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Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson
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Murder on Astor Place

by Victoria Thompson

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8064517,557 (3.76)70
After a routine delivery, midwife Sarah Brandt visits her patient in a rooming house and discovers that another boarder, a young girl, has been killed. At the request of Sergeant Frank Malloy, she searches the girl's room, and discovers that the victim is from one of the most prominent families in New York and the sister of an old friend. The powerful family, fearful of scandal, refuses to permit an investigation. But with Malloy's help, Sarah begins a dangerous quest to bring the killer to justice before death claims another victim.… (more)
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    A Useful Woman by Darcie Wilde (cbl_tn)
    cbl_tn: Historical mysteries that team a society woman with a policeman who doesn't want her involved in the investigation yet needs the insight she can provide into her circle of friends and acquaintances.
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Murder on Astor Place is the first book in the Gaslight Mystery series by Victoria Thompson. I obtained it through interlibrary loan after already listening to or reading books nine through sixteen, and eighteen, so it was nice to see how everything started. Our heroine, Sarah Decker Brandt, is a midwife, a nurse, and a doctor's widow with good reason to distrust the New York police. Our hero, Detective Sergeant Francis Xavier 'Frank' Malloy, is a New York police officer and widower who has what he feels is a good reason to distrust midwives. (Sarah's distrust is justified. Neither Sarah nor we are given enough details to be sure that Frank's distrust is justified.) They meet over a murder case. The year is 1896.

Mrs. Higgins and her nearly-blind husband turned their home on Astor Place into a boarding house after Mr. Higgins was no longer able to work. (This series does not gloss over the economic perils of life during the 19th Century fin de siècle in Manhattan.) Sarah already brought the fifth Higgins baby into the world. In chapter one, she's summoned to bring in the sixth. While Mrs. Higgins is in labor, a 16-year-old girl comes to the room. The girl looks so much like one Sarah went to school with that she calls the girl by her schoolmate's name, 'Mina'. For some reason, this frightens the girl.

Sarah finds out something is wrong when she makes her postpartum visit the next day. There's an officer at the door and Sarah is not being allowed to see her patient until Frank interviews her. It's dislike and disdain at first sight. Frank correctly guesses that Sarah came from money, no matter what her circumstances are now. He gets her to search the murder victim's room. Yes, that frightened girl is dead. Sarah discovers that 'Alice Smith' was really Mina VanDamm's younger sister, Alicia. She also finds a medical instrument on the floor. She tells Frank what it is, what kind of practitioner uses it, and how she knows.

It's 1896 and reformer Teddy Roosevelt hasn't been the New York Police Commissioner for long. No one expects him to stay, so the current practice of police wanting bribes to investigate is still in place. Frank needs $14,000 to buy his captaincy in the force, so he can't be blamed for thinking the wealthy and socially prominent VanDamms will help him add to his savings. He's surprised when the dead girl's father, Cornelius VanDamm, offers a reward only for the family jewelry that Alicia took with her when she ran away. Francisca, Cornelius' wife, seems to be a sandwich or two short of a picnic, but at least she's distressed.
Ladies and gentlemen of the VanDamms' social class are supposed to be reserved, but big sister Mina seems as if she could hardly care less that Alicia is dead.

In the meantime Sarah has gone to police headquarters to tell Frank something she's learned. She's surprised when she's locked into the room she's led to while they look for Frank. If the officer had known whose daughter he'd mistreated that way, he'd have fainted in terror. When Frank talks to Sarah he learns that he was right. Her father is another socially prominent and wealthy man, Felix Decker. Sarah is able to explain the ways of Old Money to Frank, but he still finds them hard to understand.

During his investigation, Frank visits Greentree, the country home of the VanDamms. It's so big and beautiful that Frank has to wonder why Alicia ran away from there. Once we learn her motive, it's understandable. Ewwwwwww.

Sarah hasn't seen her parents in the three years since her Tom's funeral. I already knew about what happened to Sarah's older sister, Maggie, from book eleven, Murder on Waverly Place. It's a tragic story and explains why Sarah eloped to marry a poor doctor. Sarah needs information that her mother, the beautiful Elizabeth Decker, might be able to supply. The two are reconciled, but Sarah still doesn't want to see her father (not that she'll come right out and tell her mother that).

Frank is forced to ask Sarah to keep investigating when he's ordered off the case. Sarah turns out to be quite good at it. Frank isn't bad at hiding his own efforts as investigating other cases. Together they find out the whole, ugly story. There's a nice little climax during a dreadful thunderstorm thrown in.

NOTES:

Chapter 1:

a. It's early April and there's been a freak snowstorm.

b. Sarah's next-door neighbor, Mrs. Elsworth, is superstitious. Here is one of her superstitions, which involves salt. (The neighbor's name is spelled 'Ellsworth' in some of the later books. Because I've listened to more of them than I have read in hard copy, I don't know when the change was made.)

c. This is where Malloy reflects on the fates of some girls in NYC if they have to turn to prostitution to survive.

Chapter 2:

a. We learn why Malloy distrusts midwives. His late wife's name was Kathleen.

b. The VanDamm home is on 'Marble Row," which is the nickname for a block of Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th streets. (The 6th Gaslight mystery is Murder on Marble Row, by the way.)

c. Enjoy Malloy's opinion of the VanDamm stately home. Also enjoy his opinion of the Knickerbocker families when Ms. Thompson explains who they are and how they got their name.

Chapter 3:

a. Sarah recalls how Mina reacted when Alicia was going to be born. (I'm not impressed -- I have an aunt only 12 years older than I am.)

b. Malloy meets an abortionist.

c. Sarah visits the police HQ for the first time.

Chapter 4:

a. The author explains who invented the third degree of interrogation.

b. Now why did Teddy Roosevelt think that closing police homeless shelters was a good idea? Read here to find out.

c. I hadn't known what 'cadet' meant when used as slang then until I read it here. During Sarah and Malloy's conversation, we get to learn about the way of the world from both sides.

d. Sarah explains how her father dealt with her older sister. Maggie, her husband, Peter, and their baby are buried in unmarked graves on Long Island.

e. Malloy visits Slippery Joe's pawnshop on Catherine Street.

Chapter 5:

a. Malloy visits Greentree, the VanDamms' mansion in Mamoraneck village. (I'd never thought about a chambermaid being the one to empty chamber pots.)

b. Here is another of Mrs. Elsworth's superstitions, this one involving new brooms. Also, her son is named Nelson and has his own accounting firm., and Mrs. Elsworth's sister died of childbed fever. (According to 'The contagiousness of childbed fever: a short history of puerperal sepsis and its treatment' by Caroline M De Costa from the 16 December 2002 issue of 'The Medical Journal of Australia,' childbed fever killed 20,000 women a year in the United States during the 1890s.)

Chapter 6:

a. Malloy meets Harvey, the groom at Greentree, who tells him why Alicia ran away.

b. Sarah tells Malloy why she's distrusted the police for three years.

Chapter 7: The Deckers live in one of a row of Italianate brownstone town houses on 57th street. Their neighbors include the Auchinclosses, the Sloanes, and the Roosevelts. Sarah recognizes some of the furnishings as pieces from the Washington Square house where she had grown up. As she will do in later volumes, Sarah's mother can provide her daughter with some useful gossip.

Chapter 8:

a. Sarah is a blonde. Her letter to Malloy causes him some heckling at work.

b. Mrs. Elsworth explains her superstition about dropped knives.

Chapter 9:

a. Mary Grace Higgins has figured out that Sarah didn't bring her new baby brother in that black bag she carries.

b. Frank goes home to his widowed mother and three-year-old son. Their neighbors are the McMullins, who tend to argue. (In this book, Frank's first name is spelled 'Frances,' the feminine form of 'Francis'. This mistake will be corrected later. His middle name is 'Xavier,' so he was probably named for Saint Francis Xavier, a co-founder of the Jesuits.)

c. Here's where we learn it will cost Frank $14,000 to become a Police Captain. Given that's the equivalent of $377,107.69 in 2017 money, could that be an error for $1,400? In book 18, Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue, $5,000 is considered a lot of money.

d. Frank's son looks like Kathleen. The boy has blue eyes.

Chapter 10:

a. It's only April, but the day before it was a record high of 84° F (28.8° C).

b. Here is where Sarah reads some product names advertised on the Elevated Train. (I recognize only Ivory Soap.)

c. Mrs. Elsworth shares a superstition about the top of a bread loaf splitting during baking.

Chapter 11:

a. Mrs. Elsworth has a superstition about candles.

b. Sarah notices the patent medicines on a table in Mrs. VanDamm's room and names some of them.

Chapter 12:

a. Sarah goes to see her mother, but Mrs. Decker is having a formal tea. One of the guests is the matriarch of the Astor family. (I had to laugh at Elizabeth Decker wondering if she should have encouraged Sarah in trying to find out about the case because later on she'll be more than happy to help.)

b. This is where we learn the year for certain, because we already know it's April and Frank reads something dated a few weeks ago, March 6, 1896.

Chapter 13: The violent storm outside is nothing to compare to the emotional storm inside the VanDamm house. Malloy is called a racist term for an Irish person I don't recall reading before. (My sister informs me that I haven't watched enough British historical dramas [TV shows}.

Chapter 14: Sarah meets Malloy's family. Brian has red gold hair. He has a club foot, too. Sarah is told he's simple [minded]. He's certainly quiet.

As far as I'm concerned, the Gaslight Mysteries got off to a good start. Now I want to read all of the earlier books that I've missed. ( )
  JalenV | Jul 11, 2019 |
Sarah Brandt a Victorian-era midwife recognizes a young girl in a boarding house as the child of one of New York’s leading society families. She is here to assist Mrs. Higgin’s the owner of the boarding house in the birth of her sixth child. When she returns two days later to follow-up with her patient, she learns the girl has been murdered.

Asked by Detective Sargent Frank Malloy to assist in identifying the girl, she searches her room and finds proof that she is the child of the Van Dann family as she thought.

Frank and Sarah each have reason for despising the other’s profession. But when Frank is ordered to stop investigating, Sarah takes on the role of the detective, as they join together to search for the murderer, both seeking justice for the victim.

Sarah is a Victorian-era woman who by circumstance, pride and belief in herself begins to change how women are viewed and accepted. An enjoyable mystery, fast-paced, with diverse characters. ( )
  Bettesbooks | Apr 30, 2019 |
Really liking this series. I did not read in order and it was nice to see it all start with this book ( )
  cfulton20 | Dec 5, 2018 |
Really liking this series. I did not read in order and it was nice to see it all start with this book ( )
  cfulton20 | Dec 5, 2018 |
Murder on Astor Place
4 Stars

As a midwife, Sarah Brandt is no stranger to the struggles of life and death. However, after attending a routine birth at a boarding house, Sarah is shocked to learn not only that one of the other guests has been murdered, but that the young woman is someone she knows. When the girl’s prominent family refuses to permit an investigation and the police appear to be just as disinclined, Sarah takes it upon herself to discover the truth.

A good mystery, but it is the dynamic between Sarah Brandt and Frank Malloy that truly make this book shine.

Sarah is a strong willed and independent heroine, and it is impossible not to admire her courage for turning her back on the capricious and prejudiced social strictures of her upbringing. It is more difficult to appreciate Detective Frank Malloy character as his moral compass appears to have gone awry. However, as the circumstances of his life are slowly revealed, it becomes clear that there is more to him than meets the eye and that underneath his gruff facade and bullying manner lies a decent man trying to survive in a harsh world.

The murder investigation is compelling as the victim evokes a strong sense of empathy and sympathy, which makes it all the easier to identify with Sarah's need to get justice for her. There are a variety of suspects and motives, but it is possible to figure it all out by following the clues.

All in all, a well-written mystery with a strong sense of setting and engaging characters. Looking forward to continuing with the series. ( )
  Lauren2013 | May 24, 2018 |
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Dedication
To my agent Nancy Yost, who never stopped believing and who always makes me laugh, even when the news is bad. And to my dear husband Jim, who eased the load so I'd have the time and energy to write this.
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At first Sarah thought the tinkling of the bell was part of her dream.
Quotations
[Sarah wonders why Ham Fisher seems to want to avoid having Officer Murphy escort them.] ... She wondered for a moment if he had some reason to avoid notice by the police, but the thought was gone as soon as it formed. No one poor and powerless wanted to be noticed by the police, who might arrest you simply because they felt like it and might then beat a confession out of you for some crime you hadn't committed but for which they needed a suspect.

Sarah had long since denied herself the luxury of outrage over such things. One woman couldn't change the world. She could just make small parts of it better. That's what she was doing tonight. (chapter 1)
SARAH HAD NEVER CARED FOR BEING ORDERED around. Her father had pretty much ruined her for it before she was out of the nursery, and after Maggie's death, she'd determined never to do anything a man ordered her to do if it went against her better judgement. (chapter 7)
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