Back in 2016, I interviewed Michelle Cox for New Books in Historical Fiction. At that point, she already had two books in her Henrietta and Inspector Howard mystery series, set in 1930s Chicago: A Girl Like You and A Ring of Truth. You can find out more about those books by clicking on the interview link above. Today, we’re discussing the three later novels in the series, especially A Child Lost, released just this week.
This is your fifth of your detective novels featuring Henrietta von Harmon and Clive Howard. Could you give us a brief overview of Henrietta and Clive, how they got together, and where they are at the beginning of book 4, A Veil Removed—which came out last year?
Sure! Henrietta and Clive are very much from opposite sides of the tracks, as it were. Henrietta is from an impoverished family living in the grip of the Great Depression in Chicago. Her father has killed himself, leaving a chronically depressed wife and eight children behind. As the oldest child, Henrietta is always out working, trying to make money any way she can. Against her better judgment, she takes a job as a taxi-dancer at a dance hall. When her boss, Mama Leone, turns up dead, Inspector Clive Howard arrives on the scene to investigate. He offers her a job going under cover for him at a Burlesque Club, which she accepts, and from there, many adventures, both mysterious and romantic, begin.
In the end, Clive ends up proposing to Henrietta, and she accepts, despite the fact that he is many years her senior. What she doesn’t realize until the next book, however, is that Clive is not just a city detective, but he is also the heir to the fabulous Howard fortune and estate in Winnetka. This causes yet another layer of friction between the two, as Henrietta feels oddly betrayed by this omission.
It’s obviously something they eventually resolve, however, because at the beginning of Book 4, A Veil Removed, Henrietta and Clive, newly married, abruptly end their honeymoon in England to attend the funeral of Clive’s father, Alcott Howard. Alcott has supposedly died as a result of a freak accident, but Clive suspects something more sinister …
Much of A Veil Removed revolves around the death of Clive’s father, Alcott. Without giving away spoilers, what can you tell us about that situation?
While cleaning out his father’s study, Clive discovers several damaging letters that point to him being the potential victim of blackmail, furthering Clive’s suspicion that his father’s death was not an accident. His mother refuses to accept this theory and begins to conclude that Clive is mentally deranged from grief. Clive manages to convince Henrietta, however, so the two then begin a clandestine investigation, two of their main suspects being Bennett, Alcott’s right-hand man at his firm, and Carter, Alcott’s personal valet. Things quickly become more dangerous than either Clive or Henrietta first realized.
Another important thread in book 4, which continues into A Child Lost—the fifth book—has to do with Henrietta’s younger sister, Elsie. At the beginning of A Veil Removed, she is not—as we would say these days—in a good place. Why, and how does Henrietta help her resolve it?
At the beginning of A Veil Removed, Elsie finds herself the victim of a foiled elopement with the rogue Lt. Harrison Barnes-Smith, who has cruelly tricked and seduced her. Henrietta, with the help of Clive’s sister, Julia, thwarted the elopement, and now attempts to save Elsie from not only her own depression but from her wicked grandfather’s attempt to marry her off to the highest bidder. Their idea is to enroll Elsie at Mundelein College—a new, all-women’s Catholic school in the city.
As we move into A Child Lost, Elsie is still a student at Mundelein and toying with the idea of taking vows as a nun. Why is that?
Elsie toys with being a nun because she sees this as her only way to be free from her grandfather’s schemes to marry her off. She longs to be able to study and to teach the poor, which she knows she won’t be able to do if she is the wife of some wealthy North Shore tycoon. Nor does she think she will be “left alone” to her own devices.
But her encounter with Gunther and Anna undercuts that goal. Who is Gunther, and what do we need to know about him and Anna to understand this fifth book?
Gunther is a German immigrant working as the custodian at Mundelein. He befriends the shy Elsie before the other girls arrive for the start of the term and encourages her to read and think for herself. A friendship begins between them, which borders on a romance until Elsie finds and reads Gunther’s journal, which mentions, many times, a mysterious woman named Anna.
And where are Clive and Henrietta in A Child Lost?
For a reason I won’t mention, Henrietta is quite depressed at the beginning of A Child Lost, and Clive, desperate to cheer her up, begs a colleague at the Winnetka police for a case that he and Henrietta can work on together as a fledgling detective team.
The case given to them is the investigation of a spiritualist who is operating in an abandoned school house on the edge of town and who is accused of robbing people of their valuables. Meanwhile, Elsie begs Henrietta to help her and Gunther find a missing woman who is connected to the Anna mentioned above, a search which leads them to Dunning, an infamous, real-life asylum in Chicago.
Are you working on Henrietta and Inspector Howard, no. 6?
Well, I have it outlined, but I haven’t started actually writing it. I’m taking a little break from the series to write not one, but two, stand-alone novels, separate from the series—still in 1930s Chicago, but not based on any of the series characters. After they’re finished, I would love to jump back into the series because I really miss spending my days with Henrietta and Clive!
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Michelle Cox is the author of the multiple award-winning Henrietta and Inspector Howard series as well as “Novel Notes of Local Lore,” a weekly blog dedicated to Chicago’s forgotten residents. She suspects she may have once lived in the 1930s and, having yet to discover a handy time machine lying around, has resorted to writing about the era as a way of getting herself back there. Find out more about her and sign up for her newsletter at http://www.michellecoxauthor.com.