Choosing Kingscote for a Gilded Newport Mystery
Previously appeared on The Wickeds blog, Sept. 7, 2020
I’m often asked how I choose each house I write about. My reasons vary, actually. Sometimes I choose the house itself, while other times I choose the family who lived in it. The most famous of all the Newport “cottages” is The Breakers, and the most famous name from the Gilded Age is Vanderbilt, so starting off the series with the Vanderbilts and The Breakers was an easy decision. Now, for Murder at Crossways, I very much wanted to explore the character of the owner’s wife, Mamie Fish, who was `known for her irreverent sense of humor and extravagant personality. Crossways isn’t one of my favorite houses, but I knew Mamie would be a fun sidekick for Emma Cross in that story. Mamie didn’t disappoint.
Such was not the case in Murder at Kingscote. The widowed owner, Ella King, was quiet, intelligent, thoughtful, dignified, and a dedicated philanthropist. Kingscote itself is one of the smallest of Newport’s cottages, nowhere near on a scale with The Breakers or Ochre Court. So why did I write about it? Simply because I love this house, as do most people who have ever visited it. I love its Gothic Revival-fairytale exterior, and the delightful mingling of design styles inside. I felt compelled to include this jewel of a house, but at the same time I wondered if I would have trouble finding enough details about the family to make them appealing characters.
Boy, did I worry for nothing! Through the Preservation Society of Newport County, I discovered a treasure trove of letters and journal entries written by the King family—and suddenly I was off and running. Through those documents and further research, I discovered Eugenia Webster-Ross, a woman who cast a legal shadow over the King family for years with her claims of being the true heir to the King fortune and Kingscote itself. I discovered that Ella King’s son, Philip, was a near-do-well who drank too much. I discovered that William Henry King, Ella’s husband’s uncle who had first purchased Kingscote, was committed to an insane asylum due to his “reckless lifestyle.” And I discovered that Newport held its first-ever automobile parade in the year I set the story, 1899.
Alva Vanderbilt driving in the automobile parade, Newport, 1899
Insanity. Drunkenness. Rival claimants to the inheritance. And reckless drivers. I’d struck gold with this one! And it led me to some new places and themes for Emma. But just to make things a more difficult, I gave her a real moral dilemma near the end of the story. What if someone committed a crime for a very good reason? Do you still turn them in and let the justice system decide—even if innocent people will suffer as a result? Poor Emma also faces a career crisis. I’m not going to give anything away, but suffice it to say she has her hands full in Murder at Kingscote!