The Murder That Inspired a TV Cult Classic

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Last month, I wrote this blog post about the fascinating unsolved case of Hazel Drew and how it inspired The Case of the Dead Domestic, Book 6 of my Adele Gossling Mysteries.

It turns out my book wasn’t the only creative endeavor inspired by the Hazel Drew case. A more unexpected connection exists between a cult classic TV show that aired in 1990 and this unsolved crime that occurred back in 1908. 

Photo credit: Photo of co-creator David Lynch and actor Kyle MacLachlan at the premiere of Season 3 of Twin Peaks, 21 May 2017, Ace Hotel, Los Angeles, CA: Esprus4/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0

I remember the huge success of Twin Peaks back in the early 1990s, though I never saw the series myself. But there was something fascinating about a beautiful blond teenager found floating in a lake in a small town and the psychologically complex story that unfolds for the detective sent to solve her murder. If some of these elements sound familiar, it’s because they are. The Hazel Drew case unfolded in much the same way — with the body of a lovely young woman found dead in a lake near a small town.

Mark Frost, the co-creator of the series, came onto the story of Hazel Drew in a much more organic way than I did. As a boy, he used to spend summers with his grandmother near the Taborton area where Hazel Drew’s murder took place. He heard of Drew not as a murder victim but as a ghost. His grandmother used to entertain him and his younger brother by telling them ghost stories about the ghost of Hazel Drew who still roamed Teal Pond,  using it as a cautionary tale for the boys not to go wandering in the isolated area at night.

The story seems to have gone the way that most childhood ghost stories do until the adult Frost was brainstorming ideas for a TV series with David Lynch in an L.A. coffee shop. They suddenly had a vision of a beautiful blond girl found floating face down in a lake. This brought to Frost’s mind the stories he had heard as a child about Hazel Drew and thus, the character of Laura Palmer was born. Frost’s further investigations into the Hazel Drew case led to the plot of the series that was such a hit thirty years ago.

My fascination with the Hazel Drew case came from factors other than Twin Peaks. First, it’s an unsolved crime (in spite of recent theories about who might have killed her) and thus, Hazel Drew’s death hasn’t yet been avenged, which suits my protagonist Adele Gossling perfectly, since her purpose in solving crimes is to make sure women, dead or alive, receive justice. Second, it’s a classic crime that occurred at the turn of the 20th century, which feeds my love for the era. And third, the murder victim was as complex as the murder itself (which I talk more about in my blog post on the case). 

Book 6 of the series has just been released, so you can get it here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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Family and Servant: Domestic Relationships in Upstairs, Downstairs

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When I first conceived the idea of the Adele Gossling Mysteries, I wanted to know what life was like in the first years of the early 20th century. I knew my first book, The Carnation Murder, was going to involve an aristocratic family, so I went in search of anything (books, movies, etc) that portrayed life among the aristocracy. I stumbled upon a series that, although it takes place in Britain, mirrors the life wealthy Americans would have lived during this time. I immediately fell in love with it.

Photo Credit: Jean Marsh, who co-created and starred in Upstairs, Downstairs at a signing at the Broadway Theater in Barking, East London, cropped, 12 December 2009, taken by Tim Drury: Rhain/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 2.0

Photo Credit: Dame Eileen Atkins, co-creator of Upstairs, Downstairs, reciting poetry at the British Library, 7 October 2021, The Josephine Hart American Poets Hour: Starkinson/ Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 3.0

The British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs was the brain-child of two veteran British actresses: Jean Marsh and Dame Eileen Atkins. The two women were dismayed when they watched an earlier British drama The Forsyte Saga (from 1967, not the 2002 mini-series), and realized the series never portrayed the life of the servants who played such a major role in the Forsyte family members’ lives. They wanted to make a comic series set during a time when the class hierarchy was still pronounced in Britain about the troubles and turmoils of those who worked for these aristocratic families – the “downstairs”.

However, when the series was sold, the production company that bought it changed a few things. First, they decided the series should portray not just the downstairs but also the “upstairs,” or, the aristocratic family for which the servants in the series worked (the Bellamys). Second, they decided to take the comedy out of the series and make it more of a drama along the lines of The Forsyte Saga, which had aired four years before the launch of Upstairs, Downstairs in 1971.

One of the fascinating things about this series is that you see how life in the early 20th century (the series ends in 1930) wasn’t easy for either masters and mistresses or servants. Aside from the modern conveniences both had to do without (even though the Bellamys were wealthy so money was no object), the social expectations for both were sometimes difficult to manage.

The pilot episode shows this beautifully, though more from the “downstairs” point of view. Right from the first scene, we see a young woman (played by Pauline Collins) who comes to the house to interview for a position as a maid make the social faux pas of the century — she knocks on the front door. The butler Hudson (Gordon Jackson), his expression one of stoic rage, motions for her to descend the stairs and come through the kitchen entrance and then chews her out for not knocking on the proper door. It’s clear the young woman has never worked in service before, something the other servants, even more than the lady of the house, grumble about. In fact, Lady Marjorie Bellamy (Rachel Gurney) is more sympathetic to the nervous young lady — until it comes to her name. The young lady gives her name as Clemence — a rather “uppity” French name. Lady Marjorie immediately changes it to Sarah and insists she be called by this name. This was actually not uncommon, as mistresses oftentimes either changed the names of their servants or they simply couldn’t be bothered to remember their name so they called them by the name of a former servant they had become used to.

Sarah ends up leaving service quite early in the series (though she does return later on) because, after getting a taste of not only the physical harsh labor but the social and psychological humiliation as well, insists on something better for herself. Members of the family feel the constraints of their social position as well, though in different ways. We see this with the father (whose background is respectable but whose aristocratic standing comes from his wife, and his Parlament peers never let him forget it), the son (whose military position doesn’t always suit his tastes), and the mother and daughter (both of whom suffocate under the constraints of the separate spheres so heavily cherished, especially in Britain, during this time).

Sometimes research can be really fun, and I was lucky enough to catch this series when it was on Netflix in its entirety. It served me well for my upcoming release, The Case of the Dead Domestic, which involves the death of a lady’s maid and the divide between the wealthy of Arrojo and the working class. The book comes out at the end of this month but feel free to pick up a copy now at a special preorder price here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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The History of Forensic Ballistics

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I am not much for guns. I was actually taught how to shoot an M-16 and an Uzi gun during my army service in Israel but I was more interested in getting rid of all the bullets so I could get off the rifle range as fast as possible. I could care less if I hit the target or not. 

However, guns are sometimes essential when writing mysteries. That said, there has never been a death from a gun in my Adele Gossling Mysteries. But Book 6 does include murder by gunshot, so that required me to include a ballistics expert in the story.

When I was doing revisions for the book, I became concerned I might be including something that in 1906 (when the book takes place) didn’t yet exist. When things come up in the plot that I didn’t anticipate in the first draft, I tend to write first and do research later (just to get the entire draft written). Ballistics is a fairly new field, right? So maybe in the early 20th century, there were no ballistics experts.

It turns out this was far from true. Forensic ballistics, or, firearm fingerprinting, existed as early as 1835 when in England, police were able to match the bullet in a victim’s body with a bullet mold made by a suspect. Thirty years later, police in England were also able to identify wadding (before cartridges were in use) of a newspaper found in a suspect’s home which helped to convict him. 

In the early days, firearm fingerprinting was easier because guns and bullets tended to be handmade by the person who owned them or by a gunsmith whose unique style could be traced. But in the 19th century, men like Samuel Colt began manufacturing guns and bullets so it became harder to identify a bullet found in a victim with a specific firearm. So forensic ballistics had to become more sophisticated.

Calvin Goddard was the man called in to help the police examine the firearms used in the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. He invented a compound microscope earlier in the decade that could do a side-by-side comparison of bullets. His aid helped answer some questions about this mass murder.

Photo Credit: Calvin Hooker Goddard, from an interview given to The Washington Star on 28 July 1931: Wvdp/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

And it did — with the use of the microscope. In the 1920s, the comparative microscope was invented which could place a bullet alongside one recovered from the victim and compare the grooves to identify it as matching or not matching. This comparative microscope was used to help convict those responsible for the infamous Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.

Read about how a ballistic expert helps Adele and the police solve the murder of a lady’s maid in my upcoming book, The Case of the Dead Domestic. You can order it for a special preorder price at your favorite online bookstore here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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A Survey of Women’s Issues: Revisited

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Women’s Equality Day is this month (on August 26). Women’s equality is central to so many of my books, including the Waxwood Series and the Adele Gossling Mysteries. A friend of mine recently posted a quote on her Facebook page from a well-known author who claimed that every book is a political act. I don’t necessarily agree with this, but for myself, while I don’t see each book of mine as a political act, I do incorporate in my books the things I’m most passionate about. And if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, subscribe to my newsletter, and/or read my books, you know I am passionate about women’s equality and women’s rights. 

Why? There are several reasons. I was born in 1970 just as the second-wave feminist movement was beginning to pick up steam. I came of age in the 1980s when third-wave feminism was picking up. 

But even more so, I sadly did not grow up in a household that valued women’s equality. My parents were born in the mid-20th century and my mom grew up with June Cleaver values (though she was not raised in America). Our house was very patriarchal. My father went to work and earned and took care of the money. My mom, though she had several careers in her lifetime, took care of my dad, my siblings, and me above all else, sometimes to the detriment of her own identity. Even the careers she had were of a more “traditional” vein (nurse, electrologist). I don’t begrudge this, though, as it was what led me to want more as a woman and to discover feminism in college.

In light of my recent blog post about disassociative feminism, there is perhaps no better time to ask the question: Do we still need feminism?

It seems some of the younger generation would answer a firm “no” to this question. A while back, photos began appearing in my Facebook feed of young women holding up signs reading “I don’t need feminism.” These young women claimed admitting we still need feminism creates a victim mentality and demonizes all men, encouraging man-hating among women. As someone from an older generation who writes about women’s oppression, this was deeply disturbing, to say the least!

Women have had a lot to fight for: in the 19th century and 20th and (dare I say it?) even the 21st. It’s not the fight that has changed but the nature of the issues.

In the 19th century, organized suffragism was born of a group of brave women whose names are branded in history like Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During this time, suffragists focused first on getting society to recognize women were equals to men (with limitations dictated by the separate spheres, of course — no use rocking the boat too much). But later, their focus shifted to one solitary goal: to win women the right to vote. Why was this so important? Suffragists were smart enough to realize that without the right to vote, they would never be able to implement changes into public policy that would carry through to future generations. 

When progressive movements took center stage at the turn of the 20th century, suffragism continued with women such as Jane Addams, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells. Women achieved success when the 19th Amendment was ratified in the United States in 1920. The Progressive Era made many women more aware that equality wasn’t just about the right to vote. It was also about psychological freedom and throwing off the shackles of 19th-century femininity that limited what women could and could not do and be. In that light, the New Woman was born: active, athletic, and freer in body and spirit than her mother and grandmother.

After the fight for suffragism and breaking the stereotype of the Victorian “angel in the house”, the post-World War” II generation brought back a more modern version of the angel. Betty Friedan labeled her “the feminine mystique”. Magazines, advertisements, and doctors advocated for a woman’s place in the home, and her identity became tied to her relationships with others rather than her identity in and of itself. Friedan found these women in American suburbs living a life that fulfilled this destiny, but they were not happy because they suffered from The Problem That Has No Name. These women felt discontented and frustrated, as if something was missing from their lives but they couldn’t define what it was.

Friedan’s book inspired others to speak out about their frustration and disillusionment, eventually leading to second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further into the political sphere than their 19th and early 20th-century sisters. They zoomed in on social and personal oppressions, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

This meme is from a Tumblr site called “Confused Cats Against Feminism” and is meant as a tongue-in-cheek attack against the anti-feminist movement of the 21st century. You can read more about it here

Photo Credit: Meme from the Confused Cats Against Feminism, taken 27 July 2014 by Jym Dyer: Jym Dyer/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

But the question still remains: Do we need feminism in the 21st century? My answer would be as firm as the “I don’t need feminism” movement: YES!

Why? Because we’re still fighting many of the issues 20th-century feminists were fighting. To give one example, 20th-century women fought for women’s reproductive rights, including a woman’s right to choose whether to have children or not. In 2022, the supreme court overturned the law (Roe vs. Wade) that legalized abortion. Whether you’re on the side for or against it, there is a deeper issue here of taking away women’s right to choose what they do with their bodies. That freedom is one women have been fighting for for years and will continue to fight as a basic human right.

If you want to read about women fighting for equality, go to my Adele Gossling Mysteries! Book 1, The Carnation Murder, is free on all bookstore sites. And Book 6 is coming out soon, so pick up a copy at a special preorder price here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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The Dispensable Working Girl: Murder at Moose Lake

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Working girls didn’t have it easy in the early 20th century. Employers exploited them shamelessly because they were cheaper labor than men, and they could get them to do the dirtiest work for less money (see my blog post here about the wage gap). They worked long hours in very dangerous conditions for employers who skirted safety laws to save money and had no regard for their workers’ safety. They were, in a sense, dispensable labor, more so even than men.

This was never more obvious than in the rise of crimes against working girls in the early 20th century. There were several cases of working girls who came to a bad end. I was browsing YouTube last year and came upon a miniseries made in 1988 about the murder of Mary Phagan in 1915. In my newsletter last year, I talked about a case in 1908 of a schoolteacher in Upstate New York who was murdered by her former student. There is also the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy which I wrote about here

Photo Credit: Photo of Grace Brown, date unknown, author unknown: King Rk/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired

But perhaps the most famous Progressive Era murder of a working girl was the tragedy of Grace Brown. This case became famous for two reasons. First, author Theodore Dreiser was so deeply touched by it that he wrote a fictional account in 1925 under the title An American Tragedy. Second, this story was turned into a film in 1951 that marked the first of three collaborations between lifelong pals Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.

The story begins in 1905. Chester Gillette, a young man born to ultra-religious and poor people, took a job at his wealthy uncle’s skirt factory in New York. There he met an attractive girl named Grace Brown. Despite the strict factory rules that working men were not to socialize with their female coworkers, Gillette and Brown had a relationship that ended up with Brown becoming pregnant in 1906. This was still a time when the separate spheres were honored which meant a woman who had a child out of wedlock was shunned and disgraced. To avoid this, Brown wrote letters pleading with Gillette to marry her so she wouldn’t be a social outcast. He avoided responding to her for as long as he could.

Gilette finally agreed to take a trip to Moose Lake in the Adirondacks where Brown thought they would get married or at least engaged. But instead, he took her out on the lake and, knowing she couldn’t swim, made sure she drowned. The case became a sensation as Gillette was caught, tried, and convicted in 1908 and died by the electric chair.

The sixth book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, The Case of the Dead Domestic, is also based on a case of a disposable working girl in the early 20th century. Rather than factory work, Hazel Drew was a domestic servant, and her death, unlike Mary Phagan’s and Grace Brown’s, remains unsolved. If you want to find out all about this unsolved classic true crime (and how it inspired one of the 1990s hit TV series), consider signing up for my newsletter here, as I’ll be doing a series of emails all about this case before the book comes out in August. Plus, you’ll get a free book as a gift just for signing up!

And you can preorder The Case of the Dead Domestic at a special price here

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