by Sandra Murphy
This week we have reviews of four more mysteries from Penguin and Kensington that take us back into the past-Murder in Murray Hill by Victoria Thompson, Murder on Amsterdam Avenue by Victoria Thompson, Mrs. Jeffries Serves at Six by Emily Brightwell, and Murder at Beechwood by Alyssa Maxwell. Details at the end of this post on how to win copies of all four books, and also a link to purchase them.
Murder in Murray Hill by Victoria Thompson
Review by Sandra Murphy
In nineteenth-century New York, the lines are drawn clearly between upper class and servants, the gentry and public servants, the rich and the poor, and the pretty and the plain. Sarah Brandt crossed the line when she, a society woman, married a doctor and became a midwife. Her ties to much of polite society were severed when she remained a midwife after the doctor died.
Frank Malloy, well, he never had such privilege. He’s Irish and that means he’s a cop. What else can they do? The police are known to be heavy drinkers, heavy-handed and lazy—and not above stealing from victims or taking a bribe.
Things are changing, though. Sara and Frank are to be married as soon as they can find a place to live. There are other complications—he inherited money, lots of it. There’s no way he’ll be able to stay on the police force once the news is out. But he’s not cut out for spending his days at the club, reading the paper and smoking.
It also affects Sarah. Since she will be married and moneyed, will she still midwife? Frank’s son is profoundly deaf, so she’ll have to learn to sign. Her daughter is already picking up some words. Then there’s Frank’s mother. She’s taken care of the boy since he was tiny, takes him to school each day, and is proficient in sign—better than Frank, to tell the truth. She won’t be able to stay in her little apartment any more than Frank can stay at the police department.
Who knew love could be so complicated?
Frank’s current (and last) case turns out to involve love, too. A woman has gone missing and although her father says she had no outside interests, Frank discovers she’s answered a personal ad in the paper. He has a feeling this could end very badly indeed.
Just as Frank is making progress, news of his inheritance makes the newspapers. He’s fired from the force but feels he must keep his promise to the woman’s father to find her. The detective assigned the case isn’t very interested, so Frank tries his best to work around him.
Gino, a former police officer Frank worked with, is back from the war. He’s not sure he wants to be a cop anymore—after all, Italians aren’t really welcome on the force. On the other hand, what will he do? Frank enlists him to help on “just this one case” and before you know it, they’re practically a detective agency.
The more they investigate, the more they learn that this is not just one missing woman. The victims of a type: they have money, not much in the way of relatives who will look for them, and are plain women with little hope of marriage but a great desire for love. There are over a dozen in all.
While this mystery is darker than most, it’s intriguing to learn how society worked among the classes and how Frank and Sarah, with the help of Gino and Maeve (Sarah’s live-in help and friend), work around the rules. For all the stuffiness of some of the society matrons, there are those who admit they are bored and want to help. The case ends with a satisfying if unusual conclusion and Frank must decide what’s next.
Sarah and Frank are a delight as a couple. I foresee a romance between Gino and Maeve as well. Frank’s mom? Well, she’s a terror, but might soften if handled just right. It’s a nice change of pace to read a tale from before cell phones, fast cars, and Google.
This is book sixteen in the Gaslight series, the paperback of last year’s hard cover. Murder on Amsterdam Avenue is the newest, available now in hardcover.
Murder on Amsterdam Avenue by Victoria Thompson
Review by Sandra Murphy
As we saw in Murder in Murray Hill, Frank, a former cop, and Sarah, a former society woman, now midwife, are trying to find their way as a couple. They’re also a couple with money, friends they don’t want to leave, a neighborhood they like, and a love of mystery.
One of Sarah’s former acquaintances, Charles Oakes, has died suddenly. He was a young man but didn’t recover after a weekend of illness. His father, Gerald, is sure it was murder and hires Frank to find out who did it. Since Frank no longer has any influence with the police department, he can’t arrest anyone. It’s decided he’ll discover who did it and let his client decide what happens next.
Frank realizes what Gerald does not—if it was murder, the likely suspect is a member of the household. Autopsies are not performed automatically, so Frank has to find a way around that. When arsenic is found to be the killing agent, Frank’s work really begins.
Gerald’s a heavy drinker. It’s understandable after his son has been murdered, but Frank’s sure it started long before. Gerald married Jenny during the War Between the States. As the northern army marched further south, they burned plantation homes as they went. When they reached Jenny’s home, she told the soldiers she was the only one of her family left. While displaced servants often followed the soldiers, it didn’t seem appropriate for Jenny to do so. Gerald declared his love and sent her north to his surprised (and disapproving) family. Charles was born soon after. Jenny stayed out of society’s limelight, which only made rumors fly faster.
Suspects in Charles’ death include a recently hired maid, Daisy. She knew Jenny from their plantation days—in fact, she was a slave there. It’s assumed she resented the fact that Jenny was rescued and lives in luxury while she was left behind to fend for herself. Killing Charles would be her revenge. Hannah, Charles’ wife, is not grief-stricken. She’s put out because Charles had promised to take her to Newport for the summer and didn’t. He also took a job at a mental hospital—how gauche! None of her friends have husbands who work. It’s just too too embarrassing for words. Charles could have been poisoned while out of the house, which would explain the first two bouts of illness but not the final one. Since Daisy was the one to tend to him then, how could she not be the killer?
On the home front, Frank and Sarah have found a house but it needs a lot of work. Someone needs to be on hand to supervise the workmen. After all, they know Frank has money—so why not drag the job out a bit and make a little more for themselves?
The family is settling into new routines almost daily it seems. Maeve is there to help with the case and handle things at the house. Gino is working with Frank and making eyes at Maeve. Frank’s mother is on hand along with his son. If only the house could be finished!
This is another satisfying tale, lighter than the last but still clearly showing the prejudices of the times. It’s number seventeen in the series and readers are assured that it’s not the last. In fact, look for Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue in November—a reward, according to Thompson, for loyal readers of the series: two books in one year. In this one, Gino and Maeve will play much bigger roles. I’m looking forward to it.
Mrs. Jeffries Serves at Six by Emily Brightwell
Review by Sandra Murphy
This is three books in one. First published about halfway through the series (thirty-three books so far), it’s nice to revisit of some of the most interesting cases.
Mrs. Jeffries is employed as housekeeper by Inspector Witherspoon of Scotland Yard. He was brought up middle class—no servants—but inherited money, a house, and servants. He’s not sure what to do with them, but Mrs. Jefferies always knows. He’s taken to talking about his cases with her over a glass of sherry before dinner. He finds it clears his mind and puts things in better order when he does.
Poor man, little does he know Mrs. Jeffries and the rest of the servants are investigating below-stairs, as it were. After all, who knows more about what goes on in a house than the servants? Since the inspector isn’t used to having servants of his own, they have a bit of free time on their hands, so why not help out?
Sergeant Barnes has suspicions and drops hints to Mrs. Jeffries from time to time. She, in turn, passes along gossip she “just happened to hear.” Gradually, the secret spreads as more people figure out what they’re doing. People do like to help and be on the inside, so the word never reaches the inspector—not that Mrs. Jeffries thinks he’d disapprove or forbid it, but why take a chance?
The book includes Mrs. Jeffries Pinches the Post, the tale of Harrison Nye’s death. He wasn’t a nice man and probably won’t be missed, but the inspector is determined to find the killer. Mrs. Jeffries and the rest of the servants are eager to help. Truth be told, they enjoy the cases more than the inspector does.
In Mrs. Jeffries Pleads Her Case, an engineer is found dead of an apparent suicide. Something’s not right, though, and it takes all the investigating and ingenuity the police and the servants can muster to solve what is truly murder.
The final book-in-a-book, Mrs. Jeffries Sweeps the Chimney, features a dead vicar found propped up against a church wall. It’s not his church—he just only returned to the country hours before. No one admits to seeing him between his arrival and death, so who could he have offended enough to want to murder him?
Mrs. Jeffries, the cook, the footman, the maids, and more, are a delightful bunch. The inspector, well, he’s a nice man, perhaps not the brightest. He never suspects that Mrs. Jeffries is feeding him information by the spoonful during their sherries. He honestly thinks he’s worked out the solutions on his own, although he’s often not sure exactly how he came to the conclusion.
Once you get used to the class divisions and the lack of technology, the mystery will carry you along. Most of all, it’s the friendships between the servants and their need to protect the inspector that make you want to read more. The books don’t have to be read in order—just make sure you don’t miss one.
Murder at Beechwood by Alyssa Maxwell
Review by Sandra Murphy
Emma Cross is between social classes, so to speak. She’s a poor relation of the Vanderbilts, so she’s the recipient of hand-me-down gowns and invitations to lesser events. As a reporter (society news only) for the Newport Observer, she gains entrance to the better events, strictly so the rich can brag about how well they live.
Emma is astonished to find a baby left on her doorstep. She is known for taking in strays of all kinds—like Stella, a former “companion” to lonely husbands, or Katie, her maid and friend. Nanny is there too, which is handy considering the baby will need a lot of care.
Emma suspects that a single, upper-class woman had a baby—but not a husband. She’s determined to find out who the mother is and why she gave him up. As society reporter, she can ask who was in town for what event and, more notably, who was gone for any period of time with no explanation.
Emma’s old friend Jesse is a police officer. She’s helped (he says hindered) investigations in the past. He stops by to tell her there was an accident (or not) and a groom or liveryman was killed not far from her house. She suspects his death and the baby’s discovery are related.
During a lawn party at Caroline Astor’s Beechwood mansion, the men are set to enjoy a sailboat race. A storm blows up and the boats are tossed in the waves. Derrick, the man who proposed to Emma (and was turned down), goes overboard. Emma’s watching through binoculars but it’s impossible to tell who’s who with all the rain. Derrick is pulled from the sea but another man is lost. It’s Virgil Monroe and his body is not found.
Of course, it’s assumed to be a sad accident, but frayed ropes on the sails prove otherwise. Since Virgil and his brother had switched positions on the boat just before sailing, who was the intended victim? Virgil was a nasty man with enemies. He was known to use and abuse women other than his wife, was determined to divorce her and leave her penniless, and was hated by his oldest son. There were rumors of misdeeds in his business life, too.
Emma is determined to find the killer, since Derrick is a suspect as well. Derrick could have held Virgil underwater to drown him rather than try to save him.
As the household becomes more attached to the abandoned baby, Emma knows it will be hard to give him up, even to his own mother. Still, one must try.
Given her poor-relation status, Emma must tread lightly to snoop into society affairs. She also has to dance between the attentions of Derrick and Jesse without giving up her own freedom. They both think they know what is best for her, but she loves her independence more than she loves either of them.
Emma, Nanny, and Katie, with the inclusion of Stella, make a great team to care for the baby. More than the mystery, it’s the drop-in visit at Emma’s to find out what’s new in town, in society, and in their lives, that draws readers back.
This is the third book in the series. Murder at Marble House was reviewed for KRL. Look for Murder Most Malicious, the first in a new series called Lady and Lady’s Maid mysteries, in January 2016.
To enter to win a copy of all 4 Golden Age mysteries, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “golden,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen June 20, 2015. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.
Click on this link to purchase any of these books: