Book World: Ellen Horan's '31 Bond Street,' reviewed by Clare Clark

By Clare Clark
Saturday, May 22, 2010; C08


By Ellen Horan

Harper. 352 pp. $25.99

In 1857, just four years before the outbreak of the Civil War, New York City was convulsed by the revelation of a brutal murder committed in its midst. A prosperous and apparently respectable dentist, Harvey Burdell, had been stabbed and his throat slit in the bedroom of his townhouse at 31 Bond St. The other occupants of the house were detained under house arrest, and a coroner's jury rapidly assembled to question them in the dead man's parlor. There were no witnesses to the crime and virtually no clues, but it was not long before suspicion settled on Burdell's housekeeper, a young and beautiful widow by the name of Emma Cunningham. Day after day, Bond Street was gridlocked with spectators hoping to catch a glimpse of her, while lurid descriptions of the crime dominated the front pages of newspapers across the country.

Once considered the crime of the century, Burdell's murder is now almost forgotten, buried beneath the foundations of the now-demolished townhouses of Bond Street. Ellen Horan stumbled upon it by chance when she came across an old periodical at a vintage print shop in SoHo. As her investigations widened, the book she had initially considered a nonfiction study evolved into her first novel, "31 Bond Street." The story is a blend of historical evidence and fictional imagining, an engrossing read that gains much from the author's historical acuity while making no compromises on narrative pace.

Horan writes eloquently of the rapidly expanding city, contrasting the bustle of the downtown streets and the mansion-building frenzy on Fifth Avenue with the orchards and kitchen gardens of Greenwich Village, where woods tangled with brambles still separated the dwellings from the river. Here, as warehouses and factories crept ever closer, Native Americans endeavored to live as they had always lived, and fugitive slaves evaded capture. Meanwhile, across the water, Brooklyn was still farmland; Elizabeth, N.J., little more than a reed-choked swamp.

Like those burgeoning warehouses, the modern city constantly encroaches on Horan's tale: the hustle for economic advantage, the sensationalist press, the fascination with gruesome crimes, the conflicts of race and gender. Horan's New York is also profoundly corrupt. Dandyish District Attorney Abraham Oakey Hall has his sights set on the mayor's office, and he wants a swift resolution to the investigation of this grisly murder. He's quick to identify Emma Cunningham -- rumored to be engaged to the dead man -- as Burdell's killer. He has not, however, bargained on the intervention of Henry Clinton, a brilliant defense lawyer who risks his career and reputation to prove Emma's innocence and save her from the gallows.

Emma is vividly drawn, a woman determined to protect herself and her two daughters from destitution and only too aware of the limited powers she possesses. No idealized heroine, she is clear-eyed, pragmatic to her fingertips, her predicament that of so many respectable 19th-century women, entirely dependent for their survival upon effecting an advantageous marriage. The extent of her predicament raises the central question of the novel: How far might she be prepared to go to keep herself and her children from being cast out on the street?

Although Emma arouses our sympathy, Henry Clinton, her lawyer, is the true center of the novel. Intelligent, honorable and profoundly in love, he's determined to save Emma, and we long for her to be innocent for his sake, even as we're forced to acknowledge that she had both motive and opportunity. It's not easy to breathe life into real-life characters, especially when quoting their words extensively from reported sources, but Cunningham and Clinton live on the page as freshly as if they had stepped, new-minted, from Horan's vivid imagination.

Clark's latest novel is "Savage Lands."

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