In Mariah Fredericks's Death of a Showman, the fourth in this absorbing series set in Gilded Age New York, lady’s maid Jane Prescott is thrust into the world of show business, where a killer is stalking Broadway.
It's the summer of 1914 and Jane Prescott—lady's maid to Louise Tyler, daughter of a wealthy New York society family—has just arrived home from Independence Day celebrations to find musician Leo Hirschfeld playing the Tylers' piano.
Jane's brief courtship with Leo had ended before the Tylers' vacation to Europe earlier in the summer, so she isn't entirely surprised to see him. She is, however, shocked to learn that he's been engaged to write a new Broadway show—and that he's married a chorus girl in his musical.
Jane and Louise Tyler are pulled into the sparkling and dramatic world of Broadway, with Louise becoming an investor in the show, and Jane accompanying her to rehearsals as her chaperone. But behind the glittering facade of costumes and love songs, the cast is restless and prone to deception, culminating in the death of the show's producer: Sidney Warburton.
The accusation that Leo was involved jolts Jane, and her old friend and tabloid reporter Michael Behan, into action. Determined to close the curtain on these murders, Jane must strip back the masks of these consummate actors until she knows the truth.
Release date: April 13, 2021
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 288
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Death of a Showman
Louise Tyler was in a rage.
The provocation was Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic—or rather the absence of it. On our voyage back from Europe, Louise had sent several ship-to-shore telegrams with instructions to the new cook to have the beverage at hand when we returned. We had been home only fifteen minutes when we discovered the tonic was not in the house. Neither was the cook.
I could not recall ever seeing Louise Tyler in a rage. Nor, from his expression, could her husband, William, who watched helplessly as she tore around the house, calling down vengeance on the cook, on all cooks, and all telegrams, and all empty iceboxes. This led to a general damnation of sea travel and weddings that required them, culminating in a derisive dismissal of Europe itself. Except for the London Zoo and its penguins. They had been charming. The rest of the continent could go hang.
When the mistress is out of sorts, the maid must find remedies. I said, “Mrs. Tyler, why don’t you let me run you a bath? Then later, I can go to the market…”
“Why don’t you go now, Jane?” urged William. “Take the car, it’ll be faster.”
Having just picked us up from the Chelsea Piers, Horst the chauffeur had not even finished bringing in the trunks when William told him to take me to Gristedes in the family’s newest acquisition: a Rolls-Royce called the Silver Ghost. William had encountered the car in London and fallen madly in love.
“It’s been a long journey,” I reassured William. “Mrs. Tyler will feel better now that she’s home.”
At least I hoped she would. We had been traveling since September 1913 and it was now June 1914. For nine of those months, Louise’s composure had been heroic. But over the last few weeks, she had finally … well, cracked. The trip abroad had been fraught from the start. Weddings are always difficult, a sister’s wedding particularly so, and the wedding of the lovely and unscrupulous Charlotte Benchley—no blood had been shed, and for that we could all be grateful. Petite, blond, and exceedingly wealthy, Charlotte had charmed the old world into submission. The acid tongue was used sparingly, the fluttered lashes employed steadily. As an American, she was permitted to be outrageous at times; she could ask if it were true that the Meissen went missing in any great house visited by Queen Mary, if the duke of Beaumont was really so fond of telegraph boys, and why on earth would anyone fight over Alsace and Lorraine, the food was so terrible. Under the count’s tutelage, she had become an excellent shot, a talent she claimed in the name of Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James. No one believed it, but they enjoyed her willingness to play into the American myth where infants chewed on raw bison meat and played with guns instead of rattles. I did not get to know the count well, but William indicated there might not be that much to know.
As was so often the case, Charlotte’s success was Louise’s burden. Under the aegis of the captivating countess-to-be, the Tylers were whisked from one European capital to the next in an endless series of balls, operas, teas, and shooting parties. The protocols in each country were varied and byzantine; a virtual nightmare for anyone who had both a terror of committing faux pas and a fatalistic certainty that she would. Louise passed her hours in a state of deadly tedium laced with deep anxiety. Still, she soldiered on, climbing in and out of several outfits a day and as many packing cases in a month. In addition, Charlotte having lived without the responsibility of her mother for over a year refused to take up that duty again, and so the job of managing Mrs. Benchley on the continent without diplomatic incident fell to William and Louise—and myself. I was very fond of the family matriarch, but after several months in her constant company, even I flinched at the sound of her voice, piercing and simple like a child’s whistle.
By the time we reached Vienna, where the wedding was to be held, Louise’s nerves were frayed to the point of breaking. One evening, she had collapsed on the bed—I winced as she crushed a gorgeous dress of sunset-red silk chiffon—to announce, “I’m sick to death of aristocrats. Count, duke, prince, I don’t care if I meet another in my lifetime. They speak five languages and haven’t a single interesting thing to say in any of them. I never knew how American I was until I came to Europe.”
I had reassured her that we would soon be home and life would seem much brighter. Peeling jewels and gloves from her wrists, Louise had sighed. “I hope so.” Unfortunately, the voyage had not been smooth and low spirits were not improved by seasickness.
Still, now we were back in New York. I had missed the city more than I could have imagined, its arrogant skyscrapers that turned avenues into shaded canyons, the mad bustle of its streets with trolleys, horses, cars, and pedestrians rushing in all directions. I missed the smells, the multilingual invective, and the sense that everyone was here to go somewhere and do something.
And I missed its people. William had instructed the staff remaining at home to forward all mail, but as the letters had to follow us around the continent, things were delayed. Or lost. I had nothing from my oldest friend, Anna, and a single letter from my uncle, reporting a leak in the roof and Berthe’s twisted ankle. Only one person had promised to write and kept that promise. Were it not for Michael Behan, I would have had no idea what was happening in America during our absence. His first letter arrived in London two weeks after we did.
Dear Miss Prescott,
Having bid farewell to you and the sulfurous purgatory that is New York in August, a young man’s fancy turns lightly to baseball. Christy Mathewson’s arm is stout, his aim true. The streets are redolent with the stench of horse droppings and politics. The first milch goat show was held in Rochester. No doubt you are sorry to have missed it.
Dear Mr. Behan,
There is no baseball in London, but horse droppings are in fashion here as well. I would gladly report on the question of Home Rule or the new wax figures of Balkan monarchs at Madame Tussauds. But all I’ve seen are backstairs and bad tempers.
Dear Miss Prescott,
The new income tax law became law today. Times predicts, “Some confusion is certain.” Everyone seems to think something should be done about Mexico, no one seems to know what. Have you met Czar? He seems an idiot.
Dear Mr. Behan,
Have not met Czar. We are in Paris now and I have learned to swear at porters in three different languages. Travel is enlarging.
His next letter was less cheerful.
Dear Miss Prescott,
It is after midnight in the newsroom. Maybe it’s the rain, maybe I’m tired. But yours truly is in a foul mood. I have no great fondness for the old country, but things have gone awry in our new one. Take recent events in Ludlow, Colorado. Rockefeller may preach “workaday religion,” but his vision of do unto and so forth doesn’t seem to stretch to his employees, many of whom are on strike. Rather than do something sensible like pay them, he turned a bunch of thugs loose on them with the predictable result that a lot of people are dead. Including two women and eleven children who were burned to death. The city’s pure and earnest are naturally vying for the title of most outraged. But I wonder if they don’t have a point this time. Who the hell turns ex-convicts and mercenaries on women and children?
Sorry to be grim. Will go kick Harry Knowles to feel better.
Briefly, I wondered if this was why I had not heard from Anna. If the murder of striking women and children upset the normally apolitical Michael Behan, it would inspire a lethal rage in my anarchist friend. In fact, I preferred not to think how Anna might respond. I wrote back to Mr. Behan that he should kick gently; it was not Mr. Knowles’s fault. And that I hoped my letter found him feeling more cheerful. As it happened, it did.
Dear Miss Prescott,
The city continues its decline in your absence. The Bergen Avenue gang caused a riot in the Bronx, the Gophers are shooting it up on the West Side, and a diplomat’s wife has been arrested for shoplifting.
In happier news, I announce the coming of an heir. The infant Behan should make his appearance sometime in September.
It took me a moment to understand that Mr. Behan had, in his own cheeky way, informed me that the long hoped for Behan baby was on its way; by fall, he would be a father. How wonderful, I thought, taking up a pen. How absolutely … wonderful.
Dear Mr. Behan,
All Europe rejoices to hear of the coming of the Infant Behan. Bells have rung at Westminster, prayers of thanksgiving said at Notre Dame, and the Kaiser’s army stands ready to sound the cannons on arrival. I congratulate you. And feel compelled to remind you that babies come in all manner of sizes and shapes—including female.
After that, while Behan kept up his usual stream of city news and gossip, the Infant Behan—or Tib and occasionally Lump for short—was clearly at the forefront of his thoughts. And happiness. His last letter arrived just before we left.
Wilson’s losing what’s left of his hair over Mexico. Becker’s trial continues in all its squalor. The hippo at the Central Park Zoo has had a baby, 55 lbs. Mother and child are well. So you see, dear old New York is much the same. Except not quite. Maybe it’s the light, maybe the breeze off the Hudson’s not as fresh, or the city’s brewers have lost their touch. But something’s missing. And I hope it soon returns.
As I came out of Gristedes, I saw a young couple, walking arm in arm. He said something and she laughed, as much in pleasure that he cared to amuse her as at the joke. And suddenly I thought of Leo Hirschfeld.
I was proud of how I managed the issue of Mr. Hirschfeld. Yes, I had enjoyed his company more than I should have last summer, given that I made a vow not to see him again. But as he pointed out, I had never told him I wasn’t going to see him again and did I really want to spend the whole summer having no fun? Maybe it didn’t speak well of my character, but it turned out I didn’t. I only had one day off a week. How much trouble could I get into on one day off?
The answer was, in the company of Leo Hirschfeld, enough to feel guilty when I remembered Clara, a studious girl with strong views on education whom his mother often invited to supper. So before leaving for Europe, I gave Leo a well-practiced speech in which I reminded him of Clara’s qualities and expectations (I was vague on the particulars of both, but felt certain they existed) and said it was best if we parted for good. Leo said I was being pompous.
We had been walking back from the movie theater where he played piano, reaching the point where I turned for the Tyler house and he for the train. He said, “For the hundred and thirty-fourth time, I’m not marrying Clara. I’m not marrying anyone.”
Anyone. Yes, it was not only Clara; there were after all seven days in the week, and I only took up one. Wishing him the best of luck with his music, I started walking. He ran after me, caught hold of my arm. He looked unexpectedly serious and for a moment, declaration was in the air.
“I don’t want to say the things everybody says,” he told me.
Disappointed, I reclaimed my arm. “No, that would be very dull.”
Now as I rode back to the Tylers’, I felt certain that I had done the right thing. One misspent summer might be excused, two would be … I couldn’t decide between the words “stupid” and “immoral,” so I decided on “pointless.” Above all, I had avoided my worst nightmare, in which Leo looked deeply into my eyes, and said he was sorry, but he was marrying Clara next month. And I was devastated because somehow, on my one day off, I had fallen in love with him. In another imagining, Leo said he had found a better fox-trotter than me, so our Fridays were over. I was no less devastated. No, I thought, fox-trot or matrimony, it was a very good thing I had avoided that.
Cel-Ray in hand, I entered the house through the kitchen door and heard neither wailing nor pleading. Then I heard Louise say, “Perhaps we shouldn’t tell her.”
And William, “No, better she hears it from us.”
Sorrowful, I thought. Kind. This was not the cook, nor the parlormaid. This was someone they knew well, this person with bad news coming to her. I was suddenly aware of my heartbeat, hard and hurtful in my chest. We had been out of the country for months, only sporadically reachable. Anything might have happened. No, not anything. Something awful. Something … death. Without thinking, I pushed open the swinging door between kitchen and dining room. Louise and William looked up, startled. Between them, they held a newspaper.
Copyright © 2021 by Mariah Fredericks
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