Death, Diamonds, and Deception is the fifth book in Rosemary Simpson’s Gilded Age mystery series set in New York City in the 1880s. It’s the first I’ve read, but I enjoyed it so much that I will definitely look for the others. The two protagonists are heiress Prudence MacKenzie and ex-Pinkerton agent Geoffrey Hunter, who are partners in a detective agency. Prudence is the daughter of a wealthy judge, a prominent man in New York, who died about two years before this book begins. She is part of the city’s elite, the world of the Astors and Vanderbilts, even though she defies the standards of that society by becoming a detective. Geoffrey is a Southerner who came to New York around the time of the Civil War because he was anti-slavery. He is quite a bit older than she is. Prudence is around twenty, and, although Geoffrey’s age is not specified, it seems that he was already an adult at the time of the Civil War, so he must be in his early forties at least.
The book begins in December 1889, at the beginning of New York’s social season. Prudence’s Aunt Gillian, who had married a British nobleman and become Lady Rotherton, and who is now widowed, has come to New York to chaperone Prudence through the season and look for a husband for her. She obviously disapproves of Geoffrey as a potential marriage partner for her niece, but reluctantly agrees to let him be her escort at the first Assembly Ball of the season, at Delmonico’s. Gillian has an eye for jewelry and can easily tell real diamonds from fakes. While at the ball, Gillian sees that some of the diamonds in a necklace worn by Lena, the wife of banker William De Vries, who was a friend of Prudence’s father, are fakes. The diamonds, which De Vries purchased from Tiffany for his wife, had once belonged to Marie Antoinette and were part of an auction of the French crown jewels. They had been kept in a vault at Tiffany and were only brought out on the day of the ball–when Lena was away from home, for reasons she refuses to explain. Obviously, someone had taken out the genuine diamonds and replaced them with fakes. William De Vries hires Prudence and Geoffrey to find the thief.
The two detectives soon learn the name of a jeweler who dealt in stolen goods, but when they arrive at his shop, they discover his dead body. Everything of value in his shop has been stolen, but Prudence finds one of the Marie Antoinette diamonds on the floor, so she knows the dead man had handled the necklace. But every time Prudence and Geoffrey have a promising lead in the case, someone turns up dead. The victims include the jeweler’s shop assistant, who had ties to New York’s criminal underworld, a footman in the De Vries household, who supposedly hanged himself, and a young man who was a friend of De Vries’ stepson. Prudence and Geoffrey do not get any help from the New York police, who at that time were notoriously corrupt and were frequently paid off by the wealthy when they wanted a case to be abandoned.
De Vries is convinced that his stepson, Morgan Whitley, is the culprit. The young man, who was a childhood friend of Prudence, is addicted to drink and gambling, and has huge debts he cannot afford to pay, even by borrowing money from his wealthy stepfather. Prudence wants to believe her old friend is innocent, because she has much in common with him. Both had lost a parent–Morgan’s father and Prudence’s mother–at a very young age. As it turns out, Prudence also sympathizes with Morgan and his efforts to find a cure for his alcoholism because she herself is recovering from an addiction to laudanum. I have a feeling there is a story behind that, which was covered in the earlier books. All I could tell from this book was that it had something to do with her trauma over her father’s death. So when De Vries asks Prudence and Geoffrey to close the case, they decide to investigate on their own to try to prove Morgan’s innocence. Without giving away too much, I will say that events take a tragic turn for more than one of the people involved.
Simpson conveys the atmosphere of 1880s New York extremely well, and takes the reader into the mansions of Fifth Avenue as well as the tenements where the poor and the members of the criminal underworld live. Prudence and Geoffrey are wonderful characters, especially Prudence, who is an unconventional woman of her time. She is at home in the world of New York’s elite, but, unlike a typical young woman of her class, she works for a living when she doesn’t have to, and she has no desire to get married. Prudence and Geoffrey are obviously attracted to each other, but Geoffrey is more aware of his feelings for her than she is of hers for him. At one point, when she says to him that she has no wish to marry, he is not at all happy, but only their extremely competent secretary, Josiah–a wonderful character–is fully aware of the attraction. I would like to go back and read the previous books in the series, to see how their relationship has evolved.
Not only are the two leads very appealing characters, but some of the secondary characters are wonderful as well. I have already mentioned the secretary, Josiah, who takes meticulous notes on every case. Prudence’s Aunt Gillian is a delight. She seems overbearing at first, but she becomes deeply involved in the case and genuinely cares about her niece. Another outstanding character is Geoffrey’s friend Ned Hayes, a former policeman and recovering alcoholic with ties to New York’s gangs, who helps Geoffrey and Prudence with their cases while not officially being part of the detective agency. Also unforgettable is an enormous white horse named Mr. Washington, who belongs to hansom cab driver Danny Dennis, an employee of the agency. Mr. Washington helps to get Prudence and Geoffrey out of trouble more than once, and, in one instance, discovers an important clue.
The book is very suspenseful, and the plot takes many unexpected turns, even though I have to say I guessed the murderer relatively early on. That didn’t matter so much, because much of the suspense had to do with whether Prudence and Geoffrey would be able to catch the person in time. Without giving too much away, the final confrontation is a thrilling one, and the book ends with a cliffhanger. I cannot wait to find out what happens next. While waiting for the next book, I would like to go back and read the earlier ones to learn more about the two leading characters.
I highly recommend this book for fans of Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mystery series, whose protagonist, Sarah Brandt, comes from the same world as Prudence, even though the series is set slightly later, as well as fans of Mariah Fredericks’ Jane Prescott mysteries, about a ladies’ maid in the New York of the 1910s.
Vicki Kondelik is a cataloger at the University of Michigan’s Graduate Library, and edits their book review blog, Lost in the Stacks. She writes book reviews for the Historical Novel Society, and is currently writing a historical novel. She has been an avid mystery reader for a long time.