Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Rhys Bowen has been a well-regarded crime writer for some time. She’s written more than one series, too (you may, for instance, be familiar with her Constable Evan Evans series). Her most recent series features New York PI Molly Murphy. Let’s take a look at that series today, and turn the spotlight on For the Love of Mike, the third in the series.
It’s 1901, and Molly Murphy, a fairly recent immigrant from Ireland, has inherited a PI business from her former mentor, Paddy Riley. His specialty was divorce cases, and that’s where she begins. But she soon finds that she has no taste for going after philandering spouses. Still, she wants to be a detective.
One line of business that appeals to her is helping Irish families locate and possibly reconnect with relatives who came to America. So she arranges for advertisements in a few of the Dublin newspapers. That’s how she hears from Major T.W. Faversham. He and his wife are concerned because their daughter, Katherine, has come to America with her boyfriend, Michael Kelly, and they haven’t heard from her. They didn’t approve of her choice, and they want her to return to Ireland. So Molly makes her plans to start looking for Katherine.
In the meantime, she gets another new client, Max Mostel, who owns a clothing factory. He suspects that someone is stealing his designs and giving or selling them to Lowenstein’s, his major competitor. Mostel wants a PI to find out who the ‘mole’ is, but at first, he’s reluctant to hire a woman. Soon, though, he sees the advantage of it, and he and Molly make a plan. She’ll go undercover in his factory for a few weeks, both to learn about the employees, and to learn the sewing skills she’ll need. Then, she’ll apply at Lowenstein’s, so she can catch the guilty party.
Molly begins her investigation, and discovers firsthand what conditions are like in the garment factories of the day. Most of the workers are poor immigrants who have very few options. Working conditions are not safe or healthy, the hours are long, and the pay is minimal. But everyone knows that there are hundreds of others waiting to take their jobs if they complain. When she follows through on the other part of the plan, Molly finds that conditions at Lowenstein’s are even worse. Still, she tries to keep her focus on the job at hand.
In the meantime, Molly learns that Katherine Faversham worked for Mostel for a time, but then seemed to disappear. Fearing the worst, Molly tries to trace the missing woman’s movements in the days and weeks before she went missing. But it turns out that someone is very much determined that she will not find out the truth. In the end, though, and after a murder, Molly finds out what happened to Katherine and Michael. She also discovers who’s been stealing Mostel’s designs.
This novel takes place in turn-of-the-20th-Century New York, and Bowen places the reader there, both geographically and historically. As Molly investigates, readers learn about various immigrant communities, about the budding women’s and workers’ movements, and about the rather strict social class and gender boundaries of the time. Readers who enjoy novels that take place in New York City will appreciate the setting. There’s even a visit to Ellis Island.
As you’ll no doubt know, life was both cheap and dangerous at that time and in that place. We see that aspect of the era as well. There are run-ins with gangs, corrupt police and politicians, and factory managers. Conditions are often unsanitary (‘though Molly herself lives comfortably enough), and life in a sweatshop amounts to a death sentence for some workers. In fact, in one sub-plot, Molly joins the other workers at Lowenstein’s as they strike for better working conditions. As you can imagine, their strike is not taken kindly, and we see what life was like for the urban working poor of the times.
Those who’ve read this series will know that the stories are told in first person, from Molly’s point of view. So we learn quite a bit about her. As I mentioned, she’s a fairly recent arrival from Ireland, and still somewhat innocent (‘though not naïve). She’s got a lot to learn about the PI life, but she’s intelligent and quick-witted, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She gets herself into plenty of danger, but this is by no means a ‘heroine in peril’ sort of a novel
In one story arc, we learn that Molly’s personal life is not exactly settled. Police Captain Daniel Sullivan is in love with her, and she has strong feelings for him. But he’s engaged to someone else, and doesn’t seem in any hurry to break off that engagement. At the same time, she’s met Jacob Singer, a union representative from the United Hebrew Trades. He’s fallen in love with her, and she likes him very much, too. But she doesn’t know him well enough to know if she feels the same way. Besides, they’re from different cultures and backgrounds; and in that era, that cultural barrier is a major gulf. Readers who dislike plot threads involving romance or romantic concerns will notice this.
In some senses, this is a lighter story. There is violence, but much more of it is implied than real. And readers who dislike a lot of profanity will be pleased to know that it’s kept to a very bare minimum here.
That said though, this isn’t a ‘frothy’ sort of novel. Bowen doesn’t gloss over conditions at the sweatshops, and there is a real sense of sadness about the lives of some of the people who work there. Bowen doesn’t sugarcoat the dangers of slums, of gangs, or of being a single woman at that time, either.
For the Love of Mike is set in a distinctly New York City context, and shows clearly what it was like for different kinds of people to live there at the turn of the 20th Century. It features a sleuth who sees the city through immigrant eyes, and a mystery that ties together the garment industry and a pair of missing immigrants. But what’s your view? Have you read For the Love of Mike? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 6 June/Tuesday, 7 June – Total Chaos – Jean Claude Izzo
Monday, 13 June/Tuesday, 14 June – The Body Snatcher – Patricia Melo
Monday, 20 June/Tuesday, 21 June – Bad Country – C.B. McKenzie