Jeanne M. Dams: Murder in Burnt Orange

Having owned a bookstore for almost 20 years, the number of authors I’ve seen go in and out of print are a number almost too high to count. Often, talent and skill have little to do with publishing success, as the number of out of print authors that I personally feel are excellent writers is also a high number. Jeanne Dams is one of these. She’s the author of the popular (for our customers, anyway) Dorothy Martin mysteries, that were dropped long ago by her publisher, but she was writing another series at the same time, featuring a Swedish maid in 1905 South Bend, Indiana. This series, too, was dropped, but found another home with Perseverance Press, which could be another word for Jeanne’s tenacious writing career. While the Dorothy books had a larger audience, I’ve always been a big fan both of Jeanne and of her series set in South Bend.

The central character of the South Bend series, Hilda Johansson, was a maid for the Studebaker family. She is now married to Patrick Cavanaugh, now a manger of the Malloy department store in town. In this novel, she is also heavily pregnant and not dealing well with the fact that her pregnancy ties her to her home and the fact that the heat is unrelenting and making her even more uncomfortable. The mystery is a complicated one involving railroads, unions, strikebreakers, and a series of train “accidents” and fires. The most close to home death and fire occurs right in the Malloy store, and seems to be related to the Malloy’s ne’er do well son, Clancy. While Hilda has been in a fog of depression, refusing to eat, the request of both her mother and Patrick’s aunt that she try and get to the bottom of what’s going on re-engages her in her life, and she begins to utilize a network of errand boys, maids, and other service workers, who see much but are unnoticed by the kind of society Hilda now is a sometimes uncomfortable part of.

Hilda and Patrick’s relationship is a real strength of the books, as their communication keeps their marriage healthy, even though Patrick worries about some of the danger Hilda often seems to find herself in. So are the network of relationships that Dams has taken care to establish through the course of the novels, the ones with Hilda’s family, with Patrick’s, and with some of the other people in the town of South Bend. As Hilda struggles through the hot summer with her pregnancy and her problem, she also becomes a source of comfort for Patrick’s aunt and uncle as they undergo their own troubles.

As is usual in an historical novel, the historical background is an essential part of the story, but the characters and the story – Dams is an excellent narrative storyteller – are front and center, and as you get toward the end of the book, the pages are flipping quickly as you are as eager as Hilda to discover what exactly happened. It’s fascinating to see the newly created unions from the viewpoint of someone who lived in 1905; it’s not a clear cut picture, but instead a thoughtful and believable one, not polluted by the attitudes of a reader in 2011. It’s a rare historical novelist who can pull that off, and Dams does it with aplomb, while also delivering a very enjoyable mystery.