Author: Frances McNamara

Publisher: Allium Press


Historical landmarks and milestones anchor this series of mysteries written in the first person by the fictional Emily Cabot, a teaching scholar and, in this novel, personal assistant to Bertha Palmer, the real Chicago socialite who was appointed the only woman commissioner in the American delegation to the 1900 Paris Exposition. Emily’s physician husband and their three children are also invited to accompany the Palmers on this extended visit to France and to share a house and life in the center of the excitement. This happens during the period of transition from Victorian formalities to sometime shocking Modern innovations. Bertha’s assignment of setting up the American exhibit allows Emily to meet many famous figures who are trendsetters, notably fashion designers Worth and Cartier and the artist Mary Cassatt. Emily’s insights are genuinely fascinating as they are based on the author’s diligent research. In this reading I have discovered things I never learned in history classes.

One of the unexpected delights for me is the detail McNamara offers in describing the costumes the female characters wore. The credits and bibliography explain how and where the author authenticated them. It makes me want to get back to Chicago with its plethora of museums. Also helpful to me is that recently I read David McCullough’s nonfiction work titled “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris” (2011).

What can I reveal about the mystery? The plot depends on the fictional personalities to be convincingly intermingled with the leading lights of what is essentially social history, and there is a perfect vehicle. This was a time when rich Americans could provide brides for down-at-the-heels lords, or husbands for faux princesses; it is around the younger members of the families in Paris for the fair that the intrigues revolve. The desire of mothers to show off their personal possessions also contributes to the troubles. Police are called when a designer’s assistant is found toes up under the manikins on display. It is then revealed that several precious pieces of jewelry have gone missing. Are there logical connections? Has someone been keeping secrets? What lurks in the back stories of these strangers across economic classes who are thrown together for the sake of being noticed?

 Frankly, I enjoyed the novel more for what I learned about the real people, places, and events than for the storyline, which seemed not-too-serious, sort of Poirot-ish. Yet I liked the narrator Emily, and I plan to learn more about the real people in her other books, thanks to her expansive personality and usefulness. Next will be Jane Adams, another woman ahead of her contemporaries in making America a better place, aided by the moral consciousness of a few unusual society women and other women in the growing but not forgetful middle class.