Victoria Thompson’s “Murder on Sisters’ Row”

I sometimes think the hardest thing for a writer of historical mysteries, particularly when the protagonist is a woman, is to give the woman the freedom and ability to get out and garner information in order to solve the crime du livre. Victoria Thompson’s Murder on Sisters’ Row, makes use of the social and cultural restrictions on men and women in the Gaslight period to facilitate her characters sleuthing.
Sarah Brandt, the amateur detective in Thompson’s series is a midwife in New York City. She was born to an elite family but married “down” and learned the trade of midwifery. She is a widow with a daughter she adopted after her husband’s death and a nanny who stands in the stead of a daughter as well (Murder on Mulberry Bend.) Her job takes her all over New York and introduces her into the lives of people spanning the economic spectrum. She is a liminal character. She belongs in no place but is everyplace. She is associated with numerous classes by dint of birth and connection and employment. Her gender restricts her from personally engaging in certain actions but her relationships with various male characters allows her to use them vicariously to get to where she needs to be.
In Murder on Sisters’ Row, Sarah delivers a baby for a young woman in a brothel. The young woman asks for help in leaving the brothel and Sarah complies, contacting a rescue group whose mission is assisting prostitutes who are trying to escape “the life.” The mystery appears at first to be the young woman’s behavior. She is on one hand apparently terrified of the life she in in and on the other, well, a spoiled brat. Sarah is duly mystified but not engaged until later when the founder of the rescue group is murdered.
Victoria Thompson has a good handle on what women could and couldn’t do during this time period. In this book, Sarah’s detecting introduces us to the contradictory attitudes held at this period by women and men about women and their roles, women and their abilities, women and their morals, and, women and poverty. She introduces some of the contradictory attitudes about the causes of poverty and prostitution as well as the competing perspectives on remediation of those problems. Thompson uses socio-cultural forces to impel the murder in this book, social pressure that alienates and destroys and really has little to with a prostitute giving birth.
As a type A personality, I have to justify my “fun”. I think that is why I love reading historical mysteries, (or mysteries that teach me how to fix my house or brew my tea.) I learn from them while actually enjoying myself. Murder on Sisters’ Row provided me with food for thought regarding how we consider women and sexuality and whether “now” is really different from “then”. It has also made me consider the blame attributed, and damage done, to innocent bystanders associated with one who has done harm to others.
I recommend Murder on Sisters’ Row, it is well written, you’ll enjoy figuring out “who dun it”, and, if you so desire, you can get some mental exercise at the same time.

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