In his “Brooklyn Heights Crime Series,” set in 1930, former Brooklyn Borough Historian John Manbeck looks at Heights institutions past and present — the docks at the foot of Montague Street, the Hotel Margaret, Patricia Murphy’s Candlelight Restaurant and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle itself — as seen through the eyes of the cops at the Poplar Street precinct house.
In the third installment of the series, “Skeleton in the Closet,” Manbeck sets much of the action at the Long Island Historical Society. If that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because the institution is now known as the Brooklyn Historical Society, although it is still housed in the same landmark building on Pierrepont Street.
As the action begins, a skeleton is indeed found in the attic of the Historical Society. Before you know it, the familiar crew at the precinct has another case to solve.
The cops now have at their disposal a new asset— Sgt. Jerry Burns. A proud Irishman who wears a tam-o’shanter and carries his bagpipes with him wherever he goes, Burns speaks in dialect (“Now, are ye sure you wouldn’t be liking to hear an Irish jig?”) even though his family apparently came to America before the Civil War. Lt. Jared Lewis forbids Burns from playing his pipes but eventually warms up to Burns, whose superior detective skills allow him to infiltrate a group of Irish-American waterfront toughs in Vinegar Hill.
The novel also examines racial politics, 1930 style, when Lewis’ niece befriends a young African-American college student named Jennie. After Jennie comes across a plan by an out-of-state developer to build luxury apartments on the site of a former “colored cemetery,” she receives a threatening note, apparently from the Ku Klux Klan. Without revealing too much of the plot, the skeleton is the link between the two sub-plots.
One of the most interesting aspects of Manbeck’s series of novellas is the historical detail. At that time, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, both mentioned by Manbeck, were much closer than they are today, and many people had fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers who had fought in these conflicts.
World War I was still a recent memory for many people, and many adults in their 30s or older, among them Manbeck’s fictional Lewis and Burns, were veterans of that conflict. The unit Burns fought in, the “Fighting 69th,” was a real unit made up mainly of Irish-Americans.
At one point, Burns, who is new to the neighborhood, comes upon an industrial building with an overpowering, minty odor, and Lewis informs him that it is the Mason, Au and Mangenheimer candy factory – the very building in the North Heights that is a condo today (“Mason Mints” and “Mason Peaks” were both candies made by the company, in case you’re wondering about the lettering that still graces the top of the building, “Peaks Mason Mints.”).
If you’re a fan of historical fiction, local Brooklyn history, crime fiction or all three, check out John Manbeck’s “The Skeleton in the Attic” as well as the previous installments in his Brooklyn Heights Crime Series, “Death on the Rise” and “The Disappearance of Patricia Murphey.” Hopefully, more installments will be on the way. All are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online outlets.