As much as I love Cozies set in modern settings, to me, there’s always something special about those set in a slightly more distant past. This might be because I have read so many of the “classic” era of Cozies – authors like Agatha Christie, who wrote about what was for her modern times, but is now most of a century past. So “historical” Cozies, those written more recently, still manage to bring a sense of familiar nostalgia to me regardless of when they were written.
Such is certainly the case with this week’s topic for my long running series of posts on the most popular and recommended Cozy series, as this week I will be discussing the first entry in Victoria Thompson‘s Gaslight Mystery Series, Murder on Astor Place. Set in New York City at the end of the 19th century, Murder on Astor Place has two sleuth protagonists – midwife Sarah Brandt and detective Sergeant Frank Malloy. When a young woman is found killed at a house where Sarah recently delivered a baby, Frank asks Sarah to look over the corpse on impulse. When Sarah realizes that the victim was related to an old acquaintance, she is drawn more fully into the case.
One particularly interesting note about this book is that it doesn’t go to the same lengths to whitewash the period that it deals with as much as other historical Cozies indulge in. Though the protagonists are both generally “good” people, they’re also both people of their setting, who are capable of working within a system that we would consider both corrupt and unethical. Frank is clearly competent at his job, but he’s also working toward becoming police captain in the same way as his predecessors have – by preparing a suitable bribe to ensure he gets the post – because that is the system as it was at the time. Also, as much as I love a modern Cozy, it can be nice to get away from the frequently “zany” occupants of a modern small-town setting for an admittedly grimmer set of city-dwellers. Likewise, the often-brutal methods of the police at the time are often mentioned or alluded to.
Another aspect I particularly appreciate is that despite the attention paid toward establishing the setting and characters, the novel gets to the actual murder very quickly. Many Cozies take a very long time to establish the characters and their relationships in the first novel of a series, but this can cause the actual mystery to suffer, making it feel more like an afterthought than the goal of the entire endeavor. Bringing the crime to the opening few chapters, rather than waiting to the midpoint of the novel, makes it feel more like a true mystery novel rather than a book that happens to include a mystery.
Murder on Astor Place provides a lot for a fan of Cozies, especially those who are looking for a change of pace from “modern Cozies” set in the sort of tourist-y settings that are most popular these days. However, it is significantly darker than many Cozies, so those looking for a lighter read might be advised to look elsewhere. That said, it is certainly worth the time of anyone who is looking for a more serious work that really focuses on the mystery. I very much recommend Murder on Astor Place – and the great news for those of you who are looking for a long series to read is that there are 25 books in Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight mystery series!
If you’re interested in seeing more highlights of some of the most recommended or popular Cozy Mystery authors/series, visit the Most Popular & Recommended Cozy Mystery Series page on my site.