Shadow and sunshine: here are two (two!!) new historical mystery series launches, both taking place around the turn of the twentieth century. One is on the darker side and deals with larger social questions beyond the actual mystery; the other is about as light and frolicsome as you can get. Well, you know, aside from the actual murder. When you think about it, it’s kind of astonishing how frothy a book can be when it has a murder at the center of the plot. A decorous murder, the kind that takes place offstage and you never even see the body. But I can’t help it, I love the decorous puzzle mysteries as much as the ones in which murder is serious and touches on broader questions about society. And, as I say, we’ve got one of each here. The game’s afoot!
Let’s start in the shadows with A Death of No Importance, by Mariah Fredericks. Set in Manhattan in 1910, we are no longer skipping about in the Gilded Age, but are firmly ensconced in the Progressive Era, where social unrest and reform abound. It’s told in first person by Jane Prescott, who works in Manhattan as a lady’s maid, and has just entered the employ of the Benchley family, whose family fortune simply screams its raw newness. The daughter, Charlotte, attracts the interest of Norrie Newsome, the son of one of society’s richest families, who may or may not already be engaged to a young woman whose family’s social prominence makes up for its declining fortunes. Norrie is found murdered on the occasion of a glittering Christmas Eve ball during which Charlotte believes their engagement will be announced. Jane. with her unique upstairs/downstairs perspective, has to figure out who to trust as she tries to solve the case. The motive could be personal against Norrie himself, but it could also have to do with who the Newsomes are and the possibly unsavory ways in which they made their money. Jane is a cautious, prudent young woman who cares about doing the right thing and protecting the innocent. Her persistence pays off as the mystery takes her in directions she never imagined. I would love to meet Jane again and see where her detecting skills take her in future adventures.
Moving into the sunnier atmosphere of the second series launch, Dianne Freeman’s A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder, which already sounds — and is! — a lot more frivolous, in the best possible way, we meet Frances Wynn, the Countess of Harleigh. Originally from Akron, Ohio (hey, a shout-out to the Rubber City!) she has married into the British peerage, bringing with her… wait for it, wait for it… an enormous American Gilded Age fortune. This is 1899, which still counts as the Gilded Age in America, but I guess we have to call it Late Victorian here, since the novel is set in England. We meet Frances when she has been widowed for a year and is just casting off her mourning to rejoin society. But she has bigger plans than just discarding her widow’s veil. She is ready to take control of her own life… and money, which leads to problems with the new Count and Countess, who seem to wish her to remain in the family for the sole purpose of drawing on her bank account. Frances leases a house in London and is joined by her sister Lily and her Aunt Hetty, in from New York to give Lily her first London Season. Thievery and anonymous letters and suspicious suitors add to a plot rich in historical detail. I especially enjoy Frances’s voice and the first-person narration, and look forward to more from this author.
There’s so much to look forward to when you enjoy a book that’s a series launch. And here we have two of them! Enjoy!