That is the question.
And if you are in upper-class turn-of-the-century New York, no less, that is ultimately the core issue in Victoria Thompson’s Murder on Lexington Avenue.
I had expected an historical novel, and in a sense that’s what this is. In another sense it’s a murder mystery, as the title suggests. In particular, it’s… well… not exactly a cozy, but it veers close to that sub-genre.
I liked it anyway.
Apparently this is the nth book in a series, where n = 12, but I haven’t read any of the previous 11 (nor the subsequent 12) in the series. With that knowledge I would say that it works as a standalone. The plot and characterization hold up well, and the setting is particularly convincing — not that I know a whole lot about New York in 1898, but everything rings true. Clearly the author has done her research. An important plot point revolves around two competing private schools for the Deaf, one that teaches ASL and one that is strictly oral. Thompson handles minor (and not so minor) details well, whether it’s the difficulties of public transportation in that era or the not-yet-popular mechanical pencil or the political impossibility of charging the rich and powerful with a major crime, despite the recent tenure of Theodore Roosevelt as NYC Police Commissioner. Lives of the wealthy in late Victorian times are reasonably familiar to us, at least as portrayed in fiction, so there’s nothing too surprising about the extensive role of servants — although I was a bit taken aback by one character’s definition of a ”cottage” as “a house that can be operated with only three servants.” (Of course the so-called cottages in Newport would have taken a lot more than that, so I guess it’s reasonable.)
The writing is mostly rather pedestrian, at least in the first third of the novel; it could use some editing, but what else would one expect in a series of 24 books written over 22 years? The important thing is that this book captured and held my attention. What you really want to know, I’m sure, is how well the author handles the controversies about signing and oralism — both from a current perspective and with the attitudes of a century ago. The answer is, she handles them amazingly well. The novel is written with a modern sensitivity and a Victorian sensibility, not an easy combination. Although Thompson explains in the Author’s Note at the end that she was careful not to take sides, I think it’s clear that this is a pro-ASL story. Or maybe that’s just my bias showing through.