A man had been killed and a woman who had an uncertain relationship to the dead man was accused of the crime. But tangled up in Emma Cunningham’s case was an eleven-year-old houseboy and a Negro groom, both as fragile as loose pieces of straw, blown into the path of a murder that was reaching deep into the strata of the city. – from 31 Bond Street, page 171 –
Back in early February 1857 a well-known dentist, Dr. Harvey Burdell, was discovered dead on the floor of his New York city office…his throat cut ear to ear, nearly severing the head from the body. The murder immediately captured the imaginations of the press, making front page news and being declared the “crime of the century.” As lurid details emerged of Burdell’s relationship with Emma Cunningham, a widow living with her two daughters on the top floor of Burdell’s home, the focus of the prosecution was narrowed. Emma Cunningham was arrested and charged with the crime.
It is these details which aroused the curiosity of writer Ellen Horan and formed the basis of her first novel 31 Bond Street. Horan opens the book with the murder, then takes the reader back and forth in time to flush out the characters and plot. The book is narrated from two points of view. Emma Cunningham’s voice is mostly from the past, sketching out the details of how she meets Burdell and ends up moving into his home. It is through Emma that Horan creates the fictional components of the book – imagining what must have occurred between her and Burdell and giving insight into the events leading up to the murder.
Horan balances her novel with the voice of Henry Clinton – the lawyer who Cunningham employed to defend her. Clinton’s point of view allows the reader to peer into the mind of the defense attorney as he develops his case, and also takes us into the thrilling atmosphere of the courtroom.
Throughout the book, Horan adds colorful and accurate detail of time and place, successfully capturing the streets of nineteenth-century New York. She intersperses real newspaper quotes about the murder and trial as well which lends authenticity to this fictional work. The recreated sounds of the press were wonderful.
A soapbox orator had placed a carton near the crowd and was sermonizing to no one in particular. “It’s the crime of the century!” he cried. “Every now and then a tremendous explosion blows off the covering and lets us look in upon the rotten heart of a certain style of city life. We have looked inside this house at 31 Bond Street with loathing. We see the bitter end of a man’s career, his very life, which came about when he traded the sweet caresses of domestic purity for the polluting caresses of a ‘black-hearted woman.'” – from 31 Bond Street, page 128 –
My favorite part of the novel was the trial itself. I purposefully did not read the true account because I did not want to know the outcome of the trial until I read it in the book. And I’m glad I did that as it made the novel more suspenseful and captivating for me.
Thematically, Horan explores the role of women in nineteenth century society, the racial undertones which reverberated in the pre-Civil war era, and the impact of the press in criminal cases. Her ability to intertwine all of these themes with the core plot of the book makes this not only a crime fiction novel, but an historical fiction book that brings this time in history to life.
If you have not yet figured it out, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel from start to finish. Readers who love historical fiction and also enjoy a good mystery or crime novel, will want to pick up a copy of this book and read it. 31 Bond Street is impeccably researched and expertly written.
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*FTC Disclosure: I received this novel from the publisher for review on my blog.