Brooklyn on Fire by Lawrence H. Levy is a pleasant, delightful piece of historical murder mystery fiction. This is the second book by the author and having not read the first one, my introduction to both the author and the main character Mary Handley. Now, I don’t tend to read a lot of murder mystery and if I do, I would argue that they fall more on the thriller/suspense side but I love well written, accurate historical fiction. Heck, half of the random facts filed away somewhere in the vast reaches of my brain are from historical fiction novels.
The novel is set in Brooklyn during the year 1890. Mary Handley, the daughter of a butcher, is an young, intelligent, (unofficial) consulting detective attempting to establish herself as a professional. In the first novel, she successfully helps the Brooklyn police close a tricky murder case and now finds herself at loose ends waiting for another potential case. As luck would have it, she is hired by a woman to investigate the 20 year old death of the woman’s uncle where there is suspicion of foul play.
With this review, I don’t want to dive too deep into the plot and provide spoilers but I will say that the twist and turns kept on coming. Mary’s investigation into the uncle’s death uncovers a buried coffin full of stone and that the uncle apparently died not once but twice eight years apart and in two different locations! Other murders, seemingly unconnected to Mary’s investigation, being to occur and the deeper Mary dives into this case, the more she realizes that she is playing fire with Brooklyn’s snobbish elite and the underworld social climbers that pull the strings. As if Mary doesn’t have enough on her plate with missing bodies and cold leads, her brother is arrested for the murder of his fiance (a close friend of Mary’s), and she falls in love with a Vanderbilt and becomes engaged.
I admit to skepticism as to the validity of some facts in this novel. Being somewhat scarred by Hollywood’s inability to keep historically accurate facts in the forefront of their movies, I felt it prudent to keep a running list of things to cross check as this novel seemed chock full of potentially disappointing untrue facts. So with that, I set out to confirm if the below list could be realistic for a person in Brooklyn in the 1890’s to know about or to be a current practice for the era:
- Embalming still a current practice?
- French form of kickboxing called Savate
- Would a women have a boyfriend
Good ol’ Google did surprisingly confirm these facts: Embalming became popular in the U.S. during the civil war; in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s, the U.S. became fascinated with Japanese culture especially martial arts and so it’s very likely that Mary could have been introduced and trained in jujitsu and there were even debates in England as to whether a boxer could be defeated by a trained martial artist (see website here); while I couldn’t find any proof that Savate was present in the U.S. in the 1890’s (albeit after only a brief internet search), given the popularity it had in Europe during that same time period, I don’t think it’s beyond the scope of historical accuracy that Mary wouldn’t have known and/or been trained in Savate, especially as it was lauded as a self-defense art; and lastly, yes, it is conceivable that a women in or around the 1890’s could indeed have had a boyfriend (linguist history lesson here) and referred to said boyfriend in social conversation.
I can’t remember the last time a novel challenged me to question history but I am pleased that the author obviously did his homework and must have complied some exhaustive research in the writing of Mary’s second adventure. This author’s desire for accuracy is confirmed by an interview he had with a fellow wordpress blogger and also that he put a lot of effort into ensuring the characters spoke accurately for that time frame. I am still unconvinced on this point but am going to trust in the author on this one. Head over to Book Club Mom to read the interview.
All in all, I enjoyed Brooklyn on Fire. Mary Handley is not a perfect person (a bit prejudice against the rich and privilege) but she is a witty, strong woman living by her own terms and is entirely identifiable with in this current day and age and I look forward to reading more of her adventures. I will give one spoiler alert though- my hopelessly romantic soul is sad her engagement ended. Love is a fickle thing.
**I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. My first pre-release book ever! Click the link above for more information.