America’s First Female Private Eye: Kate Warne

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Most Americans know the story of the Lincoln assassination on that fateful night at Ford’s Theater on April 15, 1865. Too bad Kate Warne wasn’t on the job. 

Who was Kate Warne? Only the first woman private detective, one of those women that history forgot. But as we’re wrapping up Women’s History Month, let’s take a peek at this amazing woman’s life.

Warne was a bold widow who, in 1856, walked into the Pinkerton Detective Agency and asked its founder, Allan Pinkerton, for a job. And not just any job. She asked for a job as a private detective. 

Keep in mind this was the era of the separate spheres. Women were delegated to the home, church, and family. They did not get involved in law and order. But Warne knew she could be a huge asset to the Pinterketons because she was a woman. Women were invisible beings at that time. No one paid much attention to what they said or did as long as they were respectable and didn’t rock the boat. So who better to do undercover work than a woman?

This is exactly what Warne did. Her first case was to get a confession out a Southern embezzler. She got it by taking a woman’s route: She befriended the man’s wife and circulated in society as a widow under the name of “Mrs. Cherry.”

Photo Credit: Kate Warne, watercolor portrait, cropped, 1866, unknown artist, Chicago History Museum: Benjamin.P.L./Wikimedia Commons/PD US Expired

Her biggest assignment came in 1861. The newly-elected Lincoln was traveling by train from Illinois to Washington for his inauguration when rumors of a plot to assassinate the newly elected president began circulating. Using her beauty and charm, Warne got in with the Southerners on the train, including secessionists, and learned the details of a plot to take Lincoln in Baltimore. She and Pinkerton himself helped Lincoln to get through Baltimore by disguising the president-elect and coveting him in a sleeping berth for the Baltimore leg of the trip. Her wiliness and womanliness saved Lincoln from assassination — that time.

Warne continued her undercover work during the Civil War, mainly as a spy who picked up information in Southern society and passed that information on to the Northern army. Her success as a private eye encouraged Pinkerton to continue hiring women for his agency, many of whom Warne supervised. Sadly, Warne’s work came to a premature end when she died in her mid-30s. 

My amateur sleuth, Adele Gossling, also uses her feminine wiles to help the police solve crimes. Unlike Warne, her status as a New Woman at the turn of the century gives her much more of a voice and a presence in the world. But she can wheedle information out of anyone, including a bumbling assistant deputy sheriff and a rough-edge cowboy named Rainer. 

To read all about that, pick up a copy of The Carnation Murder, Book 1 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries, now at 99¢, here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Where All The Cool Crime Writers Go: The Detection Club

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How would you like to be a member of a secret club that once included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien? I don’t know about you, but as a mystery fiction writer, my answer would be “sign me up!”

Did such a club really exist? It did indeed. It was called The Detection Club and it begin in 1930 at the height of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction. Some of its founding members were those mentioned above. These British mystery writers wanted to form a community of like-minded authors working in the genre of crime fiction (the majority of them writing traditional “whodunits”). They realized the benefits of having their own version of a Facebook group in the days when there was no Facebook and even no internet. 

Photo Credit: Meeting of The Detection Club when GK Chesterton was its president, 1930s, unknown author: Peter Philim/Wikimedia Commons/PD UK 

Although the club had some confidential rituals (it was a secret club, after all), there were some that are known to us which, on the face of it, sound corny at best, ridiculous at worst. For example, the initiation ceremony required new members to place their hand on a skull and take the following oath while the president of the club stood over them dressed in a red cloak and carrying a torch:

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

Sounds pretty silly, right? But the club’s initiation oath shows its members took crime fiction very seriously. In fact, their approach to the genre was based on rules set by Ronald Knox, one of its members. Knox created the “Knox Commandments” which, among other things, set ground rules for writing mystery stories that would insure authors played fair with readers. Some of these rules included avoiding cliches such as too many secret rooms, supernatural forces interfering with the amateur detective’s efforts to solve the crime, and coincidences popping up out of nowhere at just the right moment. You can read Knox Commandments here (but be warned some rules might not gel with our more enlightened 21st-century ideas).

The Detection Club wasn’t just about poking fun at mystery tropes and cliches (the skull and red cloak). They were a serious group dedicated to educating their members and improving the standards of mystery fiction. Crime fiction in the mid-20th century was too often given the status of pulp fiction, and they wanted to prove mysteries were just as good as any other genre. To this end, members were able to attend lectures by crime and forensic experts and social gatherings where they could mingle and get insights on improving their craft from other members. 

My first exposure to The Detection Club was a while back when this link showed up in my inbox. I was intrigued that, first of all, so many of my absolute favorite classic mystery writers not only knew one another but were members of the same club. I was also fascinated by the club’s integrity and commitment to “fair play” and its determination to see that its members followed those rules.

Does the club still exist today? You bet it does! It still caters to the genre’s elite and boasts of PD James, Colin Dexter, and Ruth Rendell on its member list. I’m not sure the ritual of the skull and cloak are still in use, but the club is all about maintaining the integrity of mystery fiction and creating a social circle where mystery writers can improve their craft. 

Want to read mystery fiction that avoids divine revelation, mumbo-jumbo, and jiggery-pokery (but maybe not the feminine intuition, at least, not entirely)? Take a look at the Adele Gossling Mysteries! The first book will be out on April 30, but you can preorder it at a special price here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

Works Cited:

The Detection Club oath: https://elegsabiff.com/2013/04/20/a-z-challenge-rules-of-the-detection-club-circa-1929/ 

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Who was Miss Marple REALLY?

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We hear a lot about famous male sleuths like Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, Father Brown, and, of course, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. They’ve become so famous that after Christie wrote the last Poirot book in 1975, The New York Times published Poirot’s obituary (if you don’t believe me, check this out). 

But until recently, we haven’t heard much about famous female sleuths. That’s because, before Maisie Dodd and Jessica Fletcher, there just weren’t that many around. If called upon to name a famous amateur female sleuth, most people would probably think of Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple.

Marple often gets forgotten in the Christie canon because Poirot was more famous. Given a few quirks, he fits the stereotype of the famous detective while Miss Marple sort of slips through the cracks. Marple is anything but typical of what we might think of as an amateur detective — elderly (Christie’s books hint she’s in her seventies), hedgy, and mild-mannered, with a tendency to ramble on about the little world of her hometown, St. Mary Mead. 

In one of his books on writing, crime author Lawrence Block confessed he likes Marple much more than Christie’s other famous detective, claiming she is more interesting and complex than Poirot. 

I’m a huge fan of the Poirot series, largely after binge-watching the hit British series Poirot (side note: If you’re a fan of Christie and have never seen this series, I highly encourage you to get hold of it. David Suchet nails the Poirot character in looks and mannerisms and really makes the character come alive). I’ve read a few of the Marple books and, to be honest, Miss Marple didn’t impress me. Her wishy-washiness and tangents about St. Mary Mead just got on my nerves. Nevertheless, I could see what Block was talking about. Underneath the grandmotherly countenance and knitting needles lurks a very shrewd and observant mind. 

Photo Credit: Margaret Rutherford as Jane Marple, Murder at the Gallop, 1963, taken 2 October 2006 by Mr. AEL: Mr. AEL/Flickr/CC BY NC ND 2.0

Actually, Marple wasn’t the first woman sleuth of advanced years. In fact, Christie took her inspiration for Marple from another not-so-young character who helped the police solve crimes. She was Anna Katharine Green’s Amelia Butterworth. Green was an American crime writer who wrote some years before the Golden Age of Crime Fiction. Green wrote three novels featuring Butterworth, with the first published in 1897. Butterworth is a Gilded Age creation, as, in spite of her age, she has the independent spirit and a gutsiness that would characterize the much younger generation of New Woman emerging at that time.

Interestingly, many film and TV versions of Miss Marple have tried to bring a little life into her beyond Christie’s rather limited vision of the elderly woman sleuth. Probably the most well-known of these was British actress Margaret Rutherford’s Marple. Although Rutherford’s Marple was always with her knitting needles, she looked more likely to poke somebody’s eyes out than make a sweater with them. Rutherford gives Marple the feminist “oomph” she needs, reminiscent of the earlier Butterworth. Although there were only four films made in the Marple series in the 1960s (and one of them was actually based on a Poirot book), they established the image of the lady sleuth we most often think of today — shrewd, tough, and taking no BS from anybody. 

How about some more women sleuths with “oomph”? Check out my new Adele Gossling Mysteries, launching on April 30. The first three books are up for preorder and the first is only 99¢. You can find out more here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Historical Cozy Mysteries: Getting Cozy with the Past

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I belong to an amazing group of creative businesswomen where we all help support one another in our desire to serve the public (for me, that means you, readers). When I shared with them this week that I’m shifting gears to focus on historical cozy mysteries, I got a somewhat deer-in-the-headlights look from a few of them who asked, “What’s a historical cozy mystery?”

It was my bad because every sector has its jargon. I forgot not everyone is familiar with the word “cozy” nor are they aware historical cozy mysteries exist. So I thought I’d write a little bit about it.

Let’s first start with the basics. A historical cozy mystery is really a subgenre of a subgenre. In writer-speak, genre is like a book’s specific subject with its own specific expectations. For example, romance is a genre (expectation: a love relationship, a happily-ever-after ending), and so is horror (expectation: You’re going to be scared out of your wits). Historical cozy mystery marries two subgenres: historical mysteries (subgenre of historical fiction) and cozies (subgenre of mystery fiction).

On the face of it, a historical cozy mystery is akin to the traditional mystery (sometimes called the “whodunit”). Think Agatha Christie. One of my favorite things to do at the end of a particularly stressful and annoying day is to relax on my recliner with a cup of peppermint tea and open up the Kindle reader on my iPad to a Poirot mystery (yes, he’s a pompous little man, but I like him). I immediately get into the mystery, following along with the clues and suspects, feeling the carefree times of early 20th-century post-World War I England. And Poirot always gets the criminal. Nowhere else in the 21st century can you find that kind of justice. It makes me feel soothed and, well, cozy, like all the bad things that happened during the day don’t matter.

Ah, the epitome of cozy: A pipe and an Agatha Christie book!

Photo Credit: DietmarRauscher/Depositphotos.com 

The cross between mystery and history becomes interesting when we consider the main purpose of historical fiction is to submerge readers into a world of the past, and the purpose of mystery fiction is to present a human puzzle for the amateur sleuth or detective (and the reader) to solve. Writers of historical cozy mysteries aren’t only building a story around a crime that has to be solved, but they’re also giving readers insights into another era. And not just the daily lives of people living in that era, but the kinds of crime and criminals of that era and how those crimes were solved.

We have to remember crime and its detection has changed drastically over the centuries. There were no cyber crimes in the 19th century. There was no DNA testing to help solve crimes until the late 20th century. So crime detection was relatively primitive and, until the late 19th century, pretty crude in most cases. That made it more of a challenge for the historical sleuth or detective, but funner for readers to follow because detectives must make do with their wits and skills rather than rely on forensic scientific evidence.

In Book 1 of my upcoming Adele Gossling Mysteries, Adele’s brother, a former big-city detective, is amazed that the small-town sheriff of Arrojo knows enough to block off the crime scene so no one will tamper with it. Even fifty years before (the book takes place in 1902), this wouldn’t have been the case and it’s well-documented that crime scenes were trampled over by police, reporters, and sightseers. Not a great start to solving a murder.

Another thing about cozy mysteries that differ from crime fiction, in general, is they introduce you to a host of quirky characters. That’s one reason I was drawn to writing cozies as opposed to other types of historical mysteries. Reading a cozy mystery series, the characters become as familiar to them as their own family and friends because, flawed as they are, they’re also likable. Who doesn’t love Jessica Fletcher in the 1980s hit TV series, Murder, She Wrote? She’s grandmotherly while at the same time she’s sharp-witted and bold. Holmes is a cocaine addict and an egotist but he also cares about solving crimes. Fletcher and Holmes couldn’t be more different, but they share one quality, as all cozy mystery sleuths do: They’re on the side of justice. And it’s hard to dislike someone who’s on the right side of the law.

Writers don’t always strive for likability in their characters because many feel that a too-likable character is an unrealistic one. But cozy mysteries aren’t about realism. They’re about escaping into another world where justice is served and criminals are always punished. And with historical cozies, you get the double-whammy: Not only do you get to escape into a “crime doesn’t pay” world but you get to do it during another era.

So if you’re ready to give historical cozy mysteries a shot, I invite you to check out my Adele Gossling Mystery series. The first book is on preorder at only 99¢ but not for long. You can get more information on that plus links to bookstores where you can get the book here

If you want more escape into a cozy world of the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Cover Reveal/Release Day Announcement: The Carnation Murder

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Every year, I choose a word and/or phrase to define how I want to improve myself. This year, my phrase is “let it go”. I even have a card stuck on my bulletin board to remind me to let things go.

After five years of writing historical women’s fiction, I’m letting it go and turning to something new: historical cozy mysteries. Why? Because I realized who I am now is not who I was five years ago. Historical women’s fiction served me well at that time, and I loved writing the Waxwood Series. But now all I want to give readers is a sense of comfort and a little bit of fun. Nothing spells comfort and fun more than cozy mysteries. 

This is why I’m thrilled to present the cover for The Carnation Murder, the first book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, and tell you when the book is coming out.

So, without further ado…

historical mystery, cozy mystery, women sleuth, new release, ebook, murder mystery, small town mystery

So, y’all probably notice there’s a lot of purple in there, right? There’s a reason for that. The color purple plays a role in helping Adele Gossling solve the mystery of the dead debutante in her gazebo. On a carnation, purple is about whimsy and freedom. How do these qualities appear in the book? You’ll have to read it to find out!

You’ll also notice the gold frame on the book. Originally, the fabulous designer who made the cover went for more of an Art Deco look, using geometric shapes and clean lines and spheres. A great example of Art Deco is these stills from the 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis

As much as I love Art Deco, we associate it more with the 1920s and 1930s. The Adele Gossling Mysteries takes place at the turn of the 20th century, some twenty years earlier. So the designer and I went back and forth, and we finally decided on a more Art Nouveau style for the frame. Art Nouveau was sort of the precursor to the Art Deco movement, combining the favored lines and spheres with a more decorative and florid style. One of the defining artists of this period was Alphonse Mucha, whose work you can see here

Here’s more about The Carnation Murder:

Smart inquisitive, and a firm believer in the new progressive reforms, Adele Gossling seeks a new life after the devastating death of her father. So she flees the big city of San Francisco for the small town of Arrojo. She plans a life of peace and small pleasures running her own stationery shop and living in her own house. But peace is exactly what she doesn’t get when she discovers her neighbor dead in her gazebo. The police think they have a firm suspect: the young man who was secretly engaged to the victim. But Adele and her clairvoyant new friend Nin Branch suspect the young man is innocent. In spite of the raised eyebrows from Arrojo’s Victorian-minded citizens, she and Nin set out to prove Richard Tanning didn’t do it. But if he didn’t, who did?

What early reviewers are saying:

“Really well paced and researched appropriately for the era.”

“The story comes alive.”

Release Date: April 30, 2022

I’m equally excited to let you know the book is now on preorder at a very special price. So come check it out and get your copy at your favorite online bookstore here

Happy reading!

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