Murder on Union Square

by Victoria Thompson

Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

In Murder on Union Square, #21 in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in Gilded Age New York City, private detective Frank Malloy and his wife Sarah must solve a personally urgent case. They wish to adopt Catherine, the child Sarah rescued in an earlier Gaslight mystery. Although neither of Catherine's birth parents are alive, her mother's husband is her legal father and could block the adoption by refusing to sign away his rights. And when this legal father, an actor playing the love interest of a talented but aging actress, is killed, Frank discovers the body and is accused of murder. 

After so many previous Gaslight mysteries, these characters have a history to draw on. Frank is a former police sergeant, now a private detective. Sarah is a wealthy former midwife who has endowed a birthing center. Frank's employee Gino and Sarah's household servant Maeve pitch in to help investigate, and a former client who supports herself by holding seances also gets involved. The theater company, which simmers with scandals, rivalries and superstitions, spawns multitudes of clues that prove baffling – at least to the detectives – until everything wraps up in the final chapter.

Briskly paced through most of its length, the story loses some steam as the clues pile up and require several scenes consisting mostly of discussion among the detectives. Alert readers may connect some of the dots before the detectives, who seem less worried about the murder charge hanging over Frank's head than they are thrilled by the fun of investigating his case. But the theater denizens are delightfully eccentric, and Murder on Union Square makes fluffy fun for readers who enjoy a touch of comedy, a frisson of sex scandal (nothing explicit), and an amateur lady detective rather sharper than her professional husband. (2018, 323 pages and an Author's Note on the history behind the novel)

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Other historical mysteries involving theatrical companies:

The Queen's Head by Edward Marston (1988), about a stage manager for an Elizabethan theatre company who investigates the murder of a player; #1 in the Nicholas Bracewell series. More info

Death Ex Machina by Gary Corby (2015), about an Athenian private agent who, assisted by the priestess who is now his wife, investigates why a ghost appears to be haunting the grand theater in Athens; #5 in the Athenian Mystery series. More info

The Opening Night Murder by Anne Rutherford (2013), about a woman who opens her own theater after King Charles II decrees that women are allowed to act on the stage, but becomes a murder suspect when someone is killed during the first performance; #1 in the Restoration Murder mystery series. More info

Nonfiction about the history of American theater:

Blue Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater by Timothy R. White (2014). More info

Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical by Stacy Wolf (2011). More info

Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theatre by Larry Stempel (2011). More info


Online:

Union Square, Manhattan at Wikipedia

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