Murder in the North End
Murder in the North End is the fifth book in P.B. Ryan’s Nell Sweeney mystery series set in post-Civil War Boston. While this series has been generally quite enjoyable overall, this new installment is weaker than the others, and the lack of romantic denouement feels forced.
Nell Sweeney is still acting as a governess/substitute mother to her beloved charge, Gracie, and her role in the Hewitt family has expanded a bit with the pretend engagement she has concocted with Will Hewitt, the oldest son – a ruse necessary to legitimize the amount of time they spend together. Their relationship is at a bit of a stalemate, however, since Nell is still legally attached to Duncan Sweeney and won’t consider divorce for religious reasons. But that doesn’t stop Will from jumping at the chance to help Nell clear the name of her friend, Colin Cook.
Detective Cook, the rare Irish cop in Boston and an honest man to boot, has been a good friend to Nell, so when she learns that he supposedly murdered a ne’er-do-well named Johnny Cassidy, she immediately wants to get to the bottom of it. Her investigation leads her into the North End’s dark dens of sin, a place not at all suitable or safe for a lady. It’s a good thing, then, that Will is more than willing to look after her and lend her his arm…and perhaps even more.
Much of what is good about this series’ previous novels is still good. The setting, Gilded Age, xenophobic Boston, is an interesting one, and Nell is an intrepid heroine with a strong moral compass and a deep sense of compassion. There is very good chemistry between Nell and Will, and Ryan writes smoothly. The story is a quick and easy read, and I found it an enjoyable way to spend an evening.
But. Yes, unfortunately, there are several buts here. To begin with, the mystery here is hardly complex or even terribly compelling. Nell and Will poke around and ask questions of a bunch of stunningly forthright witnesses until the mystery more or less solves itself. That’s it. In some mysteries the process of sleuthing is filled either with character development or with interesting observations about life or humanity. Neither appears here. The secondary characters introduced here aren’t as interesting as those in previous installments, with the exception, perhaps, of Brian O’Donagh, the head of the Fraternal Order of the Sons of Eire, an organization that supposedly protects Irish interests in Boston, but really acts in a mafia-like capacity.
Additionally there is no real character growth for either Nell or Will. Will was a more interesting character earlier in this series when he was morally ambiguous and still somewhat inscrutable. Now it’s obvious he’s completely hung up on Nell. This gives him little to do but show up periodically to squire Nell about while she sleuths…and give her sideways longing glances.
Ryan is dragging her feet in bringing this relationship to a head. In this installment, the series’ central conflict – what keeps Nell and Will apart – morphs from being primarily internal to being primarily external. This, unfortunately, makes it much less interesting and much more cliché. It is obvious now that in order for this to be resolved someone is going to have to die, but no one appears to be at death’s door at this juncture. As a reader I’m losing patience. I don’t need my mysteries to be chock full of bedroom gymnastics, but I’m starting to wonder if these two crazy kids are ever going to get it on.
Finally, this book, more than any other in this series, has more of a romance novel feel to it than a mystery one. Outside of the Nell-Will relationship, it lacks any sort of ambiguity. By book’s end all of the problems, large or small, that have cropped up throughout have been solved with the bad getting punished and the good being rewarded. To say this feels forced is an understatement.
Murder in the North End ends with a cliffhanger that will probably keep me reading Nell Sweeney’s adventures, but at this point I’ve given up hoping for a happy ending for Nell and Will in the foreseeable future. Given that, I can only hope that the next installment in this series is stronger in the mystery department and that we will see something that will force either Nell or Will out of their too comfortable roles.