A late Victorian murder is a classic framing for a mystery novel, and Victoria Thompson has made a career of providing interesting variations on the formula. Her Murder on Pleasant Avenue is the latest in the author’s “A Gaslight Mystery” series. It also gives something of the game away in the title. Specifically, that there is a murder. While that is common enough in mystery novels, the first crimes the reader learns about, and that the investigators focus on, are something else entirely.
At the start of the book the primary problem is a series of kidnappings, performed by a group called the Black Hand. The relatively decentralized nature of these crimes is discussed briefly; however as one specific sect is being dealt with, treating the organization as a unified whole it is still the standard in the book. While one woman has recently been recovered, another young woman working in a relatively charitable capacity is missing and presumed as another kidnapping victim, albeit with much more difficult motives to discern. Immediately detectives Frank and Gino begin looking into the matter, particularly since the people of Italian immigrant community, where these crimes have been happening, are quite afraid of the police. The problem only becomes more complex as, when found, the local ringleader for the kidnappings insists that no such thing had happened and that the girl they asked about is fine. He further insists that she will be seen again before long, and indeed she does reappear soon after with a very different story from most of the kidnapped individuals. Sights and sounds, as well as a number of oddities related to her behavior, lead to questions as to what really happened to the woman.
Already this little twist and turn will place the book as an interesting mystery for many readers, but it is not long before the crime boss in question is found dead in an apartment. Further, Gino, who finds the body, also quickly finds a police officer has already been dispatched to the apartment, and the racist officer quickly makes assumptions as to the guilty party. Frank begins trying to solve the crime, and finds a number of difficulties due to the many biases and fears of those in New York, both in the Italian immigrant community and otherwise. The question quickly arises as to who might have more specific motivations to kill the man, with everyone from former victims and their loved ones, to partners in crime, to the dead man’s own wife seeming extremely likely suspects.
Frank, with the help of Maeve, a local midwife, and a number of other allies quickly begins to try to sort out who the most likely culprits are in the matter of the death, and just how tangled that particular web might be.
This volume focuses a great deal on the particulars of turn of the century Italian immigrant communities in New York and the peculiarities that might come with solving crimes related to them. The flat-out distrust of the police in immigrant communities is examined, particularly distrust of the police and of outsiders in general. At one point an amusing aside is given to the former Theodore Roosevelt, who has found himself in the position of vice presidential candidate and is pitied for it by reform-minded characters. While this sentiment is all true enough to history for the time, those who know the course of events will undoubtedly find this humorous in the extreme.
As this book relates to organized crime and kidnapping, the problem of sexual assault comes up more than once. Overall this is dealt with respectfully, showing women’s reactions to these violations both as victims of the crime and of a society that would blame them for it. The narrative presentation is more than respectful, and such actions were more than likely in such abductions, yet it might still be more disturbing in some ways than a reader going in expecting a cozy mystery would appreciate.
After the plot itself a note comes from the author in which she discusses the history of Italian-American communities in relation to these types of crimes, the Black Hand, and Victoria Thompson’s own family history. It is an interesting read, as a reminder of how involved and personal the writer finds many of the concepts within. For those curious about the historical background it also provides names of individuals and organizations who are well worth researching.
The focus on the Italian immigrant community in New York has the added benefit of allowing this particular story to more or less stand on its own. Past character interactions and events are referenced, however none of them make a reader feel lost. Instead the references merely make the world feel more lived in, a combination of factors building up the lives of those involved.
Overall this represents another wonderful entry into the “Gaslight Mystery” series, with the same lovable characters and careful plotting the books are known for. The use of historical factors to build a particular mystery is always a nice treat, and the issues of Gino, Frank, Maeve, and other characters recurring and not. There is romantic teasing, love proper, and a mix of different historical and personal motivations. An easy book to recommend to most mystery readers.