Reviewed by Nicholas Havey
A Gilded Drowning Pool
The Roddy and Val DeVere Gilded Age Series
by Cecelia Tichi
May 2023, Paperback, ISBN-13L 979-8985121667
As a person who grew up on the enchantingly delightful and often ridiculous mysteries of Angela Lansbury’s Murder, She Wrote, Cecelia Tichi’s Gilded Series was a welcome read. Though I haven’t read the preceding four books in Valentine and Roderick DeVere’s series, A Gilded Drowning Pool stood confidently alone as a proper gilded age mystery.
Valentine and Roddy DeVere, our gilded age detective couple, have been called to the country. There’s been a mysterious death on the tract of land owned by Roddy’s parents (and paid for by Val’s family fortune) and, due to the failing health of the senior DeVere, it is up to the pair to investigate. When they arrive at palatial and welcoming Kiddwood, home to the Kidds, a limestone magnate and his family, the drama only escalates.
As the DeVere’s summer not-a-vacation unravels, the death of one Fiona Peebles is muddied by a problem with the water on the Kiddwood property, an exceedingly suspicious Health-to-Wealth scheme on the DeVere property (a cult/scam), managed by an even more exceedingly suspicious property manager, and the death of the primary suspect in Ms. Peebles murder (an alcoholic delivery man). Tichi takes the reader on a delightful gallivant through the Hudson Valley, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and Ulster county and is kind enough to offer us a drink, in the form of a cocktail recipe – a Roddy DeVere speciality – every few chapters.
A mystery like Tichi’s requires a certain suspension of disbelief, as the characters are simply in situations that only make sense when one considers their relative privilege, position, and ability to spend the time to solve it that fortune affords. This is what makes Nancy Drew and Jessica Fletcher work. Val and Roddy DeVere have the time and the means to involve themselves and, courtesy of Tichi’s competent plotting, a rationale for doing so.
Because it is the Gilded Age, the main cast of the novel are bored, extremely wealthy socialites summering at the Kiddwood estate. Everyone is suspicious because everyone is incredibly gossipy. Class, above all else, is important. As our detective duo uncovers new facts, and tangos with a decidedly subpar and self-serving police chief, their position in society and ability to move through the world unencumbered becomes even more important. Like wealthy daughter-of-a-lawyer Nancy Drew, their bold moves and demanding lines of questioning are only possible because they have the resources and status to back them up.
As we reach the height of summer and the crescendo of the narrative, a fire engulfs Kiddwood, trapping our darling detectives in a windowless room as smoke and heat creep in. Their lives, and ability to solve the crimes that have plagued their summer, are at risk. Naturally, they survive – it is a series, after all – and unmask the killer at the heart of the novel’s crimes and, to the class-conscious reader, it’s not much of a surprise. Cult leaders, con men, and alcoholics have nothing on the wealthy. And perhaps that’s the novel’s message – if someone with power and the money to solidify it seems suspicious, trust your instinct.
A Gilded Drowning Pool is, at its core, a bit shallow. But does that not stop it from being a successful mystery. And, if you’re anything like me, the urge to make an Old Fashioned or a more uncommon drink like the Shandygaff (a ginger beer shandy), the cocktails peppered throughout the pages are more than enough to propel you to a satisfying, if predictable, ending.
About the reviewer: Dr. Nicholas Havey is a Senior Manager at First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise focused on improving educational equity, a thriller and mystery writer, and a lover of all, but particularly queer, fiction. Nicholas’ other reviews of fiction are featured in Lambda Literary, Rain Taxi Review, and The Washington Independent Review of Books, and his reviews of academic work appear in a number of peer-reviewed journals.