Bowen’s Molly Murphy mystery tales are notably entertaining for their trenchant observations of turn-of-the-century life, most notably New York’s Edwardian society and its rigid social mores. A modern-thinking individual, private investigator Molly loves Daniel Sullivan, who is poised take advantage of his new career opportunities as a
member of the New York Police Force. Molly also finds herself increasingly frustrated at her inherent lack of freedom and independence.
Although officially “owned” by Daniel, who sees his wife’s role
being to cook and clean and look after their upcoming baby, Molly does miss her days as a private investigator.
She is able to keep in touch with her best friends, Sid and Gus, both passionate supporters of the suffrage movement, and her colleague Sarah Lindley, who volunteers at a settlement house in the slums of the Lower East Side.
A recent letter from Ireland asks Molly to look into the disappearance of Irish maid Maureen O’Byrne. Maureen’s relatives are worried as they haven’t heard from her in a while.
Though a small voice whispers dire warnings in Molly’s head not to deliberately undermine Daniel, she’s distracted by an empty baby carriage and a screaming woman--and a feeling of panic and dread. Someone is kidnapping babies from poor families in the Lower East Side, and Daniel suspects the work of
a small gang who may have stumbled upon an easy way to make money.
Feisty Molly proves strongest when her investigative skills are unleashed.
The growing mystery draws Molly into an investigation that coincides with a visit from Mr. John Wilkie, head of the newly formed Secret Service. Wilkie is looking for Molly’s brother, Liam, who is wanted on a capital charge in Britain and is rumored to be working for the Irish Republican Brotherhood movement. Asked to work as a spy to ensnare Liam, Molly senses that her beloved brother is in terrible danger.
With the city far too dangerous for a woman of such a delicate nature, Daniel packs his wife off to the leafy hamlet of Elmsford and into the officious bosom of his mother. Molly tries to retrace Maureen’s last movements, the trail leading her to front door of the wealthy Mainwaring household and then to a local convent, a closed order of nuns where Molly begins to suspect foul play. Deliciously gothic like something out of the Middles Ages, the convent was once used as a fever hospital but now gives residence to homeless girls who find themselves “in the family way.”
In this landscape of old, distinguished families and “black crow” nuns, Molly can hardly enjoy the tranquility of the countryside. The unfolding drama adds to her simmering frustration
at finding herself powerless in Westchester County, suspended in a giant limbo of summer heat. Loyal Gus and Sid give assistance in a case of many unraveling threads as Molly soon discovers
that a poor, red-haired girl was indeed forced to hide her shame with the nuns.
Bowen has a shrewd eye for the genteel politics of the era and for the many restrictive mores encapsulated
in a close-minded patriarchy that refuses to recognize a woman’s right to vote. Bowen’s
greatest success is in creating female characters with so many different voices who keep pressing on while touched and somewhat transformed by the rippling effects of time and circumstance.