These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

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These Shallow Graves is a historical mystery novel set in New York. It follows the story of Jo Montfort as she investigates her father’s untimely death and finds herself in over her head and experiencing the dark side of the city she thought she knew. Jo finds herself some unlikely companions to assist in her amateur detective work: a handsome but poor journalist, and a Sherlock-esque mortician. Risking her life and her reputation (rather naively) Jo won’t let anything stop her from solving the mystery of her father’s death.

As a fan of her previous writing in The Tea Rose series, I had high hopes for Donnelly’s latest book These Shallow Graves. This latest novel is aimed at Young Adults as opposed to being a historical romance and I think that accounts for a lot of the differences. It is a simpler story, with the mystery element taking the focus and the love story working alongside it. I wasn’t convinced by the protagonist Jo in this story and not so drawn in to the setting of New York as I was to the setting of London in The Tea Rose. However, it is an intriguing story and entertaining as a whodunnit. I guessed fairly early on who it would be, but it’s well plotted and not too too obvious. I always find that’s part of the fun!


There is a theme of stories and the power of journalism to shed light on issues of inequality and injustice. Jo wants to be a journalist and of course the handsome Eddie Gallagher is a journalist who wants to tell the real gritty stories and expose the corruption in the city. There’s more of a chance of him being successful in this simply because he is a man and Jo is expected to marry well and live happily ever after – her interest in writing is seen as a strange quirk.

My favourite characters in the novel were Oscar, who works at the morgue, and Fay who is a pickpocket. Oscar seems to have borrowed some of his qualities from Sherlock Holmes. He’s matter of fact and uses what I would call deductive reasoning to help Jo and Eddie know what really happened in a number of deaths. He’s also his own character though, more of a kind and thoughtful person than Holmes is ever depicted to be. Oscar doesn’t make assumptions about Jo being improper because she is out and about with Eddie, rather he considers her one of the boys. Fay is a fabulous character. She has been raised by The Tailor who is one of the high level criminals in New York. He takes in children and dresses them to blend in in different areas where they pickpocket people and bring home the earnings. Fay is his most valuable protégé and she pops up all over the place in the novel, always impressively disguised. Her friendship with Jo is one of the lovelier parts of the novel and I love how she teaches Jo a thing or two about self defence and pickpocketing so that she can defend herself a bit.

The main thing that bothered me about the book really was Jo’s naivety. She takes a really long time to get her head around anything seedy or untoward and she has no idea how much she is endangering her reputation by gallivanting about the city at all hours of the night.  It definitely highlights how sheltered girls were in this time in the upper echelons of society but I just happened to find it annoying.

Other than that element, I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it. I know a lot of my students would love it because it has that gritty edge and lots of action and danger alongside a bit of romance. I do think it’s maybe aimed more at girls! I’ve seen some lovely hard cover editions out and about at a few local bookstores so keep an eye out for it!

My Rating: 3/5

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