A much younger version of Edna Ferber, who already showed her sleuthing chops as a 70-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner (Lone Star, 2009, etc.), solves what’s presumably her first case—with a little help from the other biggest celebrity to hail from Appleton, Wis.
In 1904, nobody in her hometown knows that 19-year-old Edna Ferber will grow up to be a playwright and novelist to reckon with. So although Sam Ryan, aging publisher of the Appleton Crescent, pays Edna $3 a week to retail the more genteel items of society gossip, he’s inclined to take the side of her nemesis, bigoted new city editor Matthias Boon, who wants to grab Edna’s story when she lands smack in the middle of a murder. The victim is schoolgirl Frana Lempke, 17, whose rumored liaison with an unnamed older man proved that she was no better than she should be and probably deserved to get strangled, even if nobody can figure out how she sneaked out of her closely watched school. As it happens, her death coincides with the visit of the celebrated Harry Houdini, who was born in Hungary but claims Appleton as his hometown. “All Jews are escape artists,” Edna’s blind father tells her, and indeed Frana and Edna’s attempts to escape Appleton’s stifling conventionality are worthy of Houdini. But because Ifkovic is determined to introduce readers to every citizen of the town, you don’t get much chance to get close to any of the suspects, and the workmanlike whodunit serves mainly as a charming excuse to introduce Houdini to Ferber.
The biggest mystery, in fact, is what chapter in Ferber’s eventful life is likely to furnish the basis for the next installment in this offbeat series.