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Murder Among Friends

Our Book Discussion -- & Skype Visit -- with Victoria Thompson on “Murder on Astor Place”

Victoria Thompson "Calling Card" graphic

Fans of Anne Perry’s, or Maureen Jennings’ mysteries featuring the British Victorian and Canadian Victorian periods won’t want to miss Vickie’s books featuring Sarah Brandt, estranged daughter of a magnate and old Knickerbocker family. Sarah works as a mid-wife to support herself after her doctor husband was murdered.

Vickie joined us in her first ever Skype from her home, and told us how Sarah and her story came to be. It was an intriguing mix of pragmatic publishing house needs, and the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time with the specific writing skills necessary for the proposed series. Vickie had written and published numerous romances and was interested in moving into the mystery arena – many of her romances have strong mystery elements, and (added bonus!) they were historical romances. At a point when Victoria was trying to sell a contemporary suspense novel, her agent learned that Berkley was interested in doing a series set in turn of the century New York with a mid-wife for the heroine. It was the perfect fit for Vickie – and a new career in crime!

Barring those two stipulations, everything that developed in the story (including the policeman hero, Frank Malloy) came from Vickie’s imagination and to fill the different needs of the story. She was the one who decided that Sarah came from a moneyed, influential family, and that she was estranged from her parents, particularly her father. We hear that Sarah’s husband was murdered, but that is all we know about that situation. It served to let Sarah overcome two major hurdles for women in this era: she needed work to support herself, and she didn’t need to be chaperoned. Her career as a midwife has been a splendid notion, since it gets her inside all classes of potential crime scenes since women of all backgrounds have children. With her background, Sarah would be acceptable to the higher ranks by virtue of her family, and respected by those less fortunate – who still need her services.

She has also experienced somewhat chilling coincidences where the crime in a just completed book will be a striking match for a similar, real-life crime that’s in the news. This led to talk of how “everything old is new again” in terms of today’s culture vs. the Victorian one: we still have class prejudice, we struggle with unplanned pregnancies, and sadly, deal with those who prey on young girls. In actuality, all of the books in this series deal with issues we still face – but with the Victorians’ point of view and ways of dealing with them.

The group discussed this at length: what happened within the VanDamm family, how rich and powerful people were never even brought to trial over this kind of crime, and how much the very real corruption going on in New York City at the time would guarantee that things were hushed up. We told Vickie how much we enjoyed the way she weaves in real historic figures and uses them in ways that were historically correct. In this book, we particularly enjoyed her use of Teddy Roosevelt and his role in the New York Police force. There was a lovely use of just Teddy’s name in a scene where Frank is caustically asking Sarah if she plans to bring the case to Teddy himself, and she responds in all seriousness, that more than likely – she would. Frank realizes that Sarah has the background and family connections to make this otherwise impossible meeting with Roosevelt happen.

We also wondered if the character of Francisca was hard to write. We had found her to be unsympathetic but tragic – and this is exactly the way Vickie hopes readers will see her. This character’s reflection of the expectations and roles she was supposed to fulfill were completely believable. We talked about what happened then and now with abused wives, and children. We felt that even today we have trouble understanding someone staying in an abusive situation, but can sympathize with them. In Francisca’s case, her complete acceptance – and even encouragement – of the situation there, was more shocking.

As for Sarah and Frank, the group felt the series got off to a terrific start, and that many will enjoy following their exploits – and relationship – in future reading! We thanked Vickie for braving Skype tech and joining us, and that special MAF chocolates would be heading her way…

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