Chicks on the Case here, and it’s a Black Friday Special! Two posts for the price of one – as in free!! SUCH a deal!
We’re thrilled to welcome Mariah Fredericks for her first Chicks visit. Mariah writes the Jane Prescott Mysteries, a wonderful historical cozy series set in Gilded Age New York. Read on to see how personal adversity inspired professional success…
Sometimes I wonder why I chose a lady’s maid as my detective, particularly for a series set in the sartorially resplendent era of the Gilded Age. As anyone who knows me will tell you: I am fashion challenged. My house is not immaculate and my design aesthetic would be called eclectic at best. (“A unique blend of inherited pieces, post-college leftovers, and IKEA.”) In an early draft of A Death of No Importance, I put a zipper in a Poiret skirt.
And yet Jane had to be a maid. I wanted to write about the wealthy and homicidal, but I wanted the detective to be a person no one would notice. I got the idea from Sian Phillips, who memorably played Livia in I, Claudius. Frustrated with what she felt was the outlandishness of the script, she complained to the director, “I am talking about adultery, poison, and murder in a room full of people, it’s ridiculous.”
He replied, “These are not people, they are servants. To the most powerful woman in Rome, they’re not human. They’re tools. Like your toaster. You wouldn’t worry about what you did or said in front of your toaster, would you?”
Jane specifically had to be a lady’s maid, because only a lady’s maid would have access to the private lives of her employers. Madame is not going to confess her indiscretions to the scullery maid. Lady’s maids also had more freedom, which is useful if you have to send your detective around New York City searching for clues.
I drew on two experiences in order to create the internal life of someone in service: crappy jobs and high school. Because high school is the nadir that is the wellspring of all creativity.
As a child I had speech impediment. If you think children are kind about speech impediments, you have either never met a child or there is something very different in the water where you live. I got through school by listening. I was amazed at what people would tell me simply because they thought I had no other friends to tell.
I have never been a maid. But like most of us, I’ve had some less than glamorous jobs. I have stocked shelves, swept up dead rats, worked a cash register, and waited tables. Those jobs gave me a very important insight: people can be astonishingly mean to those who work in service positions. Not just thoughtless—mean. They have power over you, they know it, and they want you to feel it. There was the woman who ordered grilled cheese, then sent it back in a huff. Why? It had cheese in it. One man ordered a $50 brandy—then sent it back, insisting he never asked for it, knowing full well that $50 would come out of the server’s pay. It was a fancy restaurant. He felt insecure and this was his way of feeling important.
As we know from Downton Abbey, servants are fond of their employers, strongly identified with them, and invested in their success. That is of course fiction. I wanted Jane to have an acute awareness of how ugly power can be, a determination to hold that power accountable. I also wanted her to have the genuine humility and dedication to the mundane realities of care giving. And a sense of humor because that makes it all easier.
I find Jane good company. I hope you do, too.
BIO: Mariah Fredericks was born and raised in New York City. She graduated from Vassar College with a degree in history. She enjoys reading and writing about dead people and how they got that way. She is the author of the Jane Prescott mystery series. Visit her at mariahfredericksbooks.com.
About Death of a New American: In 1912, as New York reels from the news of the Titanic disaster, lady’s maid Jane Prescott travels to Long Island with the Benchley family. Their daughter Louise is to marry William Tyler, at his uncle and aunt’s mansion; the Tylers are a glamorous, storied couple, their past filled with travel and adventure. Charles Tyler is best known for putting down New York’s notorious Italian mafia, the Black Hand.
As the families plan Louise’s upcoming wedding, Jane quickly befriends the Tyler children’s nanny, Sofia―a young Italian-American woman. However, one sultry spring night, Jane is woken by a scream from the nursery―and rushes in to find Sofia murdered, and the carefully locked window flung open…