It’s 1915, before the United States entered what we now call World War I and became a superpower. Women were cared for by their fathers or husbands, and those who wanted to work were allowed to choose from a handful of socially-acceptable jobs. Women could neither vote nor sit on juries as peers, yet women were speaking out and marching for their rights. It was an exciting time for America as the country was changing socially and politically. This is the world of Capability “Kitty” Weeks in a two-book-old mystery series written by Radha Vatsal.
Smart, spunky Kitty traveled the world with her widowed father and was educated at a boarding school in Switzerland. When her father settled down, he chose the bustling mecca of New York City and brought 19-year-old Kitty to live with him in a comfortable Manhattan home with a housekeeper, cook, and driver.
In the first book, A Front Page Affair, Kitty secures her dream job as a reporter for the New York Sentinel although the Ladies’ Page isn’t quite what she had in mind. Assigned to cover a society picnic, her charm and comportment allow her to gather the details required. However, when a murder occurs at the event, Kitty decides she’s far more interested in ferreting out the truth behind the incident than reporting on who wore what and who was in attendance. Meanwhile, a shooting takes place at the home of J. P. Morgan, the Lusitania is torpedoed, and shocking revelations about her father surface, forcing Kitty to juggle work and home issues to interesting conclusions.
Murder Between the Lines is the follow-up book set shortly thereafter. In this caper, Kitty’s proper and staid editor of the Ladies’ Page, Miss Busby, assigns her to write a story about an esteemed girls’ boarding school, Westfield Hall. There she meets Elspeth Bright, a gifted student interested in science. Tragically, Elspeth dies over the school’s winter break, found frozen to death in Central Park. Because there is no indication of foul play, the girl’s known sleepwalking is determined to be the cause. Kitty doesn’t accept that for a second.
In her quest to discover the truth behind Elspeth’s death, Kitty rubs elbows with some of the movers and shakers of her time. She learns about the Naval Consulting Board and that Elspeth’s father, Dr. Bright, and Thomas Edison are on the Board. She interviews Alva Belmont, the face of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, and she educates herself about the National American Woman Suffrage Union, the Women’s Political Union, and the suffrage movement itself. Kitty attends a banquet featuring Margaret Sanger who discusses her Family Limitation program, an early push for birth control. Meanwhile, during a stop in New York City by recently-married President Wilson, Kitty snags the scoop as the only journalist in the room when he speaks to the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage about his views on its cause—leaving Kitty disappointed because he said it’s a states’ matter that isn’t as important as other issues.
And through the process of questions, answers, and deduction, the curious Kitty is able to connect all of that together, stop a plot against the life of the President, and unearth the cause of Elspeth’s death.
Vatsal, who earned a Ph.D. in film from Duke University, says her degree influenced the kind of writing she does in terms of subject matter: the 1910s and women’s roles at that time. Her focus was American silent cinema, and her fascination with the time period is the link from academia to mystery writing.
What makes this series so delightful is not only the incorporation of well-and little-known historical events and persons but also the Kitty Weeks character. This vital young woman embodies the promise of excitement in a new age of possibilities, and who can resist that? The sights, sounds, and events of 1915/1916 New York City and the world are experienced in real time through her eyes and through the main source of news of the day, newspapers.
Vatsal’s attention to the details of daily life bring alive the Manhattan of a century ago. She relies on primary sources and the actual words of historic figures. While the series unfolds Kitty’s coming of age, it also represents the coming of age of women in the United States as well as the coming of age of the country as it moves into war and a new position of world power.
As for the difficulties of carefully maintaining the time period as she writes, not just from the perspective of the historical events but also the voice, the feel, the manners, the social norms, Vatsal shared her secret: “I spend a lot of time reading period manuals, self-help books, etiquette guides and so on, so I feel pretty immersed in the period.”
It’s interesting that in the 1910s America was involved with the suffrage movement, and now, just over 100 years later, women are seen marching in the streets for many of their rights. In an e-interview, I asked Vatsal what that meant to her.“I think that Kitty’s experiences will resonate for readers because while much of it will seem different, in many ways things are the same… or they haven’t changed as much as one might expect given the 100 years that have passed,” she said.
An example of Vatsal’s attention to detail comes via another parallel: electric cars. I asked her if the electric cars are mentioned in the story because of this parallel today or in contrast to the standard cars of the day?
“A bit of both,” she said. “I think it’s interesting to realize that sometimes progress can also take steps back. Electric cars existed in the 1900s and were then slowly phased out as gas cars became more popular. Now, we’re trying to develop better electric cars.”
Kitty is strong-willed but not without a modicum of respect for the decorum expected of her. Still, she harbors a decided craving for adventure, which makes her fun and engaging. Even though her father employs a driver, Kitty’s pride and joy is driving her yellow Stutz Bearcat, the first high-end American sports car.
“Kitty is daring and fashionable in her own way, and a yellow Stutz Bearcat makes a statement about her personality,” Vatsal said. “It’s sporty, attractive and fun. Just the sort of car that single young woman might like to whiz around town in.”
Kitty Weeks is everything we need her to be as tour guide and reporter. There are no fancy forensics, no high-tech sleuthing. Kitty only has her powers of observation, listening, and deduction. She’s not afraid to ask questions and is less afraid of the answers.
Kitty’s goal is to be a full-fledged journalist, but the norms of the day prevent that. Newspapers hiring women relegated them to the typing pool, the secretarial pool, or the Ladies’/Society pages. They weren’t even allowed to step into the newsroom. What a contrast from today, but Kitty has a mind to change that.
It can be said about Kitty Weeks in modern day parlance “nevertheless, she persisted.” She is inquisitive, independent despite her financial dependence on her father, and intrepid without being thoroughly reckless, plus she’s as charming as any proper single woman in society should be. One can only imagine what she would be doing and writing about in 2017!
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North Carolina where she is the Managing Editor of a newspaper, a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association, and Publicity Director for WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund.