From Alyssa Maxwell, author of A Sinister Service
A Sinister Service, A Lady & Lady’s Maid Mystery book 6, centers around the china industry of Staffordshire, England, in the early 1920s, but the inspiration for the story actually began some 70 years ago in Newport, Rhode Island.
Teatime, or Afternoon Tea, has been a tradition among ladies since the middle of the 19th century. It’s a time to relax and recharge for the remainder of the day. It’s also a time for women to bond, offer support and encouragement, or simply sit and discuss pleasant topics.
Such was the case between two women living in Newport in the late 1940s. One, the elder of the two, owned a home overlooking Narragansett Bay in the Point neighborhood, close to the Naval War College. The younger woman was married to a navy man, and they rented a small apartment in that house beside the bay. The two women bonded, and most days enjoyed afternoon tea together. It was a happy time for both.
The younger woman and her husband eventually moved away, being stationed elsewhere, but she and her friend remained in touch, and a few years later, the elder woman made a gift of four beautiful, English-made, fine bone china teacups—the very ones they had used together.
Fast forward some fifty years. The young woman was now in her nineties and living in a nursing home. One day she discovered, on the book cart, mysteries set in her beloved Newport: my own Gilded Newport Mysteries. Her daughter wrote to me to tell me how much her mother loved reading the books and identifying the places she remembered from all those years ago. She found a deep sense of joy in revisiting those happy years.
In the course of our correspondence, we discovered an astonishing personal connection, that the house overlooking Narragansett Bay belonged to my husband’s great aunt and uncle. What a small world! Not long after this, however, sad news came. The woman had passed away. Her daughter once again thanked me for renewing her mother’s happy memories, and asked for my address. She wished to send me something.
My curiosity abounded as I unwrapped the package that came, and I was delighted by the sight that greeted me: four beautifully molded, incredibly thin teacups in mint green with a beautiful rose-floral pattern inside the cup. Upon turning the cup over, an unfamiliar backstamp peeked up at me: Shelley Fine Bone China. I had never collected teacups and knew very little about them. But something about the quality of the china, the cup shape, and the floral pattern, immediately convinced me I held something special in my hands. Extraordinary, really.
I quickly educated myself, confirming my initial instincts. I learned the cup shape was called Footed Oleander, and the pattern Bridal Rose, both among Shelley’s most popular designs. I found Shelley collectors’ clubs online, learned the history of the company, and equipped myself with a comprehensive book on Shelley patterns that has helped me identify countless examples of this remarkable china. My collection has grown from those four teacups to . . . well, let’s just say I’ve since bought two china cabinets, and they don’t hold them all. But they don’t sit idle. I use them in my daily ritual of afternoon tea.
Soon, stories began to grow in my mind, not only about my teacups and who might have owned them before me, but stories I might tell using English fine bone china as inspiration. Being a mystery author, of course, meant that story would be peopled by suspects with motives and opportunities, and although my own collection began in Newport, it made sense to set my story, A Sinister Service, in Staffordshire, England, where the china I loved originated.
Most important for me, though, is the history behind my collection. The fact that what began in my husband’s family, with his great aunt Thelma, has come full circle back to us. Where will the teacups go from here? Will my daughters want them, or will they move on to another family entirely, taken to another town, another state, possibly another country, and continue their journey of uniting women through time and through tea? I like to think their adventures will continue far into the future, bringing other women the same joy they have brought me.
Following the devastation of the Great War, England’s noble class takes comfort in honoring tradition. To celebrate their grandparents’ wedding anniversary, Lady Phoebe Renshaw and her siblings travel to Staffordshire to commission a china service bearing the Wroxly coat of arms from the venerated Crown Lily Potteries, a favorite of Queen Mary.
The two leading designers at the illustrious china manufacturer offer competing patterns. But when one of them is found dead–his body crushed in a grinding pan and his design pattern book missing–his rival is immediately suspected. The police are also suspicious of the dead designer’s resentful young son, a schoolmate of Phoebe’s fifteen-year-old brother Fox. When Fox gets involved to help his friend, Phoebe begins to investigate the rival artist.
At the same time, Eva is enlisted to go undercover at the works so she can gain the confidence of the female employees, who are only allowed to paint, not design, which may have led to a grudge against the victim. Pursuing a killer who has no compunction about using a kiln as a coffin, Phoebe and Eva take their lives into their hands to discover the shattering truth…
Alyssa Maxwell is the acclaimed author of the Gilded Newport Mysteries and the Lady and Lady’s Maid Mystery series. She knew from a young age that she wanted to write novels. Growing up in New England and traveling to Great Britain fueled a passion for history, while a love of puzzles of all kinds drew her to the mystery genre. She and her husband reside in Florida, where she loves to watch BBC productions, sip tea in the afternoons, and delve into the past. You can learn more about Alyssa and her books at AlyssaMaxwell.com.