Murder at Ochre Court by Alyssa Maxwell – Review

I received a free copy of this book from Kensington Books in exchange for my honest review.

To begin, the cover of this novel is stunning. A French-chateau style home (likely Ochre Court itself) graces the cover with a romantic gated entryway and beautiful, dark romantic colours. I admit, the cover attracted me to the story at least as much as the book description itself.

The novel begins with a conversation about marriage and money with none other than Nellie Bly. This beginning is an ambitious one, considering her historical importance. The interaction is done well, but we are left wondering why this conversation really matters. At the end of the 19th century, many if not most women were openly encouraged to try to marry at least slightly above their own circumstances in order to improve their own and their family’s social standing. But we never encounter Bly again. This ends up coming across as lazy writing… Why I is our protagonist doing/saying/thinking this? Because Nellie Bly said so. So? Because she’s Nellie Bly! Instead of creating and developing a trustworthy and capable character whose word we can take because of trouble the author took to establish her as credible, the author fictitiously uses a fairly well-known historical person, leaving the reader to rely on biographical knowledge acquired prior to reading this book (or, for those who would be unfamiliar with Bly, Wikipedia). Bly doesn’t come back into the picture at all during this story except in a sort of “What Would Nellie Do?” manner, making their first and only meeting appear somewhat contrived and gratuitous. What we are left with at the beginning of the story is a woman sitting in a train car with a complete stranger, who offers advice that we must then subsequently read about for the rest of the novel.

I was rather annoyed by the awkward juxtaposition of phrasing. Maxwell seems unable to decide whether she wishes for her writing to mimic the English of the period or whether she wishes to use a contemporary style. Her occasional incorrect usage of vocabulary is frustrating. Unless done very deliberately for effect (which is obviously not the case here), consistency is key. I would highly recommend some editing simply to establish that consistency.

Our protagonist, Emmaline “Emma” Cross, is a distant relation of the Vanderbilt family, which, to be frank, it also rather lazy writing. By making Emma a relation, the reader is expected to infer a certain degree of wealth (even if it is minor, dwindling, or relatively newly squandered), social capital and connections, and status that one would expect of anyone connected to the Vanderbilt dynasty. Yet by making her such a distant relation (“[t]he Vanderbilts were my third cousins – or was it fourth- on my father’s side”), the author can capitalize on the Vanderbilt splendour without having to do more than cursory research on the family. The Vanderbilt family is so iconic that much of Emma’s family history requires no explanation or description – so, very little work from the writer. Emma Cross is important enough to be granted access to society, but not so important that real-life contradicts the author’s story. I would expect for an author who can concoct a murder-mystery to be capable of providing a superior backstory than what was provided for Emma Cross.

Our players are rather one-dimensional. They do not exhibit humour (we hear how Robbie can make Emma laugh all the time, but we never actually see this happen), they do not playfully engage with each other. I understand that this story is a classic murder-mystery, but the only way to give it depth is to provide extraneous detail and interaction. The murder-mystery formula is adhered to far too rigidly. People are either nice or not nice, helpful or withholding, everyone who appeared to be straightforward remained straightforward. I would have loved to have seen more depth from Emma and the supporting characters.

For a woman who is upset about the abhorrent possibility of being defined by a future spouse, Emma is very pre-occupied with her feelings toward Jesse the policeman and Derrick the newspaper man. Following the first scene in which she has her brief interaction with Bly, Emma reminds us at every turn that she doesn’t want to marry and has no intention to marry and that marriage is such a burden to an independent woman and so forth. It dominates the pages until right around the end when we’re sure of the choice she will soon be making. The lady doth protest too much? Between her frequent holier-than-thou attitude, her oscillation between two men and remaining single, her rich relative name dropping (while seemingly martyring herself by not wanting to accept help from them and worrying about how she would fit in with their set if she did marry up), and her complete inability to read people, I found myself wishing that I could root for anyone else.

That being said, the author did obviously conduct a thorough investigation of late 19th century Newport geography, and learned a great deal about the houses of the Gilded Age, which comes through in the detail with which she describes our surroundings. Having never entered one these great houses, I feel as though as I have in mind’s eye.
I do wonder if this book could have been improved had it not felt so rushed.

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