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Historical Mysteries

Crimson Snow, Jeanne M. Dams, Perseverance Press, $13.95.

I can't tell you how pleased I was when an advance copy of Jeanne M. Dams' new Hilda Johanssen novel showed up in the mail - while Jeanne had found a new publisher for her wonderful Dorothy Martin series, Hilda had been homeless. I'm happy Perseverance Press picked her up, because Hilda is one of may favorite historical mystery characters. If you are fond of Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy, Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, or Victoria Thompson's Sarah Brandt, Hilda is the woman for you. Dams has taken Hilda through her beginning days as a maid at the Studebaker mansion in South Bend, Indiana - straight off the boat from Sweden - through four books to a more assured and confident young woman, one who feels secure in her relationship with Patrick the policeman, even though he's an Irish Catholic. She's also someone who feels secure in her place in the Studebaker household - she's become more or less invaluable, and thanks to her skill at solving crimes, has been able to form connections in town other than those ordinarily provided to a servant. Unfortunately, the rest of these books are out of print, but Crimson Snow doesn't require the reader to have read the rest of the series.

Dams bases her book on a real life crime - the brazen killing of a popular schoolteacher in an alley - and uses actual clips from the South Bend newspapers of the time to advance her story. Of course she's invented a solution, but it's certainly a plausible one. Hilda is a practical and sensible woman who has only recently brought the rest of her family over from Sweden and who, like them, works hard to make a place for herself in the new world. It's a wonderful evocation of the experience that many, many immigrants must have had when they came to this country, and it's interwoven throughout the books as such a natural background to the story that you hardly notice you're taking in a bit of cultural history with your mystery.

Of course, Jeanne Dams had already established herself as a writer of classic locked room type mysteries with her Dorothy Martin series by the time she created Hilda. Her first book, The Body in the Transept, was a sensation when it was published and won several awards. The skills she has as a mystery author, using fair clues and a complicated plot, are not neglected in her "Hilda"; novels. By the time the reader comes to Crimson Snow, Hilda has become a familiar investigator in South Bend with "ins"; in the police and fire departments. She's also struggling with her relationship with Patrick, a struggle that is finally resolved (to my intense enjoyment) in this novel. To me it's an indication of the lack of faith and patience within the publishing industry that solid, enjoyable, capable writers like Jeanne Dams are allowed to go out of print. Bravo to St. Martin's and to Perseverance Press for keeping this author's work before the reading public. It's a real gift, whether we greedy readers realize it or not. The chance to enjoy an author as gifted as Dams is not a treat to be wasted.

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