective not because he has to be—on the contrary, he’s quite wealthy—but because it keeps him busy and he’s interested in the work. When he’s visited by a young man claiming to need help finding his long lost brother who is a newsboy, the adventure begins.
The man provides a convincing and touching story about their sad beginnings and eventual separation. Now, he’s come into money and wants to share it with his brother. Though, Frank soon finds out that his story is not all that it seems, and he’s led on a chase involving not just the newsboy but a pretty, society woman—recently deceased—and a shady local business owner. There are many secrets to unearth, including a shocking, terrible scandal involving rape and more than one murder to solve.
The subject of newsboys has always been fascinating to me and one that I’ve wanted research more. Here, we are smack dab in the middle of the infamous newsboy strike where these bold and brave youngsters stood their ground for better treatment. I felt both admiration and sympathy for their plight. Thompson writes about it with true ease and talent, bringing us into their world on their terms.
Most of these boys were orphans or abandoned and literally lived on the street. They bought papers from William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer for a half-penny each and sold them for a penny. The thing is, they were out their money if the papers did not sell. These boys went on strike and eventually earned the right to sell their unsold papers back to these companies.
They ate next to nothing, only wore shoes mostly in the winter, and stayed at boarding houses specifically for them when it was cold or the weather was too bad to be on the streets. At these boarding houses, they didn’t just pay for the room, they could also pay a hefty price for a plate of food. Sometimes, this was the most they would eat for quite awhile. Needless to say, crime and criminal activities were rampant on the streets and around these children daily.
It was a hard way to live, but there was another not so great option:
The Orphan Trains had been taking children from the city out West to find homes since before Frank was born. “I guess you were hoping to be adopted by some farmer out in Iowa or something.”
Bert smiled a little at this. “I know it sounds strange, especially for a city boy like me, but those people from the Children’s Aid Society make it sound like a fairy tale or something.”
“But it wasn’t a fairy tale for you and your brother, I guess.”
Bert’s smile disappeared. “Not exactly. We went to Minnesota, not Iowa, although I don’t guess it makes much difference. We wanted to go with the same family, but none of the families wanted me. I was too old, already sixteen, but Freddie was eight by then and still real cute, so he got picked right off. I ended up in another town with a storekeeper, Mr. Varney.”
It was hard for these children in many different ways. The boy Frank is looking for goes by the name Two Toes. All the newsboys acquire nicknames given to them by the others. Two Toes Freddie earned his name because he had been in an accident with a trolley when he was younger that left him with only two toes on one foot. But there were many other dangers out there, especially as the neighborhoods they frequented were some of the worst in the city.
“You were right about bringing the carriage,” Gino said. “I’m glad we don’t have to walk in this heat.”
“Or try to find a cab. My mother insisted we take it, and she was right, although I think she was more worried about our safety in this neighborhood than our comfort.” Sarah glanced out the window at the street urchins running alongside the fine carriage, shouting for a handout. Her heart told her to throw some coins out the window, but her head told her that would only draw more children and encourage them to be bolder, endangering life and limb as they ran perilously close to the wheels and the horses. In the city, even charity could be dangerous.
By and far, these little newsboys won over my heart. Bring in a perfectly complex and scandalous murder mystery, and it simply completed the tale. A captivating read, through and through. I recommend picking this one up or any of the Gaslight Mystery series.
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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.