Location, location, location: The most basic element of any New York story is its address. Hallie Ephron’s “There Was An Old Woman” is a New York suspense story set in an extraordinary outer-borough neighborhood that will stay with readers long after other plot details fade away. “Higgs Point” is a lost corner of the Bronx, a spit of land that juts out into a salt marsh. These days, the marsh exudes a funky odor, and the “little shotgun houses” original to the community are nothing grand, but the view — “across the East River and Long Island Sound, and on to the Manhattan skyline” — outshines even the one from Jay Gatsby’s windows in West Egg. Of course, Higgs Point is a fictional place. If it were real, New York City power broker Robert Moses would’ve leveled it — as he did so much of the Bronx after World War II — and paved it over with highways and co-op apartment towers.
For those who love Gotham and abhor gore, “There Was An Old Woman” is the perfect thriller lite. Our heroine, Evie Ferrante, grew up in Higgs Point but hightailed it into Manhattan as soon as she reached adulthood: Now she holds down a prestigious job as a curator at the (also fictional) Five-Boroughs Historical Society. When the novel opens, she’s at work in a sub-sub-basement of the Empire State Building, supervising the retrieval of an engine from the (actual) B-25 bomber that slammed into the skyscraper, setting it afire, in 1945. Evie is putting together an exhibit at the Historical Society on famous New York City fires, such as the Great Fire of 1776 that roared through Lower Manhattan and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Before Evie can put the finishing touches on her displays, a blast from her own past intrudes. Her older sister, Ginger, sends her an urgent text saying that their mother, a sickly alcoholic, has been rushed to a hospital in the Bronx with a dislocated shoulder. Ginger is fed up with being the primary caretaker, and, so, this time round, it falls to Evie to return to Higgs Point and take on the burden.
What Evie encounters in her mother’s bungalow is a textbook illustration of Freud’s theory of the uncanny: the sense that something can be strange and familiar at the same time. Since Evie last visited four months ago, weeds have sprouted “higher than an elephant’s eye” in the front yard. Inside the kitchen, “The counters were stacked with boxes and cans. Cat food? Her mother didn’t even like cats, and yet there were dozens of empty cans of it. A trio of small black moths fluttered in front of her. . . . [A] dozen more were resting on the ceiling and when Evie opened the cabinet where her mother had always kept cereal and crackers, more flew out.”
Just as weird is the fact that some of the cottages on Higgs Point have been demolished overnight — when their owners, often elderly, conveniently died. As Evie shuttles between her mother’s hospital room and her strange childhood home, this thriller also shuttles between her point of view and that of a neighbor, 90-year-old Mina, who’s as sharp as the spire atop the Chrysler Building. Mina tells Evie that something fishy — apart from that odoriferous salt marsh — is in the air at Higgs Point. When Mina herself takes a bad tumble, Evie must figure things out fast before another slice of olde New York — and its inhabitants — goes up in smoke.
Ephron interweaves imagined and real New York City history in this tale and, though the pattern is sometimes contrived, the overall effect is quaintly suspenseful. Mina, we’re told, was a young clerk working at the Empire State Building on that fateful morning in July 1945. After the bomber crashed into the building, she and her friend, “Betty,” were hustled by rescuers into a damaged elevator. Mina is a fiction, but “Betty” is based on the real Betty Lou Oliver, an elevator operator who was burned in the fire and was, indeed, placed inside an elevator whose cables were frayed. On the way down, those cables snapped, and Oliver plunged 75 stories to the basement of the Empire State Building. She survived (the fallen cables and compressed air cushioned her landing). Oliver, who died in 1994, holds the Guinness World Record for the longest survived elevator crash. But here’s the best part: Five months after her free fall, she returned to the Empire State Building and rode the elevator again, all the way up and back down again! Particularly in New York stories, fact is often stranger than fiction.
Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches a course on New York literature at Georgetown University.