If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com.

August Interviews

8/5 Lucy Burdette, The Key Lime Crime

8/12 Maggie Toussaint, All Done With It

8/19 Julie Mulhern, Killer Queen

8/26 Debra Goldstein, Three Treats Too Many

August Guest Bloggers

8/8 Leslie Wheeler

8/15 Jean Rabe

August Interviews

8/22 Kait Carson

8/29 WWK Authors--What We're Reading Now


Congratulations to our two Silver Falchion Finalists Connie Berry and Debra Goldstein!

Paula Gail Benson's "Cosway's Confidence" placed second and Debra Goldstein's "Wabbit's Carat" received Honorable Mention in the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable 2020 short story contest. Congratulations, Paula and Debra!

Susan Van Kirk's Three May Keep A Secret has been republished by Harlequinn's Worldwide Mystery. The WWK interview about the book can be accessed here. We're so glad another publisher picked up this series.

KM Rockwood's "Burning Desire," and Paula Gail Benson's "Living One's Own Truth," have been published in the anthology Heartbreaks & Half-truths. Congratulations to all of the WWK writers.

Please join Margaret S. Hamilton's Kings River Life podcast of her short story "Busted at the Book Sale" here. Congratulations, Margaret!

Look Margaret S. Hamilton's short stories in the new Mid-Century Murder by Darkhouse Books. Margaret's story is titled "4BR/3.5BA Contemporary."

Grace Topping's second novel in Laura Bishop staging series, Staging Wars, was released by Henery Press on April 28th. Look for the interview here from April 29th.

Annette Dashofy's 10th Zoe Chambers mystery, Til Death, will be released on June 16th. Look for the interview here on June 17.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

An Interview with Alyssa Maxwell--Guilded Newport Mysteries

Alyssa Maxwell writes the historic Gilded Newport mystery series, set in the Newport, Rhode Island during the end of the gilded era, approximately 1880 to 1920. This time and place presents enormous opportunity for highlighting women’s issues. Murder at the Breakers, the first of the series, is set in 1895. Murder at Marble House, the second book, occurs a few days later. The Breakers and Marble House were mansions owned by two branches of the Vanderbilt family in Newport. Kensington Publishing will release the third book, Murder at Beechwood, on May 26th, 2015.

Main character, Emmaline Cross, is a poor relation of the Vanderbilts. Poor, though, is a relative term. Emmaline is an independent woman due an inheritance from an aunt. That inheritance places her in the cross wire of society. She is not wealthy, but she has access to the wealthy due to her family connections. She solves murders that occur at the mansions all the while struggling to become a professional journalist, grappling with losing her independence if she marries, and increasing her income to support her causes, mainly women who are in crises.

I knew most of the history, but as I read the books, they reminded me of the horrors of the gilded era and the paradox of an extreme society. Queen Victoria wielded so much power when other women in the same era had so little.   

Please welcome Alyssa Maxwell to WWK.                                                                          E. B. Davis

Hello and thank you so much for having me!

What attracted you to this place and time?

It was the place that attracted me first. I’m married to a “native Newporter” whose family has been there for generations. Through him, I not only saw the “glitter” and excitement of Newport, but learned a bit about what makes Newporters tick, and what makes this such a special place to live whether you’re wealthy or not. I also loved the island setting, and the fact that during the Gilded Age (actually right up until the 60s when the Newport Bridge was built), Newport was cut off from the mainland except by boat or a single railroad heading north, creating somewhat of an isolated environment very much at the mercy of the elements. In addition, it’s a small town environment where everyone knows everyone else and their business, and to me, both qualities are very much in keeping with the structure of the cozy mystery.

Having decided on Newport as a setting, I then thought about what time periods Newport is most famous for, as well as which would provide the most fodder for mystery and mayhem. Ruthless robber barons, fierce society matrons, heiresses being used as social and political pawns, not to mention fashions from the House of Worth for which I have a serious weakness (I can spend hours just pouring through the Metropolitan Museum’s online collection), and then pitting all of this against the backdrop of Newport’s very stoic, steadfast, and very New England working class society of those days – all this made choosing the Gilded Age a no-brainer. 
Marble House's Gold Room

The descriptions you write of the houses make them seem like palaces. There is a real reason for the term “gilded” that refers to gold, not only wealth but also due to the use of gold in the finishing treatments of these houses. Are any of them still in existence? Are they still owned by the Vanderbilts?

Most of the Gilded Age mansions in Newport still exist. Some are still owned privately – and they post signs saying as much at their gates to prevent tourists from knocking on their doors. But houses like The Breakers, Marble House, Chateau Sur Mer, The Elms, Rosecliff, and Rough Point, to name a few, are owned either by the Preservation Society of Newport or the Restoration Foundation. Recently, both Beechwood (The Astor estate featured in book 3) and Belcourt (owned by Oliver Belmont and Alva Vanderbilt after they married) became privately owned, but I understand the plans for both are to restore them to their Gilded Age condition and open them as museums once again. Ochre Court, once owned by banker and real estate magnate Ogden Goelet, is now part of Salve Regina University.

Emmaline’s situation epitomizes many heartbreaks of the era. How did you create her character and her personality? Is the character based on anyone real?

Some of my inspiration for Emma came from Nellie Bly, a Gilded Age journalist who very bravely fought for her right to report on “hard news,” rather than the society fluff thought more appropriate for women writers of the time. Nellie broke new ground for women journalists, especially when she had herself committed to an insane asylum in NYC in order to expose the horrible conditions there, and again in 1889 when she became the first woman to travel alone around the world, beating the fictional Phileas Fogg’s trip in Around the World in Eighty Days. But in my mind, Emma isn’t strictly a feminist because she isn’t political. Rather, she is an individual who believes very strongly in personal responsibility, both in her private affairs and in her ability to affect change in the world. When something needs doing, she does it without stopping to ask whether she ought to become involved or not. The inspiration for this comes directly from my wonderful mother-in-law who was always ready to lend a hand, whether it was running the soup kitchen at her church, helping neighbors, making a disabled coworker’s day a little easier, etc.

Although newspaper owner and journalist Derrick Andrews saves Emmaline from harm on occasion, she also saves men’s and women’s lives, which eliminates her from being cast as a damsel in distress. Was this fine line hard to depict?

Actually, not really. I always look at Emma as an individual first and foremost, and then as a woman. Yes, this may be a modern perspective on my part, but I maintain that there have always been women throughout history who were unafraid to utilize their intelligence and emotional strength to assert themselves. Again, Emma’s sense of personal responsibility doesn’t allow her to accept the role of victim. Instead, she views all adversity in terms of possible resolutions – she just has to find the right one. Having said that, I do make sure to keep her aware of society’s limitations on women. When she breaks proper decorum, she does so fully aware of the possible repercussions, and, for example, when she investigates dockside pubs in Murder at Marble House, she’s sensible enough to bring Derrick along with her.

Even though Alva Vanderbilt (William K.) Belmont eventually became a leader in the women’s rights movement, the competition between Alva and Alice Vanderbilt (Cornelius) seems petty, as if they were two spoiled brats. Why did women in the upper classes disservice themselves with displaying this behavior?

I have a theory about that. From the reading I’ve done, I don’t believe these women were stupid or even naturally petty. But more than anyone else in their time, they were narrowly restricted in their actions, despite their enormous wealth. Imagine an intelligent, ambitious individual being relegated to planning parties and marrying off their offspring to the best available prospect. Imagine your primary function in life being to showcase your husband’s power and wealth. I can see how it would easily become a competition among these women, who had no other outlet for their talents, and who were raised to believe they would never be able to contribute anything of true substance to society.

I think Alva demonstrates this perfectly. Before her divorce from William Vanderbilt, her life was defined by the Gilded Age ideal of womanhood, and in her mind the natural pinnacle of this ideal was to become THE Mrs. Vanderbilt, i.e., the grand dame of one of America’s most powerful families. Unfortunately, her sister-in-law Alice, wife of Cornelius, had already claimed that honor. It must have driven the very ambitious Alva crazy. How to get even? By marrying her daughter, Consuelo, into English nobility. Yet defying society with her divorce seemed to have had a liberating effect on Alva. Little by little she turned away from the old restrictions and began redefining her role in society, so much so that Marble House, once built for petty, self-serving reasons, became a launching pad for the women’s suffrage movement.

The Breaker's Entrance
In Murder at Marble House, Alva is forcing her daughter to marry a poor, British duke, which is based on the true story of Consuelo Vanderbilt. Money has always defined societal rank and yet for Americans, who came to this country to escape the restrictions of the monarchy and class society, it seems incongruent that the values of the time seem dominated by British class distinctions even when some of the British had little money. Why were Americans so enamored with British society?

Aren’t we still? Don’t we rush to the TV to see the latest news on Will and Kate? It could have to do with those fairytales we read as children. But make no mistake. American Gilded Age society was as – or even more – class conscience as the British. I can only guess at the reasons, but I do think it’s natural for humans to divide themselves into groups – us and them – in order to establish boundaries and a sense of belonging. And safety. It’s as if the wealthy circled the wagons to protect their interests, and if that left the vast majority out in the cold, well...it couldn’t be helped. Still, no matter how rich and powerful those few Americans became, there remained a distinction between new and old money, the latter being preferred I suppose because it implied permanence rather than a flash in the pan. Who better personified “old money” than the Europeans with their titles and landed estates? True, many of them had lost the bulk of their fortunes by the 1890s, but they hadn’t lost their prestige or their privileged place in society. With nothing material left to gain, Americans set their sights on European nobility for that last bit of validation that they were not only America’s elite, but the world’s.

Did you have trepidation writing fictional accounts of real life characters? Have Vanderbilt family members read your books and contacted you?

Funny, but I had more trepidation about Newporters reading my books. It was so important to me to portray Newport realistically and in a way that made locals proud of their home and of these books. My biggest fear was that I’d get emails to the contrary, but happily that hasn’t happened. In fact, I’ve made some wonderful contacts with readers from the area who have expressed their support and their enjoyment of the stories. A couple have even sent me Newport-related gifts, which I treasure.

I haven’t heard from any Vanderbilt family members so far, but it was also important to me to portray their ancestors fairly, and as whole, well-rounded individuals. As I did my research, I actually came to like Alice, Cornelius, and the rest – especially their son, Neily – and I feel about them as Emma does. I see their good and not-so-good qualities but I’ve grown genuinely fond of them. The most surprising thing I learned about them was how much like the rest of us they were. Hope, fear, love, pride, uncertainty, determination – they shared these qualities with the rest of the human race.

Emmaline faces sexual discrimination at work. Is her boss just a sexist blockhead?

No, I don’t see him that way at all! Ed Billings, her coworker and rival reporter, most certainly is a blockhead, but Mr. Millford is simply a man of his time. I feel his behavior is more paternal than anything else, and his reluctance to allow Emma to report on hard news is his attempt to protect her from harm and preserve her womanly reputation. I’m sure that sounds sexist to the modern ear, but in 1895 it would have been the norm, and no gentleman would willingly send a young woman like Emma into indelicate situations.

Do you see any similarities between the gilded-age economy and today’s economy?

All I’m going to say to that is history has a tendency to repeat itself, especially when we as a society don’t learn from our mistakes.

What’s next for Emmaline Cross in Murder at Beechwood?

Emma will find a shocking delivery on her doorstep – a baby. That same night, an unidentified man is murdered along Ocean Avenue near her home. This, combined with a scrap of expensive lace tucked into the baby’s blanket, sends Emma to Mrs. Astor’s estate, Beechwood, ostensibly to report on the woman’s Season-opening events, but actually hoping to find clues into the baby’s origins. She does find clues, but they are complicated by yet another death and accusations that Derrick Andrews might be to blame. What follows involves the twisted relations between two illustrious families and the testing of Emma’s faith in human nature.

Are you a beach or mountain gal, Alyssa?

Both! I love both equally! Surely I don’t have to choose? Both dazzle and inspire me, put me into an utterly relaxed state, and just make me happy!


Jim Jackson said...

I visited Newport once and loved the fact that you can walk around the area on the path between the houses and the sea. Very useful for a sleuth, I would think.

~ Jim

E. B. Davis said...

I don't read many historical novels, but this series caught me. The geography Alyssa described had me looking up the region on maps. Of course, since Vanderbilt built railroads, Newport had great train service then--even though it seems remote. It must have been quite the cosmopolitan community. Alyssa's writing draws readers into the story as does the main character and weird social norms of that time.

Alyssa Maxwell said...

James, the Cliff Walk is an excellent source of suspense! It's also a lot of fun to walk and gives a great view of the backs of the estates.

E.B., actually, Newport only had one train service that headed north off the island and eventually went to Boston. The only other way onto the island was by boat, so the wealthy traveled by steamer yacht. Even when my husband was a boy, they used the ferry to travel west onto the mainland.

Traci said...

Great blog, Alyssa - I love this series!

Shari Randall said...

I went to school and lived in southeastern CT. Loved visiting Newport with my children - they were fascinated by what they called "American palaces," as am I! And good to know I am not the only one who spends time "shopping" in the Met's Costume Institute. Alyssa, thank you for stopping by WWK - I'll be adding your books to my TBR.

KM Rockwood said...

I love the "cottages" and mansions in Newport! I was there last for a cousin's wedding at Trinity Church.

So many of the wonderful places are open to the public.

It's an ideal place for a mystery series.

Alyssa Maxwell said...

Shari, I lived in Southwest CT. But yes, I love to "shop" historical fashions. Don't get me going on shoes! And you can buy replicas at the Brick Market Museum and Shop - for about $150. :-)

KM, what a beautiful place for a wedding! Trinity Church is so interesting with it's family boxes, and how each is decorated according to the family's likes and comfort.

Patricia P. said...

I'm really enjoying this series. Would love to be able to visit Newport some day.

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Excellent responses. I love your series, and having briefly visited Newport, I can envision some of the scenery in my head. Wish I'd had more time to visit the mansions.

Unknown said...

Alyssa, I really appreciate your thoughtfulness in handling the issues behind your stories. That comes through not just as historical depth, but authentic humanity. Very satisfying reads!

Alyssa Maxwell said...

Patricia, Newport is worth a trip if you can do it. It's a fascinating city on many levels.

Nancy, it takes some time to tour the mansions, but they're well worth it! If nothing else, see I recommend the Breakers.

Lloyd, thank you so much for that! I'm glad you think so, because this series is very personal for me.

Gloria Alden said...

I've never visited Newport, but it not only sounds like a place I'd like to visit, but a series I want to read. I'm putting it on my books to buy list.

Alyssa Maxwell said...

That's so nice to hear, Gloria! I hope you enjoy them! And I hope you do get to Newport someday.

Mary Ricksen said...

I read Murder At The Breakers! As one of my friends says, Alyssa Maxwell, has a way with words. It makes for one heckofa good story!