I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I love finding a new series, especially one that explores elements of history less well known to me. Rosemary Simpson’s Gilded Age Mysteries came to my attention with book 7, set at Niagara Falls at a time when it was threatened by industrialization and the accompanying pollution.
Having read the latest installment, I was sufficiently intrigued to go back to the beginning to learn more about society heiress Prudence MacKenzie and her ex-Pinkerton investigative partner, Geoffrey Hunter. It’s a lovely series, well worth your time. Read on to find out what their creator has to say.
Death at the Falls is the seventh of your Gilded Age Mysteries. What attracts you to late nineteenth-century New York high society, broadly defined?
The late 1880s and early 1890s are a time that very much resembles our own age. Women’s issues are coming to the fore, and the wealth disparity between the very rich and the very poor has created enclaves of luxury and power alongside tenements of unrelieved poverty and disease. New inventions are becoming a part of everyday life: the telephone, electricity, elevators, experiments with horseless carriages. Railroads crisscross the country, making transportation rapid, affordable, and safe. Corrupt political machines dominate city, state, and national governments. High finance is controlled by a very few unscrupulous men who dominate the banking houses and stock exchanges. Advances are being made in medicine, but the poor are victims of diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis, typhus, and scarlet fever.
Seemingly oblivious to the harsh realities of most working lives, New York society in the Gilded Age whirls through rigidly exclusive rounds of balls, debutante presentations, nights at the opera, dinners at restaurants such as Delmonico’s. Women spend their days making social calls and being fitted for gowns that typically cost more than a laborer can earn in a lifetime. Men lose themselves in business, clubs, cigars, and mistresses.
Prudence MacKenzie and Geoffrey Hunter allow me to write about both worlds, about high society and the criminal underbelly of New York City. I’m also fascinated by what I learn as I take my characters out of their comfortable milieus and into places and situations most individuals of their wealth and social backgrounds would never dream of going.
Prudence MacKenzie is one of your two main characters. When we first meet her in What the Dead Leave Behind, she’s not in a good place, as we would say today. Describe her situation at that point in time.
Prudence’s father, a famous and well-respected judge in New York City, has died recently, leaving his daughter all of his considerable wealth. She is engaged to be married to a man she’s known since childhood. It’s not exactly a love match, but she trusts and admires him. The book opens in March 1888, during the night of possibly the worst snowstorm ever to have blanketed the east coast. Prudence’s fiancé is one of its victims—or was he murdered? Laudanum administered by a greedy and unscrupulous stepmother nearly robs Prudence of her fortune and her freedom. Only when she meets and engages the services of an ex-Pinkerton Southerner does it look like she’s found someone who can help her fight the laudanum addiction, foil the plots of her avaricious stepmother, and forge a new life for herself outside the confines of Gilded Age society.
How has she grown or changed as the series progresses?
Prudence’s decision to become an inquiry agent in the firm of Hunter and MacKenzie, Investigative Law, is an enormously daring step for a young woman of her age and social rank. She has to learn the detective skills that her partner mastered during his career in the Pinkertons and fend for herself in some of the seediest and most dangerous neighborhoods of the city while maintaining the social contacts that allow her to solve crimes that society would rather cover up. She becomes more self-confident with every case and more attracted to dangerous situations that a seasoned detective would avoid. She’s also falling in love with her partner, although she tries her best to deny it. Marriage means subservience during the Gilded Age, and she’s just taking her first steps toward independence.
What can you tell us about Geoffrey Hunter, your hero?
Geoffrey Hunter comes from a wealthy North Carolina plantation family that owned thousands of acres of land and hundreds of slaves before the Civil War. Too young to have fought in the war, he was sent north to an exclusive boys’ school where his Yankee education clashed with his father’s politics. Geoffrey left the South and his family to join the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, settling in New York City when he became disillusioned with some of the agency’s clientele and anti-labor tactics. He lives in a luxurious apartment at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, one of the city’s most prestigious establishments. Like Prudence, he’s independently wealthy but bored by the society life he’s expected to live. He’s in love with Prudence, but stepping cautiously, knowing that to move too quickly might seem threatening to a young woman tasting newfound freedom from male dominance.
What takes Prudence and Geoffrey to Niagara Falls? What do they find once they get there?
Prudence and Geoffrey are asked by Prudence’s English aunt to help a friend of hers with a legal case whose details Lady Rotherton deliberately leaves vague. Prudence, who has just passed the bar—only the second woman to be admitted to the practice of law in New York State—is eager to test her legal skills. What they find is a complicated family drama in which a grandmother denies the legitimacy of her son’s daughter in order to retain control of the family fortune. As the deaths mount up, the case becomes more complex. Old jealousies mingle with corruption, greed, and the fortunes to be made as Niagara changes from a sleepy little tourist town to a mecca for development.
The Niagara they encounter is, to put it politely, in transition to the place we know today. How would you describe it in 1890?
Niagara in 1890 is on the cusp of massive development in hydroelectricity as well as tourism. It had been a favorite vacation spot for many years, but until legislation created the Niagara Reservation in 1885 on the American side and the Niagara Parks Commission on the Canadian side, the three spectacular waterfalls and the surrounding land were exploited by private speculators who had little or no regard for the preservation of the area’s natural beauty. Contemporary pictures show factories spewing debris and wastewater over the cliffs and into the Niagara River. Everything costs money, even peering through a knothole in the wooden fences erected to block the view. Things improved for tourists once Frederick Law Olmsted’s design for a free public park became reality, but the power of the falls remained a magnet for the new and fiercely competitive electric power companies.
And last but not least, who is Crazy Louie?
Crazy Louie is an entirely fictional character who dreams of being the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to tell about it. The stunt, if successful, would make him world famous. He’s been experimenting with different woods, various barrel shapes, and animal passengers for years now. Louie is an oddball character of whom Niagarans are rather fond, but nobody knows where he gets the money for his experiments.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just completed Death Wears a Hidden Face, Gilded Age Mystery #8, to be published by Kensington in November 2023. Prudence and Geoffrey must solve a murder that takes them into Chinatown, where they encounter a culture neither has experienced before. The historical base of the book is the effect that the prejudicial Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had on the population of Chinese laborers who had been recruited to work in the California gold fields and build the transcontinental railroad. I’ve started the research for Gilded Age Mystery #9, which takes place in the New York City world of vaudeville and legitimate theater. No title yet!
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Rosemary Simpson is the author of the Gilded Age Mysteries and two stand-alone historical novels, The Seven Hills of Paradise and Dreams and Shadows. Find out more about her at https://RosemarySimpsonBooks.com.
Images: “The Protectors of Our Industry," Puck cartoon showing various robber barons riding on the backs of workers; hand-colored lithograph of the Niagara suspension bridge (1856), crossed repeatedly by Prudence and Geoffrey in their attempt to solve this case; and Horseshoe Falls, Canada (1869)—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph of Rosemary Simpson © Richard H. Simpson.