A Golden Cage by Shelley Freydont is the 2nd Newport Gilded Age Mystery, where headstrong heiress Deanna Randolph must solve another murder among the social elite (Available today!).
A Golden Cage is the 2nd novel in the Newport Gilded Age Mystery series by Shelley Freydont, and I am pleased to say that this novel stands alone.
As implied by the series title, this novel is set in Newport, Rhode Island—a town that was a popular vacation spot for the elite during the late nineteenth century. Here, we follow events from two points of view—Deanna Randolph and Joe Ballard—providing insight and access to both the male society as well as the female one, which is important in an era where women do not share the same freedoms as men.
Deanna is staying with the Ballard family through the summer, while her mother cares for her very ill sister in Switzerland. The women of the Ballard family agree to assist in finding Deanna an advantageous marriage, but Deanna is more interested in improving her newfound cycling skills and befriending an actress, Amabelle Deeks—both of which would have scandalized her mother. She’s headstrong and rebellious in nature, curious about how the world works beyond her own class, and not very interested in parties or other typical female pursuits of her era.
Joe Ballard is the son of the family that she is staying with, and he, too, is not a typical male of the Gilded Age. Rather than rest on his incoming inheritance, he’d prefer to work for a living and live in a dingy workshop in a bad part of town so he can be closer to his inventions. He’s preoccupied with perfecting a sugar bagging machine he’s invented and only interacts socially to escort Deanna.
The two of them have a past—their fathers tried and failed to arrange them into marriage and, though they have gone their separate ways romantically, Joe still feels a need to keep an eye on Deanna and keep her out of trouble. He’s constantly worried that she’s going to ruin her reputation and squash her chances at finding a good husband, much to the consternation of Deanna.
The highlight of the summer season is a huge birthday party in honor of a neighbor and one of society’s most elite, Judge Grantham, whose family hired and transported an entire theater company from New York City to put on a play in their summer home’s backyard. Laurette Ballard, Joe’s mother, is concerned about the daughter of a friend of hers who had run away to join this theater company to be an actress, so she and Deanna check on her. Deanna discovers that she and Amabelle Deeks, the actress in question, have interests in common, and she’s intrigued by the actress’s lifestyle and beautiful fiancée, Charlie. Laurette, a rather liberal parent for the age, tells Amabelle that her home is always open to her should she need it, but generally leaves her to her new and scandalous life on the stage.
Unfortunately, the night finds Amabelle in distress, and she shows up bedraggled and poorly dressed at the Ballard home. The next morning leads to the gruesome discovery of “poor Charlie” bludgeoned to death in the Ballard’s conservatory and Amabelle missing, along with Laurette’s favorite diamond earrings. Deanna enlists the help of her maid, Elspeth, and a reluctant Joe to solve the murder, and along the way, uncovers secrets closely guarded by society’s elite. Additionally, Joe and Deanna’s relationship becomes strained, as Joe wants to protect her from her own rash decisions while also preserving her unique headstrong qualities.
When I first picked up the novel, I was excited to read something set in the Gilded Age, one of my most favorite time periods. I was hoping for more of the glittering excess that time period is known for, and while the Judge’s family embodies it very well, I couldn’t help but feel that the majority of the novel was a very generic portrayal of an upstairs/downstairs class system in which an heiress and a maid get away with far more than is realistic for the time. The only reason we know that the novel is set in this time period is because of the very forced name-dropping of famous historical families. Otherwise, this could just as easily have been set in 1930s England. I enjoyed the mystery elements of the story, but felt that there was a lost opportunity to delve into things that made the Gilded Age so unique in America’s history.
All in all, I felt that this was a perfectly enjoyable and easy read, great for a short vacation at the beach, but I wouldn’t count on it for any serious discussion or insight on American history.
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Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.