A thoughtful debut mystery that tells the story of the fractured relationship of a Cincinnati father and daughter as they confront a series of murders during the 1918 flu epidemic.
Nora Muldoon, the head nurse of ward K2 at Cincinnati General Hospital, treats increasing numbers of patients suffering from the flu, which can turn into deadly pneumonia for the most unfortunate. One hundred patients die in two days, filling the morgue beyond capacity. Nora cares for her patients as well as for her younger brother, Tommy, who suffers from a cleft palate and a harelip. Nora helps to hide him from the world and hopes to one day have enough money to get him surgery to correct his disfiguring conditions. Nora’s fiance, Dr. Stephan Gehring, is not in favor of her plan, but, for unclear reasons, he doesn’t tell anyone else about Tommy. Nora’s and Tommy’s father, policeman Buck Muldoon, believes that Tommy died long ago in a fire at the local insane asylum. Meanwhile, Buck and Nora have trouble letting go of past grievances and tragedies that have led to their estrangement. Death hangs over the story as characters fall to illness or are murdered by a serial killer, the Cincinnati Slasher, who preys on pregnant women. Frequent flashbacks, when poorly handled, can be jarring to a narrative, but Penfield skillfully takes the reader back and forth in time with smooth, effortless transitions. The prose is sparse, yet rich in details vital to the mystery. The story’s violent but unsatisfying conclusion, however, may leave readers with more questions than answers. That said, the character’s well-handled back stories dominate this sad, mysterious tale, showing them as flawed, sympathetic individuals.
An ambitious, if uneven, historical mystery.