The Organ Grinder
by Maan Meyers
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Seventh of the "Dutchman" mysteries, The Organ Grinder is the second to feature New York City at the end of the nineteenth century and policeman John "Dutch" Tonneman, great-great-grandson of the detective in the first Dutchman mystery. In 1899, New York is an enterprising, crime-wracked city on the verge of enormous change, and The Organ Grinder includes plenty of detail. Orphaned boys scavenge on the streets; men boast of their service with Roosevelt's Rough Riders; noisy automobiles disturb streets redolent of horse droppings.
Someone has murdered a prostitute who recently posed for Esther Breslau, the talented protegé of photographer Oswald "Oz" Cook. For her latest project, Esther has been photographing the employees of a local brothel, pleased she "had cleared away the lies of daily existence and captured their deep sadness with her camera." Readers learn in chapter one who killed the girl: an Italian organ grinder who has done only "half the job." His employer, cold-blooded crime-boss Nonna – along with half the city, it seems – wants the locket the girl was wearing. Who has the locket and what makes it so important are the mysteries that drive the story.
Esther, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, is the most fully developed character. Despite her affection for Oz and Dutch, both vying for her hand, she appreciates the freedom her unmarried status gives her to pursue the profession she loves. About as many pages are devoted to the brutal organ grinder, contemptuous of women, children, anyone not of Italian origin and the city in general. "He loved his stiletto so much he had named her. Marie. But Marie was no virgin; she had tasted blood many times." Readers are offered the perspectives of more than a dozen characters besides these two, often for only a few paragraphs at a time, and may find it difficult to maintain a strong emotional connection with any one character. In The Organ Grinder, the star player and emotional focus is New York itself. (2008; 331 pages, including a closing Footnote discussing the history behind the story)
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Other historical mysteries set in New York:
The Dutchman by Maan Meyers (1992), first in the "Dutchman" series, set on Manhattan Island in 1664 when it was still a Dutch possession, and featuring the great-great-grandfather of the detective in The Organ Grinder (for the complete series, see the 17th Century page). More info
The Blackest Bird by Joel Rose (2007), about New York City's first police detective and a mystery revolving around clues in the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. More info
The Spice Box by Lou Jane Temple (2005), about an Irish cook for a Jewish family in nineteenth century New York who helps investigate who killed her employers' son. More info
Nonfiction about prostitution in New York and the photography of prostitutes:
City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 by Timothy J. Gilfoyle (1994), about the history of prostitution in New York. More info
Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans edited by John Szarjowski (1996), photographs by a turn-of-the century photographer who photographed prostitutes in the Storyville district of New Orleans. More info
Falkland Road by Mary Ellen Mark (1981), a woman photographer's portraits of prostitutes in Bombay in the 1960s. More info
At the Movies:
Pretty Baby, a 1978 film by Louis Malle loosely inspired by the life of photographer E.J. Bellocq, starring Brooke Shields and Keith Carradine.
The Portrait of Sensitivity, an article about E.J. Bellocq at Smithsonian.com
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