Still Life with Murder
I am not a very big mystery reader, mostly because the journey is more important to me than the end result. But Still Life with Murder, the first of a new historical mystery series by romance author Patricia Ryan, managed to engage me as a mystery and as a character study. The mystery unfolds as the reader gets to know the many surprising facets of governess Nell Sweeney and accused murderer Will Hewitt.
Nell Sweeney is a governess with a shadowed past. At the age of 22 she is acting as nurse when she is discovered by the wealthy Boston Brahmin, Viola Hewitt. Viola takes an interest in her and offers her the position of governess – a job that is in every way a step up for Nell. Raising Viola’s adopted daughter becomes the most satisfying endeavor of her life, and Viola herself spoils Nell with presents and a luxurious life. So when news comes to the Hewitt house that Viola’s eldest son, William, did not die at Andersonville prison, and has been, in fact, arrested for the murder of a man, Nell cannot deny Viola’s request to help her get Will out of jail and proven innocent. Nell, as a governess, is in the perfect position to move freely at all levels of society and get to the bottom of what happened.
In doing so, however, Nell finds herself using the knowledge and skills of lower society, which makes her uncomfortable. She has been making herself over slowly and surely into a respectable woman, and she wants to forget where and from whom she came, not expose herself to it again. And Will Hewitt himself is an affront to her. She finds him in jail, covered in blood, unwilling to say anything about what happened and in the throes of opium withdrawal. Yet Nell is attracted to him. Will has the looks, bearing, intelligence, grace, and charm of a gentleman, but he is also dissolute, chemically dependent, cynical, and unrepentant. How can she respect a man who had everything she’s ever wanted and threw it all away?
The highlight of this book is the palpable chemistry between Nell and Will. They begin to peel layers off each other from the very first conversation. Nell is determined to free Will, and he is just as determined to go to the gallows, though he will not admit that he committed the murder. He would prefer her to keep her nose out of his business, but can’t help but admire her persistence and intelligence. The sensuality rating for this book is N/A, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any sexual tension. There’s oodles of that, thank you very much, Ms. Ryan.
The historical backdrop of Gilded Age Boston was quite interesting. In the course of her investigation, Nell interacts with both ends of the social spectrum – the glittering Brahmin world she admires and the dockside squalor she escaped. Ryan seamlessly includes the history of the city and the details of this particular era into her narrative. Readers who prefer not to know the grittier details of prostitution and addiction might be uncomfortable with some of Nell’s clue hunting, but I found it all fascinating. I’d never imagined that smoking an opium pipe was such a complicated process.
The mystery itself is well done, and the murderer’s identity was surprising. Nell works both with and against fellow Irishman Detective Cook to discover what exactly happened that night. Cook is an interesting character, and I do hope he will be included in future installments of this series. The Hewitt family has surprising depths as well. The dynamic between Viola and her husband August is also not what it first seems. It is likely that further family secrets will come to light as this series progresses.
The only apparent lack of characterization was that of Gracie, Nell’s small charge. Since Nell spends almost the entire book tracking down who the killer is, she and Gracie do not have much time together. So the reader doesn’t get to see Nell in her governess role much and the strength of the bond between Nell and Gracie is more stated than shown.
Still Life with Murder was a highly entertaining book with a well-drawn pair of characters who have both sparkling chemistry and conversation. I’m looking forward to more Nell Sweeney mysteries. Patricia Ryan is a new name to me as a reader, and since I will have to wait for more Golden Age Boston adventures, I will be tracking down her backlist in the meantime.