The Great Mrs. Elias

Barbara Chase-Riboud. Amistad, $26.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-301990-4

Chase-Riboud’s revelatory if uneven saga (after Hottentot Venus) draws on the true story of Hannah Elias, a Black woman who rose from poverty in early 20th-century New York City to become a landlord and proprietor of high-class brothels. City planner Andrew Green is shot on the street in 1903. His killer, Cornelius Williams, says he did it because Green stole his sweetheart, Bessie Davis, whose identity Hannah had shed 15 years earlier. Since then, Hannah, now 38, has transformed herself. She passes as Cuban, is awash in expensive gowns, and lives in a gilded palace, thanks in part to her much older millionaire client John Rufus Platt. As the police investigate Hannah in connection with Green’s killing, she relives her past as Bessie, who once rented a room to Cornelius at her boarding house. She also flashes back to her impoverished youth in Philadelphia, where she worked in a brothel and gave up her child. Back in the present, Hannah is dismissed from the murder case, but she’s not out of the woods: Platt falsely charges her with blackmailing him out of $685,385. The narrative is too long and too baggy, but Platt’s betrayal and the question of how the whole story fits together will keep readers holding on through the doldrums. It also offers a different perspective on a story recently covered in Jonathan Lee’s otherwise more accomplished The Great Mistake. Despite the work’s flaws, the author deserves credit for her vivid character portrait. (Feb.)