“A Deadly Affection” by Cuyler Overholt

When I was asked to review the book, “Deadly Affection” by Cuyler Overholt, I was very skeptical, given the subject matter, that I would enjoy reading it.  Contrary to that view, I really liked this book and the author’s style of writing.  This is a debut novel and I’m sure that the author is destined to write more wonderful books.

The story takes place in New York in 1907.   At that time women were just being allowed to pursue a path in the medical field.  Dr. Genevieve Summerford has gone one step further and has immersed herself in the field of psychiatric medicine.  Studies were just beginning to be done by the imminent psychologists of the day and their findings were suspect to the medical community.  Dr. Summerford was interested in trying to help women who were grieving a loss and had subsequently unexplained physical complaints.  These women were depressed and some were suicidal.  One in particular was a little mouse of a woman whose demeanor was shy and undemanding.  After the first session with these women, one is accused of murdering a doctor whom she had told Dr. Summerford had attended the birth of her out-of-wedlock child and had taken the infant away.  She was determined to find the child.  What follows is a very intriguing and suspenseful story involving the doctor, her family, the elite of the city, and the police.  I was very engaged in this novel and would highly recommend it.  I am sure that I will be reading more of the offerings of Cuyler Overholt.

I received a complimentary print copy of this book from Sourcebooks in return for my honest review.

I also requested an author guest post which I am including in this review.  My question was “How did you capture the tone of  early 20th-century New York City?  Here is Cuyler Overholt’s response:

 

“The setting of a historical mystery is almost a character in its own right, and I wanted to draw that character as faithfully as possible when I set out to write “A Deadly Affection”, which takes place in New York City in the year 1907. My first impressions of that place and time came from the stories of my grandmother, who was born in New York in 1900 and lived for almost all of her 101 years on the Upper East Side. Gran loved to talk, and I loved to listen, especially when she talked about her childhood.

I was fascinated by her tales of being raised by nursemaids and governesses in a household that ran with clockwork efficiency, where children were expected to be seen and not heard. It was certainly very different from the way I was raised. Each morning, she and her siblings waited quietly at the bottom of the stairs for their mother to come down, and then followed her into the dining room for breakfast. The next time the children saw their mother was at their suppertime, when she’d read to them for exactly one hour before she went out for the evening. What they ate for supper could be predicted by the day of the week: leg of lamb on Tuesday, smelts on Friday, standing rib roast on Sunday, every week of the year without exception, with no concern for childish preferences.

Planning ahead was important. Taking the notion to new heights, my grandmother’s mother always brought a favorite white dress with her when she travelled, so that if she happened to die while she was away from home she could be properly laid to rest. Current guidelines concerning health and hygiene were also carefully followed. At their summer house in Sterlington, NY, a motorcar arrived twice a week to take my grandmother, her sister and their governess on a 3 hour drive through the countryside, during which hardly a word would be spoken. When I asked my grandmother what the purpose was, she told me that she didn’t really know, that it was just supposed to be good for her health and that it never would have occurred to her to question it.

These stories, along with my later research, illustrated the rather rigid routines and social structures of the day, and helped me understand how much middle and upper class women of the time must have had to struggle to overcome their traditional roles. But I saw an appealing side to this period as well, that had to do with people’s certainty about things, and their optimism about the future. This was a time, after all, when life-changing inventions were appearing on practically a daily basis: things like automobiles and electricity, x-rays and anti-toxins. Because of this, people were beginning to believe they could conquer almost any challenge that came their way—from household germs, to measuring the speed of light—if they just approached it with the right, scientific rigor. I found this optimism very refreshing. Teddy Roosevelt, who was President at the time, exemplified the attitude of the day when he declared, “Believe you can, and you’re halfway there!”

In writing A Deadly Affection I tried to capture both sides of the picture—the traditional, and the forces of change that were gradually transforming the country. I also sought to contrast the life of the rich and powerful with the struggles of the hundreds of thousands of working poor who lived in New York City at this time. I spent hours immersed in newspapers articles and novels and memoirs from the period, gleaning patterns of speech and cultural biases and other nuances that might help make my fiction as “true” as possible.  Inevitably, in doing so, I fell a little in love with the era. Fortunately for me A Deadly Affection is the first in a series, because I can’t wait to spend more time there in the future!”

 

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