Thursday, May 08, 2008

"The Murder of Helen Jewett": a review on Amazon

"We shouldn't like murder mysteries, but we usually do.

While there's a real tragedy going on -- someone killed, families in disarray, a killer on trial -- we hang on for the gory details.

Folks were no different in New York City in 1836, which is the setting for the real life, true story of the murder of Helen Jewett, a lady of negotiable virtue, who plied her trade at an upscale brothel. It's the story of Jewett's life, and how she came to be who she was, and how she came to do what she did for a living.

And about Richard Robinson, her accused killer, and how a mild-mannered store clerk from rural New England came to New York, and was arrested for Jewett's murder.

And about the trial, and about the crowds there (mostly young -- the defendant was 18 -- clerks like the accused), and about how long the trial lasted, and about the speculation that the judge might have been bribed.

But this is more than a murder mystery. Because the author tells us vivid details about life in New York City during that time, and how prostitutes lived in that era (I didn't know that prostitution was legal in New York at that time), and how young Americans grew up during that time, and what was expected of them as far as behavior and decorum.

This is a scholarly book. It's labeled "history/women's studies," and I wouldn't take that away Patricia Cline Cohen, the historian who wrote the book. But if you just want a better-than-average read that will entertain you as well as teach you, you can do no better than this. I might even suggest -- since I'm writing this review on May 8 -- it wouldn't be a bad beach book. The cover and title are just trashy enough that the people on the next towel won't think you're a nerd on the beach. It'll have to be a secret between you and me and the author that while you're busy turning pages, you're also having your mind expanded."

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