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In Murder at Marble House, Emma Cross, society columnist for the newspaper and a cousin to the elite Vanderbilt family in the 1890s, is taking a much needed rest after proving her brother innocent of murder in Murder at the Breakers. Initially too tired to respond to an important phone call from her cousin, Consuelo Vanderbilt, Emma gives in when she hears the angst in Consuelo’s voice. Her aunt, Alva, meets her at the door and demands that Emma exert her fullest influence on Consuelo to make her agree to go along happily with the family’s plans to make her marry the Duke of Marlborough, since Americans have been long enamored of British titles. Although a firm believer in a woman’s right to decide life’s significant actions, such as whom to marry, Emma points out the positive side of Lord Marlborough, and the pair go down the stairs together smiling. Alva introduces them to a visitor, the 70-year-old Hope Stanford, who has served as a significant leader of the women suffrage movement and is also tied to the temperance movement. She even brags about taking an axe to the barrooms, a la Carrie Nation.
But Alva has a further surprise in store for Consuelo. She has invited the influential fortune teller Madame Devereaux to perform her craft. However, upon touching Consuelo’s hand, Madame Devereaux pulls back, very upset, repeating over and over that the man Consuelo intends to marry is bad. As one might imagine, this does not go over well with Alva, who hisses at Madame Devereaux that she had better have good things to say about the duke “or she will be sorry.” Emma will recall those words a few minutes later when they find Madame Devereaux strangled and Alva’s ladies’ maid standing over her with the scarf in her hands. Clara says she followed a noise to find the body and was trying to free the woman, but Alva insists upon the police staying the servant. Upon the police’s finally leaving the house, Emma goes to look for her cousin but cannot locate her. She has apparently escaped from the house, where she has been held virtual prisoner all summer while she refuses to marry the duke. Emma spends the rest of the book trying to track down her elusive cousin, and in doing so she faces people of all sorts of questionable characters and ends up teaming up with Derrick, the newspaper magnate whose marriage proposal she turned down but for whom she still has strong feelings.
This book was well-written, and I appreciated the strong writing. The book deals heavily in issues of class and gender. The Vanderbilts came from the highest class of American society, and Emma (whom her family insists on calling Emmaline instead of using her preferred nickname) is a distant cousin. This allows her to interact with her relatives, but not on an equal level. To them she is the poor relation they turn to when she is useful. Consuelo expresses jealousy at the free lifestyle of Emma but can’t even imagine the derivations Emma experiences, such as having to decide whether to repair the roof or eat meat. Emma also works as a reporter for the newspaper, which is happy to use her social contacts for gaining access to the elite parties, but which relegates her to only “women’s activities.” When she is present as a witness the murder of Madame Devereaux, the paper refuses to print the article she writes about it. The boss even says directly to her that she is not being used because she’s a woman. Indeed, Uncle Cornelius, head of the Vanderbilt family, tells Emma once, “If you were a man, I’d have you work for me.” But since she is not a man, she cannot work for him.
The mystery plot moves well and interestingly. I like the characters in the book as well, as they develop a lot throughout the book. Emma develops a greater independent streak. The romantic tension between Emma and Derrick is fun to see grow, and I found myself rooting for them to succeed in love.
I enjoyed the way that in the audio edition, Eva Kaminski plays the role of Emma, the narrator of the book. She really suits the role of Emma as a strong, liberated woman not afraid to be a feminist during a time when feminism was considered a fighting word.
Murder at Marble House was a fun listening experience. I appreciated the historical setting that was new to me. I learned about a part of history that I didn’t know much about, specifically the 1890s in their rich enclave. We really seem to see the people of 125 years ago as they yell into the trumpet of the telephone and wear the clothing of the era. I liked this book better than the previous, Murder at the Breakers. I give it five stars!
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If you are looking for a great who-done-it told by a true word artist please pick up Murder at Marble House. Not only will you be swept into yesteryear but you will be kept guessing until the last minuet. The books just keep getting better.
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