The Girl at Central, etc.

May 16, 2011

You know those mystery novels that are preoccupied with time and alibis and maps, where you’re constantly being asked whether a suspect could have made it from one place to another in however much time? And how it’s more like a word problem in a high school math textbook than a story, and you keep having to flip back to the map in the front of the book, and every time you do that you lose the thread of what’s going on, and the characters are like puzzle pieces, and it just never really works, even when Dorothy Sayers does it?

I’m exaggerating, but I do get really irritated when mystery novels give too much space to maps and alibis and such, because so often authors focus on those things to the exclusion of the characters. I’m okay with train schedules and clocks, I just want the people in the book to be the most important thing about the book. I get that that’s hard, but one cannot live by plot alone.

Geraldine Bonner, however, doesn’t seem to have a problem keeping her people and her plots balanced. I’m very much indebted to Cathlin for recommending her, because this is the first time a mystery author has made me like flipping back to the map in front of the book (and by flipping back to the map in the front of the book, I mean saving the image of the map from the ebook and having it open in a different window). Also, the narrator reminded me of Nancy from In the Bishop’s Carriage, and that’s always a plus.

Molly Morgenthau narrates all of The Girl at Central, about half of The Black Eagle Mystery, and maybe a third of Miss Maitland, Private Secretary, and I’d like to say that the more she narrates, the better the book is, but Miss Maitland is kind of better than The Black Eagle Mystery.

When we first meet Molly, she’s the switchboard operator in a small town in New Jersey. She’s got an enormous crush on Jack Reddy, who owns a fair amount of land in the neighborhood, but Jack is in love with Sylvia Hesketh, who would be everything a wealthy young lady in a novel should be if only she weren’t an incorrigible flirt. Molly starts eavesdropping on calls to Sylvia’s house in hopes of hearing Jack, and so when Sylvia is found dead, she’s able to bring forward some useful information. Soon she and Soapy Babbitts, one of the reporters who arrived in town after the murder, start investigating the case together. And eventually solve it, of course, although that’s sort of an accident.

During the Sylvia Hesketh case, Molly meets Wilbur Whitney and his son George, both lawyers, and it’s through them that she gets her next two cases. The Black Eagle Mystery involves a financier hurling himself out of the window of an office building, and it’s the least good of the three, mostly because of the contrived romance plot. You know how teachers are always exhorting their students to show, not tell? I’d be the first to admit that telling rather than showing can be good, too — just look at the collected works of Anthony Trollope — but romance is not the place for it. I did really enjoy the twist at the end, though.

The ending of Miss Maitland wasn’t so cleverly twisty, but the body of the book was thoroughly enjoyable, even when Molly wasn’t narrating. This one substitutes two less violent crimes for the traditional murder: a theft and a kidnapping. What’s clever about it is that Bonner managed to convince me that several different people were guilty of these crimes, even though some more rational part of my brain — the bit that pays attention to things like how far into the book I am — knew that they weren’t. I did manage to guess the bit that I think was meant to be the most surprising, but I didn’t figure out any of the rest.

Anyway, three good mystery novels with an engaging narrator. They’re not the most special things I’ve ever read, but they are amazingly fun.


  1. Thanks so much for the heads up on these books. I finished The Girl at Central (loved it) and am a little over halfway through The Black Eagle Mystery, which I’m finding to be an okay read, since I am now a solid Molly fan. Getting to know Jack would be far more intersting without the soppy bits, though.

    • Jack is kind of ridiculous, isn’t he? I want him to be fun, not sentimental. And I think you’re exactly right: the first book makes you such a Molly fan that it’s hard not to like the other books, even though they’re not as good.

  2. I read all the Molly books recently as a result of this recommendation (and they were fabulous as promised), and thought I’d try one of Bonner’s non-mysteries. The Book of Evelyn (1913) is a gem. The plot is simple — a widow (at the advanced age of 33) moves into a boarding house full of interesting personalities and befriends an aspiring singer whose career isn’t panning out — but the characters are fascinatingly real, the love story is believable, and there are some great reflections on the conflict between one’s conscience and the moral conventions of the day. I think you’d enjoy it.

    • The Book of Evelyn is actually on the TBR list I made while reading my new favorite book, but your description is a lot more detailed than the one I found there, so thank you. And I’m glad you enjoyed the Molly books.

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