Thursday, March 24, 2016

Cold Morning: An Edna Ferber Mystery

by Ed Ifkovic
Poisoned Pen Press    2016
279 pages      Mystery

It is not often that characters in a murder novel hit close to home, but my life experience with Charles A. Lindbergh made Cold Morning a fascinating read for me. Charles A. Lindbergh, if you don't know, was a famous pilot who was the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in a single person airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis in 1927.

Eighty years ago this week, Bruno Hauptmann was executed for the kidnap and murder of Charles and Anne Lindbergh's toddler son, Charles Jr. Although the evidence against Hauptmann was purely speculative and circumstantial, the fact that he was a German immigrant was apparently all that was needed to assume and prove his guilt. This novelized version of the trial stars Edna Ferber, a real-life famous American novelist and journalist. She and her crony, the writer Aleck Woollcott, are in the small village of Flemington, New Jersey covering Hauptmann's trial for the New York Times, and the scene is a circus. H.L. Mencken called the trial "the greatest story since the Resurrection." The town is alive with tourists and thrill seekers, the hotels are full, and little boys are hawking replicas of the ladder used to kidnap little Charles Jr. Every morning of the trial is a Cold Morning.

Edna Ferber senses that there is a lot that is not right with the situation; the craziness of the trial itself is exacerbated by all the New York celebrities that descend on the village to be a part of the action. Everybody who is anybody has shown up, and many working-class people have been drawn to the community to find work during the trial. When a waitress who has waited on Ferber and Woollcott's table is found murdered, Ferber sets out to try to find her murderer. 

Ferber slowly builds her case—first to prove the innocence of the man charged with the murder of the waitress, and then to find a plausible explanation for the kidnapping, and solve the supposed suicide of a maid at the Lindbergh household. The momentum builds to a surprise ending—something I did not see coming. Don't you just love it when that happens!

The novel is just plain fun. I had a great time trying to recall how I knew the names of all the characters on the periphery of the story line—names like Kathleen Norris and Walter Winchell—to say nothing of the daily appearances of the Lindbergh and Morrow families (the Morrows were Anne's family) and the head of the New Jersey State Police, Norman Schwarzkopf, who worked as personal protection for the Lindbergh family. Schwarzkopf was the father of the Vietnam War era general, Norman Schwarzkopf. My computer was kept very busy looking up all the writers, actors, and other celebrities that showed up at the trial.

Like many people who followed the Hauptmann trial, Ifkovic is convinced that there was a huge miscarriage of justice in the Lindbergh case, and through his surrogate Edna Ferber, he tries to show an alternate scenario. Ferber is a feisty heroine; I liked her independence and her fortitude. The reviewer in the Kirkus Reviews says that this is "perhaps the finest hour yet for a fictionalized heroine." Actually Ferber is the protagonist in seven murder mysteries written by Ifkovic.

And now for my story. Six of my most impressionable formative years were spent in the small town of Little Falls, Minnesota, which was Charles Lindbergh's home town. During the years that my family lived in Little Falls, the Lindbergh family farm on the Mississippi River was being developed as a state park, but the family home had not been rehabilitated yet. We children had free reign to run through the house, hide in the closets, and clamber all over a Model T that was in the garage. Now, of course, there are tours of the home with costumed docents. (More on that later.) When I was in the third grade, the new elementary school, The Charles A. Lindbergh Elementary School, was dedicated. My father was on the school board that year and had the opportunity to shake hands with Lindbergh—something I will never forget. Remember, please, that Charles Lindbergh was the town hero.

All of this happened in the 1950s, before the world began to be critical of Lindbergh's World War II fascist leanings, before he became an isolationist,  and certainly before the world learned that he had three secret families in Germany, including seven children. Last summer, my sister and I made a pilgrimage to scenes of our childhood and we toured the Lindbergh family home—the one we had raced through many times as children. The docents reminded us that we were to only ask questions about Lindbergh's childhood and life up until his famous flight, and that questions about his isolationist views, his opinions about Hitler, and his secret families were off limits. 

Ifkovic keeps Lindbergh as a shadowy figure in the novel, except for one scene with Edna Ferber, but the reader gets the feeling that there is more to Lindbergh's character than that of a hero. The text alludes to, but never discusses, some of his character flaws, which of course, we now understand. I was reminded time and again of O.J. Simpson's circus of a trial in the 1990s, and the current controversy over the Netflix series Making a Murderer, about police malfeasance in Wisconsin. I guess America loves a good trial!

 I have not read any of the other Edna Ferber mysteries but I can heartily recommend Cold Morning. You can find the other Edna Ferber mysteries on Ed Ifkovic's website. I can also recommend a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin.

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