Hattie Davish is a professional private secretary -- her typewriter and her shorthand skills are less important in the long run than her discretion and absolute loyalty to her employer. In the first three books of this series (A Lack of Temperance, Anything But Civil, A Sense of Entitlement), Hattie's embrace of this profession has set her aside as an unusual woman in the 1890s: one who is confident in her value and willing to take risks to protect her employer's life or reputation. Thus, Anna Loan-Wilsey brings us an "amateur sleuth" whose motives for investigating crimes (or even just extreme social disgrace!) are strong and compelling on behalf of the wealthy persons who pay for her services.
In this fourth book in the series, though, Hattie is on her own -- her employer is away, and she's abruptly responded to a request to return to her own hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri, where she attended Mrs. Chaplin's School for Women and developed her self-reliance and skills. She believes she's been asked (discreetly) to support her old schoolmate and friend Ginny, whose father has died. But things feel "off" somehow":
Ginny didn't show any visible signs [of sorrow] that I recognized: red-rimmed, puffy sad eyes, and bowed, trembling shoulders. [Instead,] Her countenance bore deep-seated dismay or displeasure and not grief. She hadn't even been holding a handkerchief. The Ginny I knew would've been inconsolable, not simply put out.For Hattie, being on hand for her friend was reasonable, despite the trip of halfway across the country from home. "When I'd learned of her father's sudden death, I didn't hesitate to attend the funeral and do whatever I could to ease her pain." But chapter 1 ends with Hattie's remarkable statement: "Now, after seeing the wrong body in the coffin, I wish I had never come."
Had she changed that much in the time that I was gone?
There's much more wrong that a misidentified death in St. Joseph. Hattie's former teachers recruit her to visit the students and set an example for them -- everyone knows something about her recent investigative adventures! -- and almost immediately, she learns the school is in chaos: financial troubles that may involve fraudulent bookkeeping, damaged textbooks, distressed staff members and overexcited students.
The unanticipated reappearance of Hattie's suitor from her student years unsettles things further, but Hattie isn't just independent: indomitable and determined are traits she embraces. Even insisting that the rather frightening staff of the local State Lunatic Asylum allow her to look inside is something Hattie can handle, though her own past makes the experience doubly frightening for her.
Loan-Wilsey threads gentle humor into the suspense, without ever diminishing Hattie's dedication to truth and justice. Like her earlier books, this one is an enjoyable, satisfying read, meeting all the best expectations for a traditional mystery: red herrings, mixed motives, characters who have secrets (and what about Hattie's own?). No need to read the others first, though -- the books are nicely independent (like Hattie!), and although they are clearly well researched, the history never gets in the way of Loan-Wilsey's best skill: spinning a good story with ample rewards in the reading.