Archive for the ‘1880s’ Category

In all ages, the ‘elite’ have their own way of living, their own HouseOfThievesmoral code, their own mannerisms, their own etiquette. However, there is no era in which these rules and regulations were more evident than in 1880s New York City. Even if you were tangentially related to wealth, you had to abide by certain rules and those differed if you were ‘old money’ or ‘new money’. But one thing is certain: if your name is tarnished, you will be disowned in a flash. So, when John Cross, successful architect and friends with Stanford White among others, and a reasonably close relative of the Astors, finds himself in a bind, he’s not sure what to do.

It seems that his son, George, a recent Harvard graduate, has accumulated a sizable gambling debt that he’s unable to pay. The man he owes, James Kent, a well respected New York socialite whose sideline happens to be crime, upon hearing that George’s father is an architect, presents John Cross with a proposal–in exchange for sparing George’s life, Cross will assist in the planning of robberies of buildings and homes he designed. A percentage of the proceeds will go towards paying off George’s debt. Of course, Cross feels like he has no choice. Thus begins a great book by Charles Belfoure, House of Thieves, author of The Paris Architect.

ParisArchitectI heard Belfoure speak at Book Expo and he mentioned he always wondered what a life of crime would be like.  An architect by profession, he thought this would be the perfect way to marry these two professions. However, he also said that the idea was not original, but had come from the life of George Leslie. The headline in the Daily Beast of October 19, 2014 states “The High Society Bank Robber of the 1800s: He was wealthy, a member of New York City society, and a patron of the arts. And he was also the secret mastermind behind the biggest bank heists of his day.” Leslie was also an architect by profession.

However, while I admit there is a lot of drama and tension regarding the events of the book, the real treat is Belfoure’s description of the Manhattan of the late 1880s, the tenements, the grand houses of the rich, the vacant land and farms above 80th Street. It is inconceivable to me that parents who could not care for their children would throw them out onto the streets to make their own way in the world as pickpockets, newsies, etc. The piss and manure that lined tenements streets is contrasted by the opulence of the mansions along Madison Square.

The squalor of the poor is described against the huge amounts of money spent on Julia, Cross’ daughter’s, coming out party. No expense was spared–as it was paid for by her Aunt Caroline (Astor). Belfoure goes on to explore women’s roles at the time–Julia was being groomed to marry someone of her social class and her desire to go to college and write a novel were smirked at. The mother’s and grandmother’s roles were to educate Julia regarding proper etiquette, provide here with piano lessons and enough education to enable her to converse with eligible bachelors.

There’s a psychological element to the book as well. Cross was armed forces age during the Civil War and the law allowed the wealthy to pay a substitute to serve in the army. Cross’ family having the means, did just that (as did George Leslie’s family). But Cross always wondered whether he had courage enough to do something dangerous.

All in all, House of Thieves is good on so many levels. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

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June 1887 was one of the hottest and driest on record. AJuneOfOrdinaryMurdersNo breeze. No rain. Excessive heat. The city of Dublin was abuzz with activity, preparing for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Celebration and a visit by Princes Albert Victor and George. The Dublin police force was busy making sure the city was secure, with rarely a man to spare. It was Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow of the Dublin Metropolitan Police G-Division who, on Friday, June 17, caught the murder that took place in Chapelizod Gate. a young man in his twenties along side a young boy aged approximately 8-9 years old. They were shot at close range and their faces were marred to delay identity. With no identifying papers, identification could takes weeks.

It was three days later, on Monday, June 20, that a young girl, aged approximately 20 was found under a barge in the locks in the Grand Canal. Her head was bashed in and she was virtually unrecognizable. Could the three murders be related? Having botched a previous murder investigation, Swallow needs a quick and satisfactory conclusion to these murders. But of course, he is blocked on multiple fronts.

Brady’s debut novel is one of the best mysteries I’ve read this year. A combination of murder mystery and historical novel, he provides a reasonable explanation of the political situation in Dublin at the time…many Dubliners’ dissatisfaction with the Queen, the residue of the famine 40 years previous still impacting life in Ireland, the tensions between landowner and tenant farmer.

The 1880s also brought with it the beginnings of forensic investigation. There were experiments with facial reconstruction based on facial bones and muscles. Investigative technicians were able to determine whether a specific bullet came from a specific gun based on the grooves in the bullet. And the uniqueness of fingerprints was being researched. Crime scenes must be kept pure. (An early version of CSI?) Brady brings all of these into play in A June of Ordinary Murders.

He makes the extreme heat and discomfort palpable to the readers. Readers will feel like they are alongside Swallow, his ‘book man” Mossop (think Harry Bosch’s murder book), and fellow officers. Swallow is a mystery lover’s policeman. The law is the law and it must be obeyed, but he’ll stretch the limits of the law in order to get his man (and suffer the consequences…which we may see, if there’s a sequel, which I certainly hope there is). A June of Ordinary Murders was quite the satisfying read. I highly recommend it for all mystery lovers.

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