The Fall of White City by N. S. Wikarski is a work of historical fiction inside of which is embedded a crime mystery. I like history. As an ex-law enforcement type, crime continues to interest me. The identity of the perpetrator and motives for the crime committed are elements of a complex mystery. This work reminds me of the style of Agatha Christie but with more emphasis on the female suffragette angle. This novel should be highly entertaining for those with some knowledge of the 1893 Chicago World Fair and surrounding social issues of the day. The reader might feel a sense of nostalgia. For those with no knowledge of the time period, fascinating historical facts such as the distribution of telephones in Chicago, and the capacity of passenger cars on the newfangled Ferris Wheel might promote further reading. This is Book One in the Victorian Chicago Mystery Series. I will follow it up with Book Two, Shrouded in Thought as well as investigate other series by this talented author.
Well developed characters tell this story of a kidnapping, a murder, and human trafficking. There is also a story of class behavior in a 19th century US social system with rigid social norms and rules. The US was supposedly founded on a system where there were no rigidly defines social systems; everyone had at least the opportunity to better themselves. As a few characters in this novel show, some with great or even modest economic means formed a social system designed to frustrate any such ambition.
Meet Evangeline LeClaire, our main protagonist, a supporter of suffragettes and by her actions possibly one herself, and an amateur detective. She is independently wealthy and points out, when she feels it necessary, that her wealth is not a product of her efforts but is instead inherited. She feels an obligation to use the wealth wisely to further efforts at modifying the status of those she considers disadvantaged, such as women. Highly educated, she makes her criticisms of society to her high society colleagues with wit and sarcasm. Some of them do not realize they have been criticized. Evangeline works voluntarily at Mast House, a charitable group working to raise the status of underprivileged women. Among other things, Evangeline teaches English. One of her students, Elsa Bauer, has been found murdered. A suspect, her brother, has been arrested. Evangeline believes something is not right and she determinedly sets out to find the true story.
Evangeline realizes she is limited by her gender in the things she can do independently. She needs a male ally who can go to places she can’t and who can talk to people she would otherwise be unable to approach. Luckily, she has a good friend, Freddie. Also a member of the wealthy class, Freddie has been a disappointment to his parents. He was to join the family business and become a licensed solicitor but all he wants to do is hang around newspaper offices and hope for the chance to be given a chance as a journalist. He also happens to be in love with Evangeline. Freddie hangs around her hoping to develop a romantic relationship. He has all the character of a family pet. Evangeline is not cruel, she does not treat him entirely as if he were a puppy but she is happy to manipulate him into doing things he would rather not do, things which further her on-going investigation.
Elsa’s brother Franz is in jail accused of Elsa’s murder. Evangeline is not sure about the guilt or innocence of Franz but she is convinced that there is no proof of guilt for anyone. She wants to find evidence and her first step is to interview Franz. In the society of the time, Franz is not popular. He is German and a member of a society which is at least socialist and possibly anarchist. Franz is an easy popular target of hatred.
Evangeline constructs her investigation. She interviews people in the boarding house where Elsa stayed. She interviews staff at Mast house, where she taught Elsa literature. She discovers that there is a volunteer art teacher, Mr. Johnston, who she knows, but not as an art teacher. Johnathan Blackthorne is also a suitor of Evangeline. This class elitist puts off Evangeline with his superior views of himself and his condescending actions toward everyday people but she maintains her relationships with him in order to exploit his social connections. Evangeline also discovers Jacob Sidley, an accountant at Mast House who has seemed to be unusually helpful to Elsa during her studies. Then there is Patrick O’Malley, patriarch of the family running the boarding house where Elsa and Franz had stayed. From a drunken stupor, he had expressed to Evangeline more than a passing interest in Elsa.
At this point, Evangeline has at least four possible suspects for the murder of Elsa. And what was Elsa doing at the very high-class hotel, the Templar house? With questions about suspects, locations, circumstances, and motives, Evangeline and Freddie are ready to do battle. Maybe not Freddie, but he has to stay in the game if he wants to win Evangeline; he will do everything she asks but only after some serious prodding.
So much for the fiction. The investigation takes place in the historical context of the 1893 World’s Fair although the organizers like the word “Exposition.” Wikarski takes the readers to the fair. The great White City of the Colombian Exposition was situated on the shores of Lake Michigan in an area known to residents as “New Jerusalem.” Evangeline looked down upon it as a fake, an artificial temporary construction that give visitors an impression of a Chicago that wasn’t true. Still, there were many marvels to see and she could use a visit to the fair as an excuse to engage Johnathan in a private interview; it wasn’t really an interrogation. The two visited the place where the daring “Little Egypt” danced, a show considered by Johnathan to be too lurid for Evangeline. They visited the place where an entire imported primitive tribe was on exhibition. And they visited the Ferris Wheel. Johnathan rented an entire car for their private ride. While Evangeline appreciated the ride; she could have done without the near-death experience.
Wikarski reveals many of the actual wonders of the 1893 Exposition. This novel is a not a historical account of the Exposition but many of the wonders Evangeline saw existed in fact. Wikarski concentrates more on presenting historical facts about the struggle for women to receive an education, the exploitation of women as factory laborers and the inequity that all women felt, including wealthy Evangeline, when trying to interact with others in a patriarchal society during a time that held so much promise with stunning innovative technology appearing almost daily.
Readers who like historical fiction and who are impressed with this story might also want to look at The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. It concentrates on all the fantastic things that Evangeline saw and investigates the difficulties encountered in their presentation.
Readers should also visit Wikarski’s website, http://www.mythofhistory.com/. Along with her Amazon author’s page, there is a lot of interesting stuff to see. This is a quiz.
What is “Herstory?”
Visit the website to find out.