The Dead Cry Justice by Rosemary Simpson

September 2, 2022

The Dead Cry Justice is the sixth book in Rosemary Simpson's mystery series set in Gilded Age New York City, featuring Prudence MacKenzie, the daughter of a prominent judge, and Geoffrey Hunter, a former Pinkerton agent, who run a detective agency together.  Prudence is in her early twenties and has suffered from laudanum addiction after the death of her father.  She is frowned on by the high society of the Astors and Vanderbilts because she has decided to work for a living and formed a professional partnership with a man considered below her station.  In spite of this, she is not completely shunned, and she still has connections in the world of New York's elite.

Geoffrey is quite a bit older than Prudence.  His age is never stated, but he was an adult during the Civil War, so he is at least in his forties.  Geoffrey is a Southerner who escaped from his family because of his anti-slavery views.  As this book begins,  Geoffrey is recovering from a near-fatal shooting.  He knows he is lucky to be alive, but he wants to get back to solving cases as soon as possible, and is frustrated by his need to use a cane because it hampers his movement while chasing after criminals.  Geoffrey and Prudence are clearly attracted to each other, although it was not love at first sight.  Their relationship has developed gradually through the series.  They still have not declared their feelings for each other.  As Simpson's narrative takes us inside their heads, we know they want to, but they are concerned about what the consequences would be for their professional lives, and in terms of how they would be regarded by the outside world.

This book takes place in 1890, just as New York University's law school has finally decided to admit women.  Prudence is trying to decide whether she wants to be part of that first female law class.  Part of her wants to do it, but, as a friend of her late father points out to her, she has learned so much about the law from her father that she could probably pass the bar exam without going to law school.  As she is sitting on a bench outside the law school with her golden retriever, Blossom, and contemplating her decision, a street urchin steals her sandwiches.  When she goes after him, she finds he is hiding his teenage sister, who is very ill, in the cellar of the law school.  Prudence has the girl taken to a refuge run by Quakers, where a female doctor who is a friend of Prudence's, Dr. Sloan, examines her and finds the girl has been sexually abused.

The children disappear from the refuge, and Prudence's and Geoffrey's initial investigation leads them to an orphanage, where it turns out that two boys matching the street urchin's description have been murdered.  They have obviously been mistaken for the boy Prudence and Geoffrey are trying to find.  The children's lives are in danger, but all the early investigations lead to dead ends.  A madam at a high-class brothel, who had helped Prudence on an earlier case, tells her that the girl, like so many others, has probably been sold into prostitution.

Prudence and Geoffrey receive help from several real-life historical figures, including the photographer and social reformer Jacob Riis, whose picture of the two missing children, which he took as part of his important series of pictures of New York's tenement dwellers, showing the horrible conditions in which they lived, is the only image they have of the children.  Also making an appearance is the investigative reporter Nellie Bly, who wishes she could be of more help, but who thinks that girls being sold into prostitution is such a commonplace occurrence that it wouldn't be newsworthy.  (Having read a wonderful novel about Nellie Bly, What Girls Are Good For by David Blixt, I was hoping to see more of her in this novel.  I wonder if she will reappear in a future book in the series.)

Bly does, however, introduce Prudence to a new character, Detective Warren Lowry, who became a police detective because his teenage sister has disappeared, and Prudence suspects she has been taken to the same place as the girl she's trying to find.  Lowry has solved every case that has come to him, except the one dearest to his heart: the disappearance of his sister.  Prudence and Lowry have a certain chemistry when they're together, and I wonder if he will become a rival to Geoffrey for Prudence's affections.

An important clue arrives in the form of a porcelain doll, sent anonymously to Prudence, which bears a strong resemblance to the missing girl.  When Prudence visits the shop where the doll was made, she finds it is full of lifelike dolls dressed in the latest fashions, which upper-class women buy for their daughters.  Soon Prudence realizes the shop is a front for an exclusive brothel where wealthy men indulge their depraved tastes for young girls, and that time is running out for her to rescue the missing girl.

Simpson's series includes amazing details of life in late 19th century New York, from the gilded parlors and ballrooms of the upper classes to the horrific conditions in the tenements, alleyways, and brothels.  This particular book is darker in tone than the previous one, and covers a distasteful topic, the sale of young girls into prostitution, which, sadly, is still with us today.  But Simpson writes very sensitively about her topic, and conveys a sense of what these girls had to face without being excessively graphic.  In a way, the suggestion of what they went through is more powerful than being shown the gruesome details.

Prudence and Geoffrey are very sympathetic characters, and the reader wants them to get together (although Lowry is rather appealing, as well).  Prudence often puts herself in danger and doesn't tell Geoffrey where she's going because she knows he will try to stop her.  Not to give away too much, but she is lucky she gets out alive.  There are several wonderful characters who are regulars in the series.  I have already mentioned Dr. Sloan, the female Quaker doctor.  Also important is Danny Dennis, an Irish hansom cab driver, who drives around the city with his magnificent white horse, Mr. Washington, and has a network of street urchins who run errands for him and help Prudence and Geoffrey with their cases.  Ned Hayes is a former policeman who was forced off the police because of alcoholism and because he saved the life of one of the leaders of New York's criminal underworld.  He is an old friend of Geoffrey's and uses his connections to the criminal gangs to help him and Prudence in their investigations.  I highly recommend this book to people who love historical mysteries.  It stands on its own, and it is not necessary to have read the previous books in the series.  I have not read all of them.  It certainly made me want to go back and read the ones I've missed.

The Dead Cry Justice is available from the Recreational Reading Collection at the Art, Architecture, and Engineering Library.