Saturday, April 3, 2010


A totally absorbing blend of fact and fiction is found in Ellen Horan's stellar debut 31 BOND STREET. Basing her story on what the 19th century called the crime of the century Horan competently moves between past and present to draw deft pictures of the individuals involved in a trial that held not only New York City but the entire world in thrall.

It was February of 1857 that brought "the worst, the very worst, wintry gale ever experienced in the city..." It was also when a young hired boy found the body of Dr. Harvey Burdell. The doctor's throat had been so viciously slashed that his head was almost severed from his body.

In that day and time it was not uncommon for a bachelor such as Dr. Burdell to lease the upper part of his commodious townhouse to a widow who would see to the management of the house and servants. In this case Dr. Burdell had chosen Emma Cunningham, a comely woman of 36 with teenage daughters, Helen and Augusta. But more than leasing a portion of the home Emma evidently believed she would receive Burdell's marriage proposal.

After Dr. Burdell's killing Emma becomes the prime suspect and embarks on a struggle to save her very life with the assistance of attorney, Henry Clinton. With judicious use of historical records Horan brings the ensuing trial to compelling life. She also reminds us of the figures and elements affecting so many at that time - Tammany Hall, widespread corruption, the Fugitive Slave Acts. Horan's narrative is so skillful that it's as if curtains had been drawn and we see Manhattan in 1857, and are witnesses to the events of that time.

- Gail Cooke

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