Historical mysteries are an increasingly popular category of fiction, and many of these novels begin with real people or a real event that inspires an author to tell a story. Two such books are featured in this month’s Book Report.
Author Beatriz Williams’ “The Golden Hour” takes the reader to World War II Bahamas. The Duke of Windsor had abdicated the throne as king of England because he fell in love with a twice-divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson, and caused a huge scandal. They marry, and five years later his brother, King George II, appoints the duke as governor of the Bahamas, far away from England.
Lulu Randolph is a freelance writer for a New York society magazine, and her latest assignment is to write a puff piece about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Thinking she can turn it into a monthly column, Lulu ingratiates herself with the duchess, who takes Lulu into her inner circle.
As WWII approaches, the relaxed lifestyle in the Bahamas changes. Many of the wealthy Americans leave, the extravagant social events lessen, and an unease settles over the island. Lulu becomes entranced by a mysterious man, Benedict Thorpe. He claims to be a botanist, but Lulu has her doubts.
When a wealthy man is murdered, Lulu wants to get to the bottom of the shady dealings going on. She is warned by a friendly bartender that she should leave the island, that she doesn’t know what she is getting herself into. That just makes Lulu more determined, even if it involves her friend the duchess.
There is a second story here as well. We meet Elfriede in 1900, a young mother suffering from a severe case of postpartum depression who is sent to stay at a sanitarium in Switzerland. She meets a severely injured man there, and they begin a deep friendship. How Elfriede’s story intertwines with Lulu’s is another intriguing mystery.
“The Golden Hour” is a terrific historical mystery, and the unique setting of the Bahamas adds to its appeal. Anyone who is intrigued by the story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor will enjoy this look at a different time period in their life. Williams seamlessly integrates the two storylines, and the characters of Lulu and Elfriede are strong, interesting women.
Laura Lippman’s latest mystery, “The Lady in the Lake” also has a female journalist as her protagonist, and the murders in the story are based on two real cases. Maddie is a Baltimore housewife, mother to a teenage son, looking for more from her life in 1960s Baltimore. She leaves her husband, moves into a small apartment in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and begins a clandestine affair with a black police officer.
When a teenage girl goes missing, Maddie helps in the search for her and finds the girl’s body. She becomes intrigued with the case, and befriends a newspaper reporter. She decides it’s time to get a job and goes to the reporter’s newspaper, looking for a job.
Maddie starts out as an aide to the advice columnist, but wants to be a reporter. When the body of a young black woman is found in a park fountain, Maddie thinks there is more to the story, but no one on the paper, or in Baltimore for that matter, cares to find out what happened to a poor young black woman who didn’t have the best reputation.
The murdered woman was involved with a married man, and had to hide their relationship. Maddie could relate to that, as she and her police officer boyfriend had to hide their interracial relationship in 1960s Baltimore.
Like Lulu in “The Golden Hour,” Maddie doesn’t listen to people who say she shouldn’t get involved. Even her boyfriend tells her to back off, but Maddie is determined to get justice for this young murdered mother.
“Lady in the Lake” is an outstanding novel, and Lippman gets better and better with each book. Her characters are strongly drawn, from the major ones like Maddie and Cleo, the dead woman, to the minor ones like Tessie, a young woman Maddie befriends, and Bob Bauer, the reporter who interviews Maddie about finding the body.
We see Maddie finding her voice as a reporter and a woman, taking charge of her own life after deciding that being a housewife wasn’t enough for her. I found the newspaper aspect of the story so interesting, and Lippman’s time as reporter brings a sense of authenticity to one of the best mysteries of the year. And like Williams did with the Bahamas, Lippman's Baltimore is an important character in the story.