When Laetitia Rodd’s lawyer brother summons her for a meeting, she knows he has some work for her. It’s 1850 and the 50-something widow has made a name for herself in the Hampstead section of London. With an eye for detail and a nose for the truth, Lettie is a lady detective way ahead of her time.
The task seems straightforward enough: uncover the past of Helen Orme and thwart Charles Calderstone’s efforts to marry her. The wealthy and powerful Sir James Calderstone is behind this request. He’s pushing his son to marry Esther Grahames, a cousin and childhood playmate.
Posing as a governess for Charles’ younger sisters, Lettie moves in with the Calderstones at their Wishtide estate. And it isn’t long before a murder puts Charles in jail and presents Lettie with a much meatier case. Lettie and her brother are convinced Charles is innocent and to save him from the gallows, they know it’s a race to find a mysterious killer known as “Prince.”
The Secrets of Wishtide is the first book in the Laetitia Rodd mysteries. A huge fan of Charles Dickens, Saunders based her story on David Copperfield and uses her characters to develop themes of love, marriage, women’s rights, and class distinction, all in equal measure. In addition, several of her characters must live with their reputations as fallen women as they watch men pursue relationships outside marriage.
The story moves quickly, despite a long list of characters. While some expert mystery readers may be able to figure out who Prince is, key details reveal themselves only as the plot develops, making it an entertaining read. I also liked reading about the creature comforts of the times – warm fires, hot tea, spirits and ale, good food and good humor. It seems as if the author is suggesting that, despite the hardships of the times, and the big trouble in which many of her characters find themselves, they seem to know how to make their own happiness.
The book finishes with a satisfying conclusion and hints of the future help the reader imagine what might happen in the next book. No doubt the side characters in this book will make appearances in the next and I look forward to seeing how Lettie’s character develops. I recommend The Secrets of Wishtide to readers who like entertaining mysteries on top of more serious themes.
BCM: Thank you, Larry for taking the time to answer these questions.
LHL: You’re welcome, Barb. I’m glad to do it!
BCM: I like how you combined historical fiction with a mystery format. I imagine you did a lot of research for the historical side. How did you manage the merge? Are you a mystery reader? A history buff?
LHL: I guess the short answer would be a lot and a little bit of everything. What I mean by that (ah, the long answer) is yes, I did a ton of research. There is research on every page of Second Street Station. Besides just the historical facts that I have woven into the story, there is language. Every time a character speaks I had to make sure people uttered those words in the late 19th century. Thank God there is Merriam Webster online which tells you when a word was first used. As far as the other questions are concerned, I have been a storyteller for over thirty-five years. It’s my job and my passion. True, I have mostly written for television, and this is my first novel. The point is though that I love good stories whether they are mysteries, historical fiction or contemporary, and I was totally taken with this one. As far as managing the merge, I’ll tell you a secret. Shush, don’t tell anyone. A fictional part of the book is making Goodrich, who was a real person, Edison’s bookkeeper. That was how I felt I could seamlessly merge the murder with the dubious and immoral tactics of moguls.
BCM: It’s fun reading about a time period in which there is no technology. Was that a freeing experience? Were there challenges to constructing a plot without your characters using computers and smart phones?
LHL: It’s funny that you bring that up. For years, I have been critical of television shows or movies where a person finds out that the person they are looking for is at a certain place and they rush to that place. I keep asking, “Why don’t they just call them?” In 1888 when most of Second Street Station takes place, there were definitely no cell phones and not everyone had telephones, especially not the poor. So, there were times when I had a situation where it would be so much easier to make a phone call, but Mary couldn’t. In some ways, it was helpful because I had to be more creative in my storytelling. In my next book, Brooklyn On Fire, Mary has to tell her parents some important news. She calls a neighbor a block away who has a phone, and that neighbor tells her parents.
BCM: Related to the absence of technology in the 1880s, I would guess that crime scenes were very different back then, too. Did you have to do specific research related to these scenes and references, or was it easy to write a crime scene without modern CSI procedures getting in the way?
LHL: Yes, I had to do specific research about crime scenes at that time. For instance, fingerprinting wasn’t used yet and blood typing was not yet a reality. I also had the advantage of having access to the newspaper articles of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which was around back then and had articles about the actual crime scene.
BCM: Over the years, I’ve read a lot of the books my kids have read in school, especially during the middle school years. Many of them are historical fiction and not all of them are interesting. It seems to me that an adapted version of Mary Handley’s character would fit well into the young adult genre and make history interesting to kids. Would you ever consider writing young adult books?
LHL: Yes definitely, if the right idea came to me. To me, it’s all about the story and my passion for it. I love it, but writing is hard work, and I have found that if I’m not obsessed with the story, it’s even harder. Having been a television writer, I have certainly at times taken jobs to write stories that didn’t grab me. I have found those to be just that – jobs. Maybe that is why my career has been unusual in the area of media writing. I’ve written half hour TV, hour TV, TV movies, animation, and features. In a business that tries to pigeon-hole you in one area, I’ve done them all. It’s made it more interesting to me. But as far as a YA novel or any novel, the important thing is my interest in the story. Writing a novel is a lot more work than a TV show or even a movie, and I’d have to really like the story.
BCM: I think Mary’s character is great. She’s not exactly a women’s libber, joining the other suffragettes on the streets. She just does what she wants to do and is modern in her thinking. I read that you could find some information about the real Mary Handley, but you needed to develop her character for your story. What was that process like? Did you have an early idea of what Mary would be like?
LHL: I had an early idea of what Mary would be like, but like in any writing process, I developed her more as I continued to plot my story. You’re absolutely right in that I wanted her to be modern in her thinking and have to deal with the problems it caused at that time. I also wanted to make her an independent thinker who didn’t join groups, because they followed the lowest common denominator theory – simplifying and lowering their goals to appeal to the most people. To be honest, there’s a good deal of my daughter in Mary along with qualities of other women I admire. I wanted her to be brilliant and witty, yet also vulnerable and fallible. Because of the time, she also had to be headstrong in order to dare to pursue what she wanted in life. To me, it’s easy to love Mary.
BCM: I was very interested to learn about the Edison-Tesla rivalry and particularly about Edison’s personality. Both figures were certainly creative and had all sorts of human flaws. I guess there was a lot of information about these men. In addition, I think most people know about the early ingredients in Coca-Cola, but I did not know about cocaine-laced wine, Vin Mariani, or about Edison’s use of this drink to keep him going. Was this an easy fact to discover in your research?
LHL: Easy is a relative term. I can’t even remember how long it took me to find that information. It all melds together now in one huge effort. However, during my research, I discovered that cocaine was considered the wonder drug at that time. Vin Mariani was the most popular wine in the United States. Queen Victoria, the Pope, Robert Louis Stevenson. Thomas Edison and others all endorsed cocaine. I found a quote from Edison, who was renowned for working long hours, saying how it cleared up the cobwebs after working all night. The dangers obviously weren’t clearly defined yet.
BCM: Tell me about the cover for Second Street Station. I really like it. It reminds me of an etching and seems true to the time period. How did you come to decide on the design and colors?
LHL: I wish I could take credit for the cover. The wonderful artists at Random House/Crown/Broadway Books came up with it and sent it to me. All I did was say, “Wow!”
BCM: Regarding the cover, it’s always fun to return to it after reading the book, and understand what the picture is depicting. Seeing what The Bowler Hat looked like was a bonus to me. Was it difficult choosing what to include on the cover?
LHL: It’s interesting you say that because my line of thinking was different and I was obviously proved wrong. I didn’t want to see the faces of my characters on the cover. I figured that everyone would have a different impression of what they thought Mary or the Bowler Hat looked like and I didn’t want to destroy their images by showing them a picture. However, everyone loves the cover, as do I, so there. I was wrong.
BCM: I like how you include some exciting action scenes in which Mary escapes by the skin of her teeth. I especially liked the trolley scene in which Mary shoves the trolley driver off and takes the whip and reins. It reminded me of an Indiana Jones movie, funny and entertaining and a nice addition to the historical part of the book. Do you think your experience as a comedy writer influenced these scenes? Did your experience make these scenes easier to write?
LHL: Again, easy is a relative word. However, I firmly believe that there is humor in anything you write because humor is part of life. If the action or story is heavily dramatic with no light moments, I find that somewhat boring and unrealistic. Do I have a tendency to see the comedy in situations? I probably do, but I try very hard to make that comedy real and not take over a dramatic story, ruining the serious moments.
BCM: Your next book is entitled Brooklyn On Fire will be released on January 19, 2016. What is it about?
LHL: In Brooklyn On Fire, Mary is asked to investigate the possible murder of a woman’s uncle. It blossoms into a triple murder case involving political and personal scandal, taking her to Richmond, Virginia and back again. Many of New York’s elite families are involved (the Huntingtons, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Rockefellers), and it all revolves around the annexation of Brooklyn by New York City (Brooklyn was its own city back then). It was a lot of fun writing, and I hope everyone enjoys it.
BCM: Will we see more of Mary’s family in Brooklyn On Fire? Will the officers at the station become more developed regulars?
LHL: Definitely. Elizabeth, Sean, and Jeffrey Handley are back and their relationships continue to evolve. Sean has been promoted at Second Street Station. Chief Campbell also has a new job and is intricately involved. Billy O’Brien, the older police sergeant who has known Mary and Sean since they were born, also returns.
BCM: What else is in the works? A TV or movie version?
LHL: I have been fortunate to have had a lot of interest in that area. Warner Brothers and several other companies have inquired. However, I am taking it slowly in that area. I want to do justice to Mary and not just turn her into some cartoonish, kick-ass 19th century woman.
BCM: Thank you, Larry. Looking forward to Mary’s next mystery!
Lawrence H. Levy is an American film and TV writer. He is a Writers Guild Award winner and two-time Emmy nominee. He has written for many hit TV shows, including Roseanne, Family Ties, Saved by the Bell and Seinfeld. Second Street Station is his first novel.
The future looks bleak when Mary Handley is fired from her sweatshop job in Brooklyn. She’d held her tongue long enough at the Lowry Hat Factory and finally gave her boss, the Widow Lowry, a piece of her mind. “After all, if you didn’t call a pig a pig, it might never know it was one,” she tells the widow. Now both poor and jobless, she shows up at her police officer brother’s Second Street Station, hoping for a meal.
It’s 1888 and a lot is going on in New York. Women are starting to demand their rights. Powerful entrepreneurs like J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Jay Gould are wielding their influence and the genius inventors, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are in the middle of a war of currents.
In Brooklyn, Mary is not about to listen to her mother’s advice to find a husband. She has a sharp mind and an independent streak and isn’t ready to settle down. “Have you no interest in betterin’ yourself?” her mother asks.
Mary gets her chance at a new career when Charles Goodrich, Thomas Edison’s bookkeeper, is murdered. In a public relations move, Police Chief Patrick Campbell offers Mary a job as a detective, the first female officer in New York. Mary doesn’t have to think twice before she says yes.
What follows is a very entertaining historical fiction mystery with lots of action and twists and turns. Second Street Station is based on the actual Goodrich murder case in which the real Mary Handley was a key part of the investigation. A large cast of historical figures, including Morgan, Edison and Tesla, figure in the story. Lesser-known characters also cast doubt, leaving almost no one beyond suspicion.
In Levy’s story, Mary’s knack for figuring things out carries her far into the investigation, but she lands in many dangerous situations. It’s great fun to imagine Mary in these scenes and to cheer for her as she goes up against mysterious assassins who are determined to take her down. Levy offers just enough clues along the way to engage the reader. There’s a promise of a resolution, but plenty of surprises wait at the finish.
I very much enjoyed reading Second Street Station, which is the first in Levy’s new series of mysteries and I think the historical element greatly enhances an already winning story. In particular, Levy portrays Thomas Edison in a very different way from what is taught in schoolbooks, making me want to know more about his driven and creative personality and about his fierce competition with Tesla. Levy has a fun writing style and gives the story an authentic feel by adding great details unique to the time period.
Click here to read more about about Levy and the historical characters in this book including some interesting links about the case and life during the 1880s.
Want more? Check out these other Mary Handley Mysteries:
The Boston Girl is a light story about Addie Baum, a young girl growing up in Boston during the early 1900s. The book begins in 1985 as Addie tells her story to her adult granddaughter, Ava. It has a casual feel, as if the two were sitting in Addie’s living room and this makes it easy to read.
Addie’s parents are Jewish immigrants from Russia and they struggle with the usual challenges of earning a living, assimilating into a new country and raising three daughters. Addie is the youngest daughter and an independent thinker. Her oldest sister Betty has boldly left home to find some fun. Middle sister Celia is frail and troubled and their mother frets she will never find a husband. Addie wants more out of life. She is smart, loves to read and continuously locks horns with her mother over what’s proper and expected for a young teenage girl.
She finds her way by connecting with prominent female do-gooders who help pave her way and introduce her to the world of literature, education and career-oriented women.
The Boston Girl is an adult story, but it has a simple presentation and vocabulary and reads more like young historical fiction. The characters are a little plain and, even though there are many adult situations and some innuendo, many of the major players are wholesome helpers, making it seem as if Addie is being protected by a guardian angel. And while Addie’s love life has its ups and downs, it’s not much of a surprise to see her meet the man of her dreams.
There is plenty of heartbreak in The Boston Girl, but the chapters are short and the characters lack a certain depth that would make these events realistic. World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic wreak havoc, but these references have an over and done feel and seem to be forgotten in the next chapter.
I enjoyed reading The Boston Girl, but I was expecting something different. It was mildly interesting, with many references to Boston, historical events and important social causes, especially women’s rights, education and child labor laws. But for me, the story’s preachy feel made it a little boring.
The Boston Girl was not my favorite, but I loved The Red Tent and I’m willing to try another of Diamant’s novels.
Wilderness Tips is a collection of ten short stories by Margaret Atwood and was first published in 1989. I enjoyed reading this somewhat unusual group of stories which are tied together loosely with some common themes.
She writes about summer camps, mental breakdowns, marriage and relationships, death, women’s careers and women’s rights, newspapers and social issues.
Some of the stories have surprise endings, some include graphic medical details, and all of them are reflective about times past.
Here’s a brief description of each story:
“True Trash” takes place at Camp Adanaqui and is a coming-of-age story about a group of boys who spy on the older teenage waitresses at the camp. Ronette is the center of the boys’ attention and Donny defends her honor in his own seemingly powerless adolescent way.
“Hairball” is a strange story of Kat, an angry young woman who faces mental breakdown and exacts revenge on her married lover. Atwood uses the shock of graphic medical details to make a powerful point about mental illness.
In “Isis in Darkness,” Richard is with Mary Jo, a stable librarian, but he obsesses over Selena, a mysterious poet he’s met at a coffee shop. It’s a story about marriage and regrets and of being alone.
In “The Bog Man,” Connor is an archaeology professor, dedicated to uncovering the history of an ancient, perfectly preserved human sacrifice. He’s having an affair with one of his students, Julie, and he brings her to Scotland to “help” with his research. It’s here where Julie learns to assert her own power, much to Connor’s dismay.
“Death by Landscape” is a great story about the friendship between two girls at Camp Manitou, and an irreversible tragedy. Lois spends a lifetime trying to cope with her loss and at the end of the story, Atwood reveals the mystery behind a collection of landscape paintings.
In “Uncles,” Mae is a young girl who has no father, but she’s greatly admired by her three uncles. This story starts out flat and bland, but don’t let that trick you. Mae becomes a successful journalist, but she faces jealousy and resentment and the ending is dark and bitter.
“The Age of Lead” is a story about the Franklin Expedition of 1845, a British voyage through the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. Jane is fascinated by the modern discovery of a frozen man, John Torrington, who died during the expedition. She compares the frozen man to her close childhood friend, Vincent, whose death has left her empty.
“Weight” describes the deep loyalty between female friends. Molly has been beaten to death by her husband and her best friend does what she can to raise money and awareness for battered women, using whatever means she has left.
“Wilderness Tips” is one of my favorites from this collection. It’s a terrific look at the dynamics between three sisters, their brother Roland and George, a Hungarian refugee, who made fast money in Canada. He’s married one of the sisters, but there’s deception going on.
“Hack Wednesday” takes place in the late 1980s and is a look at the changing times, social issues, and growing older. Marcia is a newspaper columnist, but she’s being squeezed out. Her husband, Eric, fights for all the causes, but his career is slowing down. It’s a story about trudging through middle age.
I liked all these stories, but my favorites were “True Trash,” “Death by Landscape,” “Uncles” and “Wilderness Tips.” While not always upbeat, all of the endings are either surprising, satisfying, or though-provoking, the things I enjoy most from great fiction!