Earlier in March 2018, I read Murder In Burnt Orange, the 7th in Jeanne M. Dams’ Hilda Johansson Mystery series, and, while it was an entertaining, quick read, I found that it didn’t really give me much of a feel for its setting of South Bend, Indiana. I also speculated, however, that this might have been in large part due to the fact that the main character, Hilda Cavenaugh (neé Johansson), was pregnant and still getting used to the change in station brought about by her marriage, and so was confined to her home for most of the book. Pregnant women did not go out in public in South Bend, Indiana in 1905, and her recent elevation in status had left her isolated both from the servants of her former class and the higher classes who were reluctant to accept her into society.
As I also mentioned, I had some difficulty in finding the books in this series. Murder In Burnt Orange was the only one available on Kindle at the time (my preferred format), and the others were available used on a hit-or-miss basis. However, I decided to give the series another try, and ordered a paperback copy of the first in the series, Death In Lacquer Red (1999), to read on the plane to and from Spring Break.
I’m glad that I did–it gave a much better feel for South Bend, Indiana than the later book did! I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that the setting was an integral part of the book–I think it probably could have been set in just about any small to mid-sized city with a nearby university (Madison or LaCrosse in Wisconsin, or Syracuse or Troy/Albany/Schenectady in New York come to mind). But after reading this installment of the series, I definitely feel like I know the city a bit better–at least enough to make those comparisons to Wisconsin and New York.
As for the mystery itself, I again felt it was a bit thin, but it was entertaining and there were enough historical details to satisfy. The manner of death (or rather the state of the corpse) was never sufficiently explained to my mind. The murderer apparently moved the corpse, as well, although I’m not sure why that was done either. And despite some hints of a link to the Boxer Rebellion, nothing about that ever really surfaced, other than as an excuse to have the police suspect a Chinese person. Honestly, I expected a deeper plot line involving the China backstory, and a plot twist based on the state of the corpse, but neither materialized.
The setting of the real-life Studebaker mansion, Tippecanoe Place, with details about the house and the lives of the Studebaker family, was great, though.
The top floor of the great house could be a frightening place even in the day, if the day were stormy. At night, it was terrifying. All the gas lamps had been turned off hours earlier, of course. (The mansion had suffered a devastating fire only a few months after it was built. Almost eleven years ago, that was, but everyone in the rebuilt house was still extremely careful about fire; the servants weren’t even allowed candles in their rooms.) In Hilda’s cramped corner of the house, back by the service stairs, there were no windows save those in the bedrooms, making the narrow hallway as black as the pit.
Apparently, the house even had an “elevator that ran up the center of the stairwell.”
There were also some very nice descriptions of the Notre Dame campus, and, in particular, the golden dome.
She had thought there would be one large building, like a school. Oh, very big, indeed, and very fine, but her imagination had not been capable of conjuring up anything like this! All around her stood buildings, yellow brick buildings of two or three or even more stories. The one just ahead of her, the one with the dome, was immense, one of the biggest places she had ever seen, with a confusing jumble of wings and stairs and doors and, on the very top, an immense golden statue, and of the Virgin Mary, surely!
In 1900, Notre Dame likely was, “far away, out in the country,” however Google Maps tells me that the route from Tippecanoe Place (now a restaurant) to Notre Dame is a walk of about 3 miles, so it was certainly walkable, though assuredly hot and dusty, as described! Along the way, Dams gives us a bit of an overview of the history of manufacturing in South Bend.
The closer she got to the river, the quieter the streets became, deserted on a Sunday. For this was South Bend’s manufacturing district, or one of them. Of course the biggest factory in town, Studebaker Brothers, owned by her employer and his brother J.M., was in another section entirely, close to South Bend’s other industrial giant, Oliver Chilled Plow. Neither of these plants was dependent upon water power; they used steam, and even electricity. But it was the river that had made South Bend what it was, and the river was still the heart of the town. The dam that spanned it, just downstream from the fine new Jefferson Street Bridge, harnessed its formidable power, and that power was used to the fullest.
South Bend, in this year of Our Lord 1900, was a boomtown and no mistake. Lumber and feed were milled there along the river; paper was made, and woolen cloth, and Singer sewing machines, and plows–lesser plows, perhaps, than those with the proud Oliver name, but there was enough farmland to be tilled in the world to support more than one company. There was a small wagon manufactory, too … Her eye did linger for a moment on the factory and salesroom of Collmer Brothers Bicycles.
Dams makes several comments about bicycles, including a note about “the popular safety bicycles with equal-size wheels,” a reference to the high-wheeled bicycles or penny-farthings of the 1870s.
This installment (unlike Murder In Burnt Orange) included some details about the St. Joseph River and Leeper Park, particularly in a scene where Hilda and her beau go boating in the beginning of the book.
Leeper was the newest park in South Bend, and the most fashionable. Patrick was showing off by taking Hilda there for boating instead of the older, more democratic Howard Park, just above the dam. Leeper Park was for the gentry.
According to St. Joseph County Public Library historical information, Leeper Park is home to the Pierre Navarre log cabin, a restored and relocated cabin purported to belong to the founder of South Bend, Indiana. (According to this timeline, Navarre was the first European to settle in the area, but Alexis Coquillard (also mentioned in the book) is regarded as the founder of South Bend.) The Navarre cabin was donated and moved to Leeper Park in 1900, which is the year Death In Lacquer Red takes place (though in May). Dams mentions Coquillard (and a school named after him), but not Navarre–at least as far as I remember (it’s harder to take notes and search a physical book than a digital copy!). Perhaps the cabin was moved later in the year.
Dams also makes interesting comments about several of the churches in town, including some comparison between the churches attended by those of varying classes.
The First Methodist Episcopal Church was in the center of town, as befitted a large and fashionable church. Hilda had only five short blocks to walk. … In spite of herself, she was impressed and intimidated by the church. It was huge, far bigger than her tiny frame church. The organ had at least three times as many pipes, ranked in an imposing semicircle at the front of the sanctuary, as the new one the Swedish church was so proud of. As for the altar rail, its curve seemed to extend forever, and the pews, arranged in a curving pattern to match, would seat hundreds of people.
But the more interesting observations were about the place the church played in the lives of immigrant churchgoers of the time.
She enjoyed going to church, on the whole. It was, of course, one’s duty, and duty can be irksome, but it was the only occasion afforded her, all week long, to be thoroughly Swedish.
It’s something we don’t always think about–the role of the church as a link, not just to a local community, but to a cultural and linguistic community.
So, while the setting might not be quite as integral to the story as I generally am seeking for books for my challenge, Death In Lacquer Red by Jeanne M. Dams came closer than Murder In Burnt Orange, also by Dams, so I’m pleased I added it.