The Red, White, and Blue Murders (Hilda Johansson Series #2)by Jeanne M. Dams
The Studebaker household is in turmoil; the news that President McKinley has been assassinated is more than anyone can stand. South Bend, Indiana, is not a hotbed of anarchist activity, but something is clearly going on. When McKinley's death is blamed on foreign-born anarchists, Hilda Johansson, a recent immigrant, is concerned that fellow immigrants might be
The Studebaker household is in turmoil; the news that President McKinley has been assassinated is more than anyone can stand. South Bend, Indiana, is not a hotbed of anarchist activity, but something is clearly going on. When McKinley's death is blamed on foreign-born anarchists, Hilda Johansson, a recent immigrant, is concerned that fellow immigrants might be swept up in a wave of xenophobia. Despite orders to mind her own business, she sets out to discover exactly what is happening, no matter what it might cost her. This is Dams' second Hilda Johansson novel, following DEATH IN LACQUER RED. Combining the charm of UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS with brilliant sleuthing, these novels have everything a traditional mystery fan wants.
SOURCE: VOYA, October 2000 (Vol. 23, No. 4)
Read an Excerpt
Mrs. Clem Studebaker gave a luncheon at her home, Tippecanoe place, Saturday afternoon. There were 27 ladies present and luncheon was served in the dining room. The table decorations were beautiful....
South Bend Tribune, January 1, 1900, page 1
HILDA, that stifling August evening, was both rushed off her feet and bored out of her mind.
"Talk, talk, talk," she grumbled to Norah as they whisked back to the butler's pantry for dessert plates. "If they have nothing to say, why do they not remain silent?"
"You're just grumpy. You always get grumpy when it's hot." Norah sniffed and handed Hilda a stack of plates. "A fine sort of dinner party that'd be, with all of 'em sittin' around sayin' nothin'. Here, them are the Meissenmind you don't drop 'em!"
It was a small party, as Tippecanoe Place parties went, easily contained in the family dining room. Only eight couples shared the table with Colonel and Mrs. George Studebaker, nearly all, Hilda knew, connected by business ties with Studebaker Brothers manufacturing.
It would, in Hilda's opinion, have been much wiser for her employers to work off their business obligations with a larger party. Not that anyone would be interested in the opinions of the housemaid. But she knew just as well as the Studebakers that large dinners allowed for an interesting mix of guests at each table. With only eighteen people sitting around a single table, the possibility for devastating boredom was much greater.
Thehost and hostess were doing their best. Mrs. George had, with Mrs. Sullivan, the cook, planned an elaborate menu, much of it to be served chilled in deference to the sweltering August weather. She had also taken great care to seat her guests so as to separate those with any of the little animosities business can so easily generate. Now she and Colonel George were trying hard to keep the conversation going, but it was uphill work.
As Hilda set out the dessert plates, she amused herself by studying the guests. How surprised they would be if they realized how much the unregarded servants knew about them! Mrs. Avery, for example, a frequent guest seated to Colonel George's right, was a flirt and a social climber. Dressed, in her Paris gown and her diamonds, more for a ball than a simple dinner, she was by far the most attractive woman in the room. And she knew it, thought Hilda as she set the fragile plate in front of her. At twenty-five or so she was also by several years the youngest woman present, and seemed determined to conquer every man in the room. No matter what Colonel George or Mr. Coates, her other dinner partner, said to her, she batted her eyelashes and laughed. It was a very feminine, high, tinkly laugh, and Hilda was beginning to be very tired of it.
Her husband, Mr. Avery, a well-to-do lumber dealer and a much older man, might have been able to keep her quiet, but since the Averys were the principal guests, he was of course seated at the other end of the table, at his hostess's right hand. A pity husbands and wives couldn't sit together, for Mr. Avery knew how to behave at a dinner party. He smiled, he spoke courteously to his hostess and others near him, he was gallant with all the ladies, he even smiled at the servants. He kept up a light banter of conversation, insubstantial perhaps, but pleasant. Hilda knew that Mr. Avery liked money perhaps a little more than he should, but she approved of him.
Mr. Coates, the attorney seated next to Mrs. Avery, was no use at all. His manner was as dry as the legal documents he dealt with for the Studebakers. He spoke when spoken to, offered a comment or two on the weather, and asked for the salt to be passed. Most of the time he simply chewed his food. Hilda considered Norah's remark. Perhaps she was right, and no talk at all was even worse than silly talk.
Mrs. Harriman, next to Mr. Coates, was a worthy woman in a steel-gray gown and a steel-boned corset. The wife of another attorney, she sat on charity boards and hospital boards and chaired ladies' societies in aid of one thing and another. She did, in short, all the things Mrs. Avery ought to do if she really wanted to rise in the social scale. But Mrs. Avery was far too frivolous for such boring pursuits, and certainly she would never find them a topic for conversation. Mrs. Harriman talked about them all, discoursing on their achievements and the great needs still to be met, from the oysters, to the vichyssoise and the fish, right through to the jellied chicken and the salad. Perhaps, Hilda speculated, she talked to keep her mind off all the good food she dared not try to stuff into that rigidly corseted body.
Of Mr. Singler, the banker to Mrs. Harriman's right, Hilda knew little. The Singlers were new in town and had been to dinner only once before, a huge affair for which Hilda's duties had kept her away from the guests. (By rights the head housemaid, Hilda served at table only for the small parties, when outside help was not needed.) From his conversation she gathered that he was a passionate golfer; he could speak only of great courses he had played, of his own strengths and weaknesses, of new equipment he was eager to try.
All of which Mrs. Harriman steadfastly ignored, while Mrs. Warren, to his right, said such things as "Oh, really? Imagine that. Dear me, is that bad? Oh, good, I see!" and crumbled her dinner roll. She wore a gown Hilda had seen several times before. The pink silk clashed badly with her complexion, and the lace was looking slightly grubby. Hilda considered her to be a poor, mousy excuse for a woman. Of course Mr. Warren, a well-known contractor who had worked often for the Studebakers, was a bully. You had only to look at his wife to know that. But really, why couldn't the woman stick up for herself? If anybody tried to bully her, Hilda ... well, he would be sorry!
The plates were all in place; Hilda and Norah retired to the background to let Anton, the footman, and Mr. Williams, the butler, serve the charlotte russe. While Hilda waited for her next chore, wishing she could sit down and rest her aching feet, she considered the rest of the party. About Mr. Slick, sitting next to Mrs. Warren, she knew only that he was an engraver who worked extensively with Studebaker's. He and his pretty wife seemed inoffensive enough people. By coincidence or design, Mrs. Slick was sitting next to Mr. Warren on the other side of the table, and did not appear to be enjoying herself very much. Mr. Warren wasn't bullying her, though. He was another of the silent ones, spending his time on his food and ignoring both Mrs. Slick and tall, willowy Mrs. Singler on his other side.
Hilda didn't know the woman next to Mr. Slick at all, but the last man on that side was a neighbor, Mr. Cushing, whom she knew very well indeed. He and his wife had obviously been invited to help the Studebakers with a rather sticky party; they were old friends who lived in the next block, next door to the house where Hilda's sister, Freya, worked as a maid. Mrs. George had cleverly seated both of them close to her, Mrs. Cushing being just next to Mr. Warren, to help keep conversation going. She would, thought Hilda, have done better to put one of them at the other end of the table, where Colonel George was having a hard time of it.
He could get nothing but titters out of Mrs. Avery, and Mrs. Singler, on his other side, simply agreed with every remark he made, stopping him dead. Nor were Mrs. Coates or the unknown manpresumably husband to the unknown womanmuch help in the middle of that side. Mr. Harriman, between Mrs. Coates and Mrs. Cushing, did laugh at Mrs. Cushing's sallies and Mr. Avery's anecdotes, but contributed almost nothing himself.
In short, the party was a failure. Hilda shifted from one foot to the other and wished everyone would go home.
Perhaps Mrs. George felt the same way. At any rate, she was not long in giving the signal to the ladies to retire to the drawing room. That meant that Hilda, too, could withdraw, though it provided her no respite. She still had to help serve coffee and sweets, and the drawing room, up one flight on the main floor, was much hotter than the semi-basement dining room, even with all the windows open to their fullest extent. The ladies brought their fans out of their décolletages and plied them listlessly.
"Surely the weather will break soon," said Mrs. Cushing, accepting a bonbon from Hilda and declining a cup of coffee from Norah. "It's been a terrible summer for the farmers."
"The weather has been good for Mr. Warren," commented Mrs. Warren timidly. "He's been able to keep his men working on the new city hall with almost no interruptions."
"I'm sure that must be a great satisfaction to you," said Mrs. Avery in a high, affected tone, waving both Hilda and Norah away. "Especially as he works right along with them. Such dedication! Now, Mr. Avery is always very careful to keep out of the hot sun, himself. He finds it enervating. He would much rather buy land for others to build on than do the work himself."
After a nasty second of silence, three women started to talk at oncebut not to Mrs. Avery. Women, Hilda had noticed at other parties, didn't much enjoy talking with Mrs. Avery, though they were ready enough to listen to some new piece of gossip. She excelled at gossip, especially the ill-natured variety. Norah caught Hilda's eye and mouthed a silent "meow." Hilda stifled a giggle.
The men didn't linger long downstairs, perhaps because no port or brandy was served in that teetotal household, and even a cigar loses its savor when one knows that an impatient woman is waiting. Or perhaps it was simply that their conversation was no more interesting after dinner than it had been earlier. At any rate, Hilda had only a few more minutes to stand on her sore feet before the husbands came up the grand staircase in little groups of two and three, nobody saying much.
They continued to say little over coffee, and at last, at last, men began to nod to their wives and make the little gestures that meant they were ready to leave. Hilda and Norah, more than ready themselves for the evening to end, were released. Norah went down to the kitchen to help with the cleanup, while Hilda hurried upstairs to fetch the light scarves and shawls that the women had worn, not because they were needed, but because one did not go out on the street without a wrap of some sort over one's evening clothes.
Mr. Williams was ready with the men's top hats. As the couples paired off, gave their flowery thanks to their host and hostess, and prepared to take themselves out the door, Hilda saw Mr. Avery and Mr. Warren pass near each other, getting their hats.
"Well, Warren, are you ready to sell me that piece of land yet? It's doing you no good, you know."
"I've told you before, I don't want to sell that land."
"Oh, but Herbert!" It was Mrs. Avery, suddenly at her husband's side with a pretty pout on her face. "You promised me a country house out there!"
"You see, Warren? When the ladies take a fancy to something, what's to be done? Oh, well, you'll change your mind sooner or later. Just think about it, that's all I ask. Extra money is very useful, you know. Just think how your lovely wife would look in a new gown. And diamonds, perhaps?"
He had turned to smile brilliantly at Mrs. Warren, Who smiled back and then recoiled at the black look on her husband's face.
"Leave my wife out of this, Avery!" Mr. Warren turned his back on Mr. Avery so rapidly that he nearly stepped on the other man's narrow, well-shod feet. He grasped his wife's elbow without a word and steered her, or pushed her, toward the door.
Hilda watched it all, secure in the knowledge that as a servant she was invisible. She watched the Averys leave, he proud and solicitous of his beautiful wife, she simpering. Mr. Avery was, Hilda thought, the sort of man who would always be charming to women, even unremarkable ones like Mrs. Warren. She watched the Harrimans, little Mr. Harriman following in his wife's wake like a tugboat trailing after an ocean liner.
Mr. and Mrs. Coates left in the silence they had maintained all night, enveloped in a shell of self-satisfaction. The Slicks hurried off as soon as courtesy permitted, as did the couple Hilda didn't know, both with the air of a duty now fortunately over and done with. The Singlers lingered, hearty and agreeable, lacking the sense to take themselves off until Mr. Williams pointedly handed Mr. Singler his hat and said, "Your carriage is waiting, sir."
The Cushings stayed for a few minutes to exchange a last word or two with the Studebakers, a chuckle or wry grimace at the way the evening had gone, but at last they, too, stepped out the door, which Mr. Williams would not close and lock until all the guests were out of sight. Nor would he breathe a sigh of relief. Mr. Williams was very well trained.
Outside in the drive, the last bored coachmen waited to bring carriages up under the porte cochere. They and the horses were ready for home, too.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
Five years ago, Mr. Studebaker went to Sweden to recruit workers for his American factory. Among those to immigrate was Hilda Johansson, who accepted a position as a maid. Her job allows Hilda to observe first hand how society treats foreigners. Though she is well aware of the social inequities in America, Hilda does not believe the anarchists are right in their efforts to destroy the current system. When an anarchist assassinates President McKinley, Hilda and others fear the madness that could grip the working class. Soon a friend of Studebaker and a worker are found dead wrapped inside an American flag. Hilda decides to investigate the deaths especially since she was so successful in solving a homicide last year (see DEATH IN LACQUER RED). She has the added impetus to prove that her friend¿s brother is not part of the anarchist conspiracy that killed the President. Hilda also worries about her sibling who seems to be hiding something from her. With so much on her mind, Hilda does not realize that her inquiries are leading her to something very dangerous. RED, WHITE, AND BLUE MURDER will appeal to fans of amateur sleuth mysteries as well as historical fiction buffs. The thought-provoking tale provides insight into the first few years of the twentieth century as the audience will feel the immigrant experience. Jeanne M. Dams brilliantly weaves the class structure and its impact on behavior inside the who-done-it. With a well executed mystery combined with the atmosphere surrounding the murder of the first twentieth century President, readers have another triumph in one of the better historical mystery series being written today. Harriet Klausner