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Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Orphanmaster

The Orphanmaster
Jean Zimmerman
Viking, 2012

Blandine von Couvering is now 22 years old, but she was orphaned at a young age and pretty much raised herself. That’s how she came to know and love Orphanmaster Aet Visser, who was like a father to her. In seventeenth-century New Amsterdam, orphans were put under the care of an orphanmaster, who ensured they were taken care of by foster families and safeguarded any inheritance the child may have left after the death of his or her parents. Blandine is now a “she-merchant” and does pretty well for herself buying and selling furs. Most of the traders are so surprised to be competing against a woman that she can usually make a good deal before they realize what has happened.

When an eight year old African American orphan goes missing, nobody seems to care, so Blandine enlists the help of the Orphanmaster to find out what happened. Before they know it, little Piddy’s body turns up dead, and then more orphans are abducted and killed. One manages to escape, however, and spreads the story of a very tall half-man, half-beast creature that eats its prey. This sets off a panic in New Amsterdam. Parents keep their children inside where they can watch them and accusations start to fly. Among the accused: the Orphanmaster himself, who is shocked that anyone would think he could ever hurt his baby ducklings.

Meanwhile, a stranger shows up in town: Edward Drummond, who is masquerading as a businessman but is really an undercover spy hunting down traitors to the British monarchy. Blandine finds that she is attracted to Drummond despite the fact that she is practically engaged to the town’s eligible bachelor. The two join forces to protect the Aet’s name and find out who is terrorizing the town, even if it means that they become the target of the strange creature themselves.

While I enjoyed the historical details and setting of this novel, I found the plot to be quite complicated and the crossing of genres somewhat confusing. Is it a romance? A mystery? A mysterious romantic historical fiction? There are several plot lines to keep track of – and don’t get me started on all the names! (It was all Dutch to me, she said jokingly.) The main characters are intriguing and unpredictable, but I guessed the bad guy about half way through, despite the numerous red herrings scattered along the way. I also found myself a little bored with the drama of it all, and couldn’t wait to get to the end. Not a good feeling.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld (2006)
In 1909, as a sadistic killer stalks Manhattan's wealthiest heiresses, Sigmund Freud is called in by American analyst Dr. Stratham Younger to assist him in interviewing Nora Acton, a hysterical survivor of the killer who can recall nothing about the attack.

The Queen of Bedlam by Robert McCammon (2007)
Investigating New York City's first serial killer in 1702, magistrate's clerk Matthew Corbert contemplates working with an elderly asylum resident who may hold the key to the killer's identity, in a case that is further challenged by the murderer's dark designs for the city.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr (1994)
In 1896, the New York reform police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt asks an upper class police reporter and a psychologist to investigate the serial killer of boy prostitutes, but crime bosses oppose their questions

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