Book Review: Death at the Falls by Rosemary Simpson

Death at the Falls by Rosemary Simpson is an atmospheric historical mystery that brings the Gilded Age to life in a tantalizing tale of old money, new love, and grave suspicion, as newly-minted lawyer Prudence MacKenzie and ex-Pinkerton Geoffrey Hunter travel to Niagara Falls for a dangerous assignment…

October 1890.

It’s no surprise that private investigators Prudence MacKenzie and Geoffrey Hunter welcome the opportunity to “get out of Dodge” aka New York City: New York is too hot for them given the sordid sexual nature of their recent investigations. The partners are intrigued to be offered a case in Niagara Falls. They can’t refuse a request demanded by Gillian, the Dowager Viscountess Lady Rotherton (Prudence’s aristocratic dollar-princess aunt) to help a fellow dollar-princess. N.B. “a Dollar Princess referred to an American heiress, often from newly wealthy families, who married a title-rich but cash-poor British nobleman.” Think of Downton Abbey’s fictional Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham, as an excellent example. Aunt Gillian is maddingly vague in her missive to Prudence. ‘My dear friend Ernestine Hamilton needs your help. She knows you’ve passed the bar. I’ve told her you’re on the way. Don’t dawdle. Be discreet.’ The partners are suspicious that Aunt Gillian has touted their legal abilities because that’s usually not why they’re hired. 

“I think of us less as lawyers than private inquiry agents. Don’t you?”

 

“Hunter and Mackenzie, Investigative Law. We’ve created something new,” Geoffrey said.

 

While the courtroom had always reminded a possibility, most of the cases they’d accepted in the past two and a half years had been more investigatory than legal. He had thought that might change after Prudence became only the second woman to be admitted to the practice of law in New York State, but the clients she had been hoping for had not materialized.

Geoffrey and Prudence push the envelope when they arrive in Niagara Falls. They stay in an elegant hotel on the Canadian side of the Falls and rather unusually, occupy the same suite (separate bedrooms, of course). They’re professionals and undeterred by gossip. Even though “Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in America, established in 1885,” it’s like the wild, wild west. As they say, “There’s gold in them thar hills,” which translates to prescient folks realizing that harnessing the power of the awesome falls will fuel hydro-electric plants. Someone(s) will make a fortune as Geoffrey explains to Prudence.

I have a feeling that if what we’re here for is a land dispute, it’s because either Thomas Edison or George Westinghouse is angling to ensure that only one of them holds the power monopoly. Electricity is the future, Prudence, and it could prove to be even more lucrative than Carnegie’s steel mills, Rockefeller’s oil fields, or Vanderbilt’s railroads. My money, for what it’s worth, is on Nikola Tesla’s alternating current.”

Everyone in Niagara is speculating whether a man could ever go over the falls and survive the journey. Unsavory folks push the envelope, like “daredevil Crazy Louie Whiting.” He wants to be the first to “navigate the falls without drowning.” Louie’s latest stunt is to send a sheep over the falls in a uniquely designed test barrel: if the animal survives, a human is next. 

Against such a background, they meet Lady Rotherton’s friend, Lady Ernestine Hamilton. Lady Hamilton was “so graceful in her walk, that she seemed to glide effortlessly across the parlor into which Geoffrey and Prudence had been ushered.” Prudence presses Lady Hamilton on why she insisted they come to Niagara, Ontario, reminding her that she can’t practice in Canada. 

“I don’t need a Canadian solicitor or barrister. The suit I intend to fight will be brought in an American court,” Lady Hamilton explained. “What do you know about having a child declared illegitimate?”

A grandmother wants to declare her granddaughter illegitimate before her eighteenth birthday because the girl stands to inherit a considerable estate and “there’s a great deal of land involved.” Her father, Lucas Adderly, has been missing since the girl’s childhood: the land is “worth millions.” Lady Hamilton refuses to go into the particulars, asking them to indulge her until the next day. They think Lady Hamilton, for all her elegance and charm, is holding out on them. They’re not sure whether to take a case that every lawyer on both sides of the border has turned down.  

But time is of the essence. Lady Hamilton takes them to visit the convent school where Rowan’s grandmother, Mrs. Myra Adderly, entombed her. It’s reminiscent of Frances Hodges Burnett’s The Little Princess: prize “parlor boarder” Sarah Crewe is thought to have lost all her money and is turned into a scullery maid/junior teacher by the cruel headmistress. When Prudence sees the orphans, she is moved by the evidence of years of abuse.

Work-roughened fingers tied the day’s clean aprons around bodies thickened by years of porridge, potatoes, and unrelenting manual labor.

 

Everything Prudence had learned in the past few years about class distinctions, hopeless lives, and the crushing weight of poverty painted the other side of the picture Lady Hamilton had brought them here to envision.

Rosemary Simpson brings physical poverty to life but even more vividly, she shows how the lack of love can inflict cruel wounds on a young psyche. Lady Hamilton arranged, secretly, for Rowan to live in the woods with Daniel Johnson, a kind elderly woodsman, and his dog Hero, because she fears for Rowan’s safety.

The barrel, supposedly containing a sheep, is sent over the Falls. Surprisingly, “when the barrel is retrieved and opened, the battered body of a local Tuscarora Indian spills out.” His name was Martin Fallow and he was murdered. Martin was somewhat of a math savant and had been investigating the financial shenanigans behind Rowan’s grandmother’s actions in cutting her granddaughter out of her inheritance. The partners formally take the case after Martin’s murder because behind the flimflam stunts are avaricious, greedy real estate speculators, aided by unscrupulous bankers, lawyers, and hangers-on. 

Prudence and Geoffrey call on their home team to come to Niagara to help in the investigation. Amos Lang works undercover: they task him to sidle up to Crazy Louie to see if he was behind Martin Fallow’s death. Were there two identical barrels? Josiah Gregory is in his element—acting as a cataloguer/archivist at the Hamilton estate, his job is to find the records that Myra wants hidden. 

Josiah liked nothing more than complicated schemes hatched by venal fraudsters. And if they were family members trying to cheat one another, so much the better.

The partners race against time to prove that Myra has falsified documents in order to disinherit Rowan. Someone viciously attacks Daniel and his dog: Rowan is not safe. Their erstwhile client, Lady Hamilton, is obfuscating the facts. It’s a complicated case, full of surprises. 

For readers curious about the burgeoning relationship between Prudence and Geoffrey, Simpson keeps us in suspended animation. There are signs that they may someday have a partnership in life as well as work but it’s not definitive. Stay tuned! Fans of HBO’s The Gilded Age will enjoy Rosemary Simpson’s seventh Gilded Age mystery. It’s a treat to see Prudence and Geoffrey exercise their investigative chops outside of New York City.


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