“The Whispering Women” by Trish MacEnulty

The Whispering Women (Prism Light Press, 2022) by Trish MacEnulty features two lively female investigators who represent distinct social classes. Richly drawn characters, the vibrant historical setting, and a suspenseful mystery create strong currents that pull readers into this delightful novel. But it’s the women’s issues—as relevant today as they were in the early 1900s—that will linger long after the last page.

As the novel opens in 1913 New York City, Louisa Delafield is terrified when she learns her financial position is even worse than she knew. Her father’s “ill-conceived investments and his ignoble death” were depressing enough, but now her lawyer says her small annuity is ending. Worse yet, he says she must pay taxes to keep the home where she and her mother live. Her job writing a society column for the New York Ledger doesn’t pay enough to manage more than bare necessities. But Louisa straightens her spine, tries to “extinguish her fear . . . and figure out how to keep a roof over her head.” More than that, she is determined to reclaim the family’s place in society.

Louisa finds out that crime pays—well, at least crime reporting pays better than society reporting. When a police matron is killed in a bombing, Louisa decides to cover more exciting—and she hopes better-paying—news than the latest fashions worn by the rich and famous. To confront her boss, she also has to fight against the values she’d been raised with: “Women of the upper class didn’t even acknowledge money.” Not to mention, the upper class she longs to rejoin certainly doesn’t approve of muckraking journalism.

One of the novel’s strengths is the use of chapters in alternating voices. MacEnulty gives us not only the voice of Louisa Delafield, but also that of Ellen Malloy, a lady’s maid serving one of Louisa’s friends. Ellen’s thoughts reveal a more honest assessment of the upper class than typically shown in movies and books such as Downtown Abbey:

Ellen had discovered that the city’s denizens lived in an endless blitz of revelry and noise. Not the servants like her and the others, of course. They rose at dawn to do a thousand little chores and could be beckoned at a second’s notice. As a lady’s maid, she often stayed up until the wee hours when the family returned because her poor unfortunate mistress couldn’t undress herself. She wondered how the ruling class had ever garnered so much wealth when they seemed unable to perform the most mundane tasks.

What a deliciously snarky analysis of the wealthy!

The mystery at the heart of the novel centers on the death of Ellen’s friend and fellow servant during an abortion. Present at her death, Ellen barely escapes from a white slavery ring, but she is still not safe. There are those who will stop at nothing to ensure her silence. Though she goes into hiding, she is still determined to avenge her friend’s death. For very different reasons, Louisa is also determined to find the doctor who performed the abortion. She is certain he is connected to the bombing death of the police matron. The matron died while trying to track down the abortionist—and Louisa is relentless in pursuing this story for her newspaper. So through this dangerous shared goal, Ellen and Louisa become unlikely allies. As in any good mystery, it is difficult to know who to trust. Anyone could turn out to be an enemy. Even the most respectable people. Even the closest of friends.

A joy of reading this novel is being present with Louisa and Ellen at key moments in history. One is the unveiling of the Grand Central Terminal, “as stunning a marvel as had ever been built in New York City.” Such an event warranted a party with the Vanderbilts and champagne and women decked out in diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires. Another important historical event is the women’s march on Washington, D.C., which Ellen attends. When men present in the crowd turn violent, Ellen is fearful, but her friend Hester says they must carry on and make a difference: “For sixty years we’ve been fighting. No one gives up power without a fight.” All the women want, Ellen thinks, is “respect, dignity, and even equality.” Yet she acknowledges that men will not give up the money and power easily.

MacEnulty’s character descriptions shine with particularly apt details, such as a woman’s face that reminds Louisa “of a friendly French bulldog she’d had as a child.” Or a man who had “a clean-shaven face with a crease in the middle of his forehead,” and another with “A crisp mustache [that] adorned his upper lip like two slender wings.” A woman’s smile is noted this way: “Her canine teeth pointed inward and made her appear slightly wolf-like.” Details like these make the characters come alive.

Not only is reading The Whispering Women a pleasure, here’s more good news: the novel is billed as the first Delafield and Malloy investigations book. Readers can look forward to the next installment, The Burning Bride, which will be released at the end of October 2022.

Trish MacEnulty has a doctorate from the Creative Writing Program at the Florida State University. She has published two memoirs, several novels, and a short story collection. She taught creative writing and film studies as a full professor at the university level before retiring from full time teaching in 2021. MacEnulty is also a former addict, who has facilitated writing programs in jails, prison, juvenile facilities, and drug treatment centers.

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