In Molly Murphy’s world, women don’t become detectives. They marry and stay home, or they take one of a handful of respectable jobs until they find someone to marry.
But Molly isn’t one to play by the rules. When we were first introduced to her in Murphy’s Law, she killed a potential rapist and fled to America, where she had to use her wits to make her own way in the new world. Oh, and, you know, she managed to solve a murder along the way.
This time around, in Death of Riley, our gal has realized her knack for investigations, and wants to get into business helping the families of immigrants locate their loved ones. After spotting private investigator Paddy Riley snooping around during her brief tenure as an elderly lady’s companion, Molly finds his office and talks her way into an assistant’s job.
But then, surprise surprise, there’s a murder, and Molly must solve it. The policeman on the case doesn’t seem to care much about finding the killer, and she’s hit a rough patch with Captain Hotstuff — er, Daniel Sullivan — of the NYPD so she is pretty much on her own in a world where proper ladies are supposed to faint at talk of murder, not jump in and look for the perp.
This time around, Molly’s investigation takes her to the artist culture of Greenwich Village, where she becomes fast friends with two women, known as Sid and Gus (their real names are Elena Miriam Hepsibah and Augustus Mary Walcott, respectively), who are dear friends — the sort of friends who remain unmarried and share a bedroom, wink wink nudge nudge. Molly also makes the acquaintance of playwright Ryan O’Hare, who is known to prefer the company of young men. So we get a little queer representation in the series, even if it does mostly remain couched in the sort of language that would have been used in 1901.
Ryan introduces Molly to none other than Emma Goldman, the famed anarchist. This is one of many times this series incorporates actual historical events for the purposes of storytelling — in this case also fictionalizing Leon Czolgosz and his assassination of President McKinley.
Working the stories around real events is what makes this series so delightful to me. The first book did mention some things — the opening of Ellis Island, the construction of the subway, and so on — but aligning with something monumental like an assassination adds something interesting and special to the story. This book is where the Molly Murphy series really starts to find itself, perhaps because the city setting is more consistent, and much like in the first installment, Bowen constructs authentic-feeling relationships between well-developed characters.