Devil by the Tail by Jeanne Matthews
Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery set in 1867 Chicago with a plucky heroine navigating the corrupt and seamy city with the assistance of a former rebel soldier.
Movie rating: PG-13
Publisher: D. X. Varos, Ltd.
Series: Garnick & Paschal Mystery
ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
From the publisher: Quinn Sinclair, who uses the name Mrs. Paschal professionally, and her wryly observant partner Garnick get two cases on the same day – one to help a man prove he didn’t kill his wife, another to help a lawyer find reasonable doubt that his client killed her ex-lover’s new bride. As the detectives dig deeper, they unearth facts that tie the cases together in disturbing ways.
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Jeanne Matthews has done a great job of starting the action of Devil by the Tail in medias res—I felt sure there was an earlier installment, but, no, there is simply a lot of backstory that is effectively ladled in so that you want to know more. Her depiction of Chicago in 1867 evokes a city bursting with postwar growth and riddled with corruption.
Only those with nothing to lose can afford to pull the Devil by the tail.Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail
This mystery drags her heroine, Quinn Sinclair AKA Mrs. Paschal, through a couple of whorehouses, which is problematic for a woman who wishes to stay respectable. However, Quinn comes to realize that she can’t be as judgmental as she had been in the past when she realizes how little stands between any given woman and prostitution in a world that doesn’t allow for women to make a living in very many ways.
Detective Paschal, self-styled heroine and daring non-conformist, afraid to lose her respectable, cozy niche at the boardinghouse breakfast table, afraid of the opinion of a bunch of prissy old hens.Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail
The themes of men and women and how they relate is interwoven through the story, as are the twin mysteries of the man claiming to be falsely accused of murdering his wife and the woman who is on trial for an arson that killed the bride of the man who jilted her as well as the bride’s father.
Quinn’s mind stretched in equipoise like a clothesline hung with contrary reasons and contrary feelings, not to mention a load of dirty linen.Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail
The misogyny of the period (which can still be seen today) is on full display, as is the tendency of people to judge on the superficial. Clothing, then as now, is a huge signifier of class, wealth, and respectability, and Matthews takes care to let us know what the ladies are wearing as well as how the dress is coded in that period.
Tightly corseted in a low-cut canary yellow dress, she resembled a belted balloon, the upper bulge near to bursting.Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail
Euripedes’s version of Medea is used to great effect to frame the mystery and its various suspects. In case you don’t remember the play (I was grateful for the reminder within the novel), Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts) dumps Medea, who has killed her brother for him, in order to wed another, and Medea takes her revenge upon the bride. As Matthews deftly insinuates, Jason is as much at fault as Medea, but society immediately makes Medea the sole problem, a horrifying corruption of womanhood.
Men could walk unmolested wherever they chose while women had to skitter about like prey.Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail
In this mystery, Medea is introduced by a reporter who has no regard for truth, only for the sales of the newspaper, and he threads Medea into his descriptions of the crime, knowing that the play had toured in Chicago relatively recently. Women latch onto this myth as much as the men, often becoming quite ugly about other women in the process.
The leech showed up in Rock Island penniless, a runaway from some little prairie town, all rags and fleas.Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail
Then there’s the recent Civil War, which is also handled cleverly. Garnick, the former rebel, had been a POW in Camp Douglas, a hellhole which is only lightly discussed, although the Confederate dead play a role in the story. Garnick has disavowed the Cause, wishing he’d never put on the uniform, which mitigates any issues a reader might have about a sympathetic Johnny Reb. Hopefully this history will be explored more in future installments.
No way to justify going to war to keep people in chains. At first I had some notion of loyalty to my neck of the woods, allegiance to kith and kin like the states rights firebrands preached.Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail
Another theme from the time that Matthews works into the story is that of the prejudice against the Irish. Quinn is often having to sidestep her Irish roots, hearing people disparage the Irish regularly. Her heritage is also at the root of her dispute with her former mother-in-law, who can’t stand to let Quinn inherit from her dead son.
You can wall people in, but I learned you can also wall them out.Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail
The characters are well-formed, the themes interesting, and the mystery absorbing. There’s a little bit of a let-down in that not all of the people we find out are engaged in nefarious dealings are served justice, but, of course, that can be one of the downsides of historical fiction: the constraints of the facts (unless, of course, you’re Quentin Tarantino). I’m really looking forward to the next installment of this well-constructed mystery series.