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Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad Ricca

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes

by Brad Ricca

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To that list of creative historian/biographers that includes Erik Larson, Candice Millard and, way back when, Truman Capote, you can add the name Brad Ricca, whose recent “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” proves that the earlier “Super Boys” was no fluke.

By the use of the word creative I mean to suggest that these writers write history and biography in the manner of novelists. In the second chapter of Ricca's newer book, for example, we read "Twenty-year-old Christina wiped away the steam and scraped at the spidery frost on the window." Well, 100 years later, how do we know Christina wiped away steam and scraped frost from the window. Perhaps because we know it was a frigid February day in New York City and that is what one would do in order to look out a window, and looking out a window is what one might do if one's sister is very late coming home.

Ricca gives pages and pages of notes and references to justify such sentences as this. A reader feels confident that if this isn't exactly what happened, it must be close to what happened.

The real problem with Ricca's book about a female lawyer who a century ago won brief fame for her detective skills is that while he may tell the story as if it were a novel, the story itself doesn't quite cooperate. Most people's lives don't have plots, as I mentioned in a blog post a few weeks ago ("Story vs. plot," June 8, 2018). Grace Humiston makes quite a splash, then fades into relative obscurity. The book ends with more whimper than bang, but the first couple hundred pages make excellent reading.

The case that occupies most of the book involves a young woman, Christina's sister Ruth Cruger, who never returns home from ice skating. Her father insists his daughter is a good girl who would never run away from home. The police think otherwise, but they do search a motorcycle shop owned by Alfredo Cocchi where Ruth is believed to have stopped. No evidence is found, yet later Cocchi himself disappears and turns up in Italy, leaving his wife behind in New York.

Henry Cruger, the girl's father, hires Grace Humiston to investigate. She becomes convinced that Ruth is dead and that Cocchi is involved. The body must be in the basement of his workshop, which Mrs. Cocchi guards zealously. Eventually Hunmiston's team of investigators do find the body exactly where she knew it would be.

Cocchi makes two confessions, one that he killed Ruth to stop her screaming when he sexually assaulted her and a second that his wife killed her. Yet he is never returned to New York to stand trial. Various police officers are held accountable, however, both for failing to find the body when they searched the shop and for showing Cocchi favoritism because he often worked on their motorcycles and was a friend of theirs. This turned the police against Humiston.

Other reversals follow, and her reputation suffers. She remains a champion of missing girls, but with diminishing success. Ricca tells the story well, much like a novel, but because it is true, it cannot end like one. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Jul 6, 2018 |
Good story, interesting real life female detective. Tells of her struggles due to the times she lived in. Drags in the middle though. ( )
  bgknighton | Jul 5, 2018 |
If you are interested in the gritty reality of NYC in the early part of the 20th Century, this might just meet your needs. Ricca's research and writing combine to provide a compelling insight into the colliding worlds and cultures of turn of the century America.

I must confess that while I personally, had no idea of the stories presented in the pages of Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, and being drawn into the lives of bygone injustices, I am not sure how I feel about the main character in the end.

Ricca's writing style is encompassing narration of such a wholeness in presentation that when he reaches the end of researches supplies you are left feeling somewhat let down. How can we not have ALL the answers and know what really happened?!?

One detail that I did find soothing to that injury, was his inclusion of 'end notes' for most of the persons of interest presented in the body. So while, you are left asking yourself....wait, where's the rest, is that all, but what about and so what happened then.....you at least know how the who(s) bowed out. ( )
  CassiMerten | Apr 19, 2018 |
Mrs Sherlock Holmes by Brad Ricci

This narrative biography of Grace Humiston (earlier known as Quackenbos, her 1st husband’s surname), is about a female lawyer and a sometimes consulting detective. It's a fascinating read about someone who was once notable in the early 20th century for her extensive investigative work on more than one famous case. She fought for justice for those of limited means. Grace worked tirelessly to help get pardons for the innocent--Charles Stielow (a death row inmate) and his brother-in-law, Nelson Green, on a murder case that was grossly mishandled by police. And before that, she helped a woman, Antoinette Tolla, who’d shot a man in self-defense when he’d attempted an attack on her. There are other cases included of Grace Humiston's work and one particular highlighted case that takes up a good portion of the book -- and it's what holds, in my opinion, the book's intriguing hook. It was the case on the disappearace of the eighteen-year-old, Ruth Cruger, in 1917. Female lawyer, Grace Humiston was first approached by the missing girl's father, Henry, because of Grace's investigative reputation. Grace agreed to take the case and continued working it with the police, eventually becoming the police's lead detective. The Ruth Cruger case is given in great detail and accents the DA and police's investigation into the girl's disappearance. These sequences, presented in quite a few chapters thoughout the book, reveal well-spaced clues on how the crime is brought to a conclusion. As Grace, aided by her sometimes business partner, private detective, Julius Kron, follows up on the case's facts, it creates an atmosphere reminiscent of a mystery novel.

The title, MRS. SHERLOCK HOLMES, author, Brad Ricca, informs his readers that the earliest usage he could find of this nickname was from an article, 'She's Sherlock of Cruger Case" (Muskogee Times-Democrat, June 20, 1917). This is a finely researched book, with extensive index and referenced end notes. And it doesn't shy away from presenting the mistakes its subject, Grace Humiston, made after she became a strong advocate for better treatment of missing persons, and particularly missing young women, by male police detectives, who too often dismissed missing girls as just gone "wayward" and not as crime victims. Grace spoke openly on what she believed was a white-slave trade and, mistakenly, once allowed herself to get ahead of the facts, citing reports of buried female victims with no evidence ever found on those claims. And so, Grace Humiston, fell from grace. It is admirable when a book's author/biographer includes both success and failures in the life of his written-about subjects. For more reasons than one, I think, this is an intriguing book that's well worth taking the time to read. ( )
  PaperDollLady | Mar 9, 2018 |
Mary Grace Quackenbos Humiston (née Winterton) was the first female United States Attorney and known for a short time as 'Mrs. Sherlock Holmes'. A graduate of the Law School of New York University, she was a leader in exposing peonage (any form of unfree labour or wage labor in which a laborer has little control over employment conditions) in the American South. In 1905 she founded the People's Law Firm which focused on the cases of the working poor and immigrants. She solved the cold case of Ruth Cruger who disappeared in New York in 1917.

The subject-matter itself promised to be an interesting read, but I was disappointed by this story as it jumped around time-wise all over the place and was full of rambling, tedious detail with no inclusion of maps or photographs. I feel the author is a good researcher, but should have put that research into the hands of a good writer. I hope someone else will have a go at rewriting what has the potential to be an absorbing story. ( )
  DebbieMcCauley | Feb 6, 2018 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Brad Riccaprimary authorall editionscalculated
Christopher, DanielleCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Parise, KathrynDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This story is intended for three classes of readers, and no more. It is intended for those who have to bring up children, for those who have to bring up themselves, and for those who, in order that they may think of bettering the weaker, are, on their own part, strong enough to begin that task by bearing a knowledge of the truth.

For it is the truth only that I have told. Throughout this narrative there is no incident that is not a daily commonplace in the life of the underworld of every large city. If proof were needed, the newspapers have, during the last twelvemonth, proved as much. I have written only what I have myself seen and myself heard, and I set it down for none but those who may profit by it.

Reginald Wright Kauffman,
preface to The House of Bondage
If ever prayer came from the depths of a broken heart, it was that forlorn plea for a lost sister.

Eustace Hale Ball, Traffic in Souls: A Novel of Crime and its Cure (1914)
for my mom
First words
May 27, 1914

Pushing through the water, the massive steamship Olympic, sister of the lost Titanic, docked at New York City carrying passengers, thousands of sacks of mail, and the mind of the world's greatest detective. (Prologue)
A single electric bulb looped down from the uneven ceiling.
The night class was its own creature; it wasn't easier, it was just different.
He always started with facts. In his view, there was no correct solution, only the logic of a good defense. He valued opinions but made his bacon in the argument itself. He taught the importance of contracts and hated recitation. Famous names and cases didn't matter to him. Ashley's students were taught to analyze the facts of a case, select the important points, and reason correctly in order to deduce principles from such facts. It was in this crucible of ideas that not only the lawyer but the detective was born.
With the personal aid of Dean Ashley, Grace Quackenbos had been moved to the regular program. She completed a three-year law degree in two short years, graduating in 1903, one of only twelve women in her class. She immediately received a clerkship with the Legal Aid Society of New York, which offered low-cost legal help to the poor. Grace was admitted to the bar in the state of New York in 1905, becoming one of only a thousand female lawyers in the whole United States.
Made of Hurrican Island granite and white Georgia marble, the church was the cornerstone of the neighborhood and rose from the sidewalk like the very mind of God Himself cut and hammered down into architecture.
Known as the mother of New York churches, it could seat a thousand parishioners. When it was full, it looked like a neighborhood version of the afterlife.
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Book description
Mrs. Sherlock Holmes tells the true story of Mrs. Grace Humiston, the detective and lawyer who turned her back on New York society life to become one of the nation's greatest crime fighters during an era when women weren't even allowed to vote. After graduating from N.Y.U. law school, Grace opened a legal clinic in the city for low-income immigrant clients, and quickly established a reputation as a fierce, but fair lawyer who was always on the side of the disenfranchised.

Grace's motto "Justice for those of limited means" led her to strange cases all over the city, and eventually the world. From defending an innocent giant on death row to investigating an island in Arkansas with a terrible secret about slavery; from the warring halls of Congress to a crumbling medieval tower in Italy, Grace solved crimes in-between shopping at Bergdorf Goodman and being marked for death by the sinister Black Hand. She defended a young wife who shot her would-be rapist and fought the framing of a Baltimore black man at the mercy of a corrupt police department. Known for dressing only in black, Grace was appointed the first woman U.S. district attorney in history. And when a pretty 18-year-old girl named Ruth Cruger went missing on Valentine's Day in New York, Grace took the case after the police gave up. Grace and her partner, the hard-boiled Hungarian detective Julius J. Kron, navigated a dangerous mystery of secret boyfriends, two-faced cops,underground tunnels, rumors of white slavery, and a mysterious pale man-- in a desperate race against time to save Ruth. When she solved the crime, she was made the first female consulting detective to the NYPD.

But despite her many successes in social and criminal justice, Grace began to see chilling connections in the cases she had solved, leading to a final showdown with her most fearsome adversary of all and one of the most powerful men of the twentieth century.

This is the first-ever literary biography of the singular woman the press nicknamed after fiction's greatest detective. In the narrative tradition of In Cold Blood and The Devil in the White City, her poignant story unmasks unmistakable connections between missing girls,the role of the media, and the real truth of crime stories. The great mystery of Mrs. Sherlock Holmes -- and its haunting twist ending -- is how could one woman with so much power disappear so completely?

True detective mysteries -- The missing skater -- The coroner's cabinet -- The Heatherbloom girl -- These strange, little cases -- Army of the vanished -- The mysterious island of Sunny Side -- The giant and the chair -- The Manhunter of Harlem -- The pale man -- A doorway to the underworld -- A second guess -- The pointed finger -- The man who laughs -- The sliding number -- Mrs. Sherlock Holmes -- The marked neck -- Her last bow -- Army of one -- The assassin strikes -- The invisible places -- The witnesses' revenge -- Her dark shepherd -- Epilogue.

Author's comment:
Every Wednesday, where I live in Cleveland, we get a coupon circular that gets stuffed in the mailbox. Printed in color, it is filled with advertisements for stuff like frozen spinach and custom address labels. But the last panel on the back page always has a small photograph of a young person, usually a girl, along with the date she went missing. Sometimes there is an awful "computer-aged" version next to it. When I see these photos, I wonder why this is something we just accept every week with our bills and greeting cards. When did missing girls become something we saw as something to consume? When did this phenomenon become so digestible to us? These were the issues -- missing girls, the media, and even the role of the police -- that I wanted to get into. I was researching white slavery and the Black Hand by reading old New York newspapers. That's when I turned the page (ok, clicked the mouse) and saw an article titled "Mrs. Sherlock Holmes" from 1917. As I read more, I found out that while I was worrying about this problem for a few minutes every Wednesday, Grace had devoted her whole life to it, at great risk. We have obviously not solved these issues in the present, so maybe we could learn something from Grace's forgotten story? That, and she was a tough-as-nails detective who only wore black, worked for free, and stood up to all types of authority, including cops, the Army, corrupt plantation owners, and even a President.

I quickly read what was out there, but wanted to know more. So I decided to write about her.

But there were other mysteries here, too. Who was Grace Humiston and why are there almost no primary sources about her? What was the role of the media in shaping her story and life? Was it a coincidence that her popularity was at the advent of the true crime phenomenon? Was this all connected? I knew that to tell her story in a way that was genuine, I would have to treat her like a missing person herself. My hope is that readers approach my version of her story, and of her greatest, almost unbelievable case, just as she did. When Grace took a case, she used the experiences of her past to help solve the present problem at hand. Just like any master detective would.

Because, at the end, I found that her greatest case might have been older, and deeper, than anyone could have guessed. (Amazon.com Author Page, retrieved 7/3/2017)
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"In 1917, on the day before Valentine's Day, eighteen-year-old Ruth Cruger disappeared. When the police gave up, a mysterious woman in black vowed to find her. Mrs. Sherlock Holmes tells the true story of Grace Humiston, the detective and lawyer who turned her back on New York society life to become one of the nation's greatest crime fighters during an era when women were rarely involved with investigations. After agreeing to take the sensational Cruger case, Grace and her partner, the hardboiled detective Julius J. Kron, navigated a dangerous web of secret boyfriends, two-faced cops, underground tunnels, rumors of white slavery, and a mysterious pale man, in a desperate race against time. Grace's motto "Justice for those of limited means" led her to strange cases all over the world. From defending an innocent giant on death row to investigating an island in Arkansas with a terrible secret, from the warring halls of Congress to a crumbling medieval tower in Italy, Grace solved crimes in between shopping at Bergdorf Goodman and being marked for death by the sinister Black Hand. Grace was appointed the first female U.S. district attorney in history and the first female consulting detective to the New York Police Department. Despite her many successes in social justice, at the height of her powers Grace began to see chilling connections in the cases she solved, leading to a final showdown with her most fearsome adversary of all. Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is the first-ever narrative biography of this singular woman the press nicknamed after fiction's greatest detective. Her poignant story reveals important clues about the relationship between missing girls, the media, and the real truth of crime stories. The great mystery of Grace's life--and the haunting twist ending of the book--is how one woman could become so famous only to disappear from history completely"--Dust jacket.… (more)

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