Cover image for Death in lacquer red : a Hilda Johansson mystery
Death in lacquer red : a Hilda Johansson mystery
Dams, Jeanne M.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Walker, 1999.
Physical Description:
vii, 225 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Popular Materials-Mystery
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
X Adult Fiction Mystery/Suspense

On Order



In Death in Lacquer Red, Jeanne Danis launches a new series that introduces Hilda Johansson, a young Swedish woman working in the South Bend, Indiana, home of the Studebaker family as the twentieth century begins.. "Against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world, religious conflicts, and international unrest, Hilda finds herself facing the typical problems of an immigrant and the demands of a job that is both exhausting and exhilarating. Her struggle to be a good servant is compounded when she discovers, on the Studebaker estate, the body of a woman just returned from missionary work in China. Everyone has a theory. Everyone wants Hilda to stay out of things that don't concern her. But is it possible that she's the only one who can see what the others refuse to even acknowledge?

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

From the author of the popular Dorothy Martin mysteries comes the first installment of a series that will delight fans of gentle whodunits. The year is 1900. Hilda Johansson is a young Swedish emigreworking as a servant for the wealthy Studebaker family of South Bend, Indiana. When Hilda stumbles upon a body near the Studebaker residence, she determines to find the real killer and save the man wrongly accused of the crime. Hilda--young, poor, unfamiliar with the English language, but possessed of intelligence and determination--is an engaging, attractive character and refreshingly different from the scores of amateur female sleuths who populate the genre. Dams, who lives in South Bend, has a good grasp of life at the turn of the century and of the class structure that defined society at the time. Although the mystery itself is relatively easy to solve, the world as seen through Hilda's eyes is a slightly unfamiliar place, and readers will have a great time getting to know it. --David Pitt

Publisher's Weekly Review

The author of the popular and acclaimed Dorothy Martin mysteries (Malice in Miniature, etc.) begins a new series featuring a turn-of-the-century Swedish servant woman as sleuth. Hilda Johansson is a maid for the prominent Studebaker family in South Bend, Ind., in the year 1900. Coming home from an outing with her beau, an Irish fireman, Hilda discovers the body of a savagely beaten woman. The dead woman is a missionary lately returned from China and the sister of the Studebakers neighbor, a Republican judge with political ambitions. Impelled to trying to figure out who perpetrated such as brutal crime, Hilda uses South Bends network of servants and immigrants to aid her investigation, fearing that an innocent man might take the blame for the killing. The resolution of the puzzle is a bit slapdash, relying too heavily on coincidence and not enough on real detective work. Hilda is nevertheless an appealing heroine, and Damss rich depiction of South Bend will please historical mystery fans. Mystery Guild main selection. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In her new historical series, Dams (Malice in Miniature, LJ 10/1/98) endows turn-of-the-century South Bend, IN, with vibrant atmosphere and a bright young Swedish immigrant heroine. Hilda Johansson, employed as a housemaid by the wealthy Studebakers, discovers the body of a female missionary in her employer's yard. Though properly horrified and warned by the butler and others to mind her own business, Hilda feels obligated to fight against narrow-minded police and typical social/cultural prejudice as she manages to unearth crucial clues. A piquant but sometimes humorous lookÄunderscored by an Upstairs, Downstairs mentalityÄat a rapidly changing America, this solid beginning is highly recommended. [Mystery Guild main selection.] (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The flowers that bloom in the spring, Tra la, Breathe promise of merry sunshine-- --W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado , 1885 Well, look at that, will ye!"     Hilda turned her head from contemplation of some ducks that were bobbing their heads in the water, tails jutting ridiculously into the air. Her companion, Patrick Cavanaugh, sat in the bow, oars shipped, the rowboat drifting idly near the riverbank under the shade of a huge maple tree. His finger was fixed on a page of the newspaper that had wrapped their now devoured sandwiches. Hilda glanced at it, saw nothing of interest in the columns of fine print, said "Ja, ja," in lazy fashion, and returned her attention to the ducks.     "All right, then, but listen to this," said Patrick. "It says here there's going to be an opera at the Oliver Opera House, next month, for a whole week. It's called--oh, dear, the--the Mick-a-doo , it must be. But it's by Gilbert and Sullivan, and they're grand. When I was a boy and lived near Dublin, one of their shows came to town once, all about a sailor and an admiral, and everyone was singing the songs ..."     He saw that he was losing Hilda's attention and switched his tactics. "I'd like fine to see this one, and I've got a little money put by for something special. What would ye say if I asked ye to come to the opera with me?" He twirled the ends of his luxuriant handlebar mustache and fixed his brilliant blue eyes, with their thick black lashes, on her face in a practiced, soulful gaze.     Hilda snorted, apparently immune to his charm. "I would say that you had lost your mind. Patrick, you dream. Operas are for rich people, not firemen, or servants! When would the two of us have time or money to make holiday in the evening? Even if it were allowed, which it would not be, not without a chaperone. The Studebakers are fine people, I do not say different, but there are rules, and Mr. Williams, he is very strict, ja . He would never permit me out with you in the evening." Some devil made her smile coyly and add, "Unless--if we--if I and you--if it was understood ..." She lowered her eyelashes with maidenly modesty and then suddenly opened them wide to catch Patrick's look of alarm.     Her laughter rang out; the boat rocked with her mirth. "Oh, Patrick, if you could see yourself. You look like a herring! Your eyes, they bulge!" She composed herself. "Me, I should not talk so silly. Me and you--it is not possible. Me, a Swede, and you an Irish Catholic! Our families would--" Her English, good as it was, wasn't up to describing the probable reaction of both families to the idea of an engagement. "So," she said firmly, "we are friends, and the day, it is beautiful. Let us enjoy it."     It was, indeed, a perfect May afternoon. The cold, wet spring had given way to sudden hot weather, and all the flowers had bloomed at once. The riverbanks were covered with wild phlox or, where houses and lawns were established, with fragrant lilacs and lilies of the valley. Oaks and maples and huge, magnificent elms stood proud, their limbs lush with soft new green leaves that stirred dreamily in a gentle breeze; the golden willows dipped their delicate fronds in the river. The sun shone bright and hot.     Here, where the river made a sharp bend, the south bank was low and flat, covered with grass and dandelions, but to the north, the river was confined by a steep, brush-covered crag. Hilda, cool in her best white muslin, lay back against the cushions that Patrick had provided for her comfort. Feed bags they might be, stuffed with hay from the firehouse barn, but they were soft and smelled sweet, and she could pretend they were the silken pillows of the rich. "What is that church, Patrick?" she asked, looking upward. "It is a church-- ja? --with the cross on the--it is not a spire, I do not know the English word, the round--"     She pointed, frustrated, to the structure, atop the crag, that could just be seen from their low vantage point.     "Oh, the dome," said Patrick, squinting into the bright sky.     "That is what a dome is? Then that is, perhaps--"     "It's the church at St. Mary's Academy."     "Oh," said Hilda, disappointed. "I do not know this St. Mary's. I thought it was perhaps Notre Dame. That, I have never seen, but I have heard people say it has a dome."     Patrick laughed, a rich laugh of comfortable male superiority. "Not a piddlin' one like that! St. Mary's, that's the girls' college, run by the nuns. Not," crossing himself hastily, as though the feared Sister Mary Bridget of his childhood were listening, "not that they're not good, holy women. But, Hilda me girl, you've never seen the likes of the dome at Notre Dame. It's on the main building, not the church, and it's solid gold, mind, with a statue of Our Lady in gold on the top. Ah, 'tis a fine place, Notre Dame. That's French for `Our Lady,' you know."     Hilda, conscious of being condescended to, sniffed. "I know that it is very silly to spend much, much money on a gold statue when so many people are hungry," she said flatly.     For ye have the poor always with you , Patrick started to quote, and then thought better of it. In a year's acquaintance he had learned that it was safer not to get into a discussion of religion with Hilda, who had strong views on that subject, as well as most others, and whose beauty was equaled only by her stubbornness and her temper.     Hilda, sensing both his temerity and his admiration, preened herself. She knew Patrick was sometimes a little--not afraid of her, exactly, but wary, and she enjoyed the knowledge. She was also pleasantly aware that she looked her best today. Mrs. Clem and Mrs. George were generous with gifts to the servants of their outmoded clothes. The white muslin skirt and waist were beautifully made and embroidered, and Hilda had laundered and ironed them lovingly, mending one or two tiny rips and tears so skillfully that no one, she was sure, could tell. There was a blue sash to go with them, and a fine straw hat with blue feathers, nearly as good as new, that flattered her oval face and golden coronet braids.     But her interval for flaunting finery and playing the lady was drawing near its end. The sun was well into the western arc of sky; afternoon was advancing. She sat up. "Patrick. We must go back. I must change into the uniform before we eat our supper. And your work, it will be hard, to go up the river."     Patrick sighed and removed his jacket. It was all too true. The St. Joseph River, despite its placid appearance, had a current that, in spots, was the very devil. If it had carried them pleasantly and easily downstream, rowing upstream would be a hot, backbreaking business. He seized the oars, turned the boat around, and made for Leeper Park.     Hilda studied him covertly, admiring the play of muscle against his shirt sleeves. She wasn't entirely sure why she enjoyed Patrick's company so much. It was true that he was a good-looking fellow--and knew it, too, she thought with a private grin. And he could spin a line of talk to turn any girl's head, any, that is, except the hard, sensible head of a Svenska . Then there was his fiddle, a treasured family relic that he had brought from Ireland and could play with a rollicking lilt that reminded her of barn dances in her village back in Sweden. But everything else was against it. Their backgrounds were entirely different, save that both came from grinding poverty in the Old World. Their religious differences struck sparks, from time to time. For that matter, many of their conversations struck sparks; both had passionate opinions and volatile tempers. That was probably the root of the attraction, she admitted with another inward chuckle. It was such great fun to argue with Patrick!     And what was the harm in an occasional afternoon out? Especially if her sisters didn't know. Leeper was the newest park in South Bend, and the most fashionable. Patrick was showing off by taking Hilda there for boating instead of to the older, more democratic Howard Park, just above the dam. Leeper Park was for the gentry. On this lovely spring afternoon it was crowded with ladies in beautiful pale dresses, hems sweeping the grass, elegant parasols raised to keep the sun off their faces. Their arms rested on those of dapper gentlemen in lightweight tweed suits, striped shirts, high collars, and straw boaters. One sporty gentleman in bright-yellow checked knickerbockers had a bicycle, one of the popular safety bicycles with equal-size wheels, and was trying to persuade his companion to try it. She was dressed for it, too, in a divided skirt whose calf-length hem shocked Hilda, and natty little boots up to the knee, if one's imagination were bold enough to go so far. Hilda spurned the attempt. Ladies, in her opinion, possessed limbs, not legs, and certainly neither calves nor knees. Her eyes lingered on the bicycle, though. They were all the rage, and Hilda desired with her whole soul to own one, even while knowing that such a thing was utterly out of the question. To ride one, perhaps, someday ...     The squeal of a child caught her attention, and her throat was suddenly tight. The boy, about six, she judged, had somehow escaped the surveillance of his nursemaid, and was dirty and disheveled and having a glorious time. He reminded Hilda so of her youngest brother, Erik. He'd been about that size when she'd last seen him, three long years ago. He would have changed a lot. How many more years would have to pass before she would see him again? She sighed deeply.     "What's the matter, me darlin'?"     "You must not say things like that," Hilda replied automatically, but her mind was still on her family. "I think of how long it will be to save enough money."     Patrick didn't have to ask enough money for what. He and his brothers had gone through the same long, grinding effort to bring the rest of their family to America. Four men, working long hours, had been able to do it in half the time it would take Hilda and her sisters. There was the brother, of course, working at Studebaker's; he must be a big help.     "You'll do it, me girl," he said with comforting warmth, and pulled the boat in to the shore.     The man who rented the boats helped Patrick tie up at the landing and handed him out of the tippy craft, but Patrick insisted in lifting Hilda out himself and setting her, with long skirts still dry, on the pier. His hands lingered around her waist perhaps a fraction longer than was strictly necessary.     "Enough of that," she said sharply. "There was no need to fetch me out like a parcel. I have the use of my own feet."     "And such pretty feet," said Patrick, unrepentant.     Hilda snorted, and set a brisk pace across the park. Patrick gave the cushions to the boatman, to be fetched later, and then continued to linger a pace or two behind Hilda, enjoying the view. She had a neat little waist, set off nicely by the blue sash of her gown. Her skirt twitched beguilingly about her booted ankles as she strode across the grass, and one of the plumes of her straw hat drooped a bit, caressing her neck where a few enchanting strands of gold had worked free from the restraints of the braids atop her head. Patrick wished he dared emulate the bold blue feather.     She shook her head impatiently, brushing the feather away. "Do you see me home, or not? If you do, be of some use. I need help to cross this street; it is as muddy as--Patrick Cavanaugh, put me down!"     He did--on the other side of the street, and not before his lips had brushed her cheek. Hilda didn't speak to him again for many long blocks, not until they had traversed the whole of North Main Street and then of West Washington, and finally toiled up the steep back drive to Tippecanoe Place.     "Please--I'm sorry, Hilda." Patrick paused and put out his hand placatingly. "Will you come and sit for a little and talk to me?"     Hilda's indignation had largely dissipated, and she had no wish to go inside a moment before she had to, but it was necessary to keep Patrick in line. Still without a word, she crossed the back lawn to the bench by the carriage house and sat down, her back to Patrick, studying the tall hedge of white lilac that edged the back of the Studebaker property.     "I said I'm sorry! I won't do it again."     "No, you will not!" Hilda crossed her arms. "Such a thing--and on a public street! If Gudrun or Freya would see you, they would send me back to Sweden on the next boat."     "Your sisters are too old-fashioned," Patrick began, and Hilda turned on him.     "You will not talk about my sisters!"     "You talk about them," Patrick pointed out. "All the time. You say they won't let you ride a bicycle. They won't let you meet my family. They won't let you do anything that's--drat these flies!" He batted at the large insects that were buzzing drowsily about his head.     "That is different. They are my family and I can say anything I want--what is the matter?" For Patrick was frowning and sniffing the air.     "Someone's left some garbage behind those lilacs. All those flies--and can't you smell it?"     Hilda sniffed and made a face. "Ugh, yes. It will be the scullery maid, that Elsie. She is stupid, lazy--I do not know why she is allowed to stay." She stood. "I think I must clean up the mess before Mr. Williams sees it, though I should like to leave it for Elsie. Step out of the way, Patrick; I shall look."     "Hilda, no!" said Patrick in sudden awful apprehension, but she brushed off his restraining hand and swept around the end of the hedge, Patrick in pursuit.     The woman's body lay crumpled behind the lilacs, the late afternoon sun beating down upon it mercilessly. Hilda saw only two things, a bright-red silk jacket and the formless pulp where a face should have been. Then she grasped Patrick's arm and began to scream. Copyright © 1999 Jeanne M. Dams. All rights reserved.