Thursday, July 05, 2018

Frances McNamara's Death at the Selig Studios, a mystery set amid Chicago's early film industry

The show must go on, as the saying goes – and the “film people” in McNamara’s seventh Emily Cabot mystery take this to extremes, to the heroine’s bafflement.

In this entry, set in 1909, Emily is in her thirties, a married mother of two and lecturer at the University of Chicago. Series regulars, like her friends Detective Whitbread and policeman “Fitz” Fitzgibbons, play major roles, as do the colorful personalities involved with the Selig Polyscope Company, a prominent American motion picture studio at the time. Emily gets drawn into their orbit after learning that her younger brother Alden, to her shock and dismay, is accused of shooting a man to death on the set. Almost as bad, in Emily’s eyes, is that he’d quietly left his job at the Tribune to pen scripts for “Colonel” Selig.

The plot rattles along nicely and is a fine introduction to the film industry’s little-known Windy City roots. While trying to teach her old-enough-to-know-better brother about responsibility and extricate him from a murder charge, Emily and her star-struck children get up close and personal (sometimes too much) with the “pantomimists,” their romantic predicaments, and the secrets they try to hide. The victim, Mr. Hyde, was a censor, and both Chicago’s mayor and Col. Selig seem to want to downplay the crime – the investigations may hold up production – which incenses Emily.

Fictional characters mingle with real-life silent film actors, and since many of the latter are no longer famous names, readers may not realize which is which until they read the helpful afterword. Along the way, Emily visits the sets of The Wizard of Oz, in its earliest surviving version, and two wildlife adventure flicks with real lions and leopards (animal lovers should be alerted about one distressing scene).

There’s a multitude of suspects and no obvious perpetrator; this mystery gets the job done. The only drawback is Emily's attitude. The film-industry setting means she’s out of her element (as the author’s afterword admits): as a progressive social reformer, she has zero appreciation for celluloid “fakery.” She’s occasionally rude to her friends and abrupt with family members, and her overall mood is grumpy. Hopefully by the next volume, her planned vacation to Woods Hole will have restored her good spirits.

Frances McNamara's Death at the Selig Studios is published by Allium Press of Chicago in May; thanks to the publisher for sending a copy at my request.

Here are my reviews of two earlier books in the series:

Death at Hull House, book one, set in 1893.
Death at Pullman, book two, set in 1894.


  1. This sounds like great fun and I love that cover! Can it be read standalone or do you really need to have read the others to be able to follow it? For example, the Phryne Fisher series does have sort-of standalone books, but you do need to have read some of the earlier ones to know about the characters.

  2. I haven't read books 3-6 yet - I need to catch up with them. While it was clear some characters had a history I hadn't seen firsthand, I didn't have any problems following the story or figuring out people's relationships. The ones I'd read were set 15 years earlier, so a lot has changed!

    I read this last month, before I went on vacation, and am trying to figure out what pile I put the book in so I can check the cover credit. I'm pretty sure it's based on an actual film poster from the time.