Email this review


In Who Murdered Mary Rogers? (1971), Paul took a neat, shrewd, non-fiction approach to the minute reconstruction of a 19th-century true-crime case. Here, however, he tries to do more of the same in fiction form--and, despite a sprightly style, the results are stiff and tepid, without the tension and color which Julian Symons (among others) has brought to the true-crime novel. The first third of the book is nearly all padding (with Paul wearing his research on his sleeve), as young narrator/journalist David Cordor arrives in 1835 Manhattan; snares a job at the Sun; meets fabled attorney Lon Quinncannon (who reminisces through some famous cases); engages in some newspaper-rivalry pranks; and falls for beauteous prostitute Helen Jewett (there's an encounter at the theater and one night of love). At long last, then, comes the Thomas St. horror itself: Helen is found axed to death in her bawdy-house boudoir, and her favorite gent--young clerk Richard Robinson, a rake with a shady past whom Helen was blackmailing--is promptly arrested. But, though the evidence against Robinson is hefty, defense attorney Quincannon and reporter David (somewhat à la Holmes and Watson) chew over other theories and quiz other suspects--especially Helen's colleagues at the brothel. And finally there's the trial: transcript-like stretches of courtroom chat about each particle of evidence; revelations of police skulduggery; and an unsurprising unmasking of the culprit. Paul tries hard to texture the dry and not-very-interesting crime puzzle here--with detailed Old New York atmosphere, with comical dramatization of the period's outrageous journalism, with a romance between David and demure Sophia Willett, quasi-fiancÉe of the defendant. But the main players in the mystery never come alive, and this talky, overlong ""historical novel of murder"" fails to draw much excitement from the reexamination of dusty clues.

Pub Date: March 2nd, 1982
Publisher: Viking