Lively and colorful, full of absorbing historical detail and delightful characters, Tell Me, Pretty Maiden is another gem in Rhys Bowen's multiple award-winning series.
It's wintertime in New York, and for the first time since Irish immigrant Molly Murphy started her early-twentieth-century detective agency, she is completely snowed in with work. While she's proving to be quite the entrepreneur and is very much in demand by some of Broadway's brightest stars and Fifth Avenue's richest families, she has to grudgingly admit that if she's going to work more than one case at a time, then she's going to need some help.
Molly's beau, the recently and wrongly suspended police captain Daniel Sullivan, would make an ideal associate, but before they can agree on the terms of his employment, they stumble upon a young woman lying unconscious in the middle of a snow-covered Central Park.
When the woman wakes up she is disorientated and has and lost her ability to speak, the authorities are about to pack her off to an insane asylum when Molly can't help but step in and take on yet another case.
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New York City, December 1902
My feet were freezing. We Irish have been known to embroider the truth, but on this occasion I was being literal. The boots leaked badly, letting in snow and slush, and I could no longer feel my toes. If I had been sensible, I would have gone home immediately, but I have never been known for being sensible. Besides, I was on a case. A good detective wouldn't leave her post just because of a little frostbite.
Winter had arrived in New York with sudden fury on the day after Thanksgiving, blanketing the city with snow and bringing traffic to a virtual standstill. Since then the roads and sidewalks had been shoveled and swept to make passage possible, but great mounds of snow and ice were piled in the gutters, and the wind that swept in off the Hudson cut through the warmest of winter coats. And this evening I wasn't even wearing a coat. I was wearing a threadbare jacket, knee britches, and hobnail boots. My hair was piled under a cap and my face was dirty. I was, in fact, posing as a street urchin.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, when I put on the clothes in the warmth of my little house on Patchin Place. My assignment was to follow a certain Mr. Leon Roth and I had already learned the hard way that women who loiter alone on the city streets at night are likely to be arrested for prostitution. Street urchins, on the other hand, are plentiful and invisible. For good measure I took a broom with me and made halfhearted attempts at being a crossing sweeper while I watched and waited. I had actually picked up all of twenty cents for my pains. But I hadn't expected Mr. Roth to take so long. And I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that no job was worth risking pneumonia.
This had promised to be a straightforward assignment. A wealthy Jewish couple, the Mendelbaums, had hired me to check the credentials of the young man they wanted their daughter to marry. He had been produced by a matchmaker, which seemed to be normal for their tradition, and he seemed to possess all the qualities that would make an ideal husband. These qualities included a Yale education and a considerable private income. But New York was not the shtetl of their forebears, where everyone knew the habits of everyone else. These parents cared about their daughter and wanted to make sure that her intended harbored no secret vices — and was as rich as he claimed.
I had taken on the job with enthusiasm. It was one I thought I could handle without danger, one not involving the sordid peeking and sneaking of a divorce case. Besides, the fee was generous and if I carried out my duties to my clients' satisfaction, then they might well recommend me to their friends. It had been easy enough to check on his place of employment at a major shipping and importing company and to learn that he was expected to go far. I hadn't yet managed to obtain the details of his bank accounts, not having had much opportunity myself to know the inner workings of banks.
And now I was checking into his moral character, which was proving more interesting. I had stationed myself outside Mr. Roth's address and watched and waited. He lived not too far from me, in an apartment hotel on Fifth Avenue. This was not the swank part of Fifth Avenue, up among the Vanderbilts and Astors on Central Park, but the lower part of that street, south of Union Square. It had once been the most fashionable address in the city, but not any longer. The big brownstone houses were mostly divided into apartments. Gone were the carriages and liveried footmen. It was still respectable but definitely not glamorous.
The first few days of my task convinced me that Mr. Roth was also respectable but not glamorous. I had managed to follow him to the Knickerbocker Grill, where he met with other young men and drank nothing stronger than water, to the Manhattan Theater where he saw a production of A Doll's House, by a Swedish playwright called Mr. Ibsen — by all accounts a rather gloomy sort of play if one could judge by the sober pictures outside the theater. I even followed him to Macy's new department store where he bought a silk ascot.
I was almost ready to report to the Mendelbaums that their daughter could marry Mr. Roth with confidence when he came out of his house in a great hurry one evening and hopped on the Broadway trolley. I lifted my skirts in unladylike manner and sprinted, managing to haul myself aboard the trolley at the last moment, and then alighted after him at Forty-second Street.
As soon as his feet touched the cobbles, he took off at such a great pace that he had been swallowed up into the crowd by the time I managed to disembark — skirts and petticoats making it impossible to leap down from a vehicle the way he had done. It was a little late for theaters, but the street was still chock-a-block with diners emerging from restaurants, touts advertising new plays, newsboys shouting the latest headlines, hawkers, flower sellers, beggars, crossing sweepers. Since the sidewalks were still piled with snow and ice, the crowd was walking in the street, bringing carriages and cabs to a halt.
Mr. Roth was heading west. I fought my way past the Victoria Theater and the Republic, with the electric glow from their marquees lighting up the street scene and making it seem quite merry. Then, on the other side of Seventh Avenue, I thought I caught another glimpse of his homburg, far ahead of me now and still moving toward the Hudson. It was then that my suspicions were roused. Of course I could I have given him the benefit of the doubt and believed that he was running a little late for a theater performance, but I couldn't see any more theater marquees beyond this point. In fact the crowd had now thinned out and the street ahead looked decidedly darker and less savory.
I walked more cautiously. It was rumored that Forty-second Street was rapidly becoming a den of vice. The better class of prostitutes was now moving away from the Lower East Side and brothels were now to be found side by side with theaters and restaurants, especially on the west side of Broadway. I wandered up and down for a while, hoping he might reemerge from some building, or that I might spot him in some restaurant, until I realized that I was also being observed. The constable patrolling his beat was eyeing me with suspicion as he passed me the first time. When he returned some half an hour later and I was still there he crossed and came over to me.
"Waiting for someone, miss?" he asked, his hand idly fingering his nightstick.
"Uh, yes. My cousin," I said.
"This is no place for a young girl at night," he said. "If I were you I'd beat it while you're safe. You look respectable enough, but my opinion of you might change if I find you here next time I come around."
I took the hint and went home. I had been arrested for prostitution once before while observing a house in a more respectable part of the city than this. A woman out unescorted after dark was always suspect in the eyes of the law, and I had no wish to spend another night in jail. I didn't even have Daniel to bail me out these days, since he was still suspended from his duties with the New York police force, pending a trial, and was currently out of the city.
On the way home a young boy swept the slush and muck for me to cross the street and then said, "Spare a nickel, Miss."
That gave me an idea. I had been in the middle of packing up a box of clothes to send to my former lodger Shamus O'Conner and his two children, Shamey and Bridie. They were now living in the country where Shamus was employed by a farmer and young Shamey was already helping him with the farm chores. It was an ideal situation for them, healthier and safer than life in the city, but I still missed them terribly. I had become used to young Shamey clattering down the stairs, yelling, "Molly, I'm fair starving again. Could I have some bread and jam?" And to Bridie snuggling close to me and taking my hand.
Among the clothes I had been given, outgrown by a friend's son, were britches and a jacket that were too big for Shamey. It occurred to me that I should put them to good use while he waited to grow into them. So the next day I acquired a newsboy's cap and a pair of old boots from a pushcart on Hester Street, and the transformation was complete. When I went to observe Mr. Roth that evening, I was no longer a respectably dressed young lady called Molly Murphy, but one of a thousand street urchins, hoping to make a penny by sweeping the crossings clear of muck.
It was too bad my assignment had coincided with the early snowstorm. It only took me a few minutes to feel profoundly sorry for the children who really had to face this weather in such rags. I felt profoundly sorry for myself, too, to tell you the truth. I would have gone home on the spot, but I was definitely on to something interesting.
For the second night in a row, Mr. Roth had hurried to West Forty-second Street. What's more I hadn't lost him this time. I had kept pace with him all the way to the block between Eighth and Ninth avenues, where he had disappeared into a faceless building. An hour later he still hadn't come out again. Forty-second wasn't like Elizabeth Street, where girls sprawled on the stoops in provocative poses or called out ribald comments to passing men. These uptown houses of ill repute had discreet name plates: Fifi, or Madame Bettina. They could have been any normal apartment or office buildings. This particular one had no plate or card beside the door, just a dark narrow staircase leading up to God knows what. I hadn't liked to follow him up there. I had an aversion to brothels since I was almost press-ganged into one. Besides, dressed as I was I would be tossed out again on my ear.
I had just come to the conclusion that this was a foolish endeavor and that the numbness in my feet was a sign that frostbite was taking over when he came running down the stairs again. What's more, he was carrying a large brown paper parcel this time. He walked briskly to the corner of Eighth Avenue and hailed a cab. I was now truly intrigued. I hadn't heard of brothels making presents to their customers. I simply couldn't guess what might be in the parcel and I had to know. Ignoring the warnings in my head, I went back to that doorway and made my way up those stairs.
The staircase was poorly lit and there was peeling oilcloth on the stairs. I stumbled my way upward until I saw a line of light spilling from under a door. I drew level and listened. No sound of girlish laughter. No sound of female voices. Silence, in fact. Then I almost fell back down the stairs as I heard a noise I hadn't expected. A loud mechanical clatter. Cautiously I pushed the door open to see an old man working away at a treadle sewing machine. On a table beside him were pattern pieces laid out on cloth. A dummy held a suit pinned to it. That was when I realized that Mr. Roth had just paid a visit to his tailor.
I was trying to close the door silently again when the tailor looked up and saw me. "Get out of here, you no-good kid," he shouted and made as if to throw his iron at the door.
I fled. As I made my way back to the Sixth Avenue El I felt red-faced and foolish. Only I could have suspected drama in a simple visit to a tailor. It's part of my Irish temperament, I'm afraid. We enjoy making great drama out of the most mundane events. My one relief was that I had told no one of my plans and so nobody knew about my silliness except me.
I had been pretty much on my own for the past week or so. Daniel had spent Thanksgiving with his parents in Westchester County and had not yet returned, and my neighbors and good friends Elena Goldfarb and Augusta Mary Walcott, usually known by their irreverent nicknames Sid and Gus, respectively, had been invited to Vassar for a reunion with other girls of their graduating class. I had therefore welcomed this assignment. I wasn't good at doing nothing and being alone. Sid and Gus had returned the night before but I gathered they had brought friends to stay and I hadn't liked to interrupt. I had no idea when Daniel would come back. Maybe not for a while. If he had finally told his parents about his current unfortunate predicament, then maybe they had pressed him to stay out of town with them until the whole matter could be settled. It occurred to me that he could at least have written to let me know his plans. Men are always so bad at that kind of thing.
I was just approaching the corner of Sixth when I saw a scuffle going on. A couple of my fellow street urchins were facing one another. One of them was a tall, skinny chap, about my own height, and he was facing a little runt half his size. But it was the runt who was obviously the attacker.
"Go on, beat it. This is my spot," he was shouting in his high, childish voice, "and if ya ain't careful, I'll fight ya for it." He raised his hands in true prizefighting stance.
I stopped to watch, not giving much for the little one's chances. Instead the older boy shrugged. "Keep it. Ain't no good anyway," he said, then shouldered his broom and strolled away. There was something about the way he walked that made me follow him. It took me a good half-block before I realized what it was that had made me suspicious. He walked like a girl. Boys saunter. They plant down their feet carelessly. They kick at things. This one was treading carefully, taking small steps. I smiled knowingly to myself. It was no street urchin but another girl in disguise, like me.
Intrigued now, I fought my way through the crowd to catch up with her. Why another woman should want to dress up as a street urchin, I had no idea. The only other female detective I had met in New York City was Mrs. Goodwin, but she was employed by the police and wore a uniform. I was determined to keep this woman in sight until I could find a suitable opportunity to confront her. At least I didn't have to worry about her fighting temperament.
Then I heard the rumble of an approaching El train over our heads. The young woman suddenly dashed up the steps to a station platform. I went to follow her, but I didn't have a ticket. She pushed through the barrier and onto the train while I was left fuming and waiting in line at the ticket booth. For the second time in one evening I was furious with myself. If she truly had been another woman detective, then maybe we could have worked together and helped each other on occasion. God knows how hard it is to survive as a woman in a man's world and how lonely such a profession can be.
My small back alley of a street called Patchin Place was in wintry darkness as I approached it, picking my way along the narrow trough that had been cleared through the snow. As I fished in my pocket for my front door key I realized I dreaded the prospect of an empty house on a cold dismal evening. I'm really not a creature designed for the solitary life at the best of times, and at this moment I longed for nothing more than a roaring fire, hot drink, and good company. I knew where I could find all of the above, but I hesitated to burst in on my neighbors so late in the evening, especially when they were entertaining friends whom I had not yet been invited to meet.
For a long moment propriety battled with longing. Being of a Celtic disposition, of course longing won out. I picked my way across the street and knocked on their door. It was opened by Sid wearing her customary gentleman's velvet smoking jacket, her Turkish cigarette in its long ebony holder resting gracefully between her fingers. She was the picture of bohemian elegance but she was eyeing me with horrified suspicion.
"What do you want?" she demanded. "Go on. Clear off."
"Sid, it's me. Molly," I said.
A surprised smile spread across her face. "Bless my soul, so it is. What on earth are you doing out this late, dressed in that extraordinary manner? No, don't tell me. Gus will want to hear it too, and I know our guest will be thunderstruck to meet you." She was already chuckling as she ushered me into the house and then threw open the drawing room door with a dramatic gesture.
"Prepare to be astonished, Gus," she said. "And as for you, Elizabeth, here is a street urchin hot on your tail."
I stepped into the delightful warmth of their drawing room. A big fire was blazing in the hearth. The heavy burgundy velvet drapes shut out the chilly night. A low table held a brandy decanter and steaming mugs as well as a copper bowl of figs, dates, and nuts. My friend Gus was sitting in the high-backed Queen Anne chair on one side of the fire, a beaded black shawl around her slender shoulders, while the person on the other side of the fire was my fellow urchin, whom I had lost on the train station. Her cap was now removed to reveal a fine head of dark hair. She had half risen from her seat and was eyeing me with fear.
Gus recognized me immediately and came toward me, arms open. "Molly, my dearest, pray tell what is going on. Is this some festival we are missing? The night of the street urchins? Surely not the Holy Innocents?" She dragged me toward the fire. "Goodness, your hands are freezing. Sid has just made some toddy for Elizabeth. Sit here while I fetch you some."
Excerpted from "Tell Me, Pretty Maiden"
Copyright © 2008 Rhys Bowen.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
“Winning…It’s all in a day’s work for this delightfully spunky heroine.”—Publishers Weekly
“For readers who love mysteries more for character development than puzzle solving, the seventh Molly Murphy novel… does not disappoint.” —Booklist “Sharp historical backgrounds and wacky adventures.”—Kirkus Reviews