Thursday, October 11, 2012

Anna Loan-Wilsey, A LACK OF TEMPERANCE - Murder and Adventure Among Women Activists, 1892

Living in the place I love best -- northern Vermont -- does mean I don't travel in the South very much. That can be a drawback: I lack knowledge and experience, other than from a few short visits to, say, Virginia, West Virginia, Louisiana, northern Florida.

But that same gap becomes a plus, when I find a well-written mystery or work of crime fiction that carries me beyond the Mason-Dixon line and brings a location vividly into my mind's eye. Karin Slaughter's Criminal did that for me this year (Atlanta, GA), and so did Julia Keller's A Killing in the Hills (West Virginia); this week, I savored another introduction to a Southern locale, with Anna Loan-Wilsey's debut mystery, A LACK OF TEMPERANCE.

You already know from the review title that this is a "historical" mystery: It takes place as American women struggled to set aside the bonds of the Victorian era, and while women's right to vote (which wouldn't arrive until 1920 in the United States) was still tightly engaged with another "family values" issue -- drinking alcohol. Prohibition, the outlawing of alcohol, would pass nationally before women voted nationally. Like the vote, thought, it was attempted many times locally, and still holds in some "dry" towns.

Loan-Wilsey opens her well-paced and adventurous tale with a scene of fiery risk, as "typewriter" (secretary/administrative assistant) Hattie Davish tries to find her new employer in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Referred to the position via telegram from her previous and much-adored employer, Hattie has no idea who "Mrs. Trevelyan" is, or even how to find her -- the hotel provides Hattie with an adjoining room, but Mrs. Trevelyan isn't on hand to welcome the secretary. What a shock to discover that the tiny elderly lady at the heart of the downtown demonstration, swinging an ax through a saloon window and screeching "Home wrecker!," is Hattie Davish's newest boss. As the police carry off the struggling anti-alcohol campaigner, Hattie's bewilderment vies with a sense of horror. She's expected to work for this?

Yet Loan-Wilsey cleverly captures the elements that readers know can lead rapidly to crime: passion, extreme commitment, public violence, gender battles, jealousy, naked ambition. About the only strong motive not in play is love, and although a touch of lust-with-romance raises its head now and then, A LACK OF TEMPERANCE avoids mushy scenes and instead presses briskly forward, attentive to the complexity of a political organization, a social crisis, and the frictions among and against a large group of committed women.

Soon Hattie herself is seized, literally, by an angry stranger on one of the resort town's near-vertical staircases, someone who's determined to dissuade Hattie from any role in the action:
"Why couldn't you leave it alone?"

"Let me go."

"Why couldn't you keep your stupid mouth shut?"

"Let me go!"

I kicked out and struck a blow with the heel of my boot. The figure yelped, releasing me from his grip. Futilely grasping for a hold, I screamed, powerless to stop my backwards fall. For a few heartbeats, I was airborne. I tried to brace my fall with my hands but my knee hit first, tossing me hard onto my back farther down the stairs. I gasped for breath. Something wet dripped down my face and I could taste blood in my mouth. Cold air pierced the exposed skin on my shoulders and legs; my stockings were in shreds. My right foot was tangled in the torn hem of my dress. My knee throbbed and the palms of my hands stung. I could feel what was left of my bonnet crumpled beneath me, the ribbon still attached to the hatpin in my hair.
(That sure puts those dated clothing items in their place, doesn't it?) Hattie's a tough cookie, and this won't slow her down. Is her new employer missing? Languishing in jail? Hiding? Davish is on the trail, and a mere brush with death won't stop her.

Harding Springs
When I finished reading A LACK OF TEMPERANCE -- which I enjoyed very much -- I checked on whether Eureka Springs was an actual place. Indeed, it is: A "Victorian resort village" with steep winding streets, it sounds like a Martha's Vineyard village turned vertical (there's my New England background coming through, sorry), and it includes more than 140 springs! Small wonder that it is both a location of Native American significance and a place where people sought cures from "the waters."

Moreover, the town for a short time was the home of Bible-toting Temperance campaigner Carrie Nation, who swung a hatchet along with her Good Book. I'm delighted to have discovered this patch of vibrant American history, in the midst of reading a lively "amateur sleuth" novel.

Carrie (Carry A.) Nation
One more detail: Although this is technically a debut book for librarian/information specialist Anna Loan-Wilsey, I can't believe it's her first book; there must be a  thick stack of earlier manuscripts in a drawer (or on a hard drive). A LACK OF TEMPERANCE brings an Ozark town and a good mystery to life, and promises more of the Hattie Davish mysteries to come. (See the author's website for details...) Well done!

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