Newport, Rhode Island, is a study in contrasts. There are the average folks who live and work there year-round. Then there are the “summer people,” the ones who inhabit waterfront mansions and whose names read like the “Who’s Who” of American elite. Fort Lauderdale writer Alyssa Maxwell captures both worlds in her Gilded Newport Mysteries, a series of historical cozies that give readers an inside look at Newport’s “Gilded Age.”
Maxwell, an avid reader, has enjoyed creating her own stories since she was in elementary school. After graduating from the University of Connecticut with a degree in English, she embarked on a career as an editor and ghostwriter. She didn’t think about creative writing until 10 years later when a friend and co-worker had a book published. “I always thought of writers as rock stars,” she says, “but this made me realize that an ordinary person could write a book—with a lot of hard work.” She began by penning several historical romance novels under a pseudonym. “I wasn’t having the success I wanted,” she recalls. “I found that I was always writing with a mystery/suspense thread, and historical romance readers prefer a more relationship-centered plot. I loved reading mysteries and realized I was a closet mystery writer, so I decided to try my hand at writing one.”
Maxwell admits that learning to write a true mystery was a challenge. Fortunately, she had a friend to help her. “Nancy Cohen (author of the Bad Hair Day Mystery series) worked with me,” she says. “She critiqued my work to see if I left a trail of clues and to make sure everyone had motive, opportunity, and secrets.” Maxwell decided to set her book in Newport because of her lifelong fascination with the city and her husband’s Newport roots. “My husband comes from an old Newport family, and that gave me an insider’s view of what it’s like to live there,” she says. She chose the 1890s because “the Gilded Age is Newport’s most famous period and would give me the most material to work with.” She also admits a fascination for turn-of-the-century gadgets and inventions that find their way into the story.
Murder at the Breakers, the first of the Gilded Newport mysteries, debuted in March, 2014. It introduces 21-year-old Emma Cross, a distant relation to the Vanderbilt family, who finds herself cast in the role of amateur sleuth when her brother is arrested for the murder of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s financial advisor. “Emma needed to be connected with the Vanderbilts but with local roots so she could move between both worlds,” Maxwell explains. “Everyone sees her as an oddball because she doesn’t really fit into either world. And I wanted her to have an independent streak, so I gave her a feminist aunt loosely inspired by my husband’s great-aunt.” Maxwell was thrilled when Murder at the Breakers hit the USA Today Bestseller List in September, 2014.
Murder at Marble House, the next book in the series, hit bookstores in September, 2014. In it, Emma investigates the murder of a fortune-teller that may be linked to the disappearance of Emma’s cousin. Murder at Beechwood, the third Gilded Newport Mystery, followed in May, 2015. Here, foul play is suspected when a family patriarch goes overboard during a yachting race at the Astor’s Beechwood Estate.
This month will see the release of the fourth Gilded Newport Mystery, Murder at Rough Point, on August 30th. Relatively secluded at the southern end of Bellevue Avenue, Rough Point is reminiscent of Gothic manor houses in the English countryside—the perfect atmosphere for a murder mystery. In it, a band of misfit artists from Europe have gathered at Rough Point for a retreat, and Emma is sent there to write an article for her "Fancies and Fashions" page. Though they call themselves friends, these artists thrive on conflict, and Emma senses they’re hiding something. Added to the mix are her long-absent parents, forcing Emma to face resentments that have been festering these past few years. When one of the artists is found dead at the bottom of a cliff, Emma investigates with the help of her friend, Detective Jesse Whyte. No one is above suspicion, not even her parents.
Maxwell has just finished the fifth book in the series, Murder at Chateau sur Mer, which should release sometime in the summer of 2017. One of her biggest joys in writing this series has been signing books at The Breakers and Marble House in Newport last year. She’ll be in Newport again this fall, once again signing books at the mansions' gift shops and holding a readers’ chat at the Newport Art Museum.
In addition to her Newport mysteries, Maxwell is at work on a series of historical mysteries set in a country manor house in post-WWI England. Called A Lady and Lady’s Maid Mysteries, the books feature two sleuths with very different backgrounds – the granddaughter of an earl and her lady’s maid. Maxwell describes the novels as having “an Upstairs-Downstairs, Downton Abbey aspect.” The first of the series, Murder Most Malicious was released in January 2016, and will be followed by A Pinch of Poison in December 2016. She is about to begin the third book in the series, titled A Devious Death.
Maxwell hopes readers will enjoy a glimpse into the dual worlds of bygone days. “I want readers to have the fun of experiencing how people interacted in those times and to realize that families like the Vanderbilts were people like the rest of us, with the same ambitions, hopes, disappointments and adversity. Most of all, I hope readers will enjoy following the clues and solving the crime – if they can!”
For more information visit the author’s website at www.alyssamaxwell.com