7 p.m., May 13. R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison. $5. (203) 245-3959, rjjulia.com
Sometimes, what you really want is a historical thriller. Something like The Alienist, Caleb Carr’s 1994 tour de force. That was a historical thriller that was so perfectly put together it took your breath away — 19th century New York was a sick and fascinating place, and Carr never let you forget it.
Ellen Horan’s first novel, 31 Bond Street, is this year’s attempt to seduce fans of The Alienist. The book looks promising. It’s based on a true story, always a good thing: Emma Cunningham, a boarder with her two children in the home of Harvey Burdell, a wealthy New York dentist, is accused of murdering Burdell. On hearing the accusation, she produces a marriage certificate: She wasn’t merely a boarder in the home of Dr. Harvey Burdell; she was his wife. Mercenary, yes, but not a murderess. Cunningham is saved by the efforts of an attorney who forms his own firm in order to represent her. Henry Clinton’s work on Cunningham’s behalf saved her from life in prison, but the rest of her days were rather wretched, judging by this fictional account, as well as various articles I’ve read on the subject. Burdell’s murder remains unsolved.
Horan takes a few understandable liberties with the Burdell case in order to make the book move more smoothly — she does not, for example, draw Cunningham’s family accurately (she had several more children than the two in the novel), but these liberties do not, in the end, benefit the book tremendously, and I found myself wishing she’d strained for greater accuracy. The book moved slowly, and I was never able to make myself care about the descriptions of filthy streets and Cunningham’s fantasies about eventual grandeur. The sacrifice of accuracy for the sake of making a book move faster, I understand. But dropping accuracy and still moving as slow as this — that’s just frustrating.
Perhaps I‘m out of practice. I imagine this would be a fabulous book to take on vacation — to read on the airplane, on the beach, while stretched out in a hammock — but sitting in my house, reading in hour-long increments snatched here and there, the book just failed to hold my interest. I attribute part of it to pacing, but there were other issues that bothered me. For the most part, Horan is a solid if unremarkable stylist, but every now and then the writing just becomes leaden and bad. The problem might really be that I am nitpicky about the rules of grammar; for example, I cannot accept the following as a good sentence, or a sentence likely to be spoken by a young woman in 1857 New York: “Yes, you have trotted Helen and I around in circles, in finery and jewels, for years. I will not suffer it any longer.”
“Helen and I”?
OK, not everyone cares. Worse, though: Subtlety in storytelling is also not Horan’s forte. I’m not a bug for subtlety; I like being hit on the head with characterizations and plot twists. But I can live without bits like this, taken from a scene in which Clinton asked Cunningham why the papers care so much about the Burdell case. She says: “Because, Henry, as you like to tell me ceaselessly, our illustrious, but corrupt mayor, Fernando Wood, has so polluted our metropolis, that this city is going to hell.”
My desire to rewrite that sentence is strong.
31 Bond Street is decent, without being good, frustrating for this reader, but probably just the ticket for the aficionado of historical thrillers looking for a cheap thrill. One could do far worse.