A Murder on Jane Street by Cathy Cash Spellman

By Ekta R. Garg

July 17, 2019

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Release date: July 16, 2019

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it / 2.5 stars

When an elderly woman is murdered, her ex-cop neighbor investigates the strange circumstances. The deeper he digs into her life, the more he realizes his neighbor was anything but an ordinary person. As his family and friends pitch in to help solve the case, they’ll find themselves on high alert in the middle of a larger plot. Veteran author Cathy Cash Spellman debuts in the mystery/thriller genre with the well-intentioned but wieldy, bulky novel A Murder on Jane Street.

After decades as one of New York City’s finest, retired police chief FitzHugh Donovan is enjoying ownership of an independent bookstore. He lives in a charming brownstone with his daughters and his granddaughter, and for the most part he’s content. While he’s friendly with their next-door neighbor, Mrs. Wallenberg, they haven’t formed a close friendship.

Fitz is shocked, then, when Mrs. Wallenberg calls him one day sounding frightened. She insists that someone is targeting her, and she wants to leave important materials with him in the event that she dies. She asks if he can stop by on his way home from the store, but Fitz doesn’t know what to think. Why would someone go out of their way to kill a little old lady well into her nineties?

By the time he checks on her, it’s too late. Mrs. Wallenberg is murdered in a gruesome fashion. From her house, Fitz retrieves a packet addressed to him of mysterious documents, and he realizes that one of them is written in invisible ink. It turns out to be a journal and reveals that Mrs. Wallenberg led quite the life before migrating to the United States from Poland decades earlier.

Her journal warns of a global conspiracy dating all the way back to World War II, Hitler’s plans to take over Europe and beyond, and the complicity of Allied countries in hoaxes and cover-ups. For 75 years she’s kept secret evidence of it all, but she knows those on the wrong side of justice have long memories.

Fitz is quickly joined by his daughters, granddaughter, and several friends in finding Mrs. Wallenberg’s killers. The longer they pursue the truth, the more they realize that the global scale of the operations means the wrongdoers will stop at nothing to keep their secrets. Fitz and Co. will need to be careful with who they approach for help and who they trust if they want to stay alive.

Author Cathy Cash Spellman’s efforts succeed within a limited range. The story introduces endearing characters, but Spellman brings on so many to solve the murder that at one point readers may forget names or who does what. The book tries to tackle science, history, the supernatural, present-day politics, and police procedure; the various elements, like the various characters, may overwhelm the target audience.

Worse, at some point readers may feel the need to skim ahead, and Spellman’s didactic writing approach means reading every single page might be unnecessary. The characters gather at regular intervals to meet and “update” one another on their progress as they work to uncover the secret plots. What happens is, essentially, an update for the readers.

Most of the big action happens “off stage,” so readers only find out about big discoveries via these updates or character conversations. The result is that the book feels less like a heart-stopping murder mystery and more like an interesting newspaper feature article—in multiple parts—after the fact. It doesn’t help that the characters spend the bulk of the book doing research into Mrs. Wallenberg’s journal and her claims. Readers never get a clear-cut answer on what the brave cast was going to do once they uncovered the complicated, webbed truth.

In a book that makes the characters call out the Allied powers in World War II for secretly supporting the Germans, the tone is upbeat and optimistic in a Nancy Drew kind of way. While Fitz and family all know they might run into dangerous factions, the book’s tone never lets the reader doubt that in the end the Donovan family will come out all right. The lack of major conflict throughout the book confirms this; the characters run into dangerous elements a total number of two times. For a book that tops out at more than 120 (short) chapters, the danger needed to be sky high.

A couple of small factual errors might make some readers wonder what other facts don’t line up with reality. Those plus the long length and the sense that the characters are having all the fun without letting the readers partake in most of it might make some readers shun the novel. I rate the book as Bordering on Bypassing it.