In this third volume of a mystery series, Eleanor and President Franklin D. Roosevelt vacation at a therapeutic retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia.
In Durham and Smith’s (The President’s Birthday Ball Affair, 2018, etc.) latest installment, it is July 1935. A black woman named Nell Gaines is locked up in Milledgeville’s state prison farm for having attacked her abusive husband with a knife. Her fate is about to change because Wilton Biggs, a prominent white citizen of Greenville, Georgia, needs a cook. In exchange for an envelope of cash, the warden grants Nell parole and hands her over to Biggs. Cooking is not the only thing Biggs wants from Nell. Months later, disaster strikes when Biggs’ 17-year-old son, Robert, finds his father in bed with Nell. Enraged, Robert grabs a machete and swings wildly. Biggs is killed; Robert runs away; and Nell is arrested and convicted of murder. She is sentenced to death. Enter Mrs. Roosevelt. In May 1936, the Roosevelts, accompanied by the president’s private secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, arrive at the “Little White House” in Warm Springs. The first lady reads about Nell’s plight in the local paper and decides she must visit the prison herself and see whether the convict has been treated fairly. Meanwhile, aggressive Hollywood reporter Joan Roswell coincidentally finds herself visiting Warm Springs at the invitation of young movie star Ida Lupino. The series-defining Hollywood-Washington connection is now established. Add in Missy’s assistant Grace Tully and handsome FBI agent Corey Wainwright and the whole gang is back together, taking readers on another vivid and engaging visit to the 1930s, this time focusing on the Jim Crow South. Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell provides the episode’s celebrity cameo appearance. Although readers know the identity of the murderer, the race to save Nell from the electric chair supplies enough tension to propel the fast-paced narrative forward. Despite the underlying seriousness in theme, the breezy prose is filled with humorous interludes, and the portrait of an indefatigable and earnest Mrs. Roosevelt is delightful.
An enjoyable ensemble cast skillfully beefs up an uncomplicated crime plot; a quick, fun read with unsavory secondary characters and salient historical tidbits.