Murder at the Portland Variety

Written by M.J. Zellnik
Review by Ellen Keith

In Portland, Oregon, in 1894, Libby Seale is working as a costumer at the Portland Variety, having left her family in New York City. Although Libby has kept to herself since the move, fearing to share a secret from her past, she finds herself moved to action when Vera Carabella, one of the performers, is found murdered. Vera had been kind to Libby, almost her first friend in the city. She makes the acquaintance of reporter Peter Eberle and enlists his aid in solving Vera’s murder. Their investigations take them to brothels and inside the home of a prominent Portland businessman and bring them closer together—although Libby’s secret threatens their burgeoning relationship.

Nineteenth-century Portland has an undercurrent of danger, with girls having disappeared from dark tunnels and the “otherness” of its Chinatown neighborhood. Zellnik deftly evokes both the menace and the veneer of respectability its prominent citizens desire, introducing those on the fringes and those in the spotlight. The mystery is well-crafted and propelled by the very human characters. Zellnik is the pen name of a brother-sister writing team, and I hope this is the first in a series.