Mystery at the Blue Sea Cottage by James Stewart
James Stewart’s Mystery at the Blue Sea Cottage: A True Story of Murder in San Diego’s Jazz Age (Wild Blue Press 2021) is a compelling true crime tale of murder, mystery, and the glitz and glamour of California’s performance culture in 1920s America.
The text recounts the murder of Fritzie Mann, an interpretive dancer on the cusp of fame and popularity in San Diego. In January 1923, Mann left her mother’s home to meet a man. Although Mann would often confide in her mother her whereabouts and the company she kept, this time was different; Mann refused to tell her mother the name of the man she was meeting that night, and it proved to be a fatal mistake. Soon after she left home for the last time, her body was found washed up on Torrey Pines beach. Undressed and disheveled, the body was surrounded by Mann’s possessions, but no obvious cause of death was apparent. In one of the many twists of this case, the post-mortem examination uncovered that Mann was four months pregnant at the time of her death, which leads investigators to turn to questions of foul play. With extensive press coverage, salacious details, and a dramatic conclusion, this case is a complex and tragic account of the death of a young girl and the ways in which Hollywood can subsume even the worst of tragedies into dramatic storytelling.
Stewart’s text is a thoughtfully composed and straightforward account of this little-known true crime case. Well written, this text is an excellent deep dive into the culture of the age and Stewart reveals the twists and turns of the case with composite literary skill. This book held my attention; as the details of the case became more complex and the questions racked up, Stewart kept the narrative focused on Mann and her tragic death throughout. Stewart also uses a copious number of historical sources for the important context that helps to paint a wider picture of the culture surrounding Mann and her life as a performer at the time of her death. Furthermore, Stewart recounts the way that the glamourous world of Hollywood and its accompanying scandals effected this case and the way it was covered in the press. This book is a comprehensive social history while it focuses on every true crime reader’s primary interest: the case itself.
Overall, Mystery at the Blue Sea Cottage was educational and fascinating. Stewart integrates the socioeconomic and gendered political discourses that surrounded this case and effectively interrogates the various systems of justice and government that handled the death of an innocent woman. The principle players in a narrative like this do have an air of fictionality about them—it is difficult to believe that they were real, and the case has a Hollywood feel to it. But Stewart effectively brings the book down to earth, reminding us that a real woman’s life was needlessly ended, and despite all the salacious press coverage at the time, this is an important fact to remember.
I highly recommend Stewart’s text for anyone interested in California’s Jazz culture, a little-known true crime case, or a straightforward and compelling narrative.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A digital copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from the author in exchange for an honest review.