‘Still Life with Murder’ by P.B. Ryan
Rarely have I been as captivated by a mystery as I was by P.B. Ryan’s Still Life with Murder, the first in her Nell Sweeney series. Combining a few tropes familiar to readers of historical fiction with a willful, wonderfully flawed heroine and gorgeous trappings — as well as a tightly-knit plot — this novel is one of the best mysteries I’ve read in quite some time.
The premise is simple: Nell Sweeney, a physician’s assistant, is hired as a governess-cum-nursemaid for the infant Gracie, the daughter of a chambermaid in a Boston Brahmin household. In a move that surprises and shocks Boston society, the matriarch of the family adopts the little girl as her own. The woman has lost two of her four sons to the Civil War, and tells all who will listen that she’s always wanted a daughter, so why pass up this one?
Nell, however, infers that it’s not the whole story. Raised in the Irish-Catholic Boston slums, she knows that when a chambermaid hasn’t seen her husband in a year and a half, the baby she just gave birth to definitely isn’t his. And since the baby was so readily accepted by this high-brow family, Nell knows the baby must be one of the sons’, somehow.
Turns out, she’s right — but that’s not all. The son in question, William Hewitt, was thought to have died during the War, but he is actually alive, addicted to opium and charged with murdering a man in a boarding house known for card games and prostitutes. Amazing. On behalf of her employer, Nell is sent to determine Will’s innocence and somehow keep him from being hanged.
This book has literally everything. It only barely passes the Bechdel test, but there are a few good conversations between Nell and her employer about the baby (a female) and the baby’s mother. Nell partners with a few men in order to solve the crime, but that is a reflection of the era — there are no female police investigators, prison wardens or lawyers. Later books in this series more easily pass the Bechdel test, as there are more female victims, suspects and dinner guests.
Also. I just really loved this book. I loved it so much that I purchased and read the entire rest of the series — five relatively short mysteries — over the course of the next week. Every single story had a strong female character, often several, and Nell’s struggles to cope with her own past in the context of this highbrow society are richly painted.
The more sordid aspects of Victorian life are not glossed over, reminding me of The Crimson Petal and the White. There are women murdered basically for being sexually promiscuous, women murdered just because they happened to be relatively expendable, women whose lives could be easily ruined if certain secrets are revealed. It’s dangerous to be a woman in the late 19th century, Ryan shows the reader, especially if one doesn’t have the funds or other resources to make problems go away.