For fans of the Dorothy Martin mystery series, you already know what to expect: an interesting amateur sleuth, great descriptions, and a satisfying mystery. DEATH IN LACQUER RED is Jeanne M. Dams's latest mystery is set in South Bend, Indiana as the 20th century begins and it introduces amateur sleuth Hilda Johansson.
I have never read Ms. Dams before and I do not ordinarily choose to read books set in the past. But, I have an open mind, and DEATH IN LACQUER rewarded my willingness to read something different.
Hilda Johansson, makes a charming amateur sleuth who captures your interest from the beginning. Hilda is a lovely young Swedish woman who works as a maid in the Studebaker family household. She and her two sisters and one brother are working in America in order to bring the rest of their family here. Hilda has a strong personality with a keen curiosity and sense of fair play; it is these characteristics that get her into trouble and lead her to solve a murder.
After a date with handsome Irish fireman Patrick Cavanaugh, Hilda discovers the dead body of a woman on the Studebaker property. The woman's face has been beaten unrecognizable, but her red lacquer jacket ultimately identifies her. She is the sister of the Studebaker's wealthy neighbor, Judge Harper. Miss Harper has been a missionary in China and only recently left because of the Boxer Rebellion. The authorities immediately assume that one of the few Chinese immigrants in South Bend is the killer. Either that or Hilda herself.
After being questioned by the local police, Hilda becomes convinced that the authorities are more interested in a quick arrest than justice. She also fears that the police will only focus on immigrant suspects, rather than look into the victim's wealthy family. This infuriates Hilda's sense of fair play and goes completely contrary to her sense of American justice. Fearing that she may be suspected of killing Miss Harper purely because she is an immigrant, Hilda decides to find the real killer herself.
Hilda becomes convinced that Judge Harper is the real killer and sets out to get the evidence to prove this. She engages the help of the servants of neighboring families and her friend Norah, also a servant in the Studebaker household, to reconstruct Miss Harper's last day. She also breaks into the Harper family law office, hides the Chinese man police suspect of committing the crime, leaks a story to the newspaper and treks across town to interview a nun and priest at Notre Dame Cathedral.
The book ends in an exciting showdown that not only puts Hilda's job at risk, but her life and Norah's as well.
Ms. Dams does a wonderful job of creating the feel of South Bend, Indiana in the 1900s. Her descriptions of the dress, weather, furnishings, and households take the reader back to another time and place. She has chosen perfect little quotes to start each chapter that not only fit in with the subject of the chapter but also help keep the reader grounded in the feel of history.
She has created a vivid cast of supporting characters for Hilda to play upon: Mr. Williamson is her stern yet understanding boss, Norah is her colorful Irish best friend, the Studebakers are a prominent yet kind family, and Patrick has a playful personality and obviously genuine affection for Hilda. There are times when the many different dialects tend to slow down the dialog, and a couple of minor situations are a bit hard to believe; but DEATH IN LACQUER RED is so well crafted and Hilda is so engaging that I was completely hooked and wanted to see how Ms. Dams tied up everything in the end.
Reviewed by Michelle Calabro Hubbard on April 1, 2001