Stefanie Pintoff writes the kind of historical New York puzzle that is a delight for those of us who live here to read. Secret of the White Rose is an incredibly pedestrian title for a book that winds through the filthy streets and dire deeds of Manhattan in 1906 in a classic police procedural. There are hero-detectives, corpses with interesting clues, forensic science, psychological criminal profiling, chases and races against time, political favors and cop-shop politics, broader social issues and red herrings—along with some oddly placed Bibles and white roses invariably stained red. The title makes it sound like a Nancy Drew book but all the women in this novel are pretty tough cookies and a number of them operate according to their own laws.
You can visit the back streets of Little Italy and Chinatown, the legendary Dakota apartment building on Central Park West, Gramercy Park—the keyed greensward and a bordering mansion—Barnard College, NYPD headquarters and the Tombs, its notorious jail. Check out ethnic eateries in the Village and on the Upper West Side, travel up and down Broadway by horse carriage and motor cab, see a shabbier Times Square and generally glimpse the city tourists never see—a century ago. And take these self-guided Gotham History Walks while you’re sifting clues about murdered judges, murderous anarchists, cold-hearted capitalists, boot-strapping immigrants, privileged intellectuals and a deadly code delivered in scraps of music.
Fortunately, many of the well-to-do characters have pianos in their parlors and eye-witnesses are rather chatty when Detective Simon Ziele and his amateur sleuth lady friend Isabella Sinclair are asking the questions. Ziele is convinced that the obvious motive isn’t the homicidal motive and the criminologist who involves him in the murders encourages this line of thinking—until he suddenly goes mum and then removes himself from the scene.
An anarchist’s bomb that was supposed to destroy a wedding party in Turtle Bay that included Andrew Carnegie is motive enough for the police commissioner. The bomb detonated early and killed passersby—a four-year-old boy among the victims has inspired volatile public outrage. But the real story is far older than the recent high-profile crime. The fact that the first judge to die is about to rule on the bombing case is cover for the real killer.
Secret of the White Rose is well-plotted, well-researched, and well-written. It’s a very good book and a fascinating history lesson. The story might remind you of Caleb Carr’s popular The Alienist. It’s in the same vein of historical murder mysteries in which the city that never sleeps only reluctantly gives up its secrets about the victims of its most insidious crimes.
Secret of the White Rose Stefanie Pintoff | Minotaur Books 2011