The year is 1904. The place is Appleton, Wisconsin. The frustration is that felt by a nineteen-year-old female newspaper reporter (a recorder of society items) who has to deal with a double dose of bigotry faced by both working women and Jews. The big event is the arrival of another of the town’s natives, the son of the one-time rabbi of Appleton’s Zion congregation. Edna Ferber, meet Harry Houdini!
Edna (who, disappointingly, is a girl, not the boy her parents had planned to name Edward) is the plain sister, the one who doesn’t flirt, who, “reads Bleak House and The House of the Seven Gables for the eighth time.” A would-be actress, she and her friend, Esther, spend as much time at the theater as possible, but it’s obvious to everyone, except Edna, herself, that she is a born writer. In spite of her dreams, however, she treasures life in Appleton. When she tells Houdini that she is content, he answers, “Safer is not good for the soul.”
Her placidity disappears when Edna and Esther discover the body of their high-school acquaintance murdered in the local lovers lane. In spite of Edna’s being on the scene, her anti-Semitic, misogynistic city editor refuses to let her have anything to do with the story. Edna determines to find out how the girl, whose hair ribbon was found in a perpetually locked, unused school room, could have entered and left that room. Who could solve the mystery? Why, the one who makes his living by escaping locks and chains. So Edna seeks out “The King of Handcuffs” after his local benefit performance and brings him into the mix. Edna’s nose for news has her eavesdropping, asking invasive questions and participating in other unladylike behaviors. As she becomes more and more involved in the murder, Harry Houdini becomes more and more worried about her.
In her non-sleuthing hours, Edna’s job is writing society pieces for the Appleton Crescent, a task that should fall under Houdini's definition of “safe,” but this work is considered improper for a well-brought-up young lady. She manages to alienate family, co-workers and the editor who comments that she writes articles with too many “embellishments.” His suggestion: “Maybe you should write fiction.”
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