My alter ego is writing a different kind of mystery this summer. It’s different enough that I’m writing it under a pen name because I think the audience is slightly different from the one that reads cozy mysteries. Not that my current readers won’t enjoy it. I’m sure some of them will. But there won’t be any quirky characters, the sleuth will be a professional rather than an amateur, and I won’t have to keep worrying about whether to include a cat or not.
As I was writing my historical western romance novel in the spring, I enjoyed learning about life in the 1870s. I started thinking about writing this new series in an earlier time as well. Perhaps becoming a Downton Abbey fan led me in that direction. In some ways, life was simpler then. In others, it was more complicated.
One of the things that was simpler was that there weren’t so many laws against things that are bad for you. All of Agatha Christie’s favorite poisons are now illegal to use in consumer products, leading to a difficulty in poisoning your worst enemy with cyanide or arsenic. There are too many consumer protection statutes to make poisoning look accidental. Then there’s technology. If the killer runs the sleuth off the road, almost killing her, all she has to do is pull out her cell phone and call Triple A (after calling the police). No long scenes of how she struggles to find a place with a telephone, clothes torn and limping. There’s only so many times you can use the dead battery trick to justify a scene of this type.
So, when I started thinking about writing a new mystery series, my mind started building on the historical background I’d learned about when writing my romance novel. I remembered the books on local history I’d bought when I lived in Massachusetts. My favorite town had a colorful history, and I was fortunate enough to discover a book written by one of the men who was a part of it, a candid account of the corruption and lifestyle then.
I discovered that the time period I was drawn to was also the Gilded Age, the late Victorian period when the Newport mansions were built. This gave me lots of material to use as background for the new series.
But new problems arose, particularly with legal procedures and forensics. We take matching fingerprint evidence for granted now, but that knowledge didn’t exist in the 1890s. You can’t use the misdirection of a suspect’s fingerprints being discovered at the crime scene. There are no automobiles, leading to the problem of your detective’s mobility in going to interview witnesses.
Mostly, I worried about legal procedures in the Gilded Age. Most of my legal knowledge comes from watching Law & Order, with a dash of Boston Legal and Perry Mason. That wouldn’t be sufficient to write about the course of prosecution so many years ago.
I began searching for resources to help me with that. Most of the legal references were obscure and expensive. To me, they look like they’re written in a foreign language.
I was thrilled to find “Six Capsules” by George R. Dekle Sr. This is about a famous murder case where a rakish medical student killed the woman he was secretly married to via morphine poisoning.
Carlyle Harris was a ladies’ man. He seduced multiple young women, and it’s rumored Helen Potts wasn’t the only one of them he secretly married. When necessary, he also performed abortions on these women.
Helen told her mother about her relationship, and her mother insisted on a sacred marriage in addition to the secular one. Again, Harris used his persuasive powers to delay even the announcement of an engagement. But Helen’s mother would only wait so long and a deadline was set.
Just days before the deadline was reached, Harris prescribed a capsule containing morphine for what he diagnosed as Helen’s migraine headaches. On the fourth day of taking them, Helen died of acute morphine poisoning, and the police put the pieces together and arrested Harris.
This book is a wealth of information, including detailed narrations of each day of the trial. It’s also highly readable.
As soon as I finish “Six Capsules,” I’m going to read “The Fall River Tragedy: A History of the Borden Murders” for information on how a murder case would have been tried in the 1890s. Between these two books, I should be able to write convincingly of how the murder cases in my new series would be handled.