Sunday, October 12, 2014

Well-Told Historical Mystery: MURDER AT MARBLE HOUSE, Alyssa Maxwell

A well-written historical mystery tilts the world and gives us a look at ourselves from a distance, with fresh insight and often delight -- and that's exactly what MURDER AT MARBLE HOUSE provides. The second in Alyssa Maxwell's "Gilded Newport" series, it opens in August 1895 in the upscale resort of Newport, Rhode Island, where the powerful East Coast families of the day enjoyed a life comparable to royalty: grand mansions, flocks of servants, elegant gatherings. Maxwell's cleverly created amateur sleuth, Emma Cross, is a less fortunate member of the wealthy Vanderbilts, but her entrée into their gilded society is still the sort that comes from being "born" into social power. Maxwell positions Emma for her sleuthing by giving her a less-than-simple career as a society-page reporter for the city news -- so that Emma must balance her nose for news against her compassion for her relatives and the people she's grown up with. Good!

MURDER AT MARBLE HOUSE opens with Emma saying a fierce farewell to her most recent love interest, whose shady and deceptive side is now clear to her -- and being invited (or commanded) at the same time by her "aunt" Alva Vanderbilt to persuade a young cousin, Consuelo, to accept an arranged marriage to an English peer. Consuelo, her heart already attached elsewhere, wants nothing to do with the plan. As Emma reluctantly tackles this assignment (which she understands well from both sides), Aunt Alva recruits a performing fortune teller/medium as another way to assure Consuelo of a happy future ahead. But unfortunately the medium is sometimes caught up in what appears to be "real" prediction, including warning Consuelo of possible disaster. And in short order, the medium is murdered and Consuelo vanishes. Emma Cross's investigative skills and discretion are instantly essential!

I enjoyed particularly Emma's careful working relationship with her friends on the police force, like Detective Jesse Whyte, who arrives on scene well aware of the clout of the Vanderbilts:
... the expression on Detective Jesse Whyte's face make my stomach sink. ... The moment our gazes met, his ironic expression proclaimed he'd not only realized I was once again caught up in a murder investigation, but that he wasn't the least happy about it. ... Jesse's first words to me dismissed any doubt I might have had about his sentiments. "Really, Emma? So soon after last time? Is this something you particularly enjoy?"
An essential of a well-told amateur sleuth mystery is a compelling reason for the protagonist to dabble in such risky business. Emma's motive comes from her attachments to both sides of the "Gilded Newport" society: old friends from school who work in blue-collar jobs, whether as police or maids to the wealthy, and relatives who exert control over the money and power in the town. It's a good strategy, and Maxwell's clever plot twists interact smoothly with Emma's conflicts of personal interest. (A hint of romance now and then sweetens the mix, too!)

Pick this one up for a nice traditional read from Kensington, which keeps expanding its list of enjoyable mysteries. There's a wealth of insight into the social structure of the women in particular in this era and situation, as well as plenty of romping through risk, some danger, and much puzzling out of what could have led to murder. Don't look for fully authentic-to-the-time dialogue, though, as Maxwell's pace soon trims away the frills in order to move her personable and smart sleuth into the investigation.

I'll look for Maxwell's earlier book in the series, Murder at the Breakers, and will also look forward to the sequels in the series!

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