Murder in a Mill Town, P.B. Ryan, Berkley Prime Crime, $6.50.
(out of print, check for used copies at our ABE store). This is an intensely likeable series in the mold of Victoria Thompson's Victorian New York mysteries. Ryan's series is set in Boston shortly after the Civil War, and features as its heroine governess Nell Sweeney. Nell came to her post as governess to an exclusive Boston family when she helped deliver the baby of a servant girl in the household - the baby, "adopted" by the family, is actually the result of the son's dalliance with the servant girl. The family, the Hewitts, are a complicated and dysfunctional bunch, and Nell brings not only a devoted love for the newest Hewitt, Gracie, but the baggage of her past life, which she's continually trying to conceal from her employer, Mrs. Viola Hewitt. Mr. Hewitt would gladly have let Nell go long ago, but she and Viola have formed a bond, and Gracie is only a part of it. Nell also acts as the wheelchair bound Mrs. Hewitt's eyes and ears when she wants to find things out that would take her beyond the boundaries of her home and the rigid and exclusive society she moves in.
In the first novel, Still Life With Murder, the Hewitt's eldest son, William, an opium addict and survivor of Andersonville prison, had been accused of murder. Mr. Hewitt was willing to let him swing, but not so Viola, and Nell helps to exonerate him and forms a friendship with him that progresses in Murder in a Mill Town. Murder in a Mill Town involves somewhat tangentially the playboy Hewitt son, Harry, who uses the family business (a mill), mainly as a way to gain female companionship of the more venal variety. In this second installment, Ryan skillfully brings part of Nell's past out as part of the mystery, which involves a missing mill girl, Bridget Fallon. Bridget had been "involved" with Harry - the whole mill knew all about it, and her brazen ways had earned her no friends and few regrets when she disappears. It's not much of a shock when Bridget's body is discovered, but the tie to Nell's past life is a well drawn out surprise, and the murderer is a pretty clever twist as well. I may have figured out whodunnit slightly before Nell did, but I wasn't sure how she'd get out of a sticky situation.
Nell's relationship with William is also an interesting and complex one - William is Gracie's unacknowledged father, but Nell, being Gracie's governess, could never become involved with him without losing her job. This sets the stage for plenty of interesting romantic tension in books to follow, of which I hope there are many. I hope Nell's intelligence and spunk aren't an historical anachronism, but these books are so enjoyable I don't really care if they are or not. This is a good, fast read that seems destined to find many admirers.
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