A local novelist will be hand to discuss her latest novel – a murder mystery and work of historical fiction set in Boston around the time of the Great Molasses Flood that struck the North End in 1919 – during an author talk and book signing on Tuesday, April 4, in Rose Nichols’ parlor at the Nichols House Museum, located at 55 Mount Vernon St. Frances McNamara, who grew up in Boston and now divides her time between her residence at Hawthorne Place and Sandwich on Cape Cod, will be discussing “Molasses Murder in a Nutshell,” which was just published by Level Best Books in January of this year. The novel revolves around a dead body of woman found among the wreckage left behind in the North End after a storage tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses burst on Jan. 15, 1919.
The resultant wave of molasses flooded neighborhood streets at rates estimated at around 35 mph, killing 21 people and injuring another 150. In McNamara’s novel, a young serviceman comes under suspicion for murdering the young woman, so Frances Glessner Lee, an actual wealthy, upper-class Chicago woman who would become known as the “mother of forensic science,” enlists the help of her friend, Dr. George Magrath, a real-life medical examiner, to help exonerate the accused man. The fictionalized Glessner Lee meets the young serviceman at the home for returning soldiers on Beacon Hill that she has come from Chicago to manage. The soldier’s home is based on the Wendell House at Hancock and Mt. Vernon streets, where Glessner Lee actually worked in 1919, according to McNamara. Since McNamara volunteered as a docent at the Nichols House Museum for around three years before the pandemic struck, she was compelled to not only set two of the book’s scenes inside the parlor of the Nichols House (where her April 4 appearance will also take place), but also to cast Rose Nichols as a character in her novel. McNamara’s father was an FBI agent who went on to serve for 10 years as Boston Police commissioner. Her father had a particular affinity for the North End, having spent considerable time there when he was investigating the Brink’s Job of 1950, which accounts for her decision to set portions of the novel in that neighborhood. “We always used to go visit there,” McNamara of the North End, “and it’s a fun place to write about.” Other locales featured in the novel include the old Charles Street Jail, a one-time mortuary on Grove Street, and the Union Boat Club on the Charles River Esplanade. Meanwhile, McNamara is also the author of the Emily Cabot Mysteries, which focus on a social activist in Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But “Molasses Murder in a Nutshell” is her first in a planned series of novels loosley based on the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” – a collection of 19 intricately designed dollhouse-style dioramas created by Glessner Lee. These dioramas, which are largely composites of actual court cases, have been used to train police detectives, since their creation circa the 1940s through to the present day. In “Molasses Murder in a Nutshell,” Glessner Lee creates a miniature crime scene based on her real-life Dark Bathroom diorama to help solve the murder case. McNamara’s next novel in the series is due out next January. It will be set in East Boston during the winter of 1919, she said, and take its inspiration from Glessner Lee’s actual Two-story Porch Nutshell diorama. McNamara has also been contracted to write a third novel in the series, although the setting and time period for this entry has still yet to be determined. “I’m not there yet,” she said. The April 4 program at the Nichols House Museum take place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. and will include a Q&A with the author hosted by Linda Marshall, the museum’s executive director, followed by a small reception. Guests will have the opportunity to get a signed copy of “Molasses Murder in a Nutshell” and also have briefly tour the museum’s other period rooms at this time. McNamara’s latest book is also available for purchase in advance at the Nichols House during museum hours. For the event, general admission is $10 each, or $7 each for museum members, but space is limited. Visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/author-talk-and-book-signing-molasses-murder-in-a-nutshell-tickets-567176067887 to register for the event.