MURDER IN BURNT ORANGE by Jeanne M. Dams

Palo Alto: Perseverance Press, 2011. $15.95

The headlines grab attention:  A sweltering, killing heat wave; bloody protests and deadly revolution threatened abroad; strikes against major corporations; anti-union legislation; corrupt government; hostility to immigrants. Where and when are we? The United States in 2011? No, we’re in 1905, Teddy Roosevelt is president, thanks to the assassination of William McKinley by an anarchist, and both heat and crime grip South Bend, Indiana.


Hilda Cavanaugh, née Johansson, Swedish immigrant and former housemaid who is now a respectable, middle-class lady, is pregnant with her first child. She is also bored to the point of depression. Made more miserable by a sweltering heat wave that wilts her husband Patrick’s collars by noon, Hilda drives all around her to distraction until her attention is diverted to the wreck of the Twentieth Century Flier. The train flew off the tracks and killed several people. It is an open question whether it is accident or sabotage. A deadly fire shortly after the crash threatens the Cavanaughs’s livelihood, the family black sheep shows up to cause pain and suffering, and underhanded shenanigans associated with “union organizers” cause problems at the Studebaker factory. Despite increasing danger, Hilda refuses to stop until the villains are brought to justice.


To achieve that goal, Hilda has to get around two major hurdles--her new social status and her pregnancy. Because of her pregnancy, Hilda cannot leave her home, save to go to church. (Readers are told this to the point of annoyance.) Further complicating matters, her new social status takes out of the realm of servants and servants’s talk and changes how she can address people, if she can talk to them at all. "Hilda felt herself blushing. It was difficult, this transition from servant to lady. She and John [Bolton, the Studebaker's coachman] had been friends, easy in one another's company. . . " (47). Now, a social gulf exists between them. Of necessity, Hilda breaks conventions in varying and shocking ways--some dictated by necessity, some by her curiosity--but we feel her anxiety and frustration every time. 


Still, Hilda tries to be good. She gets others to do the legwork for her--her family, Patrick, his family, the cops, even the reprobate John Bolton--where she can. Sometimes, co-operation is grudgingly given because her agents are as awkward and uncomfortable as she is. She sorts through the information as it comes in from her agents, and she analyses it, usually with clear logic. At one point, however, her thought process jumps to an entirely too convenient remembrance. That said, Hilda’s skillful sleuthing, albeit at a frustrating remove, allows her to construct a web that succeeds in catching the criminals.


In many ways, this is not so much a whodunit as it a whydunnit. Crime grows organically from its political and social context. In 1905, the age of the robber barons gives way to the age of the progressives though not without a nasty, physical fight. Corruption, money in all its nefarious guises, means power; power must be taken, for it is rarely given up freely. The immigrants, who make up much of the industrial labor force are beginning, however reluctantly, to give up their mutual antagonisms and unionize. In unity, there is both strength and power--enough to make the villains seek to stop it.


The social contexts, both personal and community-wide, provide the great strength of this novel. As usual, they also provide some of the greater weaknesses. There is almost  too much going on, and a reader without a decent grasp of the major themes of this period may well get lost. Some of the criminal connections are rather tenuously made, particularly that of the central villain to New York’s infamous Tammany Hall. The whole story was well contained within South Bend and needed no reach to New York.


Dams uses many deft touches to paint a picture of a socially and politically dynamic period. Hilda Johansson Cavanaugh is a smart and charming character through whose we can see this world. It is a world closer to us than many would care to admit and from which we can still learn much.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
webmaster: kgw@KGWhitehurst.com