Louisa and the Missing Heiress is the first of a new mystery series by Anna Maclean starring the intrepid Louisa May Alcott as the protagonist.
It takes place in 1884, when Louisa was but 22 and Little Women but a nub of an idea in her oh-so-fertile imagination. Her writing is full of wild characters and blood-and-thunder tales, which the real Louisa published under a pseudonym and Maclean uses to solid effect in this mystery tale. Louisa's best friend (in this book) is Sylvia. Another bosom buddy is Dottie, recently married and home from a yearlong honeymoon trip to Europe. But Dot is distracted and absent from two scheduled get-togethers. Before Louisa and Sylvia can confront her about her odd behavior, her body (and that of her doggie companion) are found dead, floating at the landing near the Customs House – a most unsavory location.
The rough detective Constable Cobban of the Boston Watch and Police, dressed in “a loud plaid suit and [with] a leather badge on his chest...” is announced at Dottie's home, where Louisa and Sylvia await the absent heiress. When he informs Dot's husband and her friends of the finding of the body and implies that it may have been a suicide, Louisa is immediately angered and ready to fight for her late friend's reputation.
The story unfolds from that announcement, with Louisa searching out clues, dragging the reluctant Sylvia along and struggling to find answers to the puzzles that Dot's death presents. Why was Dot in that part of town? Why was her dog killed, too? Why was Dot behaving so strangely in the days before her unfortunate demise? What did her husband, mother and brother know about her last days?
Maclean does a great job of getting the sense and feel of the times. Miss Alcott's family, her writing efforts at that time, and the vocabulary and dress fit what we know about Boston and the Alcotts before the Civil War. The characters are defined not only by name but by mannerisms, style of clothing and habits. This presents them to us as fully fleshed people with behaviors (and motives!) that set them apart from one another.
Having been a fan of Alcott's since my own girlhood, and having read her pseudonymous books as well as biographical and autobiographical works, I found myself forgetting that this was fiction and getting into the story, trying to second-guess the author as to how she would wrap up the case. Maclean keeps the reader in suspense, providing much intrigue and a few subplots to keep our minds distracted from the whodunit part of the story.
One of the benchmarks for me in reading the first book in a new series is whether or not I want to continue reading others as they are published. With Anne Maclean's Louisa May Alcott mysteries, I find myself checking on the publication date (October 2011!!) of the next book in the series, Louisa and the Country Bachelor, and looking forward to the evolution of this fictional side of Alcott's character.