Still Life With Murder is the first of six books in the Nell Sweeny Mysteries series by P.B. Ryan. This novel starts just as the Civil war is ending. Nell Sweeny is a surgical assistant to Dr. Greaves in Cape Cod. Before working for him, Nell was born into an impoverished family and had taken up with the wrong man. She is thankful that Dr. Greaves gives her free room and board in exchange for working as his assistant. Despite her dark past, she is very clever and a quick learner.
One stormy night Dr. Greaves is called to the palatial summer home of the wealthy Hewitt family to deliver one of the servant’s babies. In a strange turn of events, the servant declares she does not want the newborn girl and Viola Hewitt says she will adopt the child. Mrs. Hewitt then asks Nell to move to Boston to be the child’s governess. Even though Nell does not have the necessary educational background, the offer is too good to pass up. She comes to care for Grace as if she were her own child.
Mr. and Mrs. Hewitt had four boys. The two oldest, Will and Robbie, both died while prisoners in a horrific Confederate prison camp. Three years after the war ended, the Hewitts are shocked when their attorney tells them that is Will alive and in Boston living under a false last name. Unfortunately, he has been charged with the murder of a man outside a business that is a combination of a house of ill repute, a gambling hall, and an opium den. Will is found kneeling over the dead man and the case against him seems fairly clear.
Mr. Hewitt never cared for his eldest son, he has paid off the police detective to make sure Will is found guilty and hanged. Mrs. Hewitt, who still loves him, decides to help Will without her husband finding out. She enlists Nell Sweeny to do whatever is necessary. Knowing that her governess job is at risk if Mr. Hewitt discovers her actions, Nell must proceed cautiously. Unfortunately, Will, who is now an opium addict, refuses to cooperate. Even though she makes several wrong assumptions along the way, Nell is finally able to figure out whodunit. [I had it figured out before she did.]
I enjoyed this novel, with one exception. There is an excessive amount of time spent discussing opium. We learn in great detail about how and where opium is consumed, the effects of the drug, lethal doses, etc. There are also minor descriptions (not graphic) of attempted rape, sex with prostitutes, a child being sold by an opium-addicted parent, and gambling over dogs fighting with rats to show the undesirable company Will has been keeping.
4-Stars. This is going to be my book club’s August 2021 selection. This novel was first published on July 1, 2003. I listened to the Audible audio which was 9 hours and 37 minutes long.