I was offered a review copy of Stacie Murphy’s new novel, The Unquiet Dead, a historical mystery set in 1893. Since it was a sequel, I decided to read A Deadly Fortune first. I loved both of them and highly recommend them for anyone who likes historical mysteries.
A Deadly Fortune, Murphy’s debut novel, introduces readers to three characters in Gilded Age New York: Amelia, her close friend Jonas, and doctor Andrew Cavanaugh. Amelia and Jonas, who grew up together as orphans, have a semi-comfortable life working nights at a club where Amelia tells fortunes. Amelia’s fortune-telling is mostly fraud, though she occasionally senses things. After a head injury, she’s finds she’s able to connect with the dead. An encounter with a spirit results in her waking up on Blackwell’s Island, an insane asylum for poor women. The women in the asylum are routinely abused and drugged, with no way to contact the outside world, and Amelia is just one more nameless inmate.
Andrew is a doctor from a wealthy family in Philadelphia. Shattered by the death of his sister, he takes a job at Blackwell’s to study mental illness. A friend asks him to investigate the disappearance of a woman who might have been locked up in Blackwell’s by her husband. When Andrew meets Amelia, he realizes she might be able to help.
The Unquiet Dead brings us back to Amelia’s world, with the kidnapping and murder of a wealthy little girl. A fifteen-year-old black boy is accused of the crime and certain to hang for it – if he isn’t murdered before he ever has a chance to stand trial.
I love historical mysteries that explore social issues and racial and class inequities. These books provided a really interesting historical perspective, and reminded me of the early Monk novels of Anne Perry, and more recently the books of Karen Odden. Amelia and Jonas have experienced poverty and abuse, and if they didn’t have each other they wouldn’t have survived. Andrew has never known hunger, violence or discrimination, though he struggles in his own ways. Murphy weaves together issues of race, homosexuality, gender, and poverty in these two novels, while never sounding preachy or overshadowing the story or its characters (as Anne Perry tends to do). Her writing is vivid, with details that make you feel you’re in 1893 New York. Her depiction of the asylum is terrifying, although what is truly more terrifying is how easy it was to lock away women any time their husband or father didn’t like the way they behaved.
What makes these two books shine are the characters. I fell in love with Amelia, Jonas, and Andrew – and I loved how imperfect they are. I’m avoiding specifics in this review, but all three characters had complicated relationships and troubled pasts that kept them from trusting others. I always think character development is more important than plot in a good mystery series. A lot of mysteries are just about racing from one clue to the next, but these two books really got into deeper issues than that.
There are paranormal elements in these books, although with a light touch – Amelia is sometimes able to communicate with the dead, but her ability is unpredictable. What I appreciated was that most of the action and mystery-solving comes from the brains and bravery of the characters.
After I read the first one, I immediately wanted to know what was in store for Amelia. I listened to the first one on audiobook and read the second in print, and they were great both ways. The Unquiet Dead was every bit as good as the first book, and I can’t wait to read more from this author.
Thanks to Pegasus Books for the advance review copy of The Unquiet Dead, which will be published April 5, 2022.