A Front Page Affair
The vintage style cover of A Front Page Affair features a young woman in a matching red jacket and skirt, staring into the distance in front a city skyline. The blurb from the publisher describes a heroine who finds herself “plunged into the midst of a wartime conspiracy that threatens to derail the United States’ attempt to remain neutral”. Right away, I pictured a determined young woman in her mid to late twenties, chasing doggedly after the story of her career, meeting and brushing aside obstacle after obstacle that are thrown in her way simply because she is a woman.
Well, that is not what I got. The book’s heroine, Capability “Kitty” Weeks, is only nineteen years old and works as an apprentice for Miss Busby, the editor of the Ladies’ Page section of the New York Sentinel. As the story opens, Kitty is sent to cover Mrs. Basshor’s Independence Day gala. But while Kitty and the other guests are enjoying the fireworks, the party takes a ghastly turn when one of its guests, businessman Hunter Cole, is murdered and found dead in the stables. Because the newsroom of The Sentinel happens to be a bit short-handed at the moment, and because Kitty had already made contact with several of the guests at the gala, Kitty is sent to interview potential witnesses to the murder. Kitty, understandably, is excited at the prospect of working on a real story for a change. Then she uncovers some interesting information regarding the perpetrator even as the police arrest a stable boy for the murder. When the head of the newsroom refuses to allow Kitty to have any further involvement in the story – she is only, after all, a woman – Kitty may have to take matters into her own hands if she wants to solve a murder and establish a career as a real journalist.
Right off the bat, potential readers should know that this is a cozy mystery starring a very naïve and innocent heroine. Kitty’s relative youth often makes this book read like something written for a much younger audience so those looking for a gritty suspense story or a strong-willed and mature heroine should stay clear of this novel.
Once I adjusted my expectations, however, the tale moved along at a brisk pace and I found much to like. The author clearly did her research and her writing perfectly captures the hustle and bustle of 1915 Manhattan. I especially liked how she uses real life events and historical figures to convey the social mores and attitudes of the time, creating vivid images of places such as the “hen coop”(typists pool) of The Sentinel and the Colony Club, the first women-only social club in New York. The first part of the book is peppered with passages from The American Girl, a book written by real-life philanthropist Anne Morgan and society’s attitude towards women is effectively revealed through Kitty’s interview with her. Likewise, the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by a German B-boat is also instrumental in showing how the possibility of war looms over people’s heads even though the United States has thus far been able to stay out of the fray.
While the author did a good job with the historical details, she did not do as good of a job balancing the storyline. Besides solving a murder Kitty also has to contend with sexism at the workplace, trying to juggle work and her responsibilities to her father, and assisting the Treasury Department with an investigation into her father’s possibly illegal business dealings. None of these plot elements are executed particularly well and the result is a book that meanders a bit in the later chapters. I also had a tough time relating to Kitty, whose immaturity is often evident in the way she handles some of these issues. For instance, the author would have us believe that Kitty is serious about pursuing a career in journalism, but she only works 3 hours a day and refuses to stay late after work when her boss unexpectedly takes ill. I realize that the author is trying to make a point that many women of that era are forced to make their domestic responsibilities a priority over their personal aspirations. But the reason given in this instance was too flimsy for it to work and makes Kitty’s subsequent reaction – when she finds out that the assignment has been given to someone else – a bit whiney. As a result, Kitty comes across more like an entitled young girl who wants to go into journalism because it is cool to do so instead of a dedicated professional.
Other than Kitty, most of the secondary characters in the book are played for comedic effect. For those looking for a straight mystery with believable characters, this book is not for you; but for those looking for a light read with doses of period flavor, it may be worth checking out. My understanding is that this is the first book in a planned mystery series; and I, for one, am interested in seeing where the years are going to take Kitty. She may be immature now, but is it part of the author’s plan to make her grow as a character in subsequent books? With the war looming on the horizon for the United States, how is that going to change Kitty’s life and the lives of those around her? I guess we will just have to wait and see.
To me, reading A Front Page Affair is a lot like watching one of those screwball comedies of the 1930’s. The acting is always over the top and the characters are mostly stereotypes, but it’s nonetheless amusing if you don’t take it too seriously.