Because the police believe a passing tramp killed Letitia, her father hires a private investigator named Harold Hopkins Milgrim, Esq. Milgrim very nearly steals the show: He’s a charming scion of a wealthy New Haven family, an admirer of Thomas Jefferson and Edgar Allan Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin, a bit disheveled and notoriously unpunctual. Is he, in fact, behind his Peter Wimsey-style whimsy, actually a brilliant sleuth? Very modern, he employs a young Irish girl named Maud Mullen as his secretary and office manager. As Milgrim tells Cooper, who is soon to become his “assistant”:
“So long as they are not wedded to a voluminosity of skirts, I am convinced that employing women as secretaries is intensely logical. Women are born to nurture, to take care of things, to spread an atmosphere of sweetness and light. I think no one can dispute that — and where are those qualities more welcome than in an office like mine? But women are also, as any rational man cannot help but be aware, highly intelligent beings whose brilliance is usually squandered on tending to the needs of home and children.”
When Cooper responds that his cousin Sarah manages his father’s general store and is very content doing so, Milgrim replies: “Good for Cousin Sarah! So many wives and mothers in this world, but so few contented and efficient managers of general stores.”
Gradually, it grows clear that “The Writing Master” isn’t just a mystery or a romance; it’s a study of family unhappiness, mental illness and, above all, the condition of women in mid-19th-century America. For all the lightness of tone, it is filled with considerable darkness, and there is no assurance that all will end happily. But the book is chockablock with fascinating characters, especially the women, ranging from the lovely Lily to the winsome and shrewd Miss Mullen to the tough-minded Tamsin to the mysterious Elena to Cooper’s own mother.
But who murdered Letitia Trout, and why? And what will happen to Lily and Baby Prudence? Will the writing master find happiness?
Those are just the sort of questions one asks of a good summer book. But there are, naturally, surprises in store, and Florey’s more somber concerns are never far out of mind, even as the narrative loops and plot swirls of “The Writing Master” are finally knotted together.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.