Cover Image: Molasses Murder in a Nutshell

Molasses Murder in a Nutshell

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Member Reviews

I’m very interested in Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies, and I thought this was a fun premise. Not a huge historical fiction fan, so otherwise, this wasn’t really for me. Set during the aftermath of the Boston Molasses Flood, a society lady helps solve a woman’s murder with the help of her medical examiner friend. I didn’t love how she was framed in the novel, like she was tagging along on Jake’s work, which he only allowed because he had a crush on her. Idk if that was true, but I didn’t think the author gave her enough credit as a professional. Again, maybe that was the case, but it just felt a little dismissive.
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I loved this book a story I'd never heard of but very interesting. Well written and a page turner. Highly recommend
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The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 took many lives. One of its victims, however, may have already been dead - Her murder luckily hidden by the ensuing tragedy. Will Fanny, a wealthy divorcee, and Dr. Charles McGrath - Medical Examiner for the city of Boston -  manage to solve this messy mystery?

A well written, fast paced historical mystery. Great fun to read. Will definite keep an eye out for further books in this series!

Thank you Net Galley for giving me the opportunity to read this,
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The Nutshells have always fascinated me and when a mystery ties them to the 1919 Molasses disaster, an event that also got my attention, well I had to read Molasses Murder in a Nutshell. The death of a woman, the sister of her housekeeper, found after the flood draws Frances Glessner Lee into the case as she turns to her friend, Dr. George  "Jake" Magrath, the medical examiner, to catch the killer. The tool she uses is a diorama (nutshell) of the scene of the crime. 
Over time, working with Dr. Magrath, she learned forensic science and created the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. She became known as the Mother of Forensic Science. Nutshells are still in use today. (nutshells were featured in a recent episode of NCIS) Between a well crafted murder mystery and learning more about Frances "Fanny" Glessner Lee, this was a captivating read. 
My thanks to the publisher Level Best and to NetGalley for giving me an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.
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This historical fiction tells the story of a disaster in 1919 when a huge molasses tank in Boston exploded, literally burying the immediate area in molasses. The explosion released two million gallons of molasses.

Interwoven were both fictional characters and those involved at the time, including the local medical examiner, Dr. George (Jake) Magrath. A man ahead of his time.

The main character centers around Frances (Fanny) Glessner Lee, a privileged and naïve socialite. It is Fanny’s housekeeper who discovers her sister in the muck—not a victim of the molasses—but something even darker.

Fanny must circumvent the police chief (whose wife died under suspicious circumstances) to get to the hard truth of her death and uncover what might have been catastrophic negligence.

I really liked the character of the medical examiner—he was not one to jump to any conclusion. Fanny’s expertise was in “miniatures” which she used to help her housekeeper envision the discovery scene of her sister.

The historical disaster was combined with a fictional mystery in a well-plotted and paced narrative. The sensibilities of the time appear to be authentic, although there were times I got impatient with Fanny.

A good start for a new historical fiction mystery series. I’ll be looking for Book 2.
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3.5 out of 5 stars

Molasses Murder in a Nutshell is a semi-cozy historical murder mystery that follows real-life famous Frances Lee Glessner in a fictionalized account of what led her to start her Nutshell Studies. 

In 1919, the streets of Boston were covered in Molasses after a large tank horribly ruptured. A great many were injured and there had been casualties, but one of the bodies discovered among the rubble doesn’t seem like it died during this catastrophe. Frances "Fanny" Glessner teams up with her old friend Dr. George "Jake" Magrath to uncover the truth, even if it means ruffling up a few feathers among the Boston high society.

The novel starts out slow as it sets the scenes and draws out the backgrounds of the protagonists and some of the minor characters. Things get more fast paced as you go past the 50% mark, and I found the second half to be unputdownable.

The plot was a bit predictable and it was easy to guess who the culprit was early on but there were a few red herrings thrown in that served as a rather okay distraction. But it was still enjoyable nonetheless. 

I did have a few issues with some characterizations. Gerry Doyle proved to be an invaluable character but I was not a fan of how he was pushed aside and shrugged off at the end (his life was equally as in danger as Fanny’s by then) and I wondered about his fate more than I did with Jake or Fanny (because while they are the protagonists, they are also privileged and Doyle was logically the easier, less-privileged target). The character development for Fanny was great but a weird leap from sheltered ignorance to suddenly having the intuition that Jake should have. And her character development might have been at the expense of Jake’s. While the events after Edwin’s arrest highlight the strength in Fanny’s and the flaws in Jake’s personalities, they were at the opposite end compared to when the novel started. It was a struggle for me to find it believable. 

But overall, this was a good read. Slow to start but quick to finish. The end, while bittersweet, is I think an appropriate ending. The research for this was impeccable. The historical events of the 1919 Great Molasses Flood were mostly accurate, as well as the real-life figures that were included as characters. 

Molasses Murder in a Nutshell is highly recommended for history nerds who are a fan of murder mysteries.
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A good historical mystery, based on a fascinating idea, and compelling.
The mystery is solid, the characters well developed and the I liked the storytelling.
Many thanks to the publisher for this arc, all opinions are mine
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Thanks to the publisher and netgalley for the ARC! 8.5 out of 10
I really enjoyed this book (and will be looking for other books from this author) - it was quite out of the ordinary. Readers who like historical 20th century mysteries should enjoy. Good for fans of Laurie King and Barbara Hambly.
I had never heard of the Boston molasses flood before, and the author uses this event to imagine a meeting / partnership between two historical people.
Fanny is middle-aged and divorced and moves to Boston to get away from her family - she's looking for some meaning in her life after WWI and the flu epidemic. She reconnects with a former acquaintance, Jake, who is now the medical examiner in Boston. 
They get involved in trying to unravel several deaths that may or may not be connected to the problem with the molasses company.
Both characters are based on real people, and details like miniature crime scenes and rudimentary forensic techniques are historically accurate. The description of the locations and society is super-realistic. I'm pretty sure this is a one-off, which is too bad, but it was a fascinating look at a very pivotal point in history.
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" don't find the truth by jumping to conclusions based on the first thought that comes into your head, or, even worse, based on dislike for a person involved...All too often, that's just what's done."
"If you wait and just accumulate the facts, they will build up a story all their own...sooner or later the truth will crystallize out of the facts."

Boston, North End. January 15, 1919.
-Maggie Ryan lived in a boarding house, having left her brutal and judgmental husband, Police Detective William McKenna.
-Maggie had not visited or called her sister, Theresa Ryan, for over a week.
-Theresa initiated a safety check, finding the door to Maggie's room open.
-Empty alcohol bottles were on the bathroom floor.
-Maggie was fully dressed, in the bathtub, water pouring into her eyes. Her stockinged legs were splayed over the tub.

An immediate rumbling...the floor rattled....Theresa was pushed "into a thick liquid smelling of gingerbread or baked beans...a heavy wave...filling her mouth, nose and ears...molasses...A big tank of the stuff stood across the street from the boarding house...".

Molasses was used to make industrial alcohol for munitions. Offloaded from ships, it was stored in a huge tank for later transfer to a refinery. The sides of the molasses tank had exploded and left "people waist-deep in melted candy...the elevated platform was crushed...the train tipped off the tracks...".

Wealthy matron, Frances "Fanny" Glessner Lee was dining with Dr. Jake Magrath, medical examiner. She followed Jake to the scene of the disaster. Fanny recognized her housekeeper, Theresa, resisting assistance and crying that her sister, Maggie was under the rubble of wood and bricks. "Maggie was gone already when it happened. She was in the tub underwater. They'll think it was the molasses, but it wasn't. She was dead already." The body would be taken to Jake's morgue. What was it like to be Jake Magrath and do investigations and come to conclusions on how people had died?" Fanny, at present, managed a home for soldiers returning from war. Although the work suited her, she would rather have attended Harvard Medical School like Jake. "Rushing off to the scene of a disaster in the slums of a city...would not be approved by her family."

The purpose of a forensic investigation is said to "convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find truth in a nutshell." Fanny promised Theresa that Maggie's "unexplained death must be explained." Maggie had been a secretary in the offices that owned the molasses tank. Was she silenced by the company? What caused the molasses tank to explode....Bomb? Accident? Intentional Malice? Negligence? A rush to judgement by Detective McKenna, claiming that anarchists were responsible, created additional chaos and obstructed the investigation.

Frances Glessner Lee, heiress to the International Harvester Fortune, led a protected life. Dollhouse making was a hobby cultivated among society ladies. Fanny had previously constructed a miniature of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra complete with instruments and musical scores as a gift for her parents. Perhaps the re-creation of a miniature, detailed bathroom would assist in determining Maggie's cause of death. A fascinating historical fiction read.

Thank you Level Best Books and Net Galley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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