Okay, Wheeler, you got this, Honey said to herself as she took a deep breath and peered through the thick Plexiglas at the three-dimensional death scene before her. Having dutifully read the description of the scene on the plaque nearby, she descended—mentally at least—into the miniature kitchen, breathtaking in its attention to detail.
Now, a medical examiner can rule a death as natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, or undetermined. Honey mentally catalogued what she had read in one of the law enforcement books that she had secretly checked out of the Sleepyside library in an attempt to prepare for her future career. Almost immediately after meeting the impetuous, sandy-haired girl from Crabapple Farm, Honey had realized that Trixie just seemed to know things—whether that was from having grown up on a farm or with brothers or just not having been sheltered like Honey herself had been, Honey didn’t know. But the "poor little rich girl" had learned early on that she would need to study to keep up with her friend. And so she had.
But right now, here in the red-bricked, ornate Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., the young teen was trying to be methodical in her thoughts as she sought to calm her nerves. Those traitorous nerves that had been rudely awakened with that stupid surge of adrenaline that had ripped through her body as soon as Honey had comprehended that she was competing with her fellow Bob-Whites—her friends.
She was the tactful one, the one who worked so hard to soothe things over among the Bob-Whites when there was even the whisper of potential conflict. She did not compete with her friends!
In a detectiving wager, no less! What if she came up short? What if everyone did better than her? Was smarter than her? What if she was an epic failure and embarrassed herself? She was supposed to be going into business as a private detective some day. What if she didn’t have what it took to be a contributing investigative partner with someone as dynamic, as observant, as smart as Trixie Belden?
What if she let her best friend down?
Honey took another deep breath as she attempted to tamp down her fears, telling herself that she was dead in the water if she let herself go down that particular path.
Veering away from that train of thought, her mind repeated, Natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, or undetermined.
If you go with undetermined, you’re never going to win, Honey’s inner monologue continued as she studied the victim, identified in the diorama’s description as Robin Barnes, a 1940s housewife.
Natural death is out. Even if she had had a heart attack or a stroke and collapsed, she’s all flushed—which means that she asphyxiated, given what I read up on after Trixie and I found Mr. Currier during that whole trailer thief fiasco when we found Jim—so a natural event wasn’t the actual cause of death, Honey mused, which I suppose, even if she did collapse from natural causes, could still be accidental since the gas jets are still on.
Realizing that her thoughts were spilling out one after another and about to get out of control—something her friends had "affectionately" labeled as Honey-speak—the future detective once again took a deep breath and reined in her racing thoughts.
Again in control, Honey focused on the scene at hand, and her eyes lingered on the victim a few more moments, noting the body’s proximity to the oven, the ice cube tray lying immediately adjacent to and practically underneath the poor woman, and the nearby refrigerator with its open door.
Satisfied that she had gleaned as much as she could from the body—for the moment, anyway—and feeling her confidence rise, she let her hazel eyes rove over the rest of the scene. Those eyes suddenly widened as her gaze moved to the right.
The doors are stuffed with newspaper! she thought as the importance of that detail struck home. Bye-bye, accidental death!
Now convinced that she had narrowed down the possibilities to homicide or suicide, the detective-to-be allowed herself to turn her attention away from the kitchen scene for a moment and look around at her fellow Bob-Whites, who were crowding around and examining the scene before them with intense concentration etched on their faces.
They were clearly out to win.
Honey could not let herself be outdone. Could not fail when she was going to be the detective, be Trixie’s partner.
Okay, Wheeler, it’s time to get serious! You got this!
With that war cry echoing in her mind, Honey reached into her purse and grabbed the pocket-sized Moleskine memo book that she always carried. It had been a gift from Jim on her last birthday—the one after she had decided to become a detective, when he had told her that a good notebook to write down crime details would come in handy some day—and she absolutely adored not only the sentiment behind the thoughtful gift, but the feel of the buttery soft cover and its limited-edition rose gold hue.
Notebook acquired, next she withdrew the rose gold pen that she herself had purchased to coordinate with the pretty little note pad. Once the cap had been hastily removed and stuck on the other end of the pen in a swift, thoughtless motion, Honey began to scribble furiously—hoping against hope that she was thinking and acting as a real investigator would, one that would make Trixie and the rest of the Bob-Whites proud—as her eyes took in detail after detail in the miniature death scene that Frances Glessner Lee had laid out before her.
Statement by husband, Fred Barnes: Left on 1.5-hour errand for wife. What type of errand would a 40s husband be running for his wife that would take that long? Did husbands even run errands for their wives back then? Lying about errand? Why did he knock/call when he found kitchen door locked? Where were his keys? Why did he try front door before looking in kitchen window? Says kitchen window was closed and locked, but pin in window is out—not locked!
Scene: Seems average 40s kitchen for middle-income family. Neat, well-ordered. Cheerful. Could be Beldens’ kitchen! [Don’t let that color your judgment, Honey!!!] No sense of obvious domestic trouble.
Victim: Red cheeksà asphyxiation. Dressed like average 40s housewife (AFAIK), nothing provocative in the outfit. Wearing apron, as kitchen activities indicate is appropriate. What errand did she send husband on? Did she want him out of the house to kill herself? Or to have illicit company? Love affair gone wrong? Killed in heat of passion? Doesn’t seem dressed to receive lover. Could have had a neighbor visit, but an innocent visit from a neighbor doesn’t seem likely to lead to murder. Bump on head? What would that prove? She could have fallen hard enough to give herself a bump on head.
Gas jets: Pie out of oven, but gas jets still on. How did pilot light go out? Common in 40s ovens?
Doors: Kitchen and front—both locked from inside. Edges stuffed with newspaper. Nothing accidental about that! Also took time. If not suicide, Robin probably knocked out while it was done. Knife used to stuff paper in both door jambs?
Possible weapons—iron, rolling pin, frying pan/tea kettle on top of oven, pitcher on top of fridge, pot lid next to sink, mop in corner, cabbage in fridge, silver sugar(?) pot on shelf... Do the matches on top of the stove mean anything?
Presumed activities: In middle of peeling potatoes, made pie and took out of oven, laundry in process, getting ice tray out of freezer. Why did she need ice? With all this going on, would she have really killed herself in middle of all of it?!?!
Glass: Did Robin have visitor while husband was gone? Likely she’d’ve just sat down to have drink in the middle of peeling potatoes? If she drank while rolling out pie, wouldn’t she have put the glass away after? Everything else so neat and ordered—
Table cloth: —except the table cloth. Could killer have bumped it while climbing out window after locking doors to make it look like suicide?
Finally, extracting what she could out of the scene—and realizing that not only were the Bob-Whites congregated around the Plexiglas window, but other curious patrons also were trying to view the morbid scene—Honey stepped back and looked around the exhibit room. It was so deceptively peaceful in its...beigeness...compared to the nineteen gruesome scenes arranged within—and there was nowhere to just sit and think.
Knowing that she needed to just find a quiet place among the commotion of what had turned out to be a crowded exhibit, Honey journeyed into the adjoining room and found what she sought—a convenient bench.
Once she had settled onto the hard, wooden surface, the young sleuth settled back against the wall and pulled her legs into a pretzel—her favorite thinking position—as she re-read her notes. For once, the former student of Miss Lefferts’ etiquette lessons didn’t even consider tact or proper manners as museum visitors and patrons milled about, so focused was she on her mission.
As she stared at her Moleskine, reviewing her notes, Honey began to realize the true power of Frances Glessner Lee’s dioramas.
It was well and good to send a body off to an autopsy and expect the M.E. to provide the window of time of death, evidence of blunt-force trauma, and other juicy details to help solve the crime.
It was also well and good to send potential weapons off to a forensics lab to be analyzed. Was there tissue residue on the iron? Blood on the rolling pin? Fingerprints on the knife? On the newspaper stuffed in the door jambs? DNA evidence scattered about the scene?
Questions modern-day television-watchers were used to hearing rapidly fired off with expectations of easy answers, conveniently delivered right after the next commercial break.
But once upon a time, in the not-so-distant past, forensic labs didn’t exist. Autopsies didn’t yield the plethora of information that they did today. Crimes were not neatly solved in the space of a one-hour television show.
Heck, Honey reflected, again drawing knowledge from her library pursuits, DNA hadn’t even been accurately, scientifically described when Lee had started to—ever so painstakingly—construct her dioramas.
So what had the "Godmother of Crime Scene Investigation" wanted to convey?
It all came down to observation.
Honey would have liked to send the rolling pin and the iron off to a forensic lab for DNA and fingerprint analysis. She also might have liked to have sent the body off to the M.E. to know whether poor Robin had suffered a concussive blow to the head before she had died.
But these were luxuries that she didn’t have. It was up to her to use her wits and powers of observation to determine what had happened to 1940s housewife Robin Barnes. To demonstrate that she had what it took to be a PI. To prove that she was worthy of being Trixie’s partner.
Oh, and to make sure that they all got to eat a nice, juicy ribeye on Mart’s birthday, natch.
With a last glance at her notes, Honey unfurled her legs and stood, taking in the increased number of people wandering about the Renwick Gallery than when she had started her deliberations. Undaunted, she headed back into the exhibit room, knowing exactly what she needed. Her hazel eyes darted about the room, looking for one of the miniature flashlights that the curator of the exhibit had so thoughtfully provided but that Honey had eschewed earlier, before there had been a wager, a competition, a need to prove herself.
A sharp giggle drew her gaze fortuitously to the left, where she saw a freckle-faced girl with curly red hair drop one of the pocket lights onto the ground as she chased a stocky boy. Honey quickly pounced and snatched up the flashlight. Yes, her full-blooded adopted brother Jim and her...Brian...would have both come prepared with some sort of light attached to their Swiss army knives or some such thing, but Honey didn’t care. She had acquired her own pocket light with ease. So there, Mr. Boy Scouts!
Flashlight in hand, she marched toward the kitchen diorama and then groaned when she saw the horde of tourists that had gathered around it, a long line forming behind them. Between the Bob-Whites’ late start and the fact that Rosewood Hall was a bit of a distance from Washington, D.C., it was rather late at that point, which meant that the crowd gathered to see the one-of-a-kind exhibit had grown substantially since the group of seven had arrived.
Eventually, it was Honey’s turn in front of the macabre scene once again, and she shined the pocket light around the three-dimensional kitchen space, looking for the clue. Not willing to waste this opportunity to discover what Frances Glessner Lee had wanted her, the investigator, to see.
Mindful of the throng behind her and two of her fellow patrons crowded next to her, also intently peering into the diorama, Honey quickly aimed the little torch to and fro about the scene, until the light shined on something that she hadn’t seen before.
That word once again jumped into Honey’s head as the light pinpointed something unexpected in such a painstakingly crafted, life-like little dollhouse.
A smile curved her lips as she absently handed the museum’s flashlight to the person behind her and hurried away to formulate her presentation to the judges.
"And that, my fellow compatriots and intellectually gifted adjudicators, is whodunit!" Mart announced loftily while taking a deep bow. He had just finished regaling the group assembled in Rosewood Hall’s music salon with his solution to the "Kitchen" diorama.
Everyone clapped and cheered at Mart’s presentation, which had been lively, witty, and comical. With Mart’s discourse now complete, all of the Bob-Whites except for Honey had presented their solutions.
The future detective had been impressed with what each of her friends had seen within the miniature death scene. Each one had seemed to notice a tiny detail that no one else had. It also had been great fun to see the others bring their unique perspectives to solving the mystery—Trixie so steadfast in her powers of observation, Brian so methodical as he presented the facts as he saw them, Di with her artistic flair for seeing details others didn’t.
And now it was Honey’s turn. Another surge of adrenaline shot through her as she looked over at the jovial Mr. Carver, his broad shoulders and steel-colored hair giving him a large presence even as he sat, confined to his wheelchair. Next to him sat the always exuberant Miss Bates, with her thick glasses and wild gray hair. She was clapping delightedly, her merry blue eyes twinkling at Mart’s antics.
Di’s parents had planned a romantic outing to Colonial Williamsburg that day. They had declared that with a daughter in the contest, it wouldn’t be fair for them to judge anyway, so they didn’t mind missing out on the "death wager," as Mrs. Lynch had jokingly called it before they had sailed out the door on their excursion.
Honey stood and took a deep breath as she found all eyes on her. She took a moment to focus on the soothing, soft green walls of the salon, willing her nerves to calm themselves.
Feeling more steady, Honey looked around at her friends, and her hazel eyes caught Brian’s serious, dark brown orbs. He smiled warmly at her. "Let’s hear it, Honey. I know it will be a great theory."
The reassurance from Brian further steadied her nerves, and the honey-haired girl launched into her version of the events leading up to the death of poor Robin Barnes.
"As we know, a medical examiner can declare a death a homicide, a suicide, accidental, natural, or undetermined. Obviously, the point of the Nutshell Studies wasn’t to declare a death undetermined, so I threw that possibility out immediately," Honey said with a smile, and her audience smiled back.
"As everyone has already pointed out, her death seemed to be asphyxiation because of the redness of her cheeks, so that let out a death from natural causes. But it still could have been accidental—perhaps she had collapsed while taking the pie out of the oven and had been accidentally asphyxiated from the gas jets that had been left on.
"A quick look around the room, however, will tell even the most casual observer that it was no accident. As we all noticed, the doors are stuffed with newspaper. So, like the rest of you, I deduced that Robin Barnes’ death was either a homicide or suicide, and I set out to determine which option was more likely," Honey stated, picking up steam as she thought about her conclusion and how she had come to it.
"If it was suicide, the woman picked a strange time to kill herself—right in the middle of peeling potatoes, baking a pie, and ironing! I decided to concentrate on homicide, while keeping the possibility of suicide in the back of my mind."
Honey took a quick glance down at the Moleskine notepad that she gripped in her hands. "So, the next question was, naturally, whodunit? Was it her husband? Had Mrs. Barnes sent him on that long errand because she was expecting company? Maybe even illicit company? Or was Mr. Barnes lying about being gone for an hour and a half, and he murdered his wife?
"I looked for evidence that she had had a visitor. There was the glass on the table, which someone could have sat and drank while Robin Barnes rolled out the dough for the pie. She wasn’t particularly dressed for receiving company, though. And if there had been an illicit visit by a lover, the kind of visitor who may have killed her in a crime of passion and then tried to cover it up to look like a suicide, she certainly hadn’t altered her dinner or laundry routine to spend any, umm, quality time with him." Honey felt her cheeks heat up as she laid out this part of her thinking, but it had needed to be said, so she hurried on to her next point, unable to make eye contact with any of her friends or the adults.
"Anyway," she said over a soft chuckle from Mart, "that left the husband. So the next step was to look for any signs of domestic trouble. There were no obvious signs, however, and the kitchen was neat and orderly, nothing out of place. There were a lot of potential weapons in the room, though. There was the iron, sitting so precariously close to the edge of the ironing board, which didn’t seem like a place a careful and meticulous housewife would leave it. There was the rolling pin, the frying pan, the tea kettle...even the mop in the corner could have been a functional weapon."
The young would-be sleuth paused and looked at her audience. Trixie’s wide blue eyes were fixed on her, an interested expression alighting her freckled features. Dan and Mart—one so fair and the other so dark—sat next to each other on the piano bench, both casually leaning back against the piano, but both seemed interested in her exposition. Diana sat on the stool next to the harp, leaning forward, her violet eyes sending encouragement Honey’s way. Mr. Carver’s handsome face and Miss Bates’ cheerful visage looked at her eagerly, awaiting the next steps of her theory. Jim and Brian’s intelligent gazes also seemed encouraging.
Honey continued, "So at that point, I focused on Fred Barnes’ story, his actions. He claims that he came to the kitchen door and found it locked. Why didn’t he have his keys? He then went around the house to the front door and knocked there. Then he came back around to the kitchen and finally looked in the window. That makes no sense at all. If he was at the kitchen door, wouldn’t he have looked in the kitchen window before he headed all the way to the front of the house? Especially if it was the time that his wife would have normally been in the kitchen preparing his dinner?
"Plus, there’s the fact that he said that the window was locked, but the pin was out. And the only thing out of place in the otherwise neat kitchen was the table cloth. Probably because the murderer knocked it askew as he climbed out the window after locking all of the doors from the inside.
"So, if the husband’s story makes no sense—and also includes at least one known lie, the window—it’s because his actions make no sense, at least, not for an innocent man. I was thinking about this, and that’s when I noticed another thing out of place. There’s a gash in the wood in one of the benches near the dinner table. Frances Glessner Lee was too meticulous, too painstaking, to accidentally leave a gash like that in one of her scenes. So it must mean something."
Honey took a deep breath. "I think it could have happened as the murderer was trying to crawl out the window. And I think it’s a metaphor for the Barnes’ marriage. Everything seemed to be neat and orderly, everything in its place, but there was a gash that stopped it from being perfect. I think the same could be said of the marriage. And I think that gash, that underlying marital imperfection, led Fred Barnes to murder his wife. I’d also wager that the iron was the weapon that he used to knock her out so that he could then calmly stuff newspapers into the door cracks."
Honey grinned at her friends. "That’s my solution. Fred Barnes, in the kitchen, with the iron."
As her friends clapped at Honey’s explanation, Trixie marveled, "Even I didn’t notice that little gash! Where was it exactly?"
"Gash as metaphor for a marriage? Talk about poetic!" Mart, lover of all things literary, declared.
"That’s a really cool concept, Honey," Brian told her, and she beamed at him in appreciation.
"I do like where you took that explanation, young lady," Mr. Carver said as he and Miss Bates excused themselves to deliberate the winner of the wager.
The seven friends continued to discuss the various theories that they had put forward, each marveling at what the others had seen that they hadn’t.
Trixie was still exclaiming about the small gash in the kitchen bench, and Mart was good-naturedly teasing her about not being able to get over it, when the contest judges re-entered the pale green music salon and announced, "We have a winner!"
Seven voices immediately went still as all attention turned to Mr. Carver and Miss Bates. "The winner had a very logically thought-out explanation, but the tipping point was the fact that we were both enamored with the thought of a small imperfection in the kitchen being a metaphor for an imperfection in a marriage that festered and led to murder. Honey, you’re our winner!"
Honey beamed with a sense of accomplishment as the adults and the seven Bob-Whites congratulated her, Mart declaring that with her "fine taste," he was sure to eat well on his birthday.
Wow, Honey thought. Maybe I do have what it takes to be Trixie’s partner after all!
Author Notes: Where to begin? There are few people on this earth whom I like or respect as much as my co-conspirators—Deanna, Julia, Mary, Mary C, Susan, and Vivian. They’re amazing friends, amazing writers, amazing gigglers-at-3-in-the-morning, amazingly receptive to my love of all things rose gold, and just amazing people overall. They’re Bob-Whites in every sense of the phrase.
I was absent for so much of this process, but even when I wasn’t joining in the email banter, I was reading it, and appreciating the insight, encouragement, and passion that these ladies bring to every project and the support that they bring to their friends and fellow writers, and I knew that they forgave me for being absent. Because that’s what friends do.
Thanks to Susan for bringing us together in this kick-ass project. Thanks to Julie (macjest) for bringing our attention to these dioramas and the fascinating Frances Glessner Lee. Thanks to Viv and Susan for editing at the very last second. Procrastination, thy name is Dana. *sigh*
As I dove down the fascinating rabbit hole of France Glessner Lee’s life and work (and I highly encourage anyone reading this, anyone who loves Trix, to do this—you won’t be sorry, promise!), I began to see parallels between her and Julie Campbell. Both of them eschewed the gender roles of their time, both of them delved into mysteries and crime-solving, both of them had wonderful imaginations that allowed them to plot descriptive crimes, both of them brought crowds of people together, and both of them have a legacy that lives through today. They are strong, intelligent women, ahead of their time, who will always have a firm place in my heart.
As does our dear schoolgirl shamus, Trixie Belden.
So, in celebrating Trixie, JC, and Frances on Trixie’s birthday, I can’t help but celebrate and be thankful for all of the strong women and men who love and appreciate all that they represent—that’s you, dear Jixsters. XOXO.
Word count: 3,929