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Flashback: Still Life with Murder

May 17, 2007

Still Life with Murder Boston 1868: The wealthy are enjoying the height of the Gilded Age–but not all are wealthy. As governess to the Hewitt family, Irish immigrant Nell Sweeney is sent to discover the truth behind the rumor that their son–thought to be killed in the Civil War–is still alive and in prison.

1st in the Gilded Age series
Author: P. B. Ryan
ISBN: 0-425-19106-0 (Berkley)
Finished 29 May 2006
Who: Governess Nell Sweeney and Dr. William Hewitt
When: September 1864; February-April 1868

Wonderful book. I loved the practical Nell and her flawed and tortured admirer, William Hewitt.

Though the author did a great job in bringing the Gilded Age to life, I felt we spent way too much time in the opium den itself, and learning how to prepare the drug for smoking. At times I was very frustrated with William and his habit. And I’m sure Nell was, too. To be fair, the author had to be faithful to the character’s established habits and their consequences. I hope there are less trips to the dens in future books.

Talk about intense couples. “Epic” comes to mind. Will is determined to die for a crime he didn’t commit because he feels he has nothing left to live for. He lost his beloved brother at Andersonville and has no love for the rest of his family. He’s in constant pain, which resulted in him becoming addicted to opium. He refuses to do anything that might help his case and potentially reveal the identity of the real murderer, a friend who has a good future ahead of him. Nell, on the behalf of Will’s mother, is determined to clear him. She hold’s Viola Hewitt in high regard and cannot refuse her anything, even if it angers August Hewitt, Will’s father. Nell also know that young Grace Hewitt is really Will’s daughter, and Nell has long since regarded Grace as the child she never had. She badgers Will at every turn, hoping to make him come to his senses.

It’s the walk in the park that opens the reader’s eyes and hints at what each has come to mean to the other. Will tells her things about his time in Andersonville and she reveals her own somewhat checkered past, though neither reveals the whole truth. Then Nell promises to smuggle opium into prison for Will, if and when he is sentenced to death. And when Will emphatically tells Nell he is the murderer, she faints, something she is not prone to do. If there is any doubt left in the mind of the reader, it’s quickly banished in the last pages of the book: Nell’s distress at the thought of Will committing suicide; Will’s decision to wean himself off opium so Nell won’t have to sneak drugs to him, and the scene in the cemetery, “Can we flirt now?”



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