Do you know what a ’26 girl’ was?
Michelle Cox’s Henrietta and Inspector Howard novels have been described as Downton Abbey meets the Miss Fischer mysteries. Set in Chicago and England between the two world wars, each book has a mystery to solve, but also explores the evolving relationship between feisty Henrietta Von Harmon and battle weary ex-soldier and heir to his family’s fortune and title, Clive Howard.
Michelle reads from the newest book in the series, A Child Lost, and shares where the idea for the series came from, what inspires her to write about a sometimes ignored era, and just what a ’26 girl’ was.
This week’s mystery author
Michelle Cox is the award-winning author of The Henrietta and Inspector Howard series, which is a historical mystery/romantic suspense series, set in Chicago in the 1930s. It has been described as “Downton Abbey meets Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” and has won over 40 awards to date. Likewise, the series has been praised by Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, Popsugar, Publishers Weekly, Elle, Brit and Co. and many, many more.
Michelle lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and three children, where she is hard at work on a new novel. Before writing took over her life, she used to enjoy gardening, baking, big band music and the odd board game.
To learn more about Michelle Cox and her books visit MichelleCoxAuthor.com
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You can also click here to listen to the interview on YouTube.
Excerpt from A Child Lost
“Good afternoon, sir, madame,” Billings said crisply as he opened the front doorway of Highbury to Clive and Henrietta. “I trust you’ve had a pleasant afternoon.” He gave a slight bow as he stepped aside to allow them inside.
“Tolerable, Billings. Thank you,” Clive answered tersely, handing him his hat and coat.
The short drive home from Crow Island had been fraught with a variety of emotions—first tears on Henrietta’s part and then excitement as she began to enthusiastically chatter about Madame Pavlovsky’s “extraordinary” clairvoyance. For his part, Clive had said little, allowing Henrietta to ramble on, all the while trying to decide how to proceed in this delicate situation.
He looked over at Henrietta now as she removed her hat and could see that her eyes were still slightly puffy and red. If Billings noticed, as he took her things, he had the discretion not to say anything.
“Any messages, Billings?”
“Yes, sir. Two telephone messages, sir. I’ve laid them in your study. There is one for you, and one for Madame as well,” he said, nodding at Henrietta.
“Very good,” Clive answered briskly, rubbing his hands from the cold. “Is my mother at home?”
“Yes, sir. She is upstairs in the long gallery with Mr. Bennett.”
“Upstairs with Bennett? Whatever for?”
“I really couldn’t say, sir. ‘Perusing the art before dinner,’ I think is what Mrs. Howard said.”
Perusing the art? Since when did his mother care about art? His father had forever been trying to interest her in it, especially as they possessed so many priceless works, but he had failed to ever spark in her any real appreciation for it besides how it might elevate them in the eyes of their peers. “Is Bennett staying for dinner?” he asked Billings.
“It would seem, sir,” Billings said emotionlessly.
Clive wondered why Bennett was showing up so regularly these days and dreaded having to later confer on more issues regarding the firm. He had a feeling Bennett was here to implore him to make an appearance downtown; it had been a while. Still, he could have requested his presence via telephone, could he not? Perhaps he had more documents for him to sign, Clive guessed with a sigh, trying not to be irritated.
“I see. Well, we’ll be in the study,” he informed Billings and, looking over at Henrietta, inclined his head toward the direction of the study.
“Very good, sir.”
The study was deliciously warm and inviting as the two made their way in. The fire had been recently tended, Clive noted with approval, and several lamps in the corners had been left on, presumably in anticipation of their arrival. Clive felt himself relax a little and poured two sherries. He handed one to Henrietta, who had eased herself onto the sofa, and then sat down beside her.
“Clive,” she began, “you’ve said so little. Why? Do you . . . do you not believe what Madame Pavlovsky told us?”
Clive did not respond, but merely sat looking at her, one arm stretched across the back of the sofa.
“You don’t, do you?” she asked incredulously. “But how can you possibly explain her knowing all of those things? About my brother and sister? About me . . . about me losing the baby?” she asked with what uncomfortably sounded like desperation. “And what about your father?”
Clive sighed and took a drink of his sherry, reflecting that he should have poured himself a brandy. All the way home, he let her go on about their encounter with Madame Pavlovsky, not wanting to reveal his skepticism for fear of how she would take it. He had been trying to think of a way to gently expose this woman to be the fraud that she so obviously was, but he loathed to, as Henrietta seemed to derive so much comfort from her words. He hated the unavoidable task before him of telling her that it was a false comfort. But that was the trick of these charlatans, wasn’t it? Clive knew. To play on people’s emotions, to get them where they were vulnerable. And what better way to get to people than through their ‘dearly departed?’ Clive knew a huckster when he saw one. And yet, a tiny part of him did wonder how she had known about Linley . . . the rest he could explain away. But that one detail was harder . . . she must have done her homework. But how would she possibly have known they were coming in order to research? That was hard to explain away as well.
Clive sighed. “Darling, we have to look at this rationally. As detectives,” he reminded her.
“No, you’re not, darling. The truth is that she read you, and she’s very good at guessing.”
“How could she have possibly guessed all those things, Clive?” Henrietta asked irritably.
He had hoped to avoid this, but he saw there was no other way than to be brutally honest. “Henrietta,” he began tentatively. “You fed her the information. Think about it. She tells us that she communicates with the dead and then vaguely says that she sees children . . . ”
“But that’s just a good guess. Every family has at least one child who has died. You yourself gave her the information she needed by asking if they were siblings and even suggest they were a boy and girl.”
Henrietta took a sip of her sherry, apparently thinking this through. “But how do you explain her knowing that I lost a baby?” she asked finally. “Remember she said, ‘Losing a child isn’t being ill’?”
“Another good guess. You distressfully asked her if she saw a baby. So she guessed you had lost a baby.”
“That’s a bit of a stretch, Clive, admit it.”
“Well, like I said, she’s good at guessing.”
“Well . . . what about mentioning your father?” she asked pertly.
“The Howards are obviously well known,” Clive said with what he hoped was a nonchalant shrug. “She could easily know that he has recently died.”
“And her mention of Castle Linley?”
“She could have somehow researched that. A book on heraldry and English estates—something like that. Or she could have asked one of the servants.”
“Really, Clive,” she exclaimed, letting out a deep breath. “What utter nonsense. You can’t believe she would go to all that effort. For what? And she couldn’t have known who we were—or that we were coming.”
“A con will go a long way for a sting, Henrietta.”
“A sting? For what purpose? What can she possibly gain by telling you that your father loves you?”
“My trust?” he responded, an eyebrow arched.
Henrietta shot him an icy look, and he knew he had upset her. He rubbed his forehead. It was hard to explain this woman’s knowledge of Linley, but he refused to give in to such nonsense. It could still have somehow been a guess, he tried to convince himself, remembering that these types of charlatans relied on fear and superstition to ply their trade. There must be a rational explanation, he knew, and he was determined to figure it out.
“And what about her telling us that our work at the hospital or the infirmary isn’t done?” Henrietta went on. “Could she be referring to Anna, seeing as she’s at an orphanage and apparently the only loose thread? Maybe the infirmary is a reference to her illness?” she suggested.
Clive thought of several negative things he wanted to say in response to these questions, but after a moment’s consideration, decided to simply remain silent.
“Or could she have meant Dunning?” Henrietta went on. “Something we missed maybe?”
Clive sighed. Not this again. “Darling, I’m sure there are many unrighted wrongs at Dunning, but it is not our job to uncover them all. We’ve been through this.”
“But what’s to become of that little girl, Clive?” she asked, momentarily confusing him by the shifting of subjects. “The poor thing’s lost her mother, no father to speak of, and apparently epileptic. It’s awful, Clive. She needs proper medical care, not to be stuck in . . . in some sort of orphanage or asylum because of it . . . somewhere like Dunning. That’s cruel.” Her voice caught a bit.
Clive let out a deep breath. Of course he felt sorry for this girl, but there were thousands more out there, just like her. In some ways, he knew she was lucky to be in some sort of institution; he had seen too many children living on the street. He had been like Henrietta when he first began police work after returning from the war. He had wanted to right all the wrongs, stop the suffering and the poverty and the pain he saw in the streets. But the emotional toll had been great and the chief finally had to have a word with him. They couldn’t save them all, he told Clive kindly over a whiskey. Their job was to catch the criminals, stop them from hurting more innocent people. They weren’t running a charity, he told Clive sternly, and ended their session by suggesting that Clive choose between being a detective and a social worker. Both of them were needed, he pointed out, but not at his station.
So Clive had chosen detective work and learned to harden his heart a little. The chief was right. He needed to see things objectively and not let pity get in the way. But then he had met Henrietta, and his cold heart, nearly frozen from both the war and his subsequent detective work, began to thaw until it had melted completely, making him feel more alive than he ever had—as well as uncomfortably vulnerable. Again, he wondered how running a detective agency was really going to work. They were already stumbling, and this was an easy case. Well, the Madame Pavlovsky case was anyway. In his mind, Liesel Klinkhammer’s death was not a case at all, though there was something niggling there, he had to privately admit. He just didn’t know what, and he dared not tell Henrietta. She needed no encouragement to see things where there were none. It was better to treat this poor woman’s death as a charity case—as his chief would have called it—and let it lie.
“Surely we can help her somehow,” Henrietta was saying. “It can’t be left up to Gunther. I feel sorry for him, too. He was trying to do the right thing, and now he’s caught up in this mess, with no one or nothing to help him, besides Elsie, I suppose, which isn’t saying much. She’s already overwhelmed. Surely we could at least pay for the girl to be examined by a reputable doctor?”
Clive rubbed his chin. “Yes, I suppose we could do that,” he said. Upon meeting Gunther the other day, Clive found that he liked him more than he thought he would, though it was a trifle hard to get past the fact that he was German. He wondered how old he was . . . he seemed too young to have fought in the war. His initial impression of him, however, had been good despite the circumstances; he appeared to be an intelligent sort, solid. He wondered about Elsie’s interest and hoped that she wasn’t forming an attachment. Gunther didn’t seem the lecherous type, but still . . . there would be no end of problems if Elsie developed feelings for him. “We have to be careful, darling,” he said now to Henrietta.
“Careful? Of what?”
“Careful of getting too emotionally attached to our cases,” he said gently. “It’s wise advice the chief once gave me. Our job is to catch criminals, not to help the victims. That’s a different sort of thing altogether.”
“Honestly, Clive! I don’t see why not. What a curmudgeon you’re being. And this isn’t a case, so you keep reminding me. Please.”
She looked up at him with her big blue eyes, and he felt a rush of love for her. How could he deny her anything, especially something so easily in his power to grant?
“All right. You win,” he said with a small wink. He drained his sherry and moved toward the desk to refill his glass. “I’ll make some inquiries. But no guarantees,” he added, noticing the phone messages Billings had mentioned, lying neatly on the right-hand side of the blotter. He picked up the one addressed to him and opened it. “I’m not sure there’s much we can do for the girl,” he said absently as he began to read and then tossed it back onto the desk. “Doubtless, Gunther has some plan of his own,” Clive went on, looking at Henrietta now. “Maybe he’ll go back to Germany.”
“Go back to Germany! That’s ridiculous.”
“Here, this is yours I believe,” he said, handing her the folded message with “Mrs. Clive Howard” scrawled across the front in Billings’s tiny, neat handwriting. He watched as she opened it and quickly read it.
“Anything of interest?” he asked, taking another drink.
“It’s from Lucy. She wants me to telephone her back as soon as I can,” Henrietta said with a frown.
“Our missing Mr. Tobin rang,” he said. “I’ll telephone him back after dinner. Perhaps he will agree to meet with us. Hopefully, Mrs. Tobin will also be on hand and we can get to the bottom of this whole mess.”
Henrietta did not respond but merely took a drink as she looked at him. She was thinking something, he could tell.
“I think you’re afraid, Clive,” she said, finally. “Afraid that Madame Pavlovsky is not really a fraud. That she’s real.”
Clive tried not to audibly sigh. “Hardly, darling,” he said, trying instead to force out a chuckle. “There are much scarier adversaries out there than the likes of Madame Pavlovsky.”
“Scarier than someone who can talk to the dead?” she countered.
“We can all ‘talk to the dead,’ Henrietta. It doesn’t take much effort. I myself talk to my father every day.”
“You know what I mean, Clive.”
Now he really did sigh. How had they gotten back to square one?
“There’s something about her . . . ” Henrietta went on as she rose, presumably to dress for dinner; it was getting late. “Something I just can’t explain.”
Interview with Michelle Cox
Alexandra: Thank you for that.
Michelle: You’re welcome. That was fun.
Alexandra: Oh, good. Glad you enjoyed it.
I just want to go back and talk about the origin of the series. The first book s is called A Girl Like You and it begins in 1935.
What year are we in in the scene that you just read?
Michelle: That’s a good question. Time does not travel very fast in the series, so it’s probably still 1936 or early ’37.
Alexandra: OK, so we’re between the wars.
Michelle: Yes, it is thirty seven. So what I’m referring to is the World War One.
Alexandra: Right. I noticed one of the things that you mentioned on your web site and in your bio is how much you enjoy that era, the 30s in between the wars.
What was the origin of the series for you?
Michelle: Well, it’s a good question. It was never meant to be a series. Let’s start there. So I just was going to write one mystery book.
I based it off a woman that I met in a nursing home when I worked there. So, Henrietta is based on a real person.
I really at the time had more of an affinity for the forties. But she had this amazing life in Chicago and she used to say that she had a man-stopping body once upon a time and a personality to go with it. She was really a firecracker.
She had all these stories and all of these strange jobs going through the depression. It wasn’t hard for her to get a job because of her looks. But it was hard for her to keep a job because she was very virtuous and she would slap owners or managers for trying to feel her up in the back room. She’d be out.
So she had this long string of jobs; she worked at the World’s Fair in 1933 and she worked as a taxi dancer. And all of those things in the book are really real.
And so I thought, gosh, I just I love that detail of her working at the World’s Fair. She had to dress up like a Dutch girl every day. So I really wanted to set the book in the 30s.
Had I known that I was writing a series, I might not have. But now I’m glad, actually, because I do think there’s so much out there about World War II already in this forgotten decade. So I really enjoy it.
Alexandra: One of the things you mentioned about Henrietta in the description for the first book, A Girl Like You, is that she worked as a 26 girl at a bar.
I don’t know what that is. What is a ’26 girl’?
Michelle: I had to research that, too.
This was a real job that this woman had and it is a real thing. As far as I could research it was local to Chicago only. So it was a dice game and it was played in taverns, sometimes in cigar stores.
You would roll, I think it was 13 dice and you would try to get a perfect score of twenty six. And if you did, you got a free drink on the house. They had these girls, called 26 girls and they were supposed to keep score but really they were pushing drinks. So that was a real, a real occupation.
Alexandra: Oh wow. That’s fascinating. I had no idea about that.
When you’re researching or thinking about writing your next book, do you find that your ideas come from research or do you have the idea first and then go and research it?
Michelle: I have the idea first and then I go and research deep. If I wrote another one, it would be book six. And it’s it’s really more it’s it’s kind of a progressive series, obviously.
There’s a mystery in each book that wraps up at the end. But it’s really more about these character arcs: it’s this big saga. And there’s all these subplots now going and weaving in and out.
So Book Six would really have to be more about progressing those characters on. And so I come up with some sort of idea. And then if I have to go back and research that I’d love for them to go in book six back to England and maybe get up caught up in some sort of pre-war type of stuff.
Alexandra: The first book is in Chicago. And then they go to England. Is that correct?
Michelle: They go to England in Book 3 because that’s the wedding and the honeymoon.
Clive’s uncle is Lord Lynley, and they have this crumbling estate in England. And so they go there to meet the family. And then they’re going to go on and to France and Italy and all these places.
But there’s a murder occurs in the village, and they stay and solve it. And then well… I won’t tell you. But they have to quickly come back to the US and end their honeymoon for a certain reason.
Clive promises her that he will bring her back eventually. So I’m thinking maybe that will be book six.
Alexandra: What was it like for you writing a book based in England rather than Chicago?
Michelle: It wasn’t that hard for me. I’m married to a Brit and I studied abroad for some time.
Because my husband’s family is there we have gone there many, many, many times. And I’m a secret Anglophile at heart. So it’s all sort of there.
Alexandra: That must have made it easier for you.
We talked a little bit about Henrietta. And so maybe just as sort of a final question. Tell us a bit more about Clive. And he’s a police inspector. A detective.
Give us a little bit more about Clive’s character.
Michelle: Clive has something that he doesn’t tell Henrietta in the first book.
And quickly when I decided to make it into a series because I didn’t really want to write about a cop and his wife in the thirties in Chicago. I felt like that had maybe already been done. So he is actually the heir to the Howard estate in a very wealthy northern suburb.
He has been sort of running from this since he was in the war and he has a lot of PTSD and he really doesn’t want to have anything to do with that life. But after he meets Henrietta, then things begin to change.
He was already married and his wife passed away while he was overseas fighting. So he has that carries that secret sorrow as well. So he’s this aloof character, but he decides to give his heart to Henrietta.
But he’s very, very, very overprotective of her. So that’s constantly one of their battles between them, is that she’s very spunky and independent. And that’s one of the reasons he loves her. But he’s terribly frightened at the same time. So it’s an interesting dynamic.
Alexandra: Fascinating. This has been great. Michelle, it’s been lovely chatting with you. Why don’t you let everyone know where they can find out more about you and your books?
Michelle: Sure. You can find me on MichelleCoxAuthor.com that’s my Web site and you can find all of my links to all the social media platforms. If you want to follow me, that would be great.
Please sign up for my newsletter. I have tons of contests, like big contests all all the time for just subscribers. And you can follow me and find out where I’m going to be next. And what a book, too.
Alexandra: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much again. It was lovely chatting with you.
Michelle: Thanks so much. It was fun.
Alexandra: Take care. Bye bye.