Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book review: Death at Pullman, by Frances McNamara

Frances McNamara’s follow-up to Death at Hull House sees her enterprising young protagonist, former university student Emily Cabot, involved in tracking down another killer in late 19th-century Chicagoland. Emily is more of an interested observer than a classic amateur detective, which lets the story unfold more realistically than many other mysteries of this type. The plot is based around a historical incident whose authenticity remains intact.

In 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company, creator of sleeper cars for luxurious passenger travel by rail, have gone on strike. With demand for their products slowing down, wages have been cut, but rents in the company town of Pullman, Illinois, have held steady – forcing the workers into abject poverty. Emily and her mentor from Hull House, Jane Addams, arrive in Pullman to help bring about a solution to the crisis, which Emily thinks won’t take long to achieve. Unfortunately, she’s wrong. Soon after the women arrive, a young worker of Irish descent is found hanged, and a sign at the murder scene accuses him of being a spy for the company.

Tensions heat up. The American Railway Union muscles its way in on the workers’ side, wealthy George Pullman refuses to budge, and travel is brought to a standstill. While her friend Dr. Stephen Chapman takes care of the medical needs of the employees and their families, Emily has her hands full running a food supply station, growing more sympathetic to their plight every day. The model town of Pullman has proved to be anything but.

The combination of labor unrest, rivalries among local families, and past romantic intrigues is a combustible mix, an edgy scenario that is laid out convincingly, just eight years after Chicago’s deadly Haymarket affair. As Emily transforms from idealistic outsider to central player in the escalating conflict, she grows in confidence, proceeding with resoluteness of purpose while remaining aware of the tragic missteps on both sides. By this third book in the series, Emily has come into her own.  Death at Pullman is a suspenseful re-creation of a critical moment in American social history, as seen from the viewpoint of a strong-willed, engaging fictional heroine.

Death at Pullman was published by Allium Press of Chicago, a small press focusing on titles of historical Chicago interest, in March at $14.99 (trade pb, 250pp).


  1. Looks like an interesting series.

  2. Oh this sounds cool! I must go look up more about this series.

  3. It's definitely worth reading if you like American history. The next one will take place back east, in Woods Hole.

  4. I don't usually like mysteries but this one seems interesting because of the connection to the Pullman car drivers.