a cozy mystery :: MURDER ON ASTOR PLACE by Victoria Thompson
In my search for cozy mysteries I discovered prolific author Victoria Thompson, who has written 15 books (so far) in her Gaslight Mysteries series. Set in early 20th century New York City, these books follow midwife Sarah Brandt as she is drawn into the investigations of mysterious deaths encountered during her work. The deciding factor in exploring this series was the NYC setting. There’s just magic in that place during that time, and I knew I would enjoy the stories if setting was allowed to be front and center. Thankfully, that is the case.
The first Gaslight title is Murder on Astor Place, and its plot is simple: a young socialite is murdered while hiding in a low-class boardinghouse and Sarah Brandt finds herself connected to the woman. While inquiring about circumstances of the crime, Sarah is drawn into the investigation by New York City detective Frank Malloy, and together they follow the leads to discover the truth. What makes the book intriguing – and what kept me reading even after encountering grammar errors and bad prose – is the detailed description of Old New York, with its crime-ridden neighborhoods, crooked police force, strict class system, and Knickerbocker families. Thompson’s imagery is vivid as she walks her characters (and readers) through the streets of NYC in the early 1900s, describing famous landmarks in their newness and beloved icons before they became legendary. The mystery often paled in comparison to the city’s varied lifestyles and burgeoning history. There were times, in fact, that I forgot a mystery was waiting to be solved! And this is really the only reason I will continue reading the titles in this series.
Murder on Astor Place came across to me as a “cozy” in the most negative sense. It’s a bit too lightweight, a bit too pretty. It’s not “fluff” but it lacks emotional depth. At first I wondered if this book was suffering from age, having been published in 1999, and then I wondered if it might have been the author’s first book. It’s not. Thompson had 20 novels published during the twelve years prior to the Gaslight Mysteries. Those are categorized as historical romances, though, so I wonder if the genre shift may have contributed to Astor Place feeling so light. I still continued to read and found a bit of groove in the final half that propelled me to the big reveal of the murderer. And despite a melodramatic ending that read like a bad Lifetime movie (imagine how bad that must be!), I still felt satisfied when reaching the conclusion. I’m also interested enough to read more Gaslight titles. I’m hoping the quality improves, and I’m hoping the main characters are further developed as the series progresses. Because, while vintage New York is endlessly fascinating and the book covers make my heart soar, I’m not sure that’s enough to wade through mysteries that are only semi-interesting. Time will tell.
NOTE: some book titles in this post are affiliate links