In 1914, as rumors of war float across Europe, Edna Ferber travels to Budapest with Winifred Moss, a famous London suffragette, to visit the homeland of her dead father and to see the sights. Author Edna is fascinated by ancient Emperor Franz Joseph and by the faltering Austro-Hungarian Empire, its pomp and circumstance so removed from the daily life of the people she meets. Sitting daily in the Café Europa at her hotel, she listens to unfettered Hearst reporter Harold Gibbon as he predicts the coming war and the end of feudalistic life in Europe while patrons chatter.
Then a shocking murder in a midnight garden changes everything.
Headstrong Cassandra Blaine is supposed to marry into the Austrian nobility in one of those arranged matches like Consuela Vanderbilt's still popular with wealthy American parents eager for titles and impoverished European nobility who have them to offer. But Cassandra is murdered, and her former lover, the dashing Hungarian Endre Molnár, is the prime suspect. Taken with the young man and convinced of his innocence, Edna begins investigating with the help of Winifred and two avant-garde Hungarian artists. Meanwhile possible war with Serbia is the topic of the day as Archduke Franz Ferdinand prepares to head to Sarajevo. While the world braces for disaster, Edna uncovers the truth - and it scares her.
About the Author
Ed Ifkovic taught literature and creative writing at a community college in Connecticut for over three decades. His short stories and essays have appeared in the Village Voice , America , Hartford Monthly , and Journal of Popular Culture. A longtime devotee of mystery novels, he fondly recalls discovering Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason series in a family bookcase, and his immediate obsession with the whodunit world.
Read an Excerpt
An Edna Ferber Mystery
By Ed Ifkovic
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2015 Ed Ifkovic
All rights reserved.
Cassandra Blaine laughed too much. She tossed back her pretty head so that her golden hair caught the dusty shaft of brilliant sunlight streaming in through the open windows that overlooked the terrace. The Danube River shimmered below. Her delirious laugh broke at the end, so shrill it seemed dangerously close to hysteria. I'd known girls like her whose artificial laughter suddenly ended in collapse, girls who then confessed trivial sins no one cared to hear.
The few late-afternoon folks scattered about the café looked over, some amused, others annoyed, most indifferent. The beautiful heiress, young and privileged and frivolous, demanded all eyes find her, celebrate ... smile ... applaud. But her careless laughter rankled in the quiet Budapest café where customers whispered as they downed glasses of sherry or bitters. A table of American women, frail spinsters in amber beads and silk Spanish shawls, sipped strong coffee with whipped cream, the only sound the tinkle of spoons against cups. A wizened Hungarian in a black beret rustled the pages of a newspaper he'd taken from a bamboo rack. In the kitchen behind a closed door someone dropped a plate, and it shattered. A man's deep voice swore, a tepid German curse, followed by an English "Damn!"
"Edna, for heaven's sake." Winifred Moss touched my elbow. "You're staring."
"I know what I'm doing, Winifred. When people choose to perform, I watch them. I'm supposed to."
Winifred snickered. "You notice that all the wrong people have tons of money."
"And translucent porcelain skin," I added. "God's ways continue to mystify me."
Winifred sat back, pleased with her comment. Both of us watched as Cassandra's chaperone placed a censorious hand on the young woman's elbow and leaned in, whispering. An old woman, this pencil-thin companion, her gray curls worn under a frilly lace bonnet, her black cotton dress trimmed with too many schoolmarmish ruffles across the bodice. She obviously considered her position taxing, if impossible. Cassandra, her laughter abruptly stopped, glared back, her eyes bright with the power she exercised over the hired servant.
Winifred confided, a little too loudly, her brassy voice heavy with sarcasm, "That poor woman wishes she could slap that bratty girl."
The old Hungarian man, his pinched face buried in a newspaper, slid the sheets down and glared at Winifred, who could have cared less. She stared back, challenging. He grunted and looked down.
Of course, no one in the Café Europa recognized Winifred Moss, the famous—or should I say infamous?—suffragette, by way of the London battlefront. I'd met her two years ago when she spoke to a women's group in Chicago, invited by Jane Addams and Lillian Adler to address the question of the burgeoning women's suffrage movement in America. A rabble-rouser, this fierce, independent female, she took a soul off guard—at least she did me. Blunt, forceful, opinionated, she narrowed her eyes at a world that defined her as ... well, inferior, second class, the drudge in the kitchen.
I saw a woman perhaps fifty, at six feet taller than most men, with a long, drawn, horse face behind thick spectacles, unlovely, but somehow ... handsome. It was her eyes, I insisted—galvanizing, a hard-coal black that held you, froze you in place. Every so often, absentmindedly, she ran her fingers through her rat's nest pompadour, a stand of iron-gray hair that matched the black Mother Hubbard smock she always wore. I'd liked her when we chatted briefly in Chicago, and thought her speech to the settlement house stimulating and relevant—though I still believed suffrage in America was a struggle impossible to win. I'd seen the red-faced drunken men with their hateful gestures and catcalls when women marched down Michigan Avenue for the cause.
"We have no choice," she'd told me then. Now, resigned, she sighed. "Such girls"—she actually pointed at Cassandra—"defeat our cause."
I sat back and wondered whether my brief sojourn in Hungary with the redoubtable Winifred Moss—twenty years my senior—had been a wise move. Two nights ago we'd taken the night train from Berlin, arriving early the next morning into picture-postcard Budapest with its fairy lights illuminating Castle Hill, its exotic Moorish architecture, its air redolent with perfume from the beds of lush-blooming roses.
I'd abandoned my mother in Berlin, an act of rebellion I'd doubtless regret, and at times I quaked at my rashness. We'd had a nasty, spitfire spat that left a bad taste in my mouth.
"You can't go gallivanting across Europe by yourself," she'd screamed. "What will people say?"
So be it. Touring Europe with Julia Ferber required Herculean stamina, patience, and an aversion to cold-blooded murder. In America my popular short stories, happily published in Everybody's, Good Housekeeping, and Cosmopolitan, gave me a name and bags of golden coins, and my mother had suggested ... you and me, the two of us, mother and daughter, Europe. London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Munich, Berlin. Well, she was still in Berlin—and she maintained that I should be at her side. At thirty, I was too old for rebellion—or was I? I knew we would do battle over my behavior. Perhaps I'd been hasty in agreeing to make the trip.
My mother had become suddenly—and noisily—fascinated by her oldest brother's family, pleasant enough folks, surely, but smug burghers, plump, red-cheeked, slap-you-on-the-back Berliners who circled Julia Ferber as though unearthing a rare gem. I found the hearty bluster of these Germans trying.
I sat for a portrait with painter Clara Ewald, an engaging older woman with a fiery but delightful tongue. I visited her small cottage nestled in the Bavarian Alps where, one afternoon, I met Winifred Moss, Clara's friend, who was stopping on her way to a holiday in Budapest. My mother had hinted we'd visit Budapest in hopes of connecting with family of my long-dead father, born in Oylso, near Eperye, a village outside the city. We'd received a letter from one of his distant cousins, inviting us to an afternoon visit. But Julia Ferber suddenly balked at leaving the coziness of German hospitality—at which time Winifred Moss, eyeing my mother with a baleful, unforgiving eye and spotting my own restlessness, suggested that I be her companion for a two-week sojourn in Budapest.
"A woman cannot travel alone without criticism," she told me. "Men don't realize a solitary woman, even with ostrich feathers in her hair and shiny brass buckles on her shoes, is an Edwardian Amazon."
Which was why, impulsively, I boarded the night train to Budapest, arriving in the picturesque city along the Danube early in the morning. The Marta taxi took us to the Hotel Arpad, a ramshackle dowager edifice—Winifred's choice, of course. A string of hotels on Maria Valencia Street fronted the Corso overlooking the storied Danube—the Hungaria, the Bristol, the Duna, and the Carlton—all sparkly and polished in the early-morning sunshine. Not so the shabby Árpád. Winifred often stayed there and found it "homey."
This ancient hotel of choice for English-speaking travelers—mostly journalists, businessmen, and a smattering of rich Americans on the Grand Tour—the Árpád overlooked the murky yellow river—the Danube was not blue, notwithstanding Strauss' lovely waltz. Elegant rooms with heavy but faded damask curtains and worn oriental carpets, creaky featherbeds that sagged in the middle, ancient white enamel faucets that creaked and groaned, and a bathtub so deep I considered requisitioning a fireman's ladder to descend and rise from it. The light fixtures sputtered and hissed, the lights dimmed and then brightened, and I fully expected to be wrapped in a blazing fireball in the middle of the night. But Winifred loved it—worshipped its echoey old rooms. I would come to cherish the place because such faded grandeur was as comforting as an old antimacassar inherited from your favorite grandmother.
Idly, the two of us drifted through our sightseeing days in and out of the threadbare Café Europa on the ground floor of the hotel. Its massive French doors opened onto a terrace surrounded by scarlet roses, acacia trees, and manicured shrubbery.
I understood that Winifred needed solace—succor. She was battle-scarred from her days protesting with Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women's Social and Political Union, a militant suffrage group brutalized by the club-wielding London police. Jailed, one of a group of women on a hunger strike, Winifred had been force-fed by sneering men, a funnel jammed into her throat, beaten, humiliated in her cell, forced to watch a friend sexually violated. During a protest march she'd been knocked to the ground by a policeman on a horse, and witnessed another woman, the sister of a member of Parliament, trampled to death. Stunned and shattered, she'd retreated, but I'd noticed her raw dislike of most of the men she encountered. She'd traveled to Germany and now Hungary to escape their faces.
Sometimes in a restaurant she cringed when a man rudely addressed her.
It broke my heart.
Now Winifred nudged me. "Your dreadful friend." She pointed to the open French doors.
Harold Gibbon was barking orders at some unseen person behind him, but stopped, flicked his head forward like a jittery woodpecker, and walked toward Cassandra Blaine. Something stopped him—perhaps the chaperone's imperious shudder gave him pause—so he veered away and slid into a chair at our table.
"Ah, Miss Ferber. Miss Moss. We meet again."
I glowered. "Sir, you were here at this very table for breakfast. Intrusive, opinionated ..."
"Doing my job, dear ladies."
"The scurrilous Hearst syndicate ..."
"My bread and butter." He grinned and withdrew a pad from a breast pocket of his wrinkled seersucker suit. A rose was pinned to his lapel, faded now, with a petal in danger of falling. He removed the summer bowler from his head and placed it on an empty chair.
A skinny, wiry man, shorter than my five-foot height, with jutting bone, freckled parchment skin, a pointy Pinocchio nose, and a Grimms fairy-tale chin to match, Harold Gibbon was that horrid new breed of yellow journalists invented by William Randolph Hearst—a mid-twenties city boy, brash, garish, gossipy, annoying, a second-generation Richard Harding Davis without the sartorial splendor. Harold was a gnat of the Fourth Estate, one impossible to swat. I'd met him two years earlier at the 1912 Republican Presidential Convention in Chicago when I'd covered the event for the George Matthew Adams newspaper syndicate with William Allen White and others—and Harold, the frisky newspaper reporter, interviewed us. Now, meeting him by chance in the Café Europa as we ate chewy bacon pogácsa and sipped black coffee laced with whipped cream, he'd assumed we were old friends.
"I scarcely know you, young man," I'd told him.
That had surprised him, his eyes bugging out, "But we have met."
"I meet many people, young man and—"
He'd interrupted. "But Americans gotta stick together in a strange land."
Now, leaning back in his chair, he grinned at us, a simpleton's look. "I'm starting to think I'm not wanted here."
Winifred had little patience with the pipsqueak. "Is there a reason you keep glancing toward Cassandra Blaine, Mr. Gibbon?"
"A cynosure, I'm sure you'll agree. And her upcoming wedding will be world news. If I can get past that dour guardian, I'll get me an interview." He beamed. "Another coup for me." He bowed.
"Is that why you're in Budapest?" I asked.
He leaned forward, withdrawing a packet from his vest pocket. Quietly, his eyes flitting around the room, he rolled a cigarette with one hand while fiddling with the monstrous ginger-colored walrus moustache he sported, so expansive it nearly touched the shaggy muttonchops he'd stolen from Grover Cleveland, though I doubted his knowledge of American presidents went back to the previous century.
"I'm here for real news, even though an American marrying into Austrian nobility might be a banner headline."
Winifred sneered. "How romantic."
Winifred, I'd noticed, had stiffened when the man joined us, closing up her face, her dislike obvious.
He stared at her, tickled. "Ain't it, though? Folks eat this malarkey up, truth to tell. Yellow-backed dime novel stuff. Graustark adventures in the feudalistic backcountry."
He leaned in confidentially. "I love it—really. Tinged with a bit of scandal, this wedding." He nodded toward the young girl. "Cassandra Blaine, only daughter of Marcus and Cecelia Blaine, wealthy Americans occupying the entire top floor of this fleabitten old hotel, though you rarely see them. Daddy is Connecticut insurance—vice president of Aetna, and a major stockholder of Colt Firearms in Hartford. Mommy is Newport and yachts and Mrs. Astor's Four Hundred in Manhattan. Living in Budapest for the past year now—just as I have, in fact. He's working with Hungarian investors on insurance opportunity, overseeing the construction of a building on Rákóczi.
"And fickle, spoiled Cassandra falls for the handsome Hungarian Endre Molnár until, at Mommy's command, she finds herself betrothed to Count Frederic von Erhlich, Archduke Franz Ferdinand's distant cousin, hunting companion, and all-around gloomy stick-in-the-mud. A marriage orchestrated in the ballrooms of Vienna, though probably not at Hofburg, the Emperor Franz Josef 's private castle. End of story."
"No," I said, "it seems to me the beginning of a sad story."
I shot a look at the American girl with her elaborately coiffed hair studded with whalebone hairpins. Her arms covered with too many jangling gold bracelets, her diamond earrings glittering. She was dressed in an expensive Nile-blue chiffon day gown that exaggerated her narrow waist and high bust.
"From what little I've seen of Miss Blaine—two days now, occupying that same table under the cruel eye of her keeper—she's none too happy with an arranged marriage."
Harold smiled. "It's very popular in this part of the world. The transatlantic marriage of an impoverished nobility and nouveau-riche American girl."
"That's not my point, sir." I smiled back. "That young girl seems to laugh too much, and too loudly, mostly, I think, over nothing—or at nothing in this shadowy café that strikes me as worthy of such ... hysteria."
Winifred was scowling at Harold. Earlier she'd told me—her voice harsh and cold—how much she disliked the brash young man, all breezy American strut and rah-rah-Teddy-Roosevelt-vigor. Now, rattling her coffee cup, she tried to dismiss him from our table. "Mr. Gibbon, perhaps you're sitting at the wrong table? Your nose for news fails you."
He wagged a mischievous finger at her. "Ah, the famous suffragette, arrested by London bobbies for assailing the prime minister, her picture in the London Times ... and the American short-story writer, her too-serious picture recently in the Talk of the Town—sooner or later you'll both have a story to tell me." A heartbeat. He tapped his foot nervously. "The Hotel Árpád may have electric lights that sputter, windows that rattle in the night, mice scurrying in the old walls, and a hiccoughing telephone that goes dead when you need it, but it's a hotbed of gossip and intrigue and"—he pointed to Cassandra, who was frowning at her guardian—"front-page news back in the States."
"You never answered my question, Mr. Gibbon. Why have you been exiled here?" I stared into his eager, bony face. A ferret, I thought, some jittery little forest creature, all buck teeth and watery eyes. But I saw something else there: a cunning little boy, Tom Sawyer whitewashing a picket fence perhaps, the unloved boy of the village who could be funny and charming—and wanted the world to look at him. That crooked smile under so emphatic a moustache and outsized beak nose. The flashing hazel eyes, unblinking, or blinking too rapidly, the sense of absolute wonder there. Wily, this reporter, and not to be cavalierly dismissed.
Harold was nodding at a portly man sitting nearby. "Simpson of the New York Tribune," he whispered. We watched as Mr. Simpson was joined by another man who was dapper in a summer Prince Albert coat, a pince-nez, an enormous cigar clutched in his fingertips.
Excerpted from Café Europa by Ed Ifkovic. Copyright © 2015 Ed Ifkovic. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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.