Death of a Robber Baron

Death of a Robber Baron

1.8 5
by Charles O'Brien

View All Available Formats & Editions

Set amidst the glittering enclaves of money, power, and privilege in America's tumultuous Gilded Age, this richly detailed mystery follows private detective Pamela Thompson into an elite world where fortunes are flaunted and scandals are hidden—one body at time. . .

Death Of A Robber Baron

New York City, 1891. In the spirit of Christmas, Mrs. Pamela


Set amidst the glittering enclaves of money, power, and privilege in America's tumultuous Gilded Age, this richly detailed mystery follows private detective Pamela Thompson into an elite world where fortunes are flaunted and scandals are hidden—one body at time. . .

Death Of A Robber Baron

New York City, 1891. In the spirit of Christmas, Mrs. Pamela Thompson has devoted herself to charity work, even taking an orphaned child into her Greenwich Village townhome. Her husband Jack, an ambitious banker, agrees to such generous acts as long as his wife allows him to invest his time—and her trust fund—in more lucrative opportunities. But when he risks their entire fortune on questionable copper stocks, Pamela ends up losing everything: her house, her inheritance, and even her husband. . .

Penniless, Pamela is forced to move into a boarding house in the Lower East Side and accept a position at Macy's—as a store detective. Displaying an uncanny knack for the job, she's asked to investigate a private matter of thievery at a palatial "cottage" in the Berkshires. Ironically, her employer is none other than Henry Jennings, the infamous "Copper King" who sold bad stocks to her husband. But when the filthy rich scoundrel is found dead in his study, Pamela holds herself accountable—for sorting out this whole sordid business of money, motives. . .and murder.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
O’Brien shifts from pre-Revolutionary France (False Patriots and eight other Anne Cartier mysteries) to Gilded Age America with this capable first in a new series. In 1892 New York City, Jack Thompson shoots himself after losing the family money to untrustworthy financier Henry Jennings. Jack’s destitute widow, Pamela, turns to her attorney, Jeremiah Prescott, who’s also a private detective, for work. While patrolling for shoplifters amid the jewelry counters of Macy’s, Pamela favorably impresses Lydia Jennings, Henry’s wife, who invites Pamela to investigate petty thievery at her Berkshires “cottage,” where Henry soon turns up murdered. Pamela and Prescott seek the culprit from a large field of suspects, including Henry’s thieving steward, his gay son, and his ambitious mistress. The novel’s etiquette, relationships, and language are noticeably more casual than its period’s norms, but O’Brien captures the colorful details and varied characters of an opulent era deftly. Agent: Evan Marshall, Evan Marshall Agency. (Aug.)
VOYA - Joanna Lima
In 1893, following her husband's suicide, Pamela Thompson is struggling to make ends meet as she runs a small boarding house in New York City. When Jeremiah Prescott, a lawyer with a detective agency, offers her a job as a detective in the jewelry department at Macy's, Pamela readily accepts the challenge. Pamela's astute observations and her discretion in dealing with upper-class clientele quickly lead to another offer of employment, this time from Lydia Jennings, the wife of so-called "Copper King" Henry Jennings whose unscrupulous business practices have earned him many enemies along with preposterous wealth. Lydia hopes Pamela will discover the author of a sinister, anonymous note that warns of imminent betrayal from within the Jennings household. With help from Prescott and from Brenda, her fifteen-year-old ward, Pamela explores Broadmore Hall, the Jennings's estate, for allies and clues. When Henry is found dead in his study, the list of suspects includes the steward, the pantry maid, a jilted lover, an estranged son, a business rival, and a disgruntled former employee. Pamela needs all of her quick wits to solve the sordid mystery. The historical details in the novel—from department store shoplifting to corruption in the police force to the palatial "cottages" of the Berkshires—almost make up for the awkward pacing of the mystery, but experienced readers of the genre will likely become impatient for the dead body. Recommended for fans of Charles Todd's Bess Crawford mysteries, this Gilded Age Mystery, with its well-developed characters and summertime setting, is a good beach read. Reviewer: Joanna Lima
Kirkus Reviews
A well-born woman is forced to reinvent herself as a private detective in 1893 New York City. Pamela Thompson's business-obsessed spouse lost all their money in a crooked scheme hatched by Henry Jennings, the Copper King. Her husband's suicide leaves Pamela with nothing but a boardinghouse in a bad neighborhood of New York City, where she and her ward, Brenda, a young woman whose abusive father has just been released from prison, eke out an existence. Her life changes when well-connected lawyer, detective and Civil War hero Jeremiah Prescott offers her a job as a store detective in Macy's jewelry department. Her success there ironically leads her to a job at the Copper King's home in the Berkshires, home to the palatial cottages of the wealthy, because the second Mrs. Jennings wants someone to keep an eye on the staff at her beloved Broadmore estate. Pamela and Brenda are happy to escape the city and Brenda's father, who's threatened them both. Pamela's newly developed detective skills are put to the test when Henry Jennings is found murdered in his study. There's no dearth of suspects, since his second wife and his own son, a homosexual his father despised, were both about to be cut out of his will. Although Jennings was a crook and philanderer who treated his staff badly, the local police fasten on a tramp as the most likely suspect. Pamela and Prescott, who has a cabin in the area, must use all their skills to solve the complicated case. O'Brien's debut offers a pleasingly detailed look at the age of the robber barons along with enough strongly characterized suspects to keep readers guessing.
Library Journal
Widowed Pamela Thompson joins the 1893 workforce as a fledgling detective under the mentorship of her attorney, Jeremiah Prescott. Working first at Macy's and showing a knack for spotting shoplifters, Pamela is next offered a position in the Berkshires at the home of copper mogul Henry Jennings. His wife fears servants are stealing, but more than thievery is afoot as Pamela uncovers hints that Jennings's life is in danger. Many hate him with a murderous passion, including the husband of his mistress and his own gay son. Then Jennings's big Fourth of July party goes bust when he is found dead in his study. Pamela isn't so confident about finding a murderer, but Prescott encourages her to "follow the evidence." VERDICT Nicely turned details and engaging characters bode well for the team of Thompson and Prescott. O'Brien's debut is occasionally weighed down by multiple subplots, but the author skillfully weaves in fascinating details about American social history. Pair with Stephanie Pintoff, and also recommend for fans of Rhys Bowen's "Molly Malone" series.

Product Details

Publication date:
Gilded Age Mystery Series , #1
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
8.10(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Death of a Robber Baron

A Gilded Age Mystery



Copyright © 2013 Charles O'Brien
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7582-8636-9




New York City, Christmas Eve, 1891

Pamela Thompson sat in the breakfast room of her four-story town house on West Tenth Street, quiet and sad. A clock ticked relentlessly on the wall. She drank the last drop of her morning coffee, gazed out the window, and sighed. Rain was falling steadily, stripping her backyard garden of its soft blanket of snow. The papers predicted a heavy downpour through most of the day, casting a pall over the preparations for Christmas. She had hoped that an infusion of holiday joy would lift her bleak spirit. On this day a year ago, her daughter, Julia, had died.

Her husband sat across the table, hidden behind a page of the New York Times. "More coffee, Jack?" she asked, then began to pour.

He replied with a belated, distracted grunt. Breakfast together these days was rare and brief. Jack would usually cool his coffee with cream, gulp it down, and hurry off to his office at the savings bank on Union Square. Today, an item in the paper had caught his interest, and he lingered at the table.

"What's so fascinating, Jack?"

He lowered the paper and stared as if surprised to see her there. "Yesterday was Henry Jennings's sixtieth birthday. He rented the largest hall in the Union Club and had a huge, glittering party. It must have cost a small fortune. All the top politicians came and so did the cream of the business world. I would have loved to be there."

Pamela had heard that Jennings was greedy and ruthless, as well as rich. But she feigned polite interest. "What's special about him, compared to other successful businessmen?"

"He has an uncanny talent for making money, even where others adept at finance would fail." Eyes glowing, Jack spoke with almost religious awe of Jennings's triumphs, especially in copper mining. "He's called 'The Copper King' for good reason. He's also heavily invested in railroads and banks."

For a few more minutes they discussed plans for the day. She would work on this evening's holiday program at St. Barnabas Mission on Mulberry Street, a refuge for poor, abused women and children. He had meetings and other chores at the bank. They would spend Christmas Eve alone at home. He finished his coffee, gave her a peck on the cheek, and hurried off.

After breakfast Pamela took a tram to St. Barnabas. Caring for its clients gave her the personal satisfaction she lacked at home. In the mission's chapel volunteers were wrapping presents in bright colored paper and loading them onto a large table. A tall Christmas tree decorated with candles stood in one corner. Evergreens hung on the walls. That evening two hundred children and their parents from the poorest families in the city would gather to sing carols, light the Christmas tree, and distribute gifts.

Assisting the volunteers was Brenda Reilly, a fifteen-year-old Irish girl, one of the children served by the mission. Pamela had looked after her since she was a toddler while her mother, Monica, was working ten hours a day, six days a week, in a garment factory. Four years ago, in January, Brenda's father, Dennis Reilly, had killed Monica in a domestic dispute and had been put in prison. Brenda then became Pamela's ward and moved into the Thompson home, where she lived among the servants while attending school.

Brenda finished wrapping a gift and now approached Pamela.

As she hugged the girl, she suddenly felt a profound sense of loss and began to cry.

"What's the matter, ma'am?" The girl handed Pamela a clean handkerchief.

"Thank you, Brenda." Pamela wiped tears from her eyes. "A year ago this very day I lost my daughter, Julia, to influenza."

"I remember her passing, ma'am. She was my age, a beautiful girl. I'm sorry."

In a few moments Pamela regained control of her feelings and returned the handkerchief. "Unfortunately, Brenda, I can't join the party tonight. My husband and I will honor the memory of Julia at home."

Pamela wished that she and Jack could have taken part. But he would be busy all day at the bank—catching up on paperwork. In the evening, he would be frazzled and not in the mood for high-pitched children's voices.

To draw her husband into a holiday spirit, she would persuade him to join her for a festive choral Evensong at the nearby Church of the Ascension on West Tenth Street and Fifth Avenue. Afterward, they would have a quiet holiday dinner at home. Brenda would spend the night with friends.

At noon Pamela left for home. She prepared gifts for the servants, inspected the butler's cleaning and decoration of the main rooms, and checked on the cook's progress with the roast lamb. Pamela set the table for two.

Dining alone tonight should bring her and Jack closer together. Over the past several months they had lived like strangers under the same roof. With that distressing thought on her mind, she went to her room to dress, determined to look her best. Her personal maid joined her, and they set to work. An hour later, the maid announced, "You're beautiful tonight. Mr. Thompson will surely notice."

Pamela stood before a full-length mirror and gazed with approval at her red satin gown, pearl necklace, and diamond ring. Her thick, lustrous black hair, perhaps her chief asset, was set in a chignon. On closer inspection she detected a few thin silver hairs at each temple, but she declared them to be attractive, natural accents. Aside from certain worry lines on her brow, her complexion at the age of thirty-seven was still clear and creamy. Her dark blue eyes gazed back at her with good humor and generous approval, oddly unmarked by the horrors they had witnessed during her work in the tenements. Her figure was still well proportioned and slim enough for her to do without a corset. Finally, she studied her hands and groaned. Despite frequent, generous application of cold cream, they were still red and raw from chores at the mission. A sour thought flitted through her mind: Why bother? Jack probably wouldn't notice anyway.

She gave herself an encouraging smile, turned from the mirror, and thanked the maid.

When all was ready, she and Jack went to the evening service at the church. The music was glorious. While the choir sang passages from the Messiah, Jack closed his eyes and seemed transported out of his usual anxious attitude. Pamela felt encouraged. Things were going better than she had anticipated.

Late on Christmas Eve, Pamela and Jack sat down to dinner. The table was covered with fine linen and set with their best china, silver, and crystal. Green garlands and red bows hung on the walls. They went through the motions of holiday celebration with joy on their faces, but they were intensely aware of their daughter's absence. For a year, they had coped with grief in different ways. Pamela had increased her work with poor, battered women and children. Jack had thrown himself into financial investments to the point that they consumed him.

This had led to serious tension between them. Each reproached the other for a lack of understanding. After Monica's murder, Jack had only grudgingly agreed to sign Brenda's guardianship papers and allow her to live in their home. With Julia's death his attitude hardened. "Mind you," he had insisted, "Miss Reilly is to remain in the servants' quarters and in no way take the place of our daughter. The memory of Julia is dear to me. I'll not have a substitute diminish it." He had appeared about to become emotional.

"I understand," Pamela had said, but with a mental reservation. She believed that Brenda would eventually win over Jack and gain an honored place in the family.

To please him tonight Pamela had lighted a candle at a place set for Julia. The meal began, however, with awkward attempts at conversation followed by equally distressing moments of silence while the servants plied them with holiday dishes. When the servants finally withdrew, Jack couldn't hold back his secret.

"I must tell you, Pamela, that I've found an extraordinary investment with Henry Jennings. We will become incredibly rich. You will have a new and grander house on Fifth Avenue, and I'll join the Union Club and consort with the likes of J. P. Morgan."

Pamela tried in vain to conceal her concern. During the past year, Jack had made similar announcements, followed by disappointing results. He gave her a reproachful smile. "You doubt me. Well, you heard me speak this morning of the respect that Jennings enjoys among the wealthy and powerful in this country."

"Yes," she granted. "Most of them share his values."

Missing her irony, he lowered his voice, as if afraid that servants were listening. "I've recently discovered that he's secretly investing in a new company, Copper Mountain. It's going to mine a fantastically rich vein of copper in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Investors who buy in early, before the price of shares skyrockets, will make fortunes."

Pamela sensed a dangerous enthusiasm in his voice. She asked guardedly, "How is this an attractive opportunity for you?"

His tone turned defensive. "A few months ago, when I was a guest at the Union Club, a lawyer for Jennings took me aside and confided that the new company was initially offering shares to selected buyers, like J. P. Morgan, at a discounted price. I'm one of the chosen few. When the company sells to the public, our shares are bound to double and triple in value. In addition, we can expect annual dividends of twenty cents on the dollar. Most investments yield only three to five percent."

"So did you go ahead and buy shares in this company?" Pamela tried hard to keep her voice level.

"Yes, I bought twenty thousand dollars' worth."

"And where did you find that much money? It's a breathtaking sum, more than you earn in ten years. Was it lying under a rock in our garden?" She was tempted to pound the table and shriek with outrage.

"Don't be sarcastic, Pamela. It's unbecoming. I took fifteen thousand dollars from the trust fund that I administer for you, and I borrowed the rest with this house as security. The shares I purchased and the income from them will go back into your fund."

"Jack! Have you lost your wits! I can't believe you've emptied my trust fund and mortgaged our home. This harebrained scheme rests on the doubtful integrity of Henry Jennings. Granted, he has been successful in business and is very rich, but I've heard that he's a false, predatory rascal. A few years ago I noticed him in the newspapers, railing against his workers' demand for higher wages and safer conditions in his Michigan copper mines. They'd gone on strike, and he'd hired scabs to replace them. Frankly, I wouldn't trust him with a dime."

"You have no head for business, Pamela. When we married, we agreed that you should manage the household; I would take care of our finances. If you were in charge of our money, you'd give it all to the poor. Tonight, we'd be outside in the cold, begging in the streets." He paused to let his remark sink in. "Jennings wouldn't have gained his wealth and respect if he behaved like a larcenous thug. It's in his interest to make this new company successful. He has put his own money into it."

"And I'm sure that he can easily and secretly take it out." She shook her head. "Jack, I'm not a simple, shuttered housewife. I know the value of money much better than you. Honest wealth comes from service to others for the common good. Jennings and his kind strive only to enrich themselves, any way they can. Their wealth is a monstrous sham."

Jack shook his head. "How can you condemn Jennings's wealth out of hand? Your own father was a wealthy man."

She stared at her husband with a mixture of anger and pity. "Unlike Jennings, my father was an honest man, a professional electrical engineer. His inventions literally brought light into the lives of many. He never cheated anyone. The trust fund that you've despoiled is his legacy to me. You were supposed to administer it in my interest." Her voice was becoming shrill. She paused, calmed herself, then spoke slowly and carefully. "Jack, you have grievously insulted my intelligence and betrayed my trust. The very least you could have done was to consult me."

He flinched as if she had hit him. "I see, Pamela, that we can't have a reasonable conversation about this matter. In fact, for some time we've been at odds on almost everything. Perhaps the death of our daughter has distracted you. And I suppose it has affected me as well. I often can't concentrate on business." He met her eye, measured his words. "I've thought this over. It would be best for both of us if I were to move tomorrow into furnished private rooms near the bank. The butler will look after this property, and I'll continue to cover your expenses."

His words came as no surprise, but she grasped them slowly. "I'm sorry, Jack, that our marriage has come to this, and on a blessed Christmas Eve of all days. But so be it. I fear for our future."

"Then good night, Pamela." Slowly, deliberately, he folded his napkin and rose from the table. His chin was rigid, his lips tight. He nodded stiffly and left the room.

For a long moment Pamela sat fixed to her chair, listening to his heavy footsteps in the hall, then lighter on the stairs. Finally his door shut. She stared at his empty chair and began to wonder what to do. At first, nothing came to mind. Minutes passed fruitlessly. She began to feel utterly abandoned. Then she said to herself, "I must seek help. I'll need a lawyer."



22 March 1892

At home this dull, gray morning, Pamela Thompson kept herself busy with household chores, lest she give in to her worst fears. A few minutes ago, her lawyer, Mr. Jeremiah Prescott, had telephoned that he had crucial information. Could he meet her? She had agreed that he should come at midmorning.

Her husband, Jack, had deceived her about their finances. On Christmas Eve, when she had challenged him, he had grown testy and left her. The next day at church, a friend, Peter Yates, had recommended that she consult his employer, Mr. Prescott. A detective as well as a lawyer, Prescott could investigate the family's financial situation and propose remedies.

A few days after speaking with Yates, Pamela had visited Prescott in his office on Irving Place near Gramercy Park. Dealing with him had seemed risky. He was rumored to be an unpatriotic freethinker. Still, even his detractors granted that he was a capable investigator and would take on domestic conflicts that more respectable lawyers avoided.

While describing her predicament, she had studied him closely. His brown hair was only just beginning to turn gray. His face was clean-shaven, his body lithe and muscular. He looked ten years younger than his age, fifty-three.

To her pleasant surprise, she had found no outward signs of vice in him. His lively, bluish gray eyes regarded her with respect but otherwise revealed nothing of his inner self. His price was reasonable, so she had hired him.

Now a servant broke into Pamela's recollections. "It's ten o'clock, madam. Your visitor has just arrived."

Pamela hastened to meet him in the parlor. "What do you have to report, Mr. Prescott?" Her voice trembled in spite of herself.

He smiled sympathetically. "As you suspect, madam, your husband lost heavily in shares of a bogus Michigan copper mine."

"Did Henry Jennings truly deceive him?"

"Yes," Prescott replied. "Jennings had paid dearly to open the mine in an area of great promise. But his engineers soon told him that the vein of copper quickly thinned out to nothing. Rather than give up the project and take the loss, Jennings sold the rights to a dummy company, of which he was the hidden owner, and offered shares for sale. His glowing, false prospectus deceived many investors, including your husband. Jennings walked away with a huge profit before the company collapsed. The investors lost everything."

"How much damage has been done to us thus far?"

"Unfortunately, your husband purchased with your home as collateral. To recoup his losses, he has continued to play the stock market—recklessly, in my opinion. Recently, he lost again. I've heard that his job at the savings bank is in jeopardy. As a detective, I must suspect that he embezzled."

"This is terrible!" she exclaimed. "We'll be ruined. Is there any way to punish Jennings and recover the stolen money?"

"None that is legal."

"Then someone among the investors might take it upon himself to seek justice outside the law." Her voice shook with anxiety. "Jack has recently bought a pistol."

Prescott nodded. "When I learned about the pistol, I had him followed. He stalked Jennings but couldn't find an opportunity to confront him. Jennings is frequently away on trips to his mines and railroads."

"The devil must guard the rogue." Her gaze drifted to a wedding portrait of her husband, a decent, upright man. Sadness mixed with pity nearly overwhelmed her. "How is Jack coping? He must be desperate."

"I'm afraid so," Prescott replied. "He has given up the idea of revenge, but he now seems bent on punishing himself. During the past few days, his movements have become erratic. He frequents a brothel, takes long walks late at night, eats irregularly, and drinks more whiskey than he should. I don't know how he'll survive."

Excerpted from Death of a Robber Baron by CHARLES O'BRIEN. Copyright © 2013 by Charles O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Death of a Robber Baron 1.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
KER2011 More than 1 year ago
This was just a terribly written book. The plot jumped all over the place with little connection between scenes. There are too many characters slogging through too many story lines. It is at best haphazard. This is a shame because the concept started out good, but fell apart with poor logic, little sense of coherence, and incongruities for the time period. For example, we suddenly have the main protagonist, a widow, driving herself alone to a man’s cabin to find him half-naked chopping wood. For the society of the time, that is so wrong on so many points. I would not recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am so sorry to give this a poor review. Someone provided a terrible disservice to the author by getting his hopes up and publishing his work. The writing is quite odd, disconnected, unemotional, almost clinical. Very difficult to follow, not at all an entertaining read. The cover art is terrific, I wish the book had measured up.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great premise but hard to get past the stilted, leaden writing. Really, how do things like this get published?