The sense of place is so strong in some crime novels that their setting—London, Paris, St. Mary Meade—practically becomes one of the characters. You get a good example of that in RJ Koreto’s new mystery, The Greenleaf Murders, in which a Manhattan Gilded Age mansion takes on that role. It’s a non-speaking part, of course, except that the house does seem to speak to the book’s protagonist. She’s a young woman architect planning the top-to-bottom renovation named Wren Fontaine. Not only that, this mansion has secrets to tell.
Koreto introduces plausible antagonists drawn from the nature of Wren work. For example, a downmarket property development firm that renovates (on the cheap) historic homes and turns them into Bed-and-Breakfasts. The developer’s representative has her eyes on the Greenleaf property, despite the pall of neglect hanging over the mansion now. The owner, Steven Greenleaf, is cagey about his plans for the building, but he’s firm on the point that the only current resident, his elderly Aunt Agnes and her companion, Mrs. Ryan, will keep their small apartment. Mrs. Ryan, née Murphy, is the last of a long line of Murphys with an intimate—possibly too intimate—connection to the Greenleafs. For generations, the Murphys worked for the family as maids, drivers, kitchen help, and now, companion. It’s a shared history with all the twists and reversals you may expect, starting with the long-dead corpse Wren finds in the attic.
The police check it out, but, really, they’re more concerned about twenty-first century crimes, and their interest picks up when the property developer turns up dead, shot by the same gun that killed the attic corpse a century before.
Digging for clues to the killings that will help her understand the house gives Wren the opportunity to interact with some interesting secondary characters. There’s Mrs. Ryan’s son, patient Sergeant Ortiz from the NYPD, and a historic preservation purist who knows more about the details of the house than it seems he should. And, there’s a descendant of one of the original owners–a member of the prominent Vanderwerf family. These characters liven up the story, as Wren herself tends to brood. Mostly, she worries she doesn’t have the people skills needed for her job. Houses, ok, she can relate to them, but people? Luckily for Wren, Heather Vanderwerf has every intention of bringing her out of her shell.
The story moves along steadily, but at a stately pace suitable to the mansion itself, as Wren amasses information and develops her theories. I liked Koreto’s writing style and could envision the house and its influence on the characters, though, at times, the dialog seemed contrived to move the plot forward.
To me, the house and the story seem to say we don’t really escape the past, and more of it is with us all the time than we recognize or acknowledge. Wren, with her dedication to preserving the past, as reflected in the homes people designed and lived in, understands this better than most.
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Know someone who loves rehabbing old houses or Gilded Age New York? They’ll love this!