It’s 1900, and lovely, smart Hilda Johansson is one of many immigrants working as live-in servants to rich households in Southbend, Indiana. In Jeanne M. Dams’ Death in Lacquer Red, Hilda has a pleasant if strenuous life, working hard to save money to bring her other family members over from Sweden. She is being courted by a handsome Irish fireman who won’t let the fact that their families wouldn’t approve--he’s Catholic and she’s Lutheran--get in the way of the romance. Even so, a dead body in the lilac bushes does put a damper on their day out together.
The murdered woman is dressed in a beautiful red garment of heavy, imported silk, her face obscured by the injuries. Hilda’s household, including the servants, are devastated. When the police finally do make an appearance, their suspicions easily fall on the foreigners in their midst, including the servants. And when it’s revealed that the murdered woman is the wealthy sister-turned-Chinese-missionary of the next-door-neighbors, of course it’s only logical to their prejudiced minds that the one Chinese man in town must be the killer.
To find the wanted man and save him from both from the police and the potential angry mob, Hilda must go far beyond her normal duties as a housemaid and outside of her very conventional way of life. She must evade Mr. Williams, the veddy English butler, and his authoritarian ideas of how to best protect those under his charge. And she must enlist the help of many of the immigrant workers--not just her fellow Swedes--to protect the innocent suspect and find the true killer.
Death in Lacquer Red is the first in a series of historical mysteries by Jeanne M. Dams featuring the intrepid Hilda Johansson. Ms. Dams is quite good at getting period details correct, and, probably more importantly for verisimilitude, period attitudes. Hilda moves in a world where societal roles are strictly determined by factors beyond the characters’ ability to control. It is a lovely world in many ways, but like that of Anne Perry’s Victorian suspense stories, it is a world of inner, endemic tensions that may subtly threaten the characters and certainly complicate the unravelling of a mystery.