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Death at Hull House Paperback – December 1, 2009
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In the late nineteenth century, after Emily Cabot is expelled from the University of Chicago for actions occurring while clearing a man unjustly accused of murder, she obtains a position at Hull House, assisting Jane Addams in the operation of the famous settlement house for immigrants on the West Side of Chicago. Soon after she moves in, a man who had come to see her is found bludgeoned to death. Concerned that her younger brother may be involved, Emily launches her own investigation. Meanwhile, her brother, convinced that the man who murdered their father has fled to Chicago, does some sleuthing of his own. Details concerning the operation and the people of Hull House, along with an overview of the deplorable living conditions faced by immigrants (and the lack of concern for the poor expressed by the city’s businessmen and politicians), give this novel a rich historical framework, made all the more poignant by the portrayal of the smallpox epidemic of 1893. McNamara’s historical mystery will appeal to those who enjoyed Ann Stamos’ Bitter Tide (2009), about the immigrant experience in New York City. --Sue O'Brien
From the Back Cover
After Emily Cabot is expelled from the University of Chicago, she finds work at Hull House, the famous settlement established by Jane Addams. There she quickly becomes involved in the political and social problems of the immigrant community. But when a man who works for a sweatshop owner is murdered in the Hull House parlor, Emily must determine whether one of her colleagues is responsible, or whether the real reason for the murder is revenge for a past tragedy in her own family. As a smallpox epidemic spreads through the impoverished west side of Chicago, the very existence of the settlement is threatened and Emily finds herself in jeopardy from both the deadly disease and a killer.
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The tension of the plot in "Death at Hull House" is further heightened by the outbreak of smallpox among the workers and their families in the filthy, rat-infested tenements which they are forced to share as shelter. In this, the government as well as its police, refuse to enforce basic laws about working conditions as well as vaccination and quarantine of diseased victims. According to author McNamara, the power of the owners is absolute, profit their only motive.
Add to that rich stew, the discovery of an assassinated body in a main parlor at Hull House -- a murder that frightens the residents (most of whom are women) with a perpetrator who continues to elude discovery. There are, of course, a smattering of high-minded men among the Hull House defendants, a doctor and university professors, etc. There is also Emily's troublesome brother to contend with. But, compared to the suffering of the workers and their families, solving the murder becomes almost a minor issue. Ms. Mcnamara has written an engaging yarn, pulling together threads of a bleak time in American history -- a time of stark distance between the "haves" and "have nots."
Chicago, the "Second City" had its own history as vivid (e.g., its World Fair was closing down during those years) as those of New York, but the author ignores much of that. Although I was glued to the narrative, I felt the characterization, more of the inner feelings of primary players was not as fully portrayed as it might have been. The prose itself I found almost reportorial, "not as "writerly" as one expects in a novel. Still , the subject and information of "Death at Hull House" is sure to capture you and hold your attention beginning to end.
Mystery and history - could there be a better combination?
The story has been described in earlier reviews and I will not repeat it here. The pace is strong tho' the ending felt a bit rushed or cut-off. The true black-guard is easily recognized by diligent readers of mystery and might have been made less transparent. These criticisms aside, "Death at Hull House" is an enjoyable, informative read that left me satisfied and eager to read McNamara's other books in the Emily Cabot series.