One beautiful fall morning, Sarah Brandt, a 19th century New York City midwife, is asked to deliver a baby in a nearby neighborhood. While that's not unusual, Sarah is shocked when the young mother, Amy, claims the home is really a brothel and she is being forced to work as a prostitute. Amy tells Sarah it would be deadly for Sarah to try to help her alone, but begs her to get word to Mrs. Gregory Van Orner, a known rescuer of young women in Amy's situation.
Although Sarah's friend Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy warns Sarah not to get involved, Sarah just can't turn her back on someone in need. She not only contacts Mrs. Van Orner, but assists her in rescuing Amy and the newborn baby. Both Sarah and Vivian Van Orner make enemies of the madam, Mrs. Walker, who complains to the police that they've kidnapped one of her girls. When Vivian is later murdered, Sarah and Malloy end up right in the middle of a very dangerous case where nothing is as it seems.
I like the combination of the historical setting of this book and the unique character of Sarah. She is an unconventional woman who leads a life that is very different from her contemporaries. Sarah comes from a wealthy family, but chooses to support herself and her foster daughter as a midwife. She still has a friendly relationship with her society mother, which under the circumstances is unexpected and nice to see.
Sarah Brandt and Frank Malloy make a great detective team. While Malloy doesn't want her involved in anything that could be dangerous, he is forced to accept her help because some of the female witnesses that must be questioned are staying in a home where men are not admitted. This sets up the premise of Sarah's involvement in the investigation perfectly since it's not usual that a woman of her time would assist in a police investigation. Agreeing to help question witnesses is another example of Sarah's determination to help others regardless of how other people will react.
Besides their professional relationship, Sarah and Frank also have a special friendship. They care about each other and enjoy spending time together. Society's constraints keep them at arm's length, and they can only admit to a casual professional acquaintance in public. While Sarah's friend and frequent visitor Mrs. Ellsworth encourages their friendship, Malloy tries to keep it a secret from his co-workers because they wouldn't approve. It's also mentioned that Malloy's mother does not think the two should spend be socializing. A reason isn't given, so while readers familiar with the series may know the backstory, others will be left confused. While realistic for the times, it's frustrating to hope for a romance between Sarah and Frank when they can't even admit they're friends. These two great characters deserve happiness, and it's difficult to see them acting so cautious when spending even the most innocent moments together.
In addition to the wonderful setting and characters, Victoria Thompson's "Murder on Sisters' Row" also has an interesting and suspenseful plot that keeps you guessing to the very end. Readers who enjoy the historical mysteries of Anne Perry will like this latest adventure in the long-running Gaslight Mystery series.
This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine. I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.