Murder at Beechwood
A Gilded Newport Mystery #3
Kensington Books, June 2015
Newport, Rhode Island, in 1896, is a place of fabulous wealth, gorgeous mansions, and opulent balls filled with privileged people in stunning clothing. Of course, not all of the people living in Newport are rich, and so, there are lots of very different lives being lived as well. While people might not like to talk about it, there are also numerous servants, prostitutes, and desperate people who are struggling to make a living in various ways.
Emmaline Cross, the heroine of the book, is uniquely positioned to be able to navigate both worlds. As a distant relation of the Vanderbilt family, she has an entree into most of the important social events, and she uses the invitations she receives to write a mild gossip column for the local newspaper. Having been left a small legacy from one of her aunts, Emma doesn’t have to work for a living. At the same time, however, she is not nearly as well-off as her famous Vanderbilt relations, which means she has to keep a tight rein on expenses, and is looked down upon by those who don’t have to watch their pennies. There are benefits to this scorn, as this means Emma isn’t held to quite the same strict, conventional standards of her wealthier peers. She has somewhat greater freedom in her personal choices, and she has made the decision to help those who are rejected by society. Her home is a haven to servants whom she considers friends, as well as a former prostitute.
With Emma’s reputation as a kind-hearted, helpful, non-judgmental person to go to in times of trouble, it is perhaps not entirely surprising when she finds that someone has left a baby on her doorstep. And so the mystery begins – what is the baby’s identity, who are the child’s parents, and would someone be willing to kill to cover up a possible illegitimate birth?
Emma is an appealing character, and Maxwell does a wonderful job of writing in great detail about Newport, vividly describing the houses, one-of-a-kind ball gowns, tea parties, and boat races. I hadn’t been aware that Newport was famous for the many mansions that were built there, and the book inspired me to google “Newport mansions”, where I found out that many of these houses were real, and have now been turned into museums that can be toured.
Despite all of these good points, though, I found that I never quite connected with Emma or the other characters in the book. Everyone’s motivations and behaviours felt a little stilted, or maybe just not quite deep enough. I think part of the problem was that Emma, and the life she was living, seemed more of a fantasy to me than a reality. Some of her actions seemed too contemporary for 1896, which also drew me out of the story. This is the third book in the series, and although Maxwell did a good job of writing it so that it can stand alone, it’s possible that I would have felt a greater understanding of Emma if I had read the other books first. Still, Murder at Beechwood is clearly a well-researched mystery, and it was pleasant to read for the unique setting alone.
Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, November 2015.