The Gilded Age began in the United States in the 1870s and ended shortly after the turn of the century. Exact dates are a subject of debate, but to encapsulate the glittering social life of the era, we could begin with American heiress Jenny Jerome’s marriage to Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874 and end with the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912. Among the many passengers who perished were a number of wealthy and socially prominent Americans, including John Jacob Astor IV. In France this period is known as the Belle Époque and in Great Britain as the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, but nothing quite captures the literary imagination like the extraordinary excesses and flamboyant personalities of the men and especially the women who defined and dominated New York City society during these years.
The Gilded Age was a time of unrestricted wealth and unrelieved poverty, of rapid social change, political upheaval, and scientific and technological achievements that transformed the way Americans lived. When I wrote the first of my Gilded Age Mysteries, Let the Dead Keep Their Secrets (2017), I chose to open the story in March of 1888, during what became known as The Great Blizzard or The Great White Hurricane. What better place to conceal the body of a murder victim than beneath snowdrifts that paralyzed the East Coast, shut down New York City for days, and claimed 400 lives, 200 of them in New York City alone? It wasn’t just the blizzard that drew me to that year; it was also a fascination with a time and a place so different from our own, yet with so many similarities. One of the joys of writing about the past is discovering historical parallels with our own age when at first glance it may seem there aren’t any. And, of course, recreating that past makes for spellbinding descriptions that both entertain and instruct. Here are some of my favorites of the genre, arranged in order of the year they depict. Enjoy!
Time and Again, by Jack Finney
Set in 1882. In this time travel classic, Si Morley, a twenty-eight-year-old graphic artist, is trained by the U.S. government to transport himself into the past by a process of intensive historical education and self-hypnosis. His personal mission is to uncover the reason behind a suicide that has bedeviled his present-day girlfriend’s family for more than eighty years. To do this he has to station himself in New York City’s Main Post Office and wait and watch for a letter to be mailed. The mystery is intriguing and the romantic development heart-wrenching, but for me the book is all about the dozens of Gilded Age illustrations and the author’s captivating descriptions of a gas lit, cobblestoned New York City without automobiles or skyscrapers. Finney, who also wrote The Body Snatchers (1954), is a master at drawing the reader into a bygone time and place. A friend of mine who is both a native New Yorker and devotee of the book recommends reading and rereading it with city map in hand. It’s pure descriptive nostalgia.
The Gilded Hour, by Sara Donati
Set in 1883. Anna and Sophie Savard are doctors practicing in an era when women in medicine were both a rarity and often a subject of ridicule. Not surprisingly, their separate practices—Anna is a surgeon, mixed-race Sophie an obstetrician—expose them and the reader to a broad spectrum of the social ills that plagued the lives of rich and poor women alike in an age of Victorian prudery and relentless opposition to contraception and abortion. The crime thread is a serial killer who lures desperate pregnant women into submitting to procedures that end in death. Well researched and meticulously detailed, the author, who also wrote the Wilderness series, creates an extensive cast of characters whose private and professional lives intersect against a background of social injustices that range from orphaned children living in the streets to the plight of wretchedly poor immigrants in filthy, overcrowded tenements.
The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore
Set in 1888. Essentially the story of how electricity changed our lives through the invention of a dependable and technologically safe lightbulb, it is also the recreation of a famous legal battle between George Westinghouse and Thomas Alva Edison, as well as the tale of Paul Cravath, the young lawyer who represented Westinghouse. What makes this novel so fascinating and impossible to put down is that all of the major characters are real people we thought we knew from our history books, including the reclusive inventor Nikola Tesla and the financier J.P. Morgan. The science is complex enough to challenge the average reader and the behind-the-scene machinations that drive the plot are both complicated and chillingly duplicitous. A nice touch is the addition of modern quotations at the beginning of each chapter, particularly those from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
Murder at the Breakers, by Alyssa Maxwell
Set in 1895. In this first novel of the author’s Gilded Newport Mysteries, we enter the fabulous summer retreats of Newport, Rhode Island, where the wealthiest families of the Gilded Age, Vanderbilts and Astors among them, have built enormous mansions euphemistically called “cottages.” Each of Maxwell’s subsequent mysteries in this series takes place at another of the cottages, and each provides a glimpse of the private lives of the very wealthy, contrasted to the daily struggles of Emma Cross, a distant and financially insecure Vanderbilt cousin who coincidentally carves out a career for herself as a society reporter and amateur detective after her half-brother, Brady, is suspected of murder. Light-hearted and peopled by quirky Newport locals as well as real historical figures, independent-minded Emma carries the action of this cozy mystery series and dips a toe into the waters of romance as well.
The Alienist, by Caleb Carr
Set in 1896. Another classic of modern writing set in the Gilded Age, author Carr explores the new world of psychology, and especially psychological profiling, as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler delves into the mind of a serial killer who sexually mutilates his victims. The trio of alienist/psychiatrist Kreizler, journalist John Moore, and secretary Sara Howard work with Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to uncover corruption in the police department and capture the killer who is savaging young male prostitutes, most of whom are impoverished immigrants. As murder follows murder, the team put together by Roosevelt expands to include NYC Detectives Marcus and Lucius Isaacson. The new sciences of fingerprinting and handwriting analysis are combined with Kreizler’s psychological research into the criminal mind to create a portrait of the unknown assassin. The reader is drawn into the frustrating complexity of criminal investigation before DNA and modern technologies were even dreamed of, and the descriptive details of time and setting are captivating and convincing. The Alienist was made into a 2018 ten episode TV series, which begs for comparison with the book.
Murder on Astor Place, by Victoria Thompson
Set in 1896. Sarah Brandt is a widowed midwife who abandoned the life of a privileged member of New York City’s social elite to marry a doctor. In this first entry of the Gaslight Mystery series, Sarah must solve the mystery of the death of a pregnant teenager whose older sister she once knew. In the process she becomes involved with NYPD Sergeant Frank Malloy, a widowed Irishman who would definitely not please her estranged family. If you like cozy historical mysteries spun with strong characters who evolve with each subsequent book, this long-running series is your cup of tea. Best to read in order, as even the minor continuing characters develop their own compelling storylines.