Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, large print
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Kitty Weeks #1
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark on May 3rd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
New York City, 1915
The Lusitania has just been sunk, and headlines about a shooting at J.P. Morgan's mansion and the Great War are splashed across the front page of every newspaper. Capability "Kitty" Weeks would love nothing more than to report on the news of the day, but she's stuck writing about fashion and society gossip over on the Ladies' Page―until a man is murdered at a high society picnic on her beat.
Determined to prove her worth as a journalist, Kitty finds herself plunged into the midst of a wartime conspiracy that threatens to derail the United States' attempt to remain neutral―and to disrupt the privileged life she has always known.
Radha Vatsal's A Front Page Affair is the first book in highly anticipated series featuring rising journalism star Kitty Weeks.
I have discovered a fondness for historical mysteries set in the WW1 period, so A Front Page Affair looked like a very interesting take on the period from a slightly different perspective – that of a female would-be reporter in the U.S. just after the sinking of the Lusitania. (For insight into the events surrounding the Lusitania, read Dead Wake by Erik Larson).
Kitty Weeks is an interesting choice for a protagonist. She is young and single in one of the first periods where it was possible for a young, single woman to manage to make a respectable living. Women filled the typing pools in many offices, including that of the fictitious newspaper, The New York Sentinel where Kitty works. But female reporters were confined to the “Women’s Pages”, filled with recipes, uplifting advice, gossip and advertising. And that is where Kitty finds herself, apprentice to the only female editor at the Sentinel – a dictator who rules the women’s page with an iron hand only occasionally encased within the proverbial velvet glove.
As Kitty discovers, she wasn’t hired for either her skill or her experience. Kitty was hired for her ability to mix with society. Her father, while self-made, is fairly wealthy, and Kitty has had an excellent boarding school education. She looks and sounds like she belongs among the upper-crust, even if just on the sidelines.
So it’s a surprise to everyone when Kitty’s first solo assignment, the coverage of a society garden party, turns into a murder story. And no one is more surprised than Kitty when she finds herself unable to let the murder go. No matter what the police say, Kitty can’t help but notice that there is way more being swept under the carpet than is making it into the newspaper reports – or into the police detectives’ minds.
But when Kitty digs into the details of her story, “Who murdered Hunter Cole? And why was he killed?” she finds herself not the hunter, but the hunted. She’s looking for a possible killer. And one of the dead ends on her trails brings her to the attention of the Secret Service. She’s looking for a murderer. They’re looking for spies and war profiteers. And the one may have something to do with the other.
The Secret Service will leave no stone unturned in their quest to keep the United States safe and at least for the moment, out of the war in Europe. And they don’t care who they have to threaten or coerce in the pursuit of their quarry.
Threatening Kitty with the possibility that her own father may be operating his business on the wrong side of the law is certainly not too low a tactic for them to use. For all that Kitty’s father lets her into his business, they might even be right.
Escape Rating B: This is a mixed feelings kind of review. And those mixed feelings have to do with my ambivalence about Kitty.
One of the problems that all historical fiction faces, including historical mystery, is just how accurate that history needs to be. This is particularly an issue with female protagonists. Women’s roles and women’s agency were much more restricted in the past than they are in the present, at least in the U.S. and the West.
So Kitty, a young woman in her very early 20s, is subject not just to the generally accepted preconceived notions of those around her, but to very real restrictions on her movements and actions. As a wealthy young woman, she is freed from the necessity of earning her own living, but there are still plenty of strings tying her down.
In particular, her need to placate her father and every other man with whom she comes into contact at every single turn starts to grate on the reader. Her father, in particular, can demand her attendance and her attention at any moment, whether she wishes to give them or not, and expect to be obeyed. There is a point in the story where she loses her job merely because her father won’t let her work after 5 pm. He controls her life, and while he is often a benevolent dictator, he is still a dictator. One of the issues that is resolved in the story is the contention in their relationship. For them to continue to live together in harmony, he needs to treat her as an adult and not as the child he remembers.
The Secret Service also takes advantage of her father’s legal dominion over her. His citizenship is undocumented, for reasons that become clear in the story. As she was not born in the U.S. her citizenship follows his, so when the Secret Service threatens to deny his passport, they are threatening her with statelessness as well.
And the way that all of the men and even the women treat her gets on one’s nerves. The reporters and editors at the newspaper all assume that women are incapable of being reporters, for reasons that we now know are not just spurious, but downright ridiculous. The diagnosis that the female editor receives when she has what appears to be a nervous breakdown is a parcel of unfortunately all too period-appropriate misogyny that will make contemporary readers cringe.
If you have ever read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, the diagnosis will sound all too familiar — and heartbreaking.
The way that Kitty is treated is all too realistic for the period, but I find that I prefer heroines like Bess Crawford in Charles Todd’s series, where the restrictions on women’s lives and behaviors infringe much less often on Bess’ work as a nurse, or on her all-too-frequent amateur investigations. The author of that series has found a way to not let those restrictions impinge too often on the progress of the story, but just enough so as not to tug at the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.
Overall, I enjoyed Kitty’s story, but I found myself gritting my teeth a bit too often for comfort at the way she was treated.
Once Kitty’s very, very amateur investigation begins to get close to the real perpetrator of that murder from the beginning of the story, the pace picks up dramatically. All of the red herrings that have been strewn through her sometimes meandering progress are all finally reeled in and fried very neatly in the pan. And it is a surprise, not just who done it, but also what happens afterwards. The war looming on the horizon interferes with everything, including justice.
~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~
Sourcebooks is giving away a copy of A Front Page Affair to one lucky U.S. or Canadian commenter: