By Rhys Bowen; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
As 1906 closes in on Christmas, Molly Murphy Sullivan is feeling all the losses, darknesses and uncertainties of the year.
She survived the San Francisco earthquake and her husband’s frequent absences as he worked on special projects for the U.S. Secret Service. She had a miscarriage and can’t shake away the blues.
She’d love nothing better for the holidays than staying in her own Greenwich Village home with her husband New York Police Capt. Daniel Sullivan, their son Liam and ward Bridie O’Connor, celebrating with their neighbors.
But Christmas plans spin like snowflakes: first, Molly and her family are going to spend Christmas with her mother-in-law in Westchester, who is recovering from pneumonia; then the elder Mrs. Sullivan is invited by her long-time friend Florence Lind to join her for the holidays at Miss Lind’s niece’s Hudson River mansion, Greenbriars. In the end, Molly, Daniel, Liam and Bridie are invited to come along as well.
Molly soon discovers that Christmas at the Van Aiken mansion is no jolly house party. When he sees the large, square, grey stone mansion, Daniel compares it to the prison at Ossining, a few miles away. It’s Florence who greets them, not their hostess Winnie Van Aiken.
After they settle in and return downstairs, they meet the other members of the household. Addled Great-Aunt Clara Van Aiken is eager for more sherry. A fierce-looking older man drinking whiskey is introduced as Winnie’s father Mr. Carmichael. Winnie greets them. Eventually, the stuffy, Germanic host, Cedric Van Aiken joins them.
Despite the Christmas tree, falling snow and sleigh rides, there are disturbing undercurrents in the Van Aiken household. Both Daniel and Molly believe that Winnie is afraid of her husband. Aunt Clara repeatedly mistakes people for others from the past and is harshly shut down by Cedric or Mr. Carmichael. Molly learns that the Van Aikens had a daughter, Charlotte, who disappeared from the house when she was two. It happened 10 years earlier around Christmas — explaining some of Winnie’s depression.
On Christmas Eve, as family and guests are decorating the Christmas tree and preparing to sing carols, there’s a knock at the front door. When a maid answers it, the girl standing there tells her that she is Charlotte.
But is she or isn’t she? She certainly resembles Winnie, but her story has as many holes as lace.
There are many unexpected turns in this story. It’s an engaging mystery with no gore or violence. The delightful traditions of a turn-of-the-century holiday form a lovely backdrop to the mystery.
The full Molly Murphy series so far is as follows:
- MURPHY’S LAW
- DEATH OF RILEY
- FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE
- IN LIKE FLYNN
- OH, DANNY BOY
- IN DUBLIN’S FAIR CITY
- TELL ME, PRETTY MAIDEN
- IN A GILDED CAGE
- THE LAST ILLUSION
- BLESS THE BRIDE
- HUSH NOW, DON’T YOU DRY
- THE FAMILY WAY
- CITY OF DARKNESS AND LIGHT
- THE EDGE OF DREAMS
- WAY IN A MANAGER
- TIME OF FOG AND FIRE
- THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST
- WILD IRISH ROSE
- ALL THAT IS HIDDEN
The Author: Rhys Bowen (1941 – )
Rhys Bowen is the pen name of Janet Quin-Harkin. She is the award-winning author of more than 40 novels She has written three historical mystery series: the Constable Evan Evans mysteries; the Molly Murphy mysteries; and the Royal Spyness series.
The Evan Evans series features a young police constable who has traded city life for that of Lalanfair, a Welsh village in the Snowdonia mountain range. His new neighbors include two competitive ministers, a lascivious barmaid and three other Evanses.
The Molly Murphy series features an Irish immigrant woman in turn-of-the-century New York City. There are 17 books today in the series.
The Royal Spyness series features Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, 34th in line for the throne and dead broke in the Great Depression after her brother cuts off her allowance.
She has also written historical, stand-alone novels, including ABOVE THE BAY OF ANGELS, IN FARLEIGH FIELD, THE VICTORY GARDEN, THE TUSCAN CHILD and THE VENICE SKETCHBOOK.
Born in Bath, England, Bowen was educated at London University. She worked in the drama department of the BBC in London and later for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in Sydney.
Her first book was published by Bantam in 1981 as part of the Sweet Dreams series. She began writing mystery stories in the 1990s under the name Rhys Bowen.
She now divides her time between California and Arizona.