Maids of Misfortune
by M. Louisa Locke

CreateSpace, 2009. ISBN 978-1-449-92503-1.
Reviewed by Penny Leisch
Posted on 03/22/2010

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Mystery

Annie Fuller, M. Louisa Locke's main character in Maids of Misfortune, is a spunky young San Francisco widow, who secretly supplements her income as a clairvoyant. As Madam Sybil, Annie, is one of San Francisco's most exclusive clairvoyants. When a client dies and Annie believes he's been murdered, keeping her role as Madam Sybil a secret becomes increasingly complicated, especially because Matthew Voss's family will be destitute and Annie will lose her home if she doesn't solve the murder. She can't just walk away.

At twenty-six, Annie is a widow without family to protect her. Since her husband squandered his money and her inheritance before he committed suicide five years earlier, the San Francisco home she inherited from her aunt and converted to a boarding house is the only thing that saved her from being forever dependent on her dead husband's family, who blamed her for his suicide. Annie inherited the house after she settled her late husband's debts. However, one of her husband's creditors believes he can intimidate her and rob her of a successful business, as well as her independence.

If all of this isn't strange enough, Annie does the unthinkable for a woman in 1879. She decides to go undercover, as a maid named Lizzie, and find out what happened. In the process, she finds herself falling in love with her dead client's attorney, Nate Dawson. As Annie and Nate chase criminals, Nate finds himself strongly attracted to Annie and thoroughly confused by her intelligence, independence, and sometimes-unladylike behavior. He soon learns that Annie is also versed in finance and the stock market, thanks to her father, and that she knows a great deal about her client's financial affairs.

Nate grows increasingly worried as it becomes obvious that Annie is right about the murder. His concern heightens when two fishermen discover the previous maid's body, and Lizzie refuses to leave her undercover job as the dead maid's replacement. Unfortunately, while Nate's tracking down the final piece of the puzzle, the real killer grabs Annie, in her Lizzie persona, and holds her hostage at knifepoint. The only people near enough to help Lizzie are her employer, who is the widow of Madam Sybil's client, Matthew Voss, and Matthew's elderly sister. Can three upper-class Victorian ladies outwit an armed assailant? They don't even do their own hair!

Annie is a character with depth and personality. She's also a woman faced with huge challenges and limited solutions for a "proper lady" in 1879. In real life, the Annies of the world are the survivors. Locke shows great finesse in character development and provides supporting characters that are diverse and entertaining.

From beautiful Victorian houses to horses, carriages, manners, dress, lifestyles, fog, and gas-lamps, the setting is rich with authenticity. The author's research is thorough, and her descriptions contain details that are interesting and satisfying to readers who love this era. Locke's mysteries should develop a loyal audience quickly. This novel incubated for almost thirty years during the author's teaching career. Let's hope that it won't be thirty years before the next one.

M. Louisa Locke grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She had two goals: teach history and write novels. Locke moved to California in the seventies and graduated from the University of California, San Diego. An early love of Georgette Heyer and Mary Stuart books, combined with a history degree and a later appreciation for the writings of Doris Lessing and Virginia Woolf, led to the conception of Maids of Misfortune in 1979. The author carefully cultivated the manuscript for almost thirty years, while career and family took center stage. Dr. Locke is now semi-retired from teaching and actively pursuing her goal to write novels. Visit her website.

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