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31 BOND STREET
by Ellen Horan
Harper, March 2010
356 pages
$25.99
ISBN: 0061773964


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Every few years, newspapers trumpet a new Crime of the Century. In 1857 in New York City, the century's crime was the shocking murder of Dr Harvey Burdell, found with his head almost severed from his body in his elegant townhouse in Bond Street, then a neighbourhood of pleasant private residences. An attractive young widow, Emma Cunningham, who occupied the upper floor of the house with her two teen-aged daughters and acted as Burdell's "housemistress," was immediately accused of the murder, held under house arrest for a period, and finally brought to trial. She was defended by Henry Clinton, a rising lawyer, who was determined to keep her from the gallows.

These, together with the district attorney who prosecuted Emma, Abraham Oakey Hall, later to be tried for official corruption as member of the Boss Tweed Gang, are all real people, as are a few more minor characters. But others are inventions, including a black coachman, a descendent of the Lenape tribe living on the riverbank, and various representatives of the upwardly striving and quite corrupt burgeoning middle class.

In 1857, the treatment of the crime was simply sensational. Mrs Cunningham was an ambiguous figure. She was accused of being a fortune hunter, preying on a gullible and rich bachelor, of having gone through a form of marriage with a man posing as Dr Burdell (she did have the marriage lines, but the clergyman wasn't sure that he could identify either one of the parties with any certainty) and of having procured an abortion. Public opinion had her convicted before she entered the box at trial and Henry Clinton had his work cut out for him.

From the perspective of a hundred and fifty years on, Ellen Horan is able see or imagine other possibilities more interesting than a simple sordid scandal. She evokes a period in New York history that has paled in comparison to the Gilded Age that succeeded the Civil War, but one in which forces of social change were gathering to produce the modern city of the early 20th century. The city's population had increased almost tenfold since 1800, much of the increase the result of immigration. Speculation in real estate could produce substantial profits, as could involvement in the slave trade and the return of "fugitive slaves" for significant rewards. Political corruption was rife and Tammany was consolidating its grasp on city politics.

In Horan's novel, all of these strands play a role in the Burdell-Cunningham affair. Along the way, she provides a particular treat for those familiar with the modern city, reminding them of what came before - a time when Orchard Street smelt of apple blossoms in the spring and descendants of the original Native inhabitants still lived along the river banks and gathered oysters. If a major weakness of the novel is its failure to present a coherent interpretation of beleaguered Emma Cunningham, it is not altogether surprising. The real main character here is the city itself, contradictory, infuriating, violent, striving, and endlessly fascinating, and Horan does very well by it.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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