Untold History Front and Center of Mystery
By E. M. Powell
A new release from M. J. Rose will always excite historical thriller and mystery fans—but when the book is set in the New York of 1910 and has a plot based on the legendary Hope Diamond, it becomes a must-read.
In CARTIER’S HOPE, 32-year-old Vera Garland lives a life that, on the surface, appears to be one of great privilege. Her family owns Garland’s Emporium, a fictional store based on the great department stores of the era—Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, and Henri Bendel. She lives in a penthouse above the store. But Vera has an alter ego, the journalist Vee Swann, who is fighting for social justice for the destitute immigrants who are crammed into the city’s filthy, teeming tenements. She’s also fighting alongside hundreds of women for a place in society, only to meet hurdles at every turn.
Tragedy is no respecter of class, however. Vera is devastated at the sudden death of her beloved father. To compound her grief, his was not a natural death but one caused by the greed and blackmailing schemes of her current employer. Vera is determined to seek revenge. To do so, she uses the arrival of the Hope Diamond at the jewelry store owned by one Pierre Cartier.
CARTIER’S HOPE is a novel where the history and the mystery are equally intriguing.
For those who don’t know, the Hope was the subject of legends for four centuries. As Rose notes, “There are lists of terrible episodes, events, and ends that befell those who owned it, worked with it, and in some cases simply touched it.’”
It was while researching for another book that Rose came across this fascinating snippet about the stone’s reputation. “Pierre Cartier exaggerated the Hope’s bad luck in order to build up the buzz about it.”
Cartier’s marketing ploy was enough to spark the idea for this latest intriguing novel.
Readers will also love protagonist Vera Garland/Vee Swann. Her dual persona never feels forced or artificial. Instead, the reader shares in the pull of the different worlds that she must inhabit and her motivations for doing so.
“This was based on what a lot of real women reporters of the era had to do,” Rose says. “Create an alternative persona so as not to embarrass their families and have some freedom.” With regards to the two worlds Vera must inhabit, each has its tensions. “I think what Vera loves the most about her world is the beauty her family’s money can buy, and what causes her the most dismay is ironically their materialism. As Vee she struggles to deal with the sadness/poverty she writes about, and what she loves the most is her freedom.”
Both of those worlds are meticulously created. Historical fiction often focuses on the powerful and not on the marginalized. CARTIER’S HOPE puts much of that untold history front and center. It includes the reality of women’s reproductive rights (or lack of), the criminalization of homosexuality, and the horror of child labor in the tenements.
Rose is clear on the importance of telling those stories as well as those of the wealthy and glamorous. “It makes them real and relatable, and because a society’s problems illustrate it often even better than its achievements.” She also notes that while so much changes, so much remains the same. “How similar New York City today is to 1910. Not just how many buildings and restaurants, theaters, museums, and other institutions still exist, but how similar so many sociological problems are.”
And so to the plot. It’s always difficult to talk about a mystery without revealing spoilers—but it’s enough to say that the novel has a wonderfully unexpected twist at the end. I wondered how Rose pulled it off.
“I try to figure it out beforehand,” she says. “But usually I have to finish the book and go back. With CARTIER’S HOPE, I had finished the whole book and knew some of the end, but the whodunit part didn’t come until my third draft, and then I had to redo quite a bit.”
As with Rose’s other novels, the reader is immersed in so much color for so much of the time. That painter’s eye has always been there.
“I went to art school from the time I was five years old, and have an MFA in painting/printmaking. But I’m terrible at it,” Rose says. “So I look at the world as if I’m going to paint it—and then I write what I wish I could paint.”
Whatever Rose’s skills with a brush, her prose is masterful—it would be easy to believe that the page glows at times.
Rose is, of course, a founding member of International Thriller Writers. ITW has flourished since it was founded in 2004—16 years is a long time, with many highlights. She’s proud of so much, but in particular, “How much we have elevated thrillers,” she says. “When we started, thrillers were second class citizens and mysteries had all the status. Now I like to think they share the stage.”
She has new exciting projects in the pipeline as well. “This summer there will be a new novella Steve Berry and I just finished—our third about the adventures of his character Cassiopeia Vitt. And then in October, Fiona Davis and I edited an anthology called Suffragette City—with an amazing line-up of authors—to commemorate women getting the vote 100 years ago.”
Speaking of 100 years ago, Rose has a last note about Pierre Cartier.
“He was a beloved figure in the industry as well as in New York society. He was a generous philanthropist, a highly respected businessman, and a gentleman in every sense of the word,” she says. “Any suggestions otherwise are totally my invention in order to progress the story. I have nothing but admiration for him, his work ethic, his creativity, and his business acumen.”
Given how beautifully Rose has portrayed his history and his reputation as a master of the jeweler’s art, I suspect Cartier would be delighted—and I suspect the marketer in him would be pleased as well.