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Historical Mysteries

Bless the Bride, Rhys Bowen, Minotaur, $24.99.

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Last year the most fun I had "between the covers" was S.J. Rozan's On the Line, a pure blast. This year I think my candidate is Bowen's Bless the Bride, which I read in one sitting, looking sadly at the dwindling number of pages remaining. That's definitely the sign of a great read. In this novel Molly is indeed actually (badly) stitching her wedding dress, along with her future mother in law out in Westchester county, for her marriage to police Captain Daniel Sullivan. She's settling down and preparing to be a good wife. Well, if you've read any of the other books, you already know that's not going to happen, and indeed when Molly gets a mysterious message from her bohemian friends Gus and Sid back in Greenwich Village she makes an excuse and high tails it back to town, leaving her shocked mother in law to consider the fate of her eventual grandchildren wearing "store bought" clothes.

This time Molly's case takes her to Chinatown, an area already covered by Victoria Thompson. While I like and enjoy Thompson, Bowen has a bit more story telling power and this book moves like a rocket. A mysterious Mr. Frederick Lee meets her in the Bowery and escorts her to his boss, a powerful businessman, another Mr. Lee, who wants Molly to try and find a missing piece of jade. At this late date it's hard to imagine that the Chinese were so reviled an Exclusion Act prevented them from bringing their wives - or any woman - to the United States. Chinatown is therefore a pretty quiet place, and the one woman Molly manages to find is an Irishwoman married to a Chinese man. She's lonely and is eager to talk with Molly. While Molly is unsuccessful in finding the piece of jade, her hard work and persistence convince Mr. Lee to reveal to her that he actually is looking for a missing young woman, who he has brought over from China to be his wife. Molly agrees and begins looking through the various Christian missions that ring the area.

As always Bowen brings in her themes of women's rights at the time, highlighted perfectly in this book by Molly's impending marriage to Daniel, and his desire that she give up her job as a private investigator. The theme is also highlighted by the practice of wealthy Chinese men buying wives in China and smuggling them to America so they can produce sons. The more Molly uncovers, the more she's not so sure that returning Mr. Lee's bride to him is the best idea.

While much of the subject matter is familiar - opium dens, for example - Bowen is such an entertaining writer that it simply doesn't matter. Her characters, as always, are memorable, sometimes moving, and always imbued with the snap of authenticity. The plot twists are many, and when Daniel finally discovers Molly's involvement in a case that threatens to blossom into a new Tong war, he is furious, but Daniel and Molly's relationship weathers the storm, both of them choosing honestly over subterfuge.

Molly's struggle to do what's right is always the theme of these novels, and the way Bowen tells her story, it's not always easy or clear for her to figure out the way to do the right thing. In this novel her struggle is whether returning Mr. Lee's young bride to him is the right course, and with her discovery comes a host of other troubles. But this novel, as all the others, winds up concisely and in this case, it winds up, as promised, with a wedding. I think the gifted Ms. Bowen now has me convinced that Molly's marriage won't impede the energy of the series.

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