BY SANDRA DALLAS
It’s the spring of 1885 when wealthy New York socialite Beret Osmundsen first sets foot in a Denver police station. Just days before, she received the terrible news of the death of her estranged younger sister Lillie. The telegram from her aunt and uncle was brief, stating only that Lillie had passed away suddenly and there was no need for Beret to make the long trip west. Soon, a sordid story is revealed when Beret comes across a scandal sheet with the details of a brutal murder of a prostitute named “Lillie Brown” in the brothel where she lived Upon a closer read, Beret becomes convinced that “Lillie Brown” was in fact her sister, and her murderer has not been caught. Her investigation takes her from the dangerous, seedy underworld of Denver’s tenderloin to the highest levels of Denver society. Along the way Beret learns the depths of Lillie’s depravity and must reconcile these with her memories of the innocent young girl of their youth, all while never losing sight of finding the murderer. With the help of detective Mick McCauley, Beret ultimately unearths the truth about the sister she couldn’t save and exposes the darkest side of Gilded Age ambition in the city in the process.
"…memorably evokes the raw, rough-edged Denver of 1885 in this blend of suspenseful mystery and nuanced romance."
When I was first married, my husband and I lived in Breckenridge, Colorado, then an old mining town. Our next door neighbor was a wiry, white-haired woman who went fishing at dawn and left part of her catch on our doorstep for breakfast. Later, I learned this thoughtful neighbor had been a “working girl” at Mae Nicholson’s Blue Goose. Mae spent summers in Breckenridge and regaled us with stories of an earlier Breckenridge. The two women made me realize that prostitutes were real people, not so much different from their neighbors who had not gone “across the river,” as it was said in Breckenridge.
As I researched western history for a series of nonfiction books I wrote before I turned to novels, I discovered that Victorian prostitution was much different from the naughty and salacious way it had been portrayed by aging male writers. Yes, there were the glittering inmates of high-class brothels, but there were also small town hookers like our neighbor and Mae, who were accepted as part of the community fabric. Then there were the disease-ridden hopheads who worked out of cribs at the end of the line. They were pathetic creatures who deserved pity, not scorn.
In years gone by, women turned to prostitution for a variety of reasons, mostly economic. They had few marketable skills, and prostitution was more desirable than domestic work. But what about the women with alternatives who actually chose prostitution? That intrigued me, and so I created Lillie, a wealthy young woman who eschews a string of suitors and chooses to “turn out.”
Despite what I’ve written above, Fallen Women is not really a story about prostitution. Illicit sex is only the backdrop, just as quilting is a backdrop in some of my other books. The story is centered on the relationship between two sisters. When Lillie is murdered, Beret, the older, duty-bound sister is motivated by love and guilt to find her sister’s killer. But more than that, she wants to understand why Lillie betrayed her. Why did Lillie break Beret’s heart and then disappear into Denver’s underworld? And of course, Fallen Women has a hint of romance. What fun would it be to write a book without it?
AN EXCERPT FROM
The smell. It was always the smell that got to him. No matter how many times he’d been inside one of these wretched places, the smell hit him like the odor rising from a cesspool. He could smell it even in the better houses, such as this one. Others might not pick it up, but he had spent too much time in such places not to be aware of the faint smell. It was a mixture of perfume and body powder, of cigar smoke, vomit and unemptied chamber pots. Sweat, spilled beer and brandy, flat champagne from bottles stuck into buckets of melting ice, basins of dirty water. There was the stench of spittoons filled with chewing tobacco so harsh it gagged a man. And over it hung the woman smell of tired and used bodies, something that lingered even after the house was aired out and scrubbed before the evening clientele arrived. He’d smelled that whorehouse stench a hundred-perhaps hundreds of-times, but there was something more this time, the metallic smell of blood and worse, the odor he always thought of as flesh beginning to rot, to decay. The smell of death.
He took out his handkerchief and held it over his nose as he walked down the hallway past the half-opened doors, sad girls peering out. They were dressed in their underwear or kimonos that were carelessly buttoned. “What happened, Mick?” one whispered in a voice that was husky from too many cigarettes, too much beer. Her face had begun to show the ravages of her life, although she was not yet half-way through her twenties.
“Hello, Elsie. You tell me,” Mick replied putting down the handkerchief. It didn’t do any good anyway.
“How would I know? I just got back.” She sniffed and rubbed at her nose, and Mick wondered if she had a cold or was a snowbird. “I liked her. Did she do it to herself? She was kind of snooty, but she was all right. You want to come in? You’re always welcome, you know.”
“I’m on duty, honey.” Mick smiled at what his fellow officers would say if he detoured into one of the rooms. It was tempting, just to get their reaction.
“You’ll come back and tell me, won’t you? Madam says it was suicide, that maybe she swallowed that poison Rough on Rats, but me and some of the girls, well, we think…” Her voice trailed off.
“Think what, honey?”
“We’re not so sure.”
They never wanted to believe it was suicide, Mick thought. Maybe that was because they didn’t like the idea that they, too, might be wretched enough to take their own lives. The life of a prostitute was a short one, maybe seven years. “You got any ideas?”
“I’ll come back when I finish up then.” A patrolman had come out of a room at the end of the hall and was beckoning to him.” Mick hurried off and told the cop, “I got sidetracked.”
“I’ll bet.” The officer smirked.
Mick gave him a stern look. “Listen, hamfat, she says she might know what happened. Do you have something to say about that?”
Mick stared at the man until the cop turned and began studying one of the pictures in heavy gold frames that lined the hall. The paintings were mostly of women lying naked on beds or of satyrs romping with nubile young ladies. This particular painting was of a man with a human torso and the legs and horns and ears of a goat, chasing two naked girls whose breasts and pubic areas were hidden by tree branches. “They’’re waiting for you,” the cop told Mick, without taking his eyes from the painting.
“His name is Pan.”
“The man in the painting.”
“I never saw anybody who looked like that. You suppose he’s real?” The patrolman hooked his thumbs over his belt.
Mick frowned, wondering if the officer were really that dumb. He was young—and hadn’t been in the force long. Mick could tell by the new coat with its gleaming brass buttons. But then all the buttons gleamed. No policeman would go on duty with tarnished buttons. He wondered how long the patrolman had worked the beat on Holladay Street, the center of Denver’s tenderloin. Maybe not long. The young officer would find out soon enough about the goats in the whorehouses.
“Mick.” An older police officer had come out of the door at the end of the hall and was gesturing to him.
Detective Sergeant McCauley put his handkerchief into his pocket and without a glance at the rest of the pictures in the whorehouse art gallery, he entered the room.
“Cronin,” Mick acknowledged the officer who had gestured to him. Then he turned to a second man and said, “Doctor.” The coroner was tall, acetic, his face and hands with their long fingers an unnatural white. He dressed in a long black coat, and he himself looked like death. In fact, that was what he was called, Dr. Death. The man gave a single dip of his chin to acknowledge Mick, then turned his glance to the woman lying on the bed.
Mick had seen dead whores before, seen the lifeless faces ravished by drugs and liquor and disease, faces (and bodies) that no longer attracted men, and so the girls had ended their lives with laudanum or arsenic. Those were usually the crib girls, the lowest rank of prostitute, however, girls who might have started out in a parlor house like this one, then gone downhill. It wasn’t often that the inmate of one of the better brothels took her life, although it sometimes happened at Christmas, when she started thinking about home, a home she couldn’t go back to or maybe a home she’d never known. He’d seen the bodies of prostitutes bruised from beatings, too, scratched or sliced with knives.
But he’d never seen anything like this.