“…convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell…”
In January 1919 tank bursts in Boston’s North End, flooding the neighborhood with molasses. When a woman is found murdered in the wreckage, Frances Glessner Lee asks her old friend, medical examiner Dr. George Magrath to help exonerate a young serviceman. He’s a resident at the home for returning soldiers on Beacon Hill that Fanny has come from Chicago to manage. Frustrated by her lack of education and skills, she wants to clear the young man’s name and find the killer. Will creation of a miniature crime scene lead to the truth? It’s the best she can do.
This is the first in a series of fictional stories roughly based on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Over twenty miniature crime scenes were used from the 1940s to the present to train police detectives. Set in the 1920s, these stories imagine Frances Glessner Lee working with Dr. George Magrath to learn about “legal medicine” as forensic science was known at the time. Working with Magrath provided the foundation for the miniatures for which Frances Glessner Lee has become known as the Mother of Forensic Science.
This historical fiction story features a real-life event back in 1919 when a huge molasses tank in Boston exploded, literally burying the immediate area in molasses. I had no idea that molasses, which I enjoyed in childhood in various homemade concoctions, was used to make industrial alcohol for munitions during WWI. The explosion released two million gallons of molasses on the Boston wharf.
I appreciated the way the author took a true event and weaved a mystery into a story, creating characters both fictional and those developed from persons involved at the time, including the local medical examiner, Dr. George (Jake) Magrath. A man ahead of his time.
The main character centers around Frances (Fanny) Glessner Lee, a privileged socialite who decided she needed to do something for the boys returning from the war and is engaged in a halfway house to assist them in their return home. It is Fanny’s housekeeper who discovers her sister in the muck—not a victim of the molasses—but something even darker.
It’s a volatile period of political unrest, alarm at the numbers of foreign anarchists creating chaos, as well as abusive police power, the coming of prohibition, and women suffragists.
Fanny must work hard to circumvent the police chief (whose wife died under suspicious circumstances) to get to the hard truth of her death and possibly uncover what might have been catastrophic negligence.
I really liked the character of the medical examiner—staunch in his efforts at remaining outside the influence of powerful politicians or wealthy businessmen. He was not one to jump to any conclusion.
“If the law has made you a witness, remain a man of science: you have no victim to avenge, no guilty or innocent person to ruin or save. You must bear testimony within the limits of science.”
Fanny had a sheltered and privileged upbringing, bringing naiveté to her investigation and collaboration with Jake. These two were childhood friends and Fanny being divorced, I expected somewhat of a background romance. Fanny’s expertise was in “miniatures” which she used to help her housekeeper envision the discovery scene of her sister.
I enjoy reading historical fiction, particularly based on real life, and the author’s imagination created a well-plotted and paced narrative. The sensibilities of the time appear well described, although there were instances of impatience with Fanny as she tried to separate social privilege from her escalating independence.
While I’m not wholly sold on Fanny (or her miniatures), I did enjoy Jake. He’s smart, science-driven, and exhibits a caring heart. I’ll be looking for Book 2.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the author and publisher through @NetGalley that in no way influenced this review. These are my honest thoughts.
Rosepoint Rating: Four Stars
Genre: Historical Mysteries, Historical Mystery, Women Sleuths
Publisher: Level Best Books
Print Length: 283 pages
Publication Date: January 10, 2023
Source: Publisher and NetGalley
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The Author: Author of the Nutshell Murder Mystery series set in Boston
#1 Molasses Murder in a Nutshell (set January 1919)
Author of the Emily Cabot Mysteries set in Chicago
#1 Death at the Fair (set in summer 1893)
#2 Death at Hull House (set in winter 1893-94)
#3 Death at Pullman (set in spring/summer 1894)
#4 Death at Woods Hole (set in late summer 1894)
#5 Death at Chinatown (set in summer 1896)
#6 Death at the Paris Exposition (set in spring 1900)
#7 Death at the Selig Studios (set in spring 1909)
#8 Death on the Homefront (set in spring 1917)
#9 Death in a Time of Spanish Flu (set in fall 1918)
Frances McNamara is a former librarian who lives in Boston and Cape Cod. Like her protagonist, she was born in Boston but spent some years in Chicago at the University of Chicago Library.
©2023 V Williams