‘Murder at the Breakers’ is a step into American history

Amanda Salazar, Editor-in-Chief

From the 1870s into the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States was in its Gilded Age, a time filled with exuberant wealth displayed through huge mansions, high society balls and class divisions, leading to lifelong poverty for some.

It is in this setting when and where “Murder at the Breakers,” the first book in the “Gilded Newport Mystery” series by Alyssa Maxwell, takes place.

The Breakers is the name of the summer cottage of Cornelius “Corneil” Vanderbilt II, brother to William Kissam Vanderbilt, son of William Henry Vanderbilt and Maria Louisa Kissam.

These so-called cottages — or more accurately, hulking mansions by the sea that employed dozens of servants, maids, cooks, cleaners, footmen and butlers — are where robber barons and railroad tycoons like the Vanderbilts and many other wealthy families would spend the hot months by the shore, returning to New York and other big industrial cities for fall.

“Murder at the Breakers” follows 21-year-old Emmaline “Emma” Cross, a fictional second cousin of Cornelius — who very much was a real man — and a reporter for The Newport Observer newspaper’s society page.

Emma grew up with Cornelius’s kids Cornelius “Neily” III, Gertrude, William Henry II, Alfred Gwynne, Reginald “Reggie” Claypoole and Gladys.

Even though she is close to her Vanderbilt relatives, she refuses to take any of their money or to be set up with high class suitors. Instead, she lives out of the home complete with horse and carriage and one employee she inherited from her Aunt Sadieand works for The Observer to make a living.

Her relationship to the Vanderbilts itself is the embodiment of the era’s and the town’s class divide between the wealthy railroad and business magnates and the poor native Newporters.

The story is driven by the fictional murder of Cornelius’s financial secretary, Alvin Goddard, which happens at the first ball of the summer of 1895. The Breakers had just been completely remodeled after the original, much more modest home that had burned down in a fire a few years earlier.

The ball happened that year to celebrate 20-year-old Gertrude’s “coming out,” to society, meaning to be ready for suitors.

After Emma finds Goddard face down on the ground below one of the Breakers’ balconies, the police arrest her older half brother, Stuart Braden “Brady” Gale IV, suspecting him to be the murderer.

Since Brady is prone to being arrested for public drunkenness, bar fights and similar petty crimes, he becomes an easy scapegoat, especially since he is found passed out at the scene of the crime. Emma, however, refuses to believe her brother is good for the crime, and vows to find the true murderer.

Though this book is not a hit best seller or well known, it is truly a good true crime and murder mystery story. It takes a twisting and turning path to get to its conclusion, and the end is surprising but believable.

Throw in a cool historical setting, descriptions of the magnificent the Breakers, family drama and a budding romance and you have “Murder at the Breakers.”

Maxwell created something truly unique when she mixed real-life people and historical events and circumstances with fictional characters and drama. It is unlike most murder mysteries in a really good way.

With actually likeable characters, a strong female protagonist and a well-developed setting and energy, the book grabs hold of the reader’s attention from start to finish and leaves the reader scrambling to find the next book in the series, “Murder at the Marble House.”