Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Conversation with Mystery Author Frances McNamara

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Frances McNamara

We are delighted to welcome author Frances McNamara to Omnimystery News today.

Frances's sixth mystery featuring amateur sleuth Emily Cabot is Death at the Paris Exposition (Allium Press of Chicago; September 2016 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the chance to catch up with her to talk more about the series.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to your series character, Emily Cabot.

Frances McNamara
Photo provided courtesy of
Frances McNamara

Frances McNamara: Emily Cabot is one of the first graduate students at the University of Chicago when it opens in 1892. (It was a big deal at the time, as women had been able to get degrees from women's colleges, such as Wellesley, but then hadn't been allowed to do graduate research.) She's studying in the new field of sociology and gets to work on a research project with a police detective. That, in turn, leads into the mysteries, which include both real historical figures and fictional characters.

I was working at the University of Chicago Library when I started the series and I couldn't help but be impressed by the buildings on that campus — as well as institutions in Chicago such as the Art Institute — that were created by the people of the Gilded Age. At the same time, I'd always been irritated by the women in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James, that are set in that same era, as they seemed very privileged and spoiled. I used to think to myself, Surely there were women at the time who were doing more than swooning in corsets! I discovered that there were indeed such women, and the ones in Chicago were fascinating.

In the first book in the series, Death at the Fair, Emily meets the wonderful Ida B. Wells, an activist and journalist, who was promoting her anti-lynching campaign during the World's Columbian Exposition. In the second book, Death at Hull House, Emily works at that famous settlement house, with Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, on reforms in the immigrant neighborhoods. In the third book, Death at Pullman, she experiences the famous workers' strike in the factory town that was part of Chicago. The most fascinating thing I learned while researching that book was that federal troops were brought in to occupy Chicago, in order to quell the strike. The fourth book, Death at Woods Hole, takes Emily to the Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod, where scientists from all over the country went (and still go) in the summer to do research. There she meets Cornelia Clapp, an actual female scientist, who was associated with my alma mater, Mount Holyoke. In the fifth book, Death at Chinatown, Emily meets two real young Chinese women who got medical degrees from the University of Michigan, spent the summer of 1896 in Chicago, then returned to China, where they became famous for the clinics they ran. Once I started the series, I found myself learning about really interesting people I'd never known about and who deserve to be remembered. I always find that the details of the everyday lives of people, and the forgotten figures of the past, are much more interesting than the material that we usually read about in history books.

In the sixth book of the series, Death at the Paris Exposition, I return to the comparison between privileged women at the turn of the century and women who chose other paths. When Emily and her family are taken to Paris in 1900 by Bertha Palmer, the "queen" of Chicago society, she meets the kind of young American women hunting for titled European husbands who appear in the books of Wharton and James. But she also has a close-up view of Bertha Palmer, who used her wealth and power to accomplish significant things. Initially disdained by the French — who didn't think a mere woman should be one of the American commissioners to the exposition — she overcame their prejudices against "Bloomerism" through her cultured French and her elegant wardrobe from the House of Worth. She was able to persuade the other commissioners to accept more women judges, and to expand the exhibitions of American artwork and products.
In the course of the novel, Emily also meets the Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, who came from a wealthy Philadelphia family, but who purposely chose to support herself with her art.

Personally, I'm very grateful to women such as Bertha Palmer, Jane Addams, and Mary Cassatt, who ignored the strictures of society to expand horizons for women, and I found them to be wonderful inspirations for Emily Cabot.

In a year when the first woman has been nominated for president of the United States, it's important to remember how hard it was for earlier generations of women to wield any power. Bertha Palmer managed to be very influential before women even had the vote. She was such a capable woman, imagine what she could have done if she were born now! Like Hillary Clinton, Emily Cabot is a graduate of Wellesley College, where I actually had my first job. It was women like Emily, and others she meets, who insisted that women be allowed to do more and I think they would have been very happy to see Hillary campaigning for the presidency of the United States.

OMN: Do you think it important that Emily grow and develop over the course of the series?

FM: This is always a dilemma when writing a series. Some very famous fictional detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, or Miss Marple, don't really change over time. Others do, such as one of my favorite historical detectives — Gordianus the Finder, in the novels of Steven Saylor. I particularly appreciate how those stories take place against the backdrop of major events in Roman history, while also following the family story of the detective over a long period of time. When I decided to write the Emily Cabot Mysteries the idea of following historical events in the city of Chicago through the eyes of my character really appealed to me.

Once I started getting feedback from readers and reviewers, I realized that people reading the series want to know what happens to Emily (and to her friends and family) personally, almost as much as they're interested in each mystery. As an author, you feel you owe it to readers to fulfill that sort of expectation. Another thing I wanted to avoid is the rather artificial tension that is created when a series protagonist has a romantic relationship that goes on and on without resolution. That stops working after a few books and gets tedious. So, over the course of the novels, Emily marries and has children.

The most recent book is set at the 1900 Paris Exposition, which is an interesting counterpoint to the setting of the first book, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. World fairs were significant events during that era, which gave me the idea to eventually cap the series with the 1933 Century of Progress in Chicago. World War I, the flu epidemic, women's suffrage, Prohibition, and the Great Depression are all possible backdrops for future books in the series. Chicago is a quintessential American city, where many extremely interesting people have done extraordinary things that are worth remembering, so I should have ample material for the rest of the series.

There are more stories to come as Emily and her family age. Truthfully, I find that my characters are getting more interesting as they mature. Perhaps this shows my own age!

OMN: Tell us more about the series titles and covers.

FM: As I worked on early drafts of the first book in the series I kept coming up with poetic titles featuring quotes from Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare. But, when it came down to it, I realized that I wanted it to be clear that it was a mystery novel and that it was about a particular place, as a sense of place is very important to me as a writer. So I started with Death at the Fair and the title of each succeeding book fits that format. It's plain and simple — no question where it belongs in a bookstore.

The covers were all created by my publisher, Emily Victorson of Allium Press of Chicago. I love them all. She has a background in historical research — before she started the press she worked for the Chicago History Museum, and then for a company called History Works. She keeps me, and her other authors of historical fiction, honest. She also knows how to find images of the time periods and people depicted in our novels that really capture interesting points from the stories. For example, the cover of the Woods Hole book features a wonderful view of young men and women scientists digging in the sand, and the cover of the Chinatown book includes a great photograph of the two real Chinese women who are featured in the novel. I think that the covers of my books really complement the stories.

OMN: You mentioned how readers have asked to learn more about Emily. What else have you heard from them?

FM: I love meeting readers who've read all the books and urge me to write more — that's so encouraging. A number of them show up at the Allium Press booth at the Chicago Printers Row Lit Fest every year. I also love going out and doing talks about the actual historical events and people that are featured in the books. Sometimes I meet people who are especially drawn to the stories because they have personal knowledge of the events. Once I was invited to be part of a panel on Hull House through the years at a social work conference, because the organizers thought I'd really captured the sense of what life was like in a busy settlement house.

When Death at Pullman came out we did a presentation for the Pullman Garden Society. Since the audience included people who were current residents of the renovated town of Pullman, and who had a great interest in the area's history, it was especially enjoyable to talk to them. Other presentations for that book brought out people who had ancestors who'd worked in the Pullman factories and hearing their family stories was fun. While I was working on the Woods Hole book, and even after it was completed, I kept meeting people who said they themselves, or friends or family who were scientists, had experienced really meaningful summer sessions at the Marine Biological Laboratory, where the story is set. They told me that they were particularly interested to read a novel portraying the importance of the work done there in the early twentieth century.

OMN: What's next for you?

FM: Over the past year, I wrote a contemporary mystery about a retired Boston policewoman and an ex-Red Guard Chinese grandmother that may be the start of another series. But I have more Chicago stories coming and right now I'm working on an Emily Cabot mystery that involves the early film industry in Chicago. In the first decade of the twentieth century, before the movie industry moved to Hollywood, there were some important silent film companies in Chicago. Emily's brother, Alden, who's a newspaper reporter, will become involved in a murder at the Selig Polyscope studio on the north side of Chicago. I'm also beginning research on another historical mystery series, which might combine some Boston and Chicago connections. I retired from my library job last fall, so I'm now able to write full time, which is fun!

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Frances McNamara grew up in Boston, where her father served as Police Commissioner for ten years. She has degrees from Mount Holyoke and Simmons Colleges and recently retired from the University of Chicago. She now divides her time between Boston and Cape Cod.

For more information about the author, please visit her website at FrancesMcNamara.com and her author page on Goodreads, or find her on Facebook.

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Death at the Paris Exposition by Frances McNamara

Death at the Paris Exposition by Frances McNamara

An Emily Cabot Mystery

Publisher: Allium Press of Chicago

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)BN.com Print/Nook Format(s)Kobo eBook Format

Intrepid amateur sleuth Emily Cabot's journey once again takes her to a world's fair — the Paris Exposition of 1900.

Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer has been named the only female U. S. commissioner to the Exposition and she enlists Emily's services as her social secretary. Their visit to the House of Worth for the fitting of a couture gown is interrupted by the theft of Mrs. Palmer's famous pearl necklace. Before that crime can be solved, several young women meet untimely deaths and a member of the Palmer's inner circle is accused of the crimes.

As Emily races to clear the family name she encounters jealous society ladies, American heiresses seeking titled European husbands, and more luscious gowns and priceless jewels. Along the way, she takes refuge from the tumult at the country estate of Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. In between her work and sleuthing, she is able to share the Art Nouveau delights of the Exposition, and the enduring pleasures of the City of Light, with her husband and their young children.

Death at the Paris Exposition by Frances McNamara


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