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Monday, 23 May 2011

Book Review: 31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan

It's with a little trepidation that I write this review. After all, the book is actually very good in many important ways. However, I just couldn't feel the enthusiasm for it that I wanted to.

31 Bond Street draws on the real-life murder of Dr Harvey Burdell in New York in 1857. Horan's focus is on Henry Clinton, the lawyer who takes on the case of housekeeper, Emma Cunningham, when she is arrested and charged with the murder. The action is split between the court case and the events leading up to the murder, meaning that there are several principle characters over the course of the book.

Horan's ingenuity is evident in the invocation of the New York setting, detailed at just the right level of specific, and the use of the chapters set prior to the murder. She unravels the mess of Burdell's life in the past as she shows Henry Clinton's efforts to save his client in the present. This certainly prevents the court proceedings from becoming stale, as something revealed in a flashback chapter directly influences the way the reader approaches the following chapters. However, one criticism I have of the structure is the book is that it doesn't start consistently from the beginning of the book. While I understand the need to immerse the reader in the murder and detail Henry Clinton getting involved in the case, when the novel does settle down to a structure which draws on the past to influence the perception of the present, I found myself a little disorientated. However, this could easily have been a personal reaction, because the chapters were well-labelled and you're aware of where you are in the narrative timeline.

I suppose my main criticism of the novel stems from the Daily Mail review excerpt quoted on the cover which suggests that it's a book for those who enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. I don't think it is. Summerscale documents a murder in an analytical but very readable manner. Horan reproduces the fact of the Burdell murder and uses several real-life figures from the case to tell her tale. However, she creates several characters and alters the timing of the marriage of Henry Clinton in order to give him a wife to complement him and assist him. The extent of her fictional liberties are explained in an author's note towards the end, but I think if I'd gone into the book knowing about them it would've made my reading experience a lot more enjoyable. By comparing the novel with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the front cover conveys something which the book can't live up to because it wasn't trying to. Horan takes a mysterious case and makes a story out of it. If she'd framed it completely as a work of fiction, it would've been a fantastic read. As it was, the blend between historical fact and fiction didn't sit well with me.

I will say, though, that Horan's depiction of her invented characters was exceptional. Looking back at the end, I'd noticed that two of the characters I'd felt most affinity with were fictional inventions - Clinton's wife, Elisabeth, and Burdell's driver, Samuel. Those two were fully-fleshed out and a joy to read about. I'm not sure if Horan struggled to paste personalities onto real-life people but I certainly came out of the book with a stronger sense of who the fictional Elisabeth Clinton was than her real-life husband.

All in all, I failed to enjoy this book because I went into it with different expectations. Try reading the author's note before you get started and you might have a completely different experience.

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