Guest- Victoria Thompson

Jessie: In New Hampshire happy to have finished my latest round of copy edits!

Congratulations Lisa P Ippolito! You are the winner of Victoria’s mystery, Murder on Trinity Place! Jessie will contact you to arrange for it to be sent.

Our guest today is Victoria Thompson, author of the bestselling Gaslight Mystery Series and the Counterfeit Lady novels. She is one of the authors I really look up to both as a writer and as a person. She knows the business and is truly gracious about sharing her knowledge and experience with others. She encourages, teaches and cheers on the people around her and can be counted on to add wit and wisdom to any conversation she joins. I am delighted to welcome her here to the blog today!

Her latest Gaslight Mystery, Murder on Trinity Place, releases on April 30 and is available now for pre-order.  To celebrate, she’ll give away a signed hardcover copy to one commenter here today (US entries only).

Party like it’s 1899!

So I was working on ideas for Murder on Trinity Place, the 23rdbook in the Gaslight Mystery Series. The series started in 1896, and after 22 books, we were approaching the end of 1899, so I thought it would be fun to show the turn of that century. Were people as excited about it as we were in 1999? It turns out they weren’t (which is a different blog post).  Where do I go from there?

Got Milk?

I had an idea for how to start Murder on Trinity Place, even if it wasn’t as interesting as I had hoped. The murder would happen on New Year’s Eve, and I decided the victim would be a man whose legitimate business might be a cover for some sort of illegal activity.  I consulted a few of my writer friends (because it’s always easier to come up with ideas for other people’s books).  My good friend, Susanna Calkins, suggested that milk wagons could be used for all sorts of nefarious purposes when not actually hauling milk. What a perfect idea!  (I ended up dedicating the book to her.)

And then the magic happened. 

            I started researching what milk delivery was like around the turn of the last century, and I discovered all sorts of things about milk that I’d never dreamed of. Did you know that at one point in time in New York City, they had “milk wars”? Did you know that in mid-Nineteenth Century New York City, half of the children died before the age of five?  Half of them! And why? Mostly from drinking contaminated milk. Yikes. This was serious stuff. This is why writers love doing research. Truth is often much more interesting than anything you could make up yourself.

            “Never cry over spilt milk, because it may have been poisoned.” –W.C. Fields

            When the owner of a dairy is found murdered, Frank and Sarah Malloy are asked to solve the case by their very superstitious neighbor, Mrs. Ellsworth, because the victim is the father of her new daughter-in-law. (Can we all take a moment here to lament the fact that the English language has no easy way to describe your relationship to your child’s in-laws? “My daughter-in-law’s parents” is so unwieldy.  But I digress.)  Since Mrs. Ellsworth once saved Sarah’s very life, they cannot refuse, and they begin an investigation that leads them to some very surprising places.

            Milk has long been a staple of the American diet.  What are your memories of drinking it as a child? Do you remember home delivery? Do you like milk? Hate it? Are you allergic?  Are you surprised to learn that at one point it time drinking it could actually be dangerous?

**********

Murder on Trinity Place

The devil’s in the details when a respected man is found murdered near historic Trinity Church, in the exciting new novel from the national bestselling Gaslight Mystery series…


As 1899 draws to a close, Frank and Sarah Malloy are ready to celebrate the New Year–and century–at Trinity Church when they notice Mr. Pritchard, a neighbor’s relative, behaving oddly and annoying the other revelers. When Frank tries to intervene and convince Pritchard to return home with them, he refuses and Frank loses him in the crowd. The next morning Sarah and Frank are horrified to learn Pritchard was murdered sometime in the night, his body left on Trinity Place, mere steps from the incident. Frank and Sarah must search Pritchard’s past for a link between the new crimes…and old sins.   

**********

Victoria Thompson is the bestselling author of the Edgar ® and Agatha Award nominated Gaslight Mystery Series and the Counterfeit Lady Series. Her latest books are Murder on Trinity Place and City of Secrets, both from Berkley. She currently teaches in the Master’s Degree program for writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University. She lives in Illinois with her husband and a very spoiled little dog.

62 Thoughts

  1. Half of children died? That is hard to comprehend, and yet today we don’t think anything of drinking milk. What an interesting premise for a book! (And Jessie, congrats on finishing the copy edits!)

    1. It is shocking that something we take for granted now was so dangerous in the, not so distant, past! And thanks for the congratulations! I feel absolutely abuzz with cheerfulness having finished the copy edits!

    2. It’s hard to believe that infant mortality was so high in a historical time that doesn’t seem that long ago! You won’t believe what they used to put in milk to make it whiter and thicker. No wonder children died.

  2. Welcome, Vicki! I hadread about substances they doctored milk with in the 19th century, including chalk. Uck. No wonder children died. I can’t wait to read the new book, and to share the stage with you at Malice.

  3. HI- first time commenting here. I am new to the mystery genre and i think i would love these Gaslight mysteries. I am going to check them out next time i am at the bookstore. I hope i can find them. This one sounds very interesting and I had no clue about the milk wars and all those poor children that died from poisoned milk. What a horrible thing.
    Thank you for sharing the story with us. I look forward to reading your books. Have a great and blessed day.

    1. I’m so gald you’ve dropped by! Victoria’s books are available in most bookshops and are easy to find in online retailers as well as libraries. I am sure you will enjoy them!

  4. My Irish grandfather arrived in New York in 1911 and got a job delivering milk with a horse-drawn wagon. He met his wife (my grandmother, also Irish) at the back door of the house where she was working as an upstairs maid. They married in 1918 and moved to Syracuse, where they had family. The world you describe must have been familiar to him! (Personally I’ve been allergic to milk since birth.)

  5. I’m too young to have seen a milk wagon, but I am not surprised it was dangerous at one point. I used to love a cold glass of milk with warm cookies. Alas, now I fear I’m a touch lactose intolerant and the smell of milk is very off-putting (bad episode when I was pregnant).

  6. I love this series. Just finished reading an earlier book. Victoria always has the freshest ideas.

    My grandfather owned a dairy and he and my father told tales of delivering milk by horse and wagon. And how excited they were when they got a truck! I’ve got some pix of all those vehicles. We only drank whole milk at home and always shook the bottle (yes bottle) before pouring even though milk was homogenized by then. Habit on my father’s part and learned behavior on mine.

    1. I remember glass milk bottles, and the ring of cream around the mouth of the bottle! I image delivering milk with a horse and wagon was difficult since you never knew what the horse might do.

      1. Actually, the horse knew the route very well and knew right where to go. A problem arose, however, when the route had to be changed for some reason! It was hard to persuade the horse to do something different.

  7. When I was a kid we had milk delivery. I don’t remember the actual delivery but I remember getting it out of the metal box by the steps in the morning.

    I read a book, I think it was The Poison Squad, about how toxic all kinds of food used to be.

    1. I remember getting the milk out of the box, too! And yes, many foods used to be horribly toxic and contaminated. Ironically, it was the novel THE JUNGLE by Upton Sinclair that brought the problem to light and motivated massive reform in food safety!

  8. Hi, Vicki. I do remember glass quart bottles of milk (and pint bottles of cream) delivered door to door. They wenr into a box on the porch, which is also where the money to pay for them was left, along with a note if the order needed to be changed. In your period, I believe there were still milk trains making the run from the area where I grew up (Sullivan County Catskills) to NYC. No refrigeration yet, right? And no pasteurized milk? Milk straight from the cow was safer. At least it was fresh!

    1. Actually, it turns out that milk straight from the cow wasn’t necessarily safer. Cows could have tuberculosis and that disease could be passed to humans in milk. That’s one reason for the strict regulation of the sale of non-pasteurized milk. Cows in dairies producing non-pasteurized milk for sale must all be regularly tested for TB.

    2. By the time the trains were carrying it from the suburbs (they used to keep cows right in NYC!), they had ice to pack the milk in for the trip, but still no refrigeration. Straight from the cow was safer in theory, but in practice, not so much! Read all about it in MURDER ON TRINITY PLACE!

  9. I was not even thought of when milk was delivered by wagon with chunks of ice to keep them cold, but my father told me stories about how he used to attempt to take a hunk of ice when the milkman’s back was turned. It was such a delight during the hot summer days. When I was a child, we got milk delivered. It was fun to have the milkman bring the milk to the door and if we weren’t home he would put it in a special box by our door. Milk wasn’t the only thing he delivered. We could get eggs, ice cream, cottage cheese and butter from him too. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genre to read and especially Victoria Hamilton.

  10. Welcome! Such an interesting story. I’m old enough to remember home milk delivery — brown bottles left in a metal box on our front porch. I think that last until I was four. I don’t like milk. I drank it for years but gradually quit.

  11. Welcome to the Wickeds, Vicki! I so admire those of you who write historicals. The book I just handed it had a subplot in 1899 and I almost had a nervous breakdown doing just that little bit. I’m sure I made some mistakes, particularly with word choice, not the obvious words you’d think to check, but expressions and word order I wouldn’t even think to look up.

    1. Good for you, Barbara! It’s a fine line when writing historical fiction. If you make it too accurate, modern readers find it stilted, but you can’t make it sound too modern, either. Interestingly, I sometimes edit out a phrase that was actually historically accurate but that sounds too modern!

  12. Hi Vicki! I had such bad food allergies when I was young that I could not drink milk, so I was never much of a milk drinker, even when I grew out of the allergies. Right after I had my daughter though, I started having cravings for whole milk and drank a lot of it. Milk has always seemed like such a wholesome drink, and I am horrified to learn that so many children died from tainted milk – so tragic! I love your books and can’t wait to read Murder on Trinity Place ~

    1. Yes, if you can’t trust milk, what CAN you trust? It was a horrible betrayal when you consider how important milk is to children. We take a lot for granted nowadays.

  13. Can’t wait!! I’ve been a huge fan of the series from the beginning. I had no idea milk had such an interesting history! I love milk, though I don’t often just pour a glass. Next time I do, I’ll be thinking a bit more about it’s rich history!

  14. I can remember home delivery. As a youngster in school I can remember mid-morning milk to make us strong. Then in later years, we could get chocolate milk or the little straw that when you drank milk through became chocolate flavored. I’m not a big milk drinker at all. In fact, I prefer my cereal dry. Hubby more than makes up for my lack of milk drinking. I swear at times that we need to buy a cow. 🙂
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  15. How interesting. Thanks for sharing the background of the new book. I look forward to reading it, when I’ve caught up on the series. I think I’m on about book 9 or 10 right now, so I have a little ways to go yet. (And please don’t enter me in this giveaway.)

  16. I love books set in the past, I learn so much from them. This is a new series for me and I see I have a lot of reading ahead of me, how exciting!

  17. Welcome, Vicki! I had read about substances they doctored milk with in the nineteenth century, including chalk. Uck. I can’t wait to read the new book, and to share the stage with you at Malice.

  18. Hi Victoria,

    Your post touched a nerve for me, and I’m most anxious to read the book.

    I had not realized just how grim the statistics on deaths from contaminated milk were. But I did know it was a huge problem.

    I’ve told this story here before, but it bears telling again. My grandmother was a relentless crusader for the pasteurization of milk.

    Somewhere around 1915, she and her husband had moved to Sacramento from Bay City, Michigan. The two of them were both teachers (which meant there wasn’t much money). At that time, she was mourning the death of the daughter of a friend from TB, caught from contaminated milk.

    She soon became a crusader against contaminated dairy products, becoming a kind of Carrie Nation, going after merchants whose storage conditions were particularly bad. I’ve seen a story in the Sacramento Bee from around the late 1920s or early 1930s of her giving grief to a grocer who was selling cottage cheese from an open tub (at room temperature, since electric refrigeration wasn’t widely in use at the time). The story in the Bee vividly describes the flies buzzing around the tub. I’m sure you can guess who got the Bee to cover the story.

    She eventually realized that trying to change things with individual grocers was not an effective strategy, and she turned her attention to getting legislation passed statewide. She had been involved in Republican politics for some time, and now she became a full-fledged lobbyist. She had realized that mandatory pasteurization was the single most effective thing that could be done to reduce illness from contaminated milk.

    As relentless as she had been in confronting grocers, she became even more so in her crusade to get this legislation passed. At that time only Southern Pacific Railroad and the liquor industry were more powerful in California than the Milk Lobby, so the challenge she faced was formidable. The Milk Lobby was able to get editorials published in The Sacramento Bee saying, “If Mrs. Webster would stay home and take care of her family, the children of California could get their milk!” But she was a formidable woman. I don’t know if the stories are apocryphal, when legislators (at that time all male) would see her coming, they would make a beeline for the nearest men’s room to hide from her.

    After several years of nearly single-handed effort on her part, she eventually succeeded in getting the Legislature to pass the pasteurization bill. I only knew my grandmother when she was in her 80’s and 90’s, and I’m told I should have seen her in her prime. But even then she was a force of nature, and I feel lucky to have known here even then.

    So, many thanks Victoria, for telling this part of the story. We take the safety of milk and other food products pretty much for granted, and an outbreak of salmonella or other food-borne illness is rare enough today that it makes the news. So give a cheer for authors who remind us that things weren’t always this way and for the crusaders who labored long and hard to make our food supply as safe as it is.

    1. What a great story, Lee! Thanks so much for sharing it. Thanks to women like your grandmother, food is so much safer today. It’s hard to believe milk was still unsafe as late as the 1930s.

  19. Learning about an author’s research is always so fascinating. I never thought about milk wars. As for me, milk is good for dunking the occasional Oreo in, but that’s about it. Once my mother stopped telling me that I had to drink milk so my (future) children would have strong teeth, I pretty much gave it up.

  20. I’m so excited about the new book! Interesting information on the history of milk. Never heard this before. My family on both sides were mainly farmers, so raised their own animals/produce.

  21. Your research on milk history is really interesting. I remember drinking a lot of milk as a child. Not sure when I stopped as I really don’t like milk now other than to add a splash to my hot tea.

  22. Cork (where I have a cottage now) and Kerry are prime dairy regions in Ireland (more cows than people), and most of us have seen KerryGold products in markets (a major Irish export). But a couple of years ago I stayed on a small farm with 40-odd cows (which also had rental units, which were quite nice). My kitchen there overlooked the dairy barn and the milking shed, and I was fascinated to watch the process. The milk was directed into a series of stainless steel temperature controlled tanks (direct from the cows!). It was picked up by tanker trucks every few days, but it was always carefully tested before it went into the truck, to make sure it wasn’t contaminated. I learned a lot talking with that farmer and just watching.

  23. So happy to show up on a day when Gaslight mysteries are featured and I get to “meet” Vicki! A late starter I am only on book 8 but you can bet I will be continuing on!

  24. We had milk boxes when I was little. I still drink a glass of milk with most meals as well as on cereal or in my tea. Not long ago people got sick in our area from drinking unpasteurized milk. The buyers knew that it was unpasteurized.

    Glad to see that Frank and Sarah are doing well with their family and still solving mysteries. I like to see characters evolve.

    1. Wow, if it can still happen today, think how dangerous it was a hundred years ago! Frank and Sarah have really surprised me. I never imagined they’d figure out a way to actually be together.

  25. I LOVE this series! As a native New Yorker who’s first-gen on one side and has city roots dating back to the 1880s on the other, I so connect to it. Congratulations! I’m too young for a milk wagon but I have a vague memory of tin boxes outside some doors. And my mother remembers the last of horse-drawn delivery in NYC from her childhood in the Depression.

    1. Thanks for sharing your memories, Ellen! How cool that your mom remembers horse drawn delivery. I had no idea it went on that long. Maybe because operating a horse was cheaper than operating a truck!

    1. I remember the milk box on the porch and how annoyed my mom would be when she forgot to bring the milk in on hot days!

  26. I loved this blog. Surprising bits of the past are always fascinating. Plus, I grew up in NY state dairy country. Regular school trips to the farms. We got milk delivered from local producers, and many houses had something no one mentioned, the milk box cut into the wall, with an outside door and an inside door. Farmer put the milk in from the outside and we got it and replaced the used bottles, on the inside. No one had to go out for the milk on freezing upstate winter days! And yes, the milk came in glass bottles with a thick layer of cream on top.

    1. We had one of those, in a house built in the early 1920s in Pennsylvania. Based on the structure of the house, I’d guess the kitchen end was earlier than that–once a farmhouse. There was what was left of an apple orchard in the front.

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