Molasses Murder in a Nutshell (A Nutshell Murder Mystery)

Written by Frances McNamara
Review by K. M. Sandrick

Minutes after Theresa Ryan finds her sister Maggie dead in her bathtub, the floor beneath her rumbles and caves, and waves of thick, muddy sludge rise up. The liquid is molasses, which had been stored in a nearby industrial tank before being shipped out and used for manufacturing ammunition. It is Boston, January 15, 1919, the time of the Great Molasses Flood.

Theresa’s employer, Frances “Fanny” Glessner Lee, comes to her aid and is drawn into the investigation of Maggie’s death, along with Dr. George Burgess “Jake” Magrath, medical examiner of Suffolk County. To help Theresa remember and Jake reconstruct the scene of Maggie’s death, Fanny creates a miniature diorama of the bathroom, the first in a series of Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths.

Molasses Murder in a Nutshell is the first in a new series of historical mysteries by McNamara, who is known for the Emily Cabot mysteries set in early 1900s Chicago. The plot is built on historical facts and figures. The flood released two million gallons of molasses in Boston’s North End, caused extensive damage, injured 150 people, and killed 21. Dr. Magrath performed autopsies on disaster victims and later testified about his findings. Lee is considered to be the mother of forensic science. She created 18 dioramas for Magrath’s lectures on forensic science at Harvard. (McNamara acknowledges taking liberties with the history. Lee constructed her dioramas in the 1940s.)

A few lengthy back-and-forth dialogues border on tiresome, and a couple of scenes are a little clumsy. But overall, Molasses is a real treat. Settings and back stories about the time period run smoothly. Particularly delicious is the unexpected denouement. This reader, for one, looks forward to the next Nutshell mystery.