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D. Z. Church
Unbecoming a Lady
D. Z. Church, author

Adult; Mystery/Thriller; (Publish)

A torn sleeve, a bruised arm, and a lie. A friend knocks on Cora Countryman’s front door seeking help with the torn sleeve of her work dress, claiming she ripped it on a bush. As the town’s seamstress, Cora has mended many a dress. So, when she sees a ragged tear in her friend’s forearm and a bruise left by a thumb, Cora questions her friend’s story. When Cora asks about the wounds, her friend is evasive. Worried by the lack of answers, Cora starts her own investigation. When murder is done, Cora won’t give in, back down, or submit to the behavior expected of a young lady in 1876 in a burgeoning Illinois prairie town. Why should she, she never expected to stay. That is until her mother abandoned her, leaving her heavily in debt, her reputation on the line, and the drudgery of a boarding house to run for one boarder. Her intended life of mystery and adventure never seemed so far away.
With keen attention to detail, Church’s first in the Wanee Mysteries series offers a plucky heroine and plenty of trouble. Set over the course of two weeks in 1876 in Wanee, Illinois, the novel follows the trials and tribulations of 19-year-old Cora Countryman. After the loss of her father at the Battle of Chickamauga when Cora was six, Edith, Cora’s mother, struggled to make ends meet, and dutiful Cora finished school and began work as a seamstress. Yet one Sunday morning Cora wakes up and realizes her mother is simply gone, with no warning—and has left her daughter a mountain of debt. Searching for her mother, Cora discovers yet another mystery, one involving the butcher’s daughter, Eliza, and the immigrants flocking to the building boom in Wanee.

Church deftly highlights the class and ethnic tensions that pervaded the boom time of the late 1800s, paying particular attention to the Irish fleeing the famine and the tensions between incoming rail and stockyard workers and the townspeople. Seeded with wonderfully written secondary characters—Josiah, her boarder, and Sebastian Kanady, the newspaperman in town and possible love interest—the setting comes alive. At 19, Cora is rather self-possessed despite her apparent abandonment and a lack of help from her newlywed brother. She manages to not only keep up with running the boarding house, but also to keep abreast of the town gossip and the mysterious goings on in the night, particularly in the park across from the boarding house.

Wanee is vivid and convincing, as is this depiction of a determined young woman. Certain details, such as the description of the newspaper’s window or Edith’s background, immerse readers in a sense of place and time, though at other times the detail becomes repetitive or more involved than is necessary, diminishing narrative momentum. Overall, though, the novel is light and cozy with its mystery, and lovers of historical fiction packed with detail will delight in this refreshing offering.

Takeaway: A light mystery in 19th century Illinois with an appealingly determined heroine.

Great for fans of: Ellery Adams’s The Book of Candlelight, Mary Stewart’s Rose Cottage.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A