Narrative Biography of a Trailblazing Lawyer Turned Detective, Almost Lost to History

Book review: Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, by Brad Ricca (Amazon / Book Depository)

Newly told stories of women who have faded into the annals of history despite significant contributions from their life’s work are becoming an increasingly popular, welcomed trend. Author Brad Ricca’s Mrs. Sherlock Holmes covers one such story – that of Grace Humiston, a New York City lawyer in the early 1900s who earned the title’s nickname thanks to her investigative abilities. She was also the first female district attorney in the US. Even more amazing to consider that she accomplished all this before women even had the right to vote. If there was ever a biography that needed written, it’s hers.

Ricca tells Grace’s story in a bifurcated narrative: It begins with the 1917 disappearance of 18-year-old Ruth Cruger, who lived in Harlem with her family and had been picking up ice skates after getting them sharpened. Grace got involved after the police gave up, solving the mystery of what happened to Ruth. In alternating chapters, Ricca portrays the arc of Grace’s incredible career before switching to a narrative of the tense, progressing investigation of Ruth’s disappearance. The case is a multi-layered, twisty-turny one, involving other criminal narratives of the time, from mistrust of immigrants to kidnapped women forced into prostitution. It also provides a fascinating look at media of that era, particularly its sensationalist aspect.

Interestingly enough, especially considering her newspaper nickname, Humiston wasn’t actually a detective. She worked with one, though – a Hungarian-born investigator named Julius Kron. He was one of several on her dedicated team, whose undertakings ranged from missing persons and murder investigations to death penalty defense cases.

“No, I never read Sherlock Holmes,” responded Grace, laughing. “In fact, I am not a believer in deduction. Common sense and persistence will always solve a mystery. You never need theatricals, nor Dr. Watsons, if you stick to a case.”

The book is a mishmash of related stories and historical threads, but they’re brought together exceptionally well, and there were so many unbelievable and engrossing side stories. Because it’s fairly information-dense despite the well crafted narrative structure, it’s one to read slowly and pay careful attention to, especially given the shifting perspectives and storylines. This is a challenge, though, because it’s so good that it’s hard to put down.

And it’s just fun to read. I would liken it to watching a film unfold, including its alternating chapter structure. It could get confusing – I had to return to chapter openers and remind myself where in time it was, but it didn’t feel different than when this happens onscreen. The history it brings to life is vivid and fascinating, and I’m surprised that Grace’s incredible story hasn’t been more widely told.

Born with some money and a good name, she graduated from Hunter College (my alma mater!) and after divorcing her first husband, attended law school at night at NYU (the only law school in the city then admitting women). She went on to work tirelessly on legal cases for the poor, founding the People’s Law Firm in 1905. It was while defending an Italian woman accused of murdering a man who tried to rape her that she began doing detective work out of necessity, and turned out to have impressive skills here.

She died more or less in obscurity, surprising considering the media frenzy around her for years. Her personal life doesn’t get much coverage, but I’m not sure how compellingly it could be told – the author makes clear she was a workaholic, and notes, “She had made her work the immense adventure of her life.”

Grace was a major advocate against capital punishment, and the book covers some of her work in providing legal counsel for the wrongfully convicted (earning her legal team the charming nickname the “Emotionalists”). Her work was trailblazing, and the impressiveness of her accomplishments is underscored by the challenges she inherently faced by nature of her gender, and considering that she was working in a traditionally male-dominated, macho field.

This included having to defend her skills merely because she was female. The media preferred spinning a narrative that she had some uncanny feminine intuition that led her in the right direction, rather than the ability to analyze clues and deduce facts from stories and circumstances – you know, like a man could.

I’ve noticed that some folks are saying that I found the body because I followed my intuition. Every time a women does make a discovery somebody pipes, ‘Intuition!’ Let me say that, in this instance it was just plain everyday common sense on the part of Kron and myself, backed by a determination to keep going until the case had cleared up.

How frustrating it must have been.

Ricca inserts some unconfirmed emotions (Grace didn’t leave prodigious personal materials) into his storytelling to create a cohesive narrative, but he’s transparent about his method. It ends up feeling seamless, for the most part, not as eye-rolling as when Erik Larsen does it (the most unpopular opinion, I know, but I didn’t care for either book of his I’ve read and could’ve thrown The Devil in the White City across the room, with all its speculative melodrama.)

His explanation in the author’s note clarified it reasonably: “While the larger events here have been investigated and presented as truth, there are still connections that had to be imagined—small gestures, moments, and emotions—that are laid over an infrastructure of facts. This is a story about real people, not just their vital statistics.”

I don’t love speculation in any form, but that makes sense, and it was well incorporated and not unreasonable, and it did make for a brilliantly readable narrative.

As much as I like skimming Goodreads to get an idea of whether a book is or isn’t for me, this one proved how subjective that is. If I’d only considered Goodreads reviews I would’ve skipped it entirely as it’s fairly low rated. I’m not even sure why, aside from people complaining they can’t follow it (dual narratives aren’t always beloved, and certain books just don’t work on audio), or that Grace was twice-divorced so doesn’t deserve the author’s hero worship (UGH). It won the Edgar for Best Fact Crime of 2018 and got the Kirkus star so seemed worth a shot, and I’m so glad I read it. It’s a fantastic example of narrative biography and narrative nonfiction in general, and an incredibly compelling, page-turning read, but one that should be read slowly to better absorb it all. It’s worth it. 4.5/5

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes:
The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation

by Brad Ricca
published 2017 by St. Martin’s Press

Amazon / Book Depository

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27 thoughts on “Narrative Biography of a Trailblazing Lawyer Turned Detective, Almost Lost to History

  1. Have never heard of this and normally I would pass on it, but you have given it such a great write up I am sold! Am also astounded by your work rate, every time I drop by there is a new review, which is just marvellous!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh thank you! And here I thought I posted much less than others. I set myself the goal of 3x a week, I thought any more than that and I would burn out, I don’t know how others are so prolific! I really loved this one, it wove in so much interesting history and all the work this one woman did was just incredible. I loved learning about it.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha I’m sorry for that! Mine does too every time you share your nonfiction picks! This was one was really good though, I promise. One of those you think you’re just going to read a little of and I spent a weekend on the couch with it, it was so absorbing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I remember you told me that! It’s been so long since I bought fiction that I hadn’t really noticed. I also love secondhand books and buy them on Amazon all the time, which keeps costs lower for me in addition to the library, but I know not everyone is crazy about secondhand. Do you subscribe to all the ebook deal newsletters already? Those really help too, and some little bell is ringing in my brain that this one might’ve been one such deal before. I subscribe to the ones through BookBub, Riffle Books, Early Bird Books – those will save you some serious money!

        I’m excited to hear your thoughts on Heartland! I thought she was a great storyteller and it’s very thought-provoking.

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      2. I don’t really read ebooks much anymore so that saving avenue isn’t much of an option. I do use amazon secondhand though, that’s where I got Heartland. I’m also using Audiobook services – I was gifted a 3 month scribd membership and I’m making full used of that. I’m currently listening to The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, these stories of wrongful conviction always shock and anger me!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oh I didn’t realize you didn’t do ebooks, I thought for some reason you did, sorry! I read The Sun Does Shine a couple months ago, haven’t gotten around to posting my review yet…what an insane story! I can’t understand at all how he was convicted. With that dusty gun!!! It’s enraging. And I’m in awe of how much he’s done since his release, what an amazing, resilient person.

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      4. I used to read ebooks a lot and still do occasionally but I have so many print books to read my ebooks rarely ever get a look in so Ive stopped buying/getting them because they sit unread.

        Whenever I read these wrongful conviction stories I’m always so shocked at how recent the releases are, like sh*t this is current stuff!!!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I know what you mean, I buy ebooks and as soon as they’re pushed off the main page of my reader they’re out of sight, out of mind until I’m specifically reminded of them for some reason. I love physical books but with uncertain moves in my future and a lot of moves in general in recent years, I’ve learned to love them!

        And I agree, no matter how many of these wrongful conviction stories I read (feels like so, so many) I’m horrified and shocked anew, and especially that it’s happening so recently. I can’t remember if you’ve read Just Mercy or not, but it’s a must-read if you haven’t. It was phenomenal, and so inspiring to see the work the author is doing to help in this area.

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  2. I definitely want to pick this up! I love stories about forgotten women and I’m generally a fan of dual narratives. I enjoyed Devil in the White City, but I did feel like Larson was trying a bit too hard to create drama and I was pretty shocked by him making up complete scenes. Since this author is transparent about where they’re making things up, I’m happy to give this a try 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I keep striking out with Erik Larson! I was particularly irked by the scenes that he made up in Devil. Just bizarre. This book does some speculation, particularly about what people were thinking/feeling, but I didn’t find it egregious. It felt like what he described worked, it seemed a natural extension or overlay on the facts that he had and I didn’t mind it. And I liked that there were side dives into other stories that ended up being just as interesting to me as the main central disappearance case the narrative is built around, although I can see where the different directions might confuse or annoy readers. But I thought all of the context worked in making it a better biography and picture of the times. Would love to know what you think of it!

      Liked by 2 people

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