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