Fallen Women is Sandra's latest and it is a bit different from her usual novels. I like it when an author stretches their writing skills and I feel Sandra did just that with this novel about a murder, sisters, and Denver in 1885.
Beret Odmundsen lives in New York City, a wealthy young woman who runs a mission for women who have fallen on hard times. Her sister, Lillie, has traveled to Denver to live with their aunt and uncle---two of the new rich aristocracy that is flooding Denver in 1885. Beret and Lillie have had a falling out, and Beret assumes Lillie is safe and living with their relatives until she discovers a telegram. That telegram devastates Beret; Lillie has died suddenly. Not until Beret reads a gossipy story in the local newspaper does she realize her sister was murdered.
Beret immediately travels to Denver to stay with her aunt and uncle, and to unravel the mystery of her sister's death. She joins Detective Mick McCauley in the investigation and uncovers a lot of unanswered questions about her sister's life and death. Who would stab her sister 8 times with sewing scissors? And why was she in a brothel?
Beret is the main character in this novel, and she is smart, brave, and prepared to go the distance to find her sister's killer. She is not quite equipped to understand just how little she really knew her sister. That is part of the journey of this novel, a lot like the journey of grief: denial, anger, then acceptance.
Beret's relationship with Detective McCauley slowly unfolds as the investigations takes twists and turns. Both have pasts that are revealed little by little, as they learn to trust each other and start to have feelings for each other. Is there a future between them?
The cast of characters is part of what makes this novel a well-rounded story. Besides Beret and McCauley, there's her Aunt Varina and Uncle, Judge Stanton. He's in the running for a senate seat, and having a niece who was found murdered in a brothel could jeopardize his next career and standing in the community. Varina's household is run by William, who knows more than Beret realizes. And Jonas, the very odd coach driver taken in by Varina. He is always hanging around, watching the house, watching Beret. Is he a good guy or someone to be wary of at all times? And Edward Staarman is a link to the past that forces Beret to face some unwanted truths about herself and her sister.
Sandra Dallas wrote a novel about a mysterious death, but it really much more than than. It is about the relationship between sisters, and the grief that engulfs a sister when the other is suddenly gone. It is the realization that what you thought you knew may not be the actual truth. How much do we really see in a person? The ending may surprise some readers; if you follow Beret's uneasiness, you may figure out the killer before it is revealed--or maybe not.
Historically, I loved the descriptions of Denver on the cusp of huge growth from a little mining town to a large city with all the "modern" conveniences of 1885. The sights, sounds, smells, and hierarchy of society all add to the story and make this an enjoyable novel. Fans of Sandra Dallas will love it, and those who haven't read her will be introduced to a favorite author of mine. This novel is fiction, but readers of historical mysteries will also enjoy it.
Rating: 8/10 for historical accuracy, a strong female lead, and an intriguing look at the life of prostitutes in 1885.
Available in October in hardcover and e-book.