By J. Roslyn
Rhada Vatsal is the author of two highly rated historical novels set in New York City during the years leading up to America entering World War I: A Front Page Affair and Murder Between the Lines. We have reviewed both books, here.
We asked Ms. Vatsal why she chose the years of World War I, and she graciously provided us with the following guest column:
“World War I isn’t usually considered to be America’s war. The US joined the fighting late – the war began in the fall of 1914 and America joined the fray in 1917. By and large, stories about the war tend to focus on the experience ‘over there’—in English or French country homes, or in the battlefields of Europe. To me, it seems that we know more about World War II, in part because of that war’s atrocities and in part because it had clear good guys, Roosevelt and Churchill, and bad guys, Hitler and Stalin. World War I is more complicated. It was started by Kaiser Wilhelm–first cousin to King George of England–but was the result of military buildup that had been going on in Europe during the so-called ‘Belle Epoque,’ a seemingly tranquil period of peace and prosperity—and the setting of many beloved period series and films. But tensions were mounting behind the scenes and when they exploded, the world changed. Empires that had ruled great swathes of the world for centuries fell: the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary, the Romanovs of Russia, the Ottomans of Turkey, and the seeds were set for the modern world of nation-states that we inhabit and for political strife that haunts us to this day.
Across the Atlantic, the US didn’t remain untouched by all this upheaval. It faced what we would now call domestic terrorism on its shores (the subject of A Front Page Affair) and rapidly went from being a second-tier country to a global superpower. Along the way, President Wilson had to convince the public that America could no longer remain ‘a provincial nation’—part of a speech he gave at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The speech forms the climax of Murder Between the Lines and a crucial part of American history. The American economy prospered, thanks in no small part to the ramping up of the military—Kitty Weeks delves into this as she investigates the Edison company’s work on new submarine batteries.
I chose to set the Kitty Weeks Mystery series during the WWI-era because so much happened during this period, and there so many colorful stories that have remained under-explored and under-reported. In addition to the world history aspect, the late 1910s also saw a seismic shift for women: women won the right to vote after WWI in 1920. In the course of her adventures and investigations, Kitty Weeks meets and interviews (as is only fitting for a reporter at the New York Sentinel’s Ladies’ Page!) influential women of her day. In A Front Page Affair, it’s Anne Morgan, the philanthropist sister of banker J.P. Morgan. Anne Morgan championed the cause of working women, was active in war relief efforts in France, and was one of the founders of the first women’s-only club with its own building, the Colony Club in Manhattan, which still exists today. In Murder Between the Lines, Kitty interviews the divorcee and widow Alva Belmont. Belmont had originally been married to W.K. Vanderbilt, whom she divorced—much to society’s dismay—and then married financier, O.H.P. Belmont. After Belmont died, she devoted her energies and fortune to promoting the cause of woman suffrage, even producing a ‘suffragist operetta,’ Melinda and Her Sisters—Kitty observes the rehearsals in Murder. Kitty grows, learns and is inspired by these women, many of whom are forgotten today.”
-Radha Vatsal is the author of the Kitty Weeks mystery series. Her latest book, Murder between the Lines (Sourcebooks), was published on May 2, 2017