In the late 1890s, society functions often included a tableau vivant, an elaborate staging by live models wearing elaborate costumes posed to represent a living picture. For example participants might recreate the paintings The Last Supper or Washington Crossing the Delaware. While the models remained motionless and silent, guests at the event could closely examine them. The more elaborate tableaus included props and theatrical lights.
Using this device, Alyssa Maxwell launches her latest Gilded Newport Mystery, Murder at Ochre Court.
This palatial home, which still stands in Newport, Rhode Island, was the setting for the social event of the season, the coming-out ball for Cleo Cooper-Smith, who was literally on display, posed as Cleopatra, in an elaborate tableau vivant.
Mrs. Ogden Goelet, owner of the mansion, is sponsoring the event out of her love for Cleo’s late mother. She has spared no expense in hosting the most elegant soiree known and has actually had electric lights installed for the occasion.
Emma Cross, the central character in Maxwell’s novels, attends in her capacity as a society reporter. A relative of the powerful and socially prominent Vanderbilt family, Emma’s lineage gains her entrance to these events. However, she would much prefer to pursue a career as a hard news reporter like her idol Nellie Bly. Little does she know the evening will come to a crashing close with a hard news event.
As the guests gather in the grand ballroom, Mrs. Goelet orders the gas lights extinguished. Then, at a prearranged moment, the switch is flipped on the hundreds of Edison bulbs. Instead of a blaze of glorious light, there a small explosion, the lights go out, and the room plunges into darkness.
When candles and gaslights are re-lit, Cleo’s body is discovered on the gilded metal throne. The beautiful young woman has been electrocuted to death. Instantly two of Emma’s friends go to her aid and are severely burned themselves when they touch her body.
Suspicion falls on the young electrician responsible for installing the lights, but Emma, and others, have their doubts and turn their attentions to a growing number of other suspects, ranging from a shady New York estate developer, who claimed to be engaged to Cleo, to the mother of a spurned suitor, and even to Cleo’s older and physically handicapped sister Ilsa.
Along the way Emma uncovers another murder, initially thought to have been a suicide, and begins to have her suspicions about yet another death.
With her own life and the lives of those she holds most dear at risk, Emma doggedly pursues her investigations to an end and justice once again prevails.
Stokely Memorial Library now has Murder at Ochre Court, along with Maxwell’s earlier works. They are excellently researched and while offering readers the challenge of unmasking a killer or two, also educate us about the lives of the rich and famous in the 1890s.
Located at 383 East Broadway, Stokely Memorial Library is open Mondays—Saturdays from 10-5 and may be reached by telephone at 423-623-3832.