Books Read in 2015 – 27. Fever – Mary Beth Keane

Genre: historical fiction

Narrative Style: third person, chronologicalUnknown

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2013

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Mary Mallon – also known as Typhoid Mary – has cooked in many big houses in New York. She doesn’t think anything of the fact that often the families contract Typhoid fever. It is prevalent in New York as a whole and many people die from it. However, when a new theory of germs and carriers gains popularity, Mary finds herself held in quarantine while they do tests on her. 

Before reading this, I had no idea that Typhoid Mary was a real person. Of course, I’d heard the phrase used. Now, having read Mary’s story, it seems a shame that this should be her legacy. Imagine that was your contribution to the world, what you were famous for. Very depressing.

The story itself is interesting. At first, Mary could have had no idea that she was spreading the disease. The theories about germs and about healthy carriers were in their infancy and the authorities clearly had no idea what to do about it. Mary is arrested and taken into quarantine but she does not go without a fight. It is this fighting spirit that constantly works against her.

While, undoubtedly, there were real public health issues at stake, there are also issues of class, race and gender. Mary is unlucky enough to be Irish, working class and female – three ways in which she is powerless. Newspaper stories suggest that she had ideas above her station and was infecting the upper class houses on purpose – a disease based class revenge.

Eventually, Mary is allowed back into society on the promise that she will never cook for anyone again. But cooking is the one thing that makes Mary feel alive, the one thing that she is good at. And she still doesn’t really believe that she passed on the fever to others so she starts a job at a bakery. While the modern part of my brain, the part that knew she would start to make people ill again, was appalled at her seeming recklessness, it was also possible to feel sorry for Mary. After the way she was treated, it was unsurprising that she would not want to do what the authorities asked of her.

Keane manages to successfully evoke New York in the early 1900s and the atmosphere is heavy with diseases and potential unrest. I think she also captures Mary well. Of course, as she herself acknowledges in the afterword, there is no way of knowing if that was what Mary was like but she seemed real and of her time and I don’t think that you could do much more than that.

Books Read in 2015 – 10. The Anniversary Man – R. J. Ellory

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Genre: American Crime, Serial Killer

Narrative Style: Third person

Rating 4/5Unknown

Published: 2009

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2015

Time on shelf: About four years. I bought it at the same time as A Quiet Vendetta which I read straightaway and really enjoyed. I had no real reason for not reading it except other books got in the way.

Synopsis: John Costello survives an attack by a serial killer which kills his girlfriend. Now, twenty years later, he is the only one in New York to realise that a new spate of murders are in fact linked. They are all copies of old murders, committed on the anniversary of the original. However, contact with the police only brings John into the firing line of the killer. 

I wasn’t entirely sure about the premise of this book at first. I had visions of the film Copycat which I considered to be the definitive narrative of the copycat killer idea. I wasn’t sure what could possibly be added to the idea. However, I was wrong. This a completely different take on the tale.

The novel begins with the attack on John Costello back in 1984 and charts his difficulty with getting on with his life and his obsession with serial killers. He is damaged, not just physically but mentally by the attack and there is certainly something odd about him. Odd enough that when, later in the novel, the police believe he is the killer you begin to doubt yourself as to whether or not he is the guilty party.

The narrative then moves on to a series of murders in different areas of New York which have no stylistic similarities so no one links them until the Chief of Police gets wind of a possible article linking the murders together. This is the work of John Costello and he has realised the link between the deaths and the killer gets his name – The Anniversary Man.

It is at this point that the narrative really takes off and we really get to know the cop in charge of the investigation Ray Irving. He is suitably cynical and completely deprived of resources and time. He and Costello form an interesting team, both lonely and difficult men although in different ways. They face a race against time, trying to work out which murder will be the next enacted and I found that I couldn’t put the book down.

I have to say that I did work out how this would end. However, that is not to say that that it wasn’t enjoyable or that I wasn’t surprised by any of it. The ending was sad but also realistic and I wasn’t at all disappointed.

Books Read in 2014 – 55. The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

Genre: Detective Fiction, Historical Fictiondownload (15)

Narrative Structure: First Person Narrative, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2012

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: New York is overrun with Irish immigrants and bad feelings towards Catholics are running high. Timothy Wilde has lost everything in the Great New York Fire so he reluctantly agrees when his older brother, Valentine, gets him a position as one of New York’s newly appointed police officers. When it appears that someone is murdering Irish children and leaving them with their chest opened like a cross, Timothy is determined to solve the mystery even if it puts his life in danger. 

I’m not sure what is was about Timothy Wilde’s first person narrative but from the very first I found it difficult to get on with. It wasn’t difficult to read and the use of Flash – the criminal slang of the era – gave it authenticity. Maybe I just prefer my detectives a little more hard-boiled and edgy. Timothy just wasn’t a very interesting character while all others around him shone a bit more brightly – particularly his brother.

The story is exciting and that carried me through. In the beginning, Timothy finds Bird Daly, covered in blood and clearly frightened. He begins slowly to unravel her lies and is led to the madam, Silkie Marsh and her child prostitutes. When his investigations lead him to a mass grave of nineteen children, it seems that a serial killer is on the loose. With anti-catholic feeling running high, New York becomes volatile and rioters take to the streets.

Timothy proves himself to be an excellent policeman, sharp eyed and persistent, putting clues together and following leads that no one else has spotted. This contrasts with his stupidity in other areas, particularly his personal life. He completely misunderstands both his brother, Valentine, and his love-interest, Mercy Underhill so much so that he is in danger of ruining Mercy’s life. I’m not entirely sure that I was convinced by the character of Mercy either but she did at least have more than one side to her personality.

The story twists and turns and in the end, nothing is as you might have expected. I liked the ending and the way that it was worked out, using the then new techniques of forensic detective work. The historical detail was believable and helped create a New York that was dark and disturbing. However, I was pleased to be rid of Timothy Wilde, particularly when he is so drippy over Mercy even though it is likely his love will never be returned. It is a shame. I’m sure there is interest to be had in the books that follow but I wouldn’t want to spend another minute in his company.