Women Sleuths in
Historical Mysteries

United States - 1900

©1996-2013
womeninworldhistory.com

Death in Lacquer Red

by Jeanne M. Dams

Hilda Johansson, a lowly Swedish cleaning maid working in the mansion of South Bend Indiana’s wealthy Studebaker family, turns out to have innate deductive abilities. When confronted with the bloody murder of the neighbor’s aunt, a missionary recently returned from China in the throes of the Boxer Rebellion, Hilda feels she must not only clear her own name, but protect an unjustly accused Chinese man. Although expressly forbidden any involvement by her overbearing boss, the English butler, stubborn Hilda finds ways to enlist others to help uncover hidden facts. She realizes that servants will not talk to the police, but will say things to her, and “I put two and two together.”

Jeanne Dams truly knows South Bend. She has drawn a fine portrait of this 1900 booming U.S. heartland city, whose industrial might welcomed immigrants escaping the hard poverty of their lives in Europe. The aspirations of the city’s multi-national workforce, however, are dimmed by the city’s sharp class distinctions and the immigrant’s less than equal treatment.

The story’s action is often deadened by the author’s insistence that the reader learn of the rigid rules and strict relationships between employer and servant. We do, however, learn a great deal about the unending duties of servants who kept these large homes running.

The author lets us know that the Studebaker family did, and does, exist, and the mansion described in this story still stands, although now transformed into a restaurant. This is the first of a proposed Hilda Johansson series.

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