The year of 1899 is drawing to a close. Frank and Sarah Malloy are getting ready to celebrate the New Year at Trinity Church when they notice Mr. Pritchard, a relative of their neighbor's, behaving oddly and annoying the other revelers. Frank tries to convince Pritchard to return home with them, but the man refuses and Frank loses him in the crowd. The next morning Sarah and Frank are horrified to learn Pritchard was murdered sometime in the night, his body left on Trinity Place, the side street near the church.
The police aren't too interested in the murder, and the family are concerned that the circumstances of the death will reflect badly on Pritchard's reputation. To protect the family from scandal, Nelson asks Frank to investigate. Frank and Sarah delve into Pritchard's past and realize there may have been a deadly side to the dawning of the new century.
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All he ever talks about is milk."
"Milk?" Sarah Malloy echoed. "Oh, because he owns a dairy, I suppose."
Mrs. Ellsworth nodded. Sarah's neighbor had dropped in on the day after Christmas to invite Sarah and her husband, Frank, to dine with the Ellsworth family and her son's new in-laws.
But she had also felt compelled to warn them about the new bride's father, Clarence Pritchard, and his tendency to talk about his work.
"I suppose that's only natural," Sarah said. "He's rather successful, isn't he?"
"Oh yes, which I'm sure he'll mention. Oh my, I hope I haven't talked you out of coming. I'm anxious for you to know Mrs. Pritchard better. She's such a lovely person, which is probably why Theda is such a delightful girl. But Mr. Pritchard can be a bit of a bore, I'm afraid."
"I'm sure we'll manage. Malloy can always launch into a tale about his adventures in the police department if it's truly an emergency."
"Or perhaps he could tell us about his new life as a private detective. I would be forever grateful. And Mrs. Malloy is also invited, although when I spoke to her about it yesterday, she said she'd be needed to watch the children if I also invited Maeve."
Sarah smiled at that. Mrs. Malloy and Mrs. Ellsworth had become good friends, as unlikely as Sarah had thought it when her mother-in-law had come to live here. But Mother Malloy would never feel comfortable at a formal dinner party, even at her friend's house. "Were you going to invite Maeve?"
"I was considering it. I've invited Harvey, too, and I thought he might like having a pretty girl to talk to."
Sarah's nanny was certainly a pretty girl. "Harvey? That's Theda's brother, isn't it?"
"Yes, I'm sure you met him last month at the wedding."
Ah yes, the sullen young man who had drunk too much and passed out. "I'm sure Maeve will be thrilled to be included, but won't the Pritchards think it odd you invited our nanny to a social event?"
"I'll tell them she's Catherine's governess."
"Do people still have governesses?" Sarah asked in amusement.
"I'm sure they do somewhere. The Pritchards won't know, and they'll be too polite to ask."
They chatted for a few minutes about the arrangements. Then Mrs. Ellsworth said, "I don't suppose Mr. Malloy would be willing to do our first step this New Year's."
"You mean to be the first man to step over your threshold after midnight to bring you luck?" Mrs. Ellsworth was notoriously superstitious. "Doesn't Nelson usually do it?"
"Yes, but I thought it would be fun to have someone else do it this time. We just need a dark-haired man to come in with a lump of coal and a few coins right after midnight to ensure us a prosperous 1900."
"I'm sure Malloy would love to do it," Sarah lied, easily picturing how he'd roll his eyes if asked to participate in one of Mrs. Ellsworth's superstitions, "but we'll be going down to Trinity Church to hear the bells ring in the New Year, and I'm not sure when we'll get back."
Mrs. Ellsworth brightened at that. "I suppose you'll be driving down in your new motorcar."
"Yes. Gino will drive it, of course. He's got it running perfectly, which I understand is quite a challenge." Malloy's partner had taken quite an active interest in the motorcar and its inner workings, which was fortunate because Malloy had no interest whatever.
"Oh yes, those machines are quite unreliable or so I've heard. I don't know why anyone would bother with them if they could have a horse. But if Mr. Donatelli is with you, I guess he won't be available to do the first step either."
"Could Mr. Pritchard do it? Or Harvey?"
"Oh no. They're both too fair, even if they'd agree. The first stepper must have dark hair, and I have a feeling neither of them would take it seriously in any case, especially Harvey."
Sarah had to agree, but she chose tact instead. "Young men often don't take much of anything seriously."
"Yes, and Harvey is a bit spoiled, I fear. As for Mr. Pritchard, just between us, he isn't the easiest man to tolerate, either. When he gets started on the subject of milk, well, you can just see from her expression that Mrs. Pritchard would like to murder him."
I would only do this for Mrs. Ellsworth,O' Malloy said as he crossed the street with Maeve and Sarah to their neighbor's house that Friday evening. Sarah laid her head on his shoulder in silent thanks as they walked arm in arm.
"I'm sure Mrs. Ellsworth would be gratified by your devotion," Maeve said with a smirk. She'd dressed with particular care this evening, but Sarah couldn't imagine she wanted to impress Harvey Pritchard. No, Maeve would have a deeper plan.
"I'm just repaying a few debts," Malloy insisted. "Mrs. Ellsworth has helped us with a case or two."
"And she saved my life once, which I'll never forget," Sarah said. "So that explains why Malloy and I are here, but why are you going, Maeve?"
"Just to be neighborly." Maeve smiled as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, but Sarah wasn't fooled.
"You don't have your cap set for Harvey Pritchard, do you?" Sarah asked in mock horror.
"Not likely." Maeve had attended the wedding, too.
Sarah needed another minute to finally figure it out. "You told Gino you'd been invited, didn't you?" Sarah and Malloy had often discussed his partner's infatuation with Maeve and her apparent enjoyment in tormenting him.
"I may have mentioned it."
"Poor Gino," Malloy muttered. Sarah had to agree. She had an idea that Maeve's account of the coming evening would include marked attentions to her from Harvey Pritchard, whether such attentions actually occurred or were even welcome.
They had reached the Ellsworths' house, and Maeve preceded them up the porch steps to ring the bell.
Nelson Ellsworth answered the door and welcomed them. The Ellsworths didn't have live-in servants, just a daily maid who was probably busy helping Mrs. Ellsworth with the dinner. "Mother and Theda are finishing up in the kitchen," he said when he'd taken their coats. He escorted them to the parlor, where the other guests were gathered. "I believe you know my in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard, and their son, Harvey." The Pritchards were seated on the sofa, and Harvey lounged beside the fireplace, his arm draped in what he probably imagined was a debonair pose on the mantelpiece. "And Mr. Donatelli, of course."
Mr. Pritchard was slow to rise at the entrance of the ladies, but Gino jumped up immediately, smiling a little too smugly. Sarah glanced over just in time to catch Maeve's astonished expression before she recovered herself.
"Gino," Sarah said quickly. "How nice to see you." And what a surprise, although she didn't say that.
"Yes," Maeve said through almost-gritted teeth. "You didn't mention you would be here."
Gino shrugged inside the tailor-made suit Malloy had insisted he get when they started their detective agency. "I hadn't been invited yet."
"Mr. and Mrs. Malloy," Mrs. Ellsworth greeted them as she entered the room. She was still smoothing her black bombazine gown, probably having just removed her apron. "How good of you to come. And Maeve, so nice to see you."
When they'd greeted her in return, she turned back to Maeve. "When Mr. Donatelli called on us the other day, Theda and I were telling him about giving our first dinner party. When he asked who was going to be my dinner partner, I realized I had an odd number of guests and invited him to join us. Nelson, get our guests some sherry to warm them up."
Gino smiled with apparent innocence at Maeve, who wasn't fooled for a moment.
Sarah and Malloy left them to it and went over to greet the Pritchards. Mrs. Pritchard was an attractive woman who had certainly been a beauty twenty years ago and now, at forty, would still turn a few heads. She smiled and returned Sarah's greeting, although the smile didn't quite reach her eyes. She seemed rather tense, too, which was odd since she was attending what amounted to a family dinner. "Clarence, you remember Mr. and Mrs. Malloy," Mrs. Pritchard said to her husband in a tone that reminded Sarah of the way she spoke to her children when reminding them of their manners.
"Of course I do," he snapped. "Met you at the wedding, I think." He was a tall, angular man who reminded Sarah of a stork, with his beaklike nose and gangly limbs. He shook Malloy's hand and nodded to Sarah. He didn't meet her eye, though, and she didn't think he'd looked directly at Malloy either. If Mrs. Pritchard seemed tense, Mr. Pritchard was downright rigid, and his gaze kept darting around the room, as if he expected something untoward to appear.
When they'd all seated themselves and Nelson had served them some sherry, Sarah tried to make small talk with the Pritchards while still keeping an eye on Maeve and Gino, who had joined Harvey at the fireplace. Maeve appeared determined to make the best of the situation and at least get Harvey to speak to her, while Gino seemed content merely to admire her efforts. Completely oblivious, Harvey drained his sherry glass and signaled Nelson for more.
Mrs. Pritchard dutifully answered Sarah's questions about her health and how nice their Christmas celebration had been, but she kept glancing at her husband anxiously. Was she afraid? Yes, that was fear in her eyes, but why should she be afraid?
Before Sarah could figure it out, Theda appeared and greeted her guests. She was a sweet girl who had inherited only a hint of her mother's good looks, but Nelson was smart enough to see her inner beauty. The adoring look he gave her said that marriage had only deepened his feelings for her.
After the obligatory welcome, Theda invited everyone to come to the dining room. The table had been set with Mrs. Ellsworth's best china and silver and a centerpiece of holly and pinecones. Everything sparkled in the gaslight.
Theda directed everyone to their places. Nelson sat at the head of the table and Mrs. Ellsworth had given her daughter-in-law the place of honor at the foot. Theda's mother sat at Nelson's right and Sarah at his left. Theda's father sat at Theda's right and Malloy at her left. Mrs. Ellsworth was beside Malloy, with Gino between her and Mrs. Pritchard. Harvey was between Sarah and Maeve on the other side of the table. If Gino resented being seated between two older females, he gave no sign of it. Instead, he set himself to being as charming as possible to both of them. If only Harvey had exerted himself half as much, Maeve could have succeeded in her plan to make Gino jealous, but he concentrated on eating and emptying his wineglass as often as possible. The poor maid could hardly keep up, between serving each course and refilling his glass.
They were waiting for dessert to be served when Sarah realized Mr. Pritchard hadn't mentioned milk once the entire evening. In fact, he had hardly spoken at all. Theda had tried to include him in her conversation with Malloy, but he'd been almost as single-minded about his dinner as his son, responding only sporadically.
Mrs. Ellsworth had been smiling at one of Gino's remarks when she suddenly said, "You are such a delightfully dark young man. If only you weren't going to Trinity Church on New Year's Eve, you could be our first stepper."
Mr. Pritchard's head jerked up. "Trinity Church, you say? I don't suppose they're holding a proper celebration there."
For some reason this made Mrs. Pritchard gasp and Harvey mutter something that might have been a curse, but Sarah appeared to be the only one who noticed their reactions.
"They're holding the same celebration they've been doing for the past fifty years, I believe," Malloy said across the table. "They have a church service and play a few songs on the bells. They've got quite a set of them there, as I'm sure you know. Ring out the old and ring in the new, as they say."
"But nothing special? Nothing to acknowledge the new century?" Pritchard demanded.
"Oh dear," Mrs. Pritchard murmured.
"I believe we're celebrating the start of the twentieth century next year," Malloy said, a little puzzled. "At least that's what I read in the newspapers."
"Newspapers? Bah, what do they know?"
"Yes, what do they know?" Theda agreed too quickly and too cheerfully. "Mother Ellsworth has made the most scrumptious apple tart for dessert. I can't think why it's taking so long to bring it in."
"Can you imagine saying the twentieth century doesn't start with the year 1900?" Pritchard said, clearly angry about this for some reason. "Our years have started with an eighteen for the entire nineteenth century. Any fool can see that when it changes to a nineteen, it's the start of the new century."
"That's certainly reasonable," Theda said with a desperate glance in Nelson's direction.
"Yes, it is," he said quickly, if a little uncertainly.
"But time didn't start with the year zero," Maeve said.
Everyone turned to her in surprise, especially Mr. Pritchard.
"Well, it didn't," she said defensively. "Time must have started with the year one."
"What does that have to do with anything?" Gino asked, clearly amused.
She glared at him. "If the first year was one and a century is one hundred years, the century ends at the end of year one hundred, not year ninety-nine."
Which was the argument Sarah had been reading about in the newspapers for months as the end of 1899 approached.
"Very logical, young lady," Pritchard said scornfully, "but there is no logic to when time began. The Gregorian calendar, which we use today and by which we determine that this is the year of our Lord 1899, didn't come into use until 1582, not year one. There never was a year one, not even with the Julian calendar, which came into use in our year 46 BC. Before that, the Romans didn't measure time by our calendars or even recognize the concept of BC, so to them it was the year 708 ab urbe condita, which is a year-numbering system used by some ancient Roman historians, although it was never actually used by the Romans themselves, who didn't number their years at all but referred to them by the names of the rulers in power at the time."
Pritchard let his very satisfied gaze touch everyone around the table, and for a long moment, no one could think of a single thing to say in response to his lecture.
Finally, Malloy said, "So there was no year one?"
"Never. Not ever. So we can count time the way it should be counted, and the year of 1900 should be the first year of the twentieth century."
Reading Group Guide
Murder on Trinity Place by Victoria Thompson
Questions for Discussion
1. Remembering all the hoopla that surrounded New Year’s Eve 1999, were you surprised to find people felt completely different about the “turn of the century” in 1899?
2. Have you ever known anyone who developed an unreasonable obsession about something the way Mr. Pritchard does about the turn of the century?
3. Do you and your family have any special New Year’s Eve traditions?
4. Were you aware of the ways in which milk was adulterated in the Nineteenth Century? Does this change your opinion of the rules and regulations regarding food handling and preparation that we have today?
5. Many people enjoy Mrs. Ellsworth’s superstitions. Are you superstitious about anything? Do you have any special rituals (like First Stepper) that your family practices?
6. Were you happy to see Black Jack Robinson return to the series? Do you think his marriage will be successful?
7. While Americans did not traditionally have “arranged marriages,” as they did in European aristocracy, many families strongly influenced whom their children married. How do you feel about that? Do you think families have as much influence today on whom their children marry?
8. Have you ever played the game of Life? Were you aware of its history?
9. Why did you think Mrs. Pritchard was trying to prevent Frank and Sarah from investigating her husband’s murder? 10. Did you have a theory about who the killer was? Were you correct?
10. Did you have a theory about who the killer was? Were you correct?