Murder at the Portland Variety

by M.J. Zellnik

Published by Midnight Ink

336 pages, 2005





Gore by Gaslight

Reviewed by Caroline Cummins


The Gilded Age. That phrase, supposedly coined by authors Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warren (for their 1873 book of the same name), conjures up images of cobble-and-brick cities, fog-shrouded lampposts, steam-puffing ships. Of swishing skirts, of clopping horses, of gas giving way to electricity. Sherlock Holmes might seem to have a lock on this era, but that hasn't stopped history-loving modern writers from conjuring up the same period atmosphere for their own stories. Anne Perry's three ongoing mystery series are scattered throughout the reign of Queen Victoria and her immediate successors, while Caleb Carr's well-known 1994 novel, The Alienist (and its 1997 sequel, The Angel of Darkness) put a New York spin on the brandy-and-cigars London model. Even non-fiction writer Erik Larson scored a blockbuster with The Devil in the White City (2003), a page-turner about a serial killer who stalked the edges of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

With Murder at the Portland Variety, the debut novel of Miriam and Joe Zellnik, the turn-of-the-last-century mystery gets a new location: Portland, Oregon. Their 1894 Portland is a gawky, brash teenager, halfway between the rough wooden outpost of the early pioneers and the smooth concrete city of today. It has rickety boardinghouses and elegant mansions, dark riverfront warehouses and crisp brick offices. It has horse-drawn wagons, but it also boasts electric streetcars. And it has a new resident in the form of Libby Seale, a young, pretty, smart and desperate seamstress who fled her Jewish family in New York and hopped a westbound train to the end of the line.

Landing in Portland, she finds shelter in a boardinghouse and work at Crowther's Variety, a downtown vaudeville theater, sewing costumes for the cabaret dancers. "In an original draft, Libby was a showgirl," Miriam Zellnik tells me. "But the people on the stage didn't interact as much with the rest of the theater. It seemed like she'd be more self-absorbed if she was an actress. And showgirls -- not to knock them or anything -- just don't seem as inherently smart and sassy."

Her smarts and her sass mean that Libby's day job is soon shunted aside in favor of a more absorbing hobby: amateur detection. A magician's assistant, the beautiful Vera Carabella, is found murdered, and the lonely Libby, grateful for Vera's all-too-brief friendship, feels she owes it to the deceased performer to find her killer. Libby's determined efforts whisk her through multiple facets of Portland: shabby boardinghouses, the mysterious Chinatown, grimy docks, an intimidating police station, glamorous mansions, and finally underground, into the city's notorious Shanghai Tunnels.

Those dark, fetid passageways link the basements of Portland's downtown to the Willamette River waterfront. Originally created to lug cargo from the city to the docks, the tunnels soon became convenient passageways for Chinese laborers to get to and from work without being harassed by white Portlanders. But they're best known as the route to Portland's own particular Hades, the underground maze through which drunken men were shanghaied, or dragged to the waterfront and dumped on merchant ships as forced laborers. In Libby's world, they're also the path from prostitution to white slavery, for naïve girls gone West to disappear with nary a relative to miss them.

Miriam, a technical writer who moved to Portland from New York in 1995, first concocted the idea for Murder at the Portland Variety when she took a tour of the tunnels. "I met this guy named Michael P. Jones, who was, like, Mr. Shanghai Tunnels, and toured the tunnels with him," Miriam recalls. The dank underground seemed like the obvious counterfoil to the bright, perfumed world above, the flip side to rampant capitalism and glittering showgirls. "I thought, 'This would be a great setting for a mystery novel,'" she says. She liked reading historical mysteries set at the turn of the last century, but noticed that most of the books she read took place in New York or London. Portland, she thought, would be refreshingly different.

But Miriam didn't get very far with her first draft. In 2000, her father died, and she went back east to help out her family. "So naturally, that would be the perfect time to plan a mystery novel," she jokes. Her brother, Joe, a New York-based composer and marketing specialist, suggested that they form a brother-sister team and write the book together. They agreed that their complementary skills -- she's the better researcher, he's the better plotter -- might make for one whole book. And Joe combined their first initials to form their nom de plume: M.J. Zellnik.

Libby Seale, their seamstress heroine, turns out to be based on their grandmother. "Her name was Lillian; Libby was a nickname," says Miriam. "She was born in 1902 and became a lawyer, which was pretty unusual in the 1920s. She was told she couldn't get married until her older sister got married. So when she and her husband met in law school, he climbed up the fire escape and helped her sneak out and they eloped. She was definitely not a typical woman of her period."

In Murder at the Portland Variety, the feisty Libby keeps forgetting to be a lady. She sprints down a busy street, skirts and all, chasing a thief. She brazenly calls on a young reporter at his office. She even dresses up in one of Vera's cabaret outfits -- with a few last-minute alterations for modesty's sake -- to crash a ball.

"We felt that a seamstress would have access to many strata of society," says Joe. "Additionally, there were relatively few trades that respectable, middle-class women practiced in this time period -- basically seamstress, teacher/governess or paid companion." Miriam points out that while Libby works in a theater, she's in a class above the Vera Carabellas she dressed. "Working on the stage was scandalous then," Miriam explains. "It was one step up from prostitution."

Respectable or not, Libby is supposed to be an anomaly. "She's the kind of girl who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York, transported to a new, unexpected locale," says Miriam.

Libby also has a maverick partner in Peter Eberle, the newspaper reporter who agrees to help her out. "In a mystery, if you don't have two characters to play off each other, it makes it hard to show the process of solving the crime," says Miriam. "Besides, in historical mysteries, there always has to be this little romantic soap-opera take." Libby and Peter do, of course, fall in love. But Libby's past gets in the way, and unlike most conventional mysteries, not everything is neatly tied up at the end.

Miriam and Joe wrote Murder at the Portland Variety via phone, e-mail and a six-week stint in an apartment in London. They alternated writing and editing -- they'd write a section, then edit each other's work. "Often I would follow Libby for a few chapters and Joe would follow Peter, and then those scenes would be interspersed," Miriam relates. Despite the necessary division of labor, they think it's hard to tell that the book was written by two different people. "I think one of the nicest compliments people pay us is when they say that the tone of the book stays so steady, it seems as if it was written by one person," says Joe.

"Honestly, I don't know how people write mysteries by themselves," says Miriam. "You need another person saying, 'That won't work,' so you don't miss stuff and end up annoying readers. I have great admiration for those writers who can actually sit down and plot it all out beforehand."

Their next Libby Seale book, tentatively titled A Death at the Rose Paperworks, is due out in October of this year. "I believe the publisher's working title, however, is Murder at the Rose Paperworks," Miriam says. "Except that Murder at the Fill-in-the-Blank sounds like Nancy Drew; Murder at the Old Mill, that kind of thing. Still, I guess we do kind of have a plucky girl detective."

The Zellniks would like to write at least three Libby Seale books and see if she catches on. "Having written two, it now seems like a well-oiled machine," Miriam remarks. "Maybe someday the books will just write themselves." | March 2006


Caroline Cummins is a contributing editor of January Magazine.