Cover image of "A Death of No Importance," a Gilded Age mystery

On Nov. 13, 1909, the collapse of the Cherry Mine in Cherry, Illinois, killed 259 boys and men. Mariah Fredericks builds her suspenseful mystery tale, A Death of No Importance, around a fictionalized version of this late-Gilded Age disaster. The novel is both social history and a murder story. It’s reminiscent of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. The Newsomes and Bentleys of Fredericks’ imagination personify the new, moneyed American aristocracy that rose to prominence in the decades following the Civil War. And she interlaces her Gilded Age mystery with reminders of the pivotal events of the era, including suffragist campaigns, the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, and the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. But the narrative drive remains strong throughout. And surprise piles on surprise in the book’s final chapters.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

The amateur sleuth is a ladies’ maid

In the novel, the first in a series of three books to date, the protagonist is ladies’ maid Jane Prescott. In her introduction, Fredericks writes that “I’ve always been fascinated by what servants see and hear. And as I thought about Jane’s story, I very much liked the idea that one of these ‘little people’ from the past would know the truth about a famous crime, precisely because nobody noticed them.” Jane relates her growing understanding of this headline-grabbing event from late in life. Writing in the first person throughout, she tells how she came to be employed by the nouveau riche Bentley family as the maid to their two teenage daughters, Charlotte and Louise.

A Death of No Importance (Jane Prescott #1) by Mariah Fredericks (2018) 289 pages ★★★★☆

Image of family members grieving after a 1909 mine disaster like the one at the heart of this Gilded Age mystery
Grieving family members examining the rolls of victims in the 1909 Cherry Mine disaster in Illinois, much like the Shickshinny Mine collapse in Pennsylvania featured in this novel. Image: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

The backstory to murder in this Gilded Age mystery

The two Bentley daughters could hardly be different. Charlotte is glamorous, self-centered, and seemingly devoid of compassion. By contrast, Louise is bookish, plain, and socially aware. And it is Charlotte whose romantic fantasies ultimately involve her family in what the tabloid press, in a stunning lack of originality, terms “the Crime of the Century.” Charlotte has become infatuated with one of New York’s most “eligible bachelors,” Robert Norris Newsome Jr., who is known as Norrie. He’s a spendthrift, a gambler, and a notorious womanizer. He’s also engaged to marry a daughter of the Bentley family’s friends, the Tylers. But Charlotte will have her way.

“A rallying cry for subversive elements”

Norrie’s father, Robert Sr., is a millionaire businessman who owns large mining interests, among other companies. At one of the family’s coal mines in Pennsylvania, the Shickshinny Mine, a tunnel collapsed. When the company refused to send a rescue party, 121 miners died of suffocation, including eight children. Newsome angrily refused to accept responsibility. His response? To fire the manager. “The incident has become a rallying cry for subversive elements,” writes the New York Herald. The newspaper coverage, and Jane Prescott’s growing understanding of the events surrounding a murder in the Newsome family, gradually lead her to understand the character of the often-violent class struggle underway in the Gilded Age. After all, which is “The Crime of the Century?” The murder of one rich person . . . or a mine disaster that kills eight children and more than a hundred men?

About the author

Image of Mariah Fredericks, author of this Gilded Age mystery

Mariah Fredericks is the author of the three books in the Jane Prescott series and nine other novels as well as one book of nonfiction. Wikipedia tells us that “She graduated from Vassar College with a degree in history and was the head copywriter for Book-of-the-Month Club for many years.” Her own website reveals that she was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives today with her family. 

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