December 16, 2012
Still Life With Murder by P B Ryan
The first in the Nell Sweeny Mystery Series
Cordelia Sweeney, [Nell] is working under the guidance of Dr Greaves as an apprentice paramedic when she attends the birth of a maid’s child at the home of one of Boston’s high society families. The year is 1863 and the Hewitt’s have lost two sons to the Civil War, and though their two younger boys are alive and well, Viola Hewitt feels the loss of her firstborn, William and her second son, Robbie, sharply.
When the maid conveys a secret to her employer and rejects her new born daughter, Viola Hewitt resolves to adopt the child and Nell is asked to remain in the household as nanny to the baby.
Nell has a dark past, where poverty and cruelty have left their mark and presented with an opportunity to improve her life even more, and immediately attached to the child, Nell agrees and takes her leave of Dr Greaves. For three years she grows closer to the child, Grace, until a visitor to the Hewitt's informs them that their eldest son, William is not only alive, but he lives as a professional gambler, an opium addict and is now facing trial for murder.
Viola Hewitt, convinced her son is not a murderer, and distraught where her husband is cold and distant, begs Nell to find out where her son is and how she can help him.
Thus Nell embarks on a journey into a world she imagined she had left behind. At first she is sceptical but compassionate, then when William Hewitt appears not only scornful of her help, but resigned to his fate only stubbornness and her tenacious nature keep her looking.
It isn’t often that a novel grabs my attention from the first page, but this one did. Nell is an amazing character who does not dwell on her past but she is clearly determined to overcome it. Being reminded of it by William Hewitt’s current situation is something she does not relish, but her promise to her employer sends her into the stews of Boston in search of evidence.
Nell finds a defeated, addicted and morally bereft man, scarred physically and mentally by his experiences at Andersonville prison during the war. He seems like a lost cause, and worse, he insists he is guilty. However Nell’s tenacity, combined with her refusal to be intimidated by policemen, brothel keepers and villains alike, means she manages to unearth facts that may mean William Hewitt is worth saving after all.
William Hewitt is an exasperating anti-hero, he will not explain, apologise or even try to behave in a conventional manner and has no wish to save himself. Yet beneath the defeated façade he is quick-witted, gentlemanly and flirtatious, dismissive one minute and intense the next – just enough to keep Nell guessing - and attracted.
The characterisation is masterly and the author’s research of the atrocities of the American Civil War are stark and uncompromising without being sentimental. A definite keeper and I will certainly buy more novels in the Nell Sweeney series.
Anita Davison is a Historical Fiction Author whose latest release, ‘Royalist Rebel’ a biographical novel set in 17th Century England, is being released by Claymore Books in early 2013 under the name Anita Seymour