Book Review: These Shallow Graves

Book Review: These Shallow Graves


Book: These Shallow Graves
: Jennifer Donnelly
ISBN: 978-0385737654
Publish Date: Oct 27, 2015
CC Rating: 5/5

Summary & Review:

Josephine Montfort lives at the height of society in the late 1800s—she has a wealthy family, an exceptional upbringing, and even prospects for an upcoming marriage proposal from one of the most desirable suitors in New York. But her beautiful world turns dark when her father is found dead in his study, and the police declare it a suicide. Something about his death bothers Jo, and after a bit of investigating, she comes across a shocking truth: her father was murdered. A teenage girl in her position of society doesn’t have the same freedoms that men do—it’s unbecoming of young ladies to be out at night, spending time with the lower classes, visiting morgues, and investigating suspicious business affairs.

Being caught could ruin her family and all the things in life she loves, but Jo can’t let a murderer go free, especially when other people start turning up dead. With the help of Eddie Gallagher, a poor reporter looking for a career-making scoop, and several other people Jo wouldn’t normally dream of associating with, she’s willing to do anything to find the truth behind her father’s death.

These Shallow Graves was a fascinating read from start to finish, full of unexpected turns and unique characters. As a mystery novel, I had fun piecing together the facts as Jo came across them. Despite my theories I had a hard time figuring out the truth about the murders. The pacing was quick and smooth, which made it easy to read for hours on end. I especially enjoyed the thought and knowledge put into the subject matter. Jennifer Donnelly obviously spent a lot of time researching her topics. The medical forensic expertise of Oscar, for example, was written with confidence and obvious knowledge.

She also does a fantastic job capturing the late-Victorian setting, with fitting dialogue, appropriate clothing and environment, and even references to real people of the time. My only complaint was the speed of relationship development between Eddie and Jo—they’re crazy about each other after only two or three investigative outings together. Much of their relationship drama was not incredibly believable, since it’s resolved immediately and with only a line or two the misunderstanding explained. Even their last big argument seemed a bit forced. Eddie does not seem to acknowledge how someone in Jo’s social position has very little freedom of choice. Other than that relationship, however, I enjoyed Donnelly’s novel, plot, and colorful cast of characters from start to finish. I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in the Victorian aesthetic as well as lovers of a good mystery.

Creative Writing Analysis: Setting

Most people think of setting as just the physical environment of your word, but having a truly engrossing setting goes so much deeper than that. When thinking about setting, you should not simply say “setting: modern day city” for your novel. Setting includes buildings and weather of course, but also the details of the people who live in those cities. Clothing, for example, is an important aspect of setting, since it helps to capture the culture and social mood/tone of that world.

Even dialogue can play an important factor. Without thinking of the deeper parts of setting and worldbuilding, the characters don’t feel like they’re an authentic inhabitant of that world. Everything comes off as artificial. Characters are products of their environment, and that needs to be reflected in what they wear, how they act, and how they speak.

In These Shallow Graves, Donnelly did an excellent job of capturing the late-Victorian New York setting by not just thinking of New York as a city, but as a place defined by its people. The upper class live in drastically different settings physically than the lower classes, for example, but they also speak and dress differently, too. If they all acted the same, regardless of the physical buildings they live in, the setting would mean nothing since it’s not reflected in its inhabitants. The setting would feel fake, like a cardboard cutout on a set.

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