Sara Divello

Sara Divello

Sara DiVello is a true crime writer and the founder and host of the popular author interview series, Mystery and Thriller Mavens. Her latest book, Broadway Butterfly: A Thriller, received starred reviews from Library Journal and Book List, was a CBS New York Book Club pick, an Entertainment Weekly Best Book of Summer, was featured in Vanity Fair,  and much more.

Broadway Butterfly

Manhattan, 1923. Scandalous flapper Dot King is found dead in her Midtown apartment, a bottle of chloroform beside her and a fortune in jewels missing. Dot’s headline-making murder grips the city. It also draws a clutch of lovers, parasites, and justice seekers into one of the city’s most mesmerizing mysteries.

Among them: Daily News crime reporter Julia Harpman, chasing the story while navigating a male-dominated industry; righteous NYPD detective John D. Coughlin, struggling against city corruption; and Ella Bradford, the victim’s Harlem maid, closest confidante, and keeper of secrets. Adding fuel to the already volatile crime: a politically connected Philadelphia socialite, an Atlantic City bootlegger, Dot’s dicey gigolo lover, a sultry Broadway dancer, and a cagey sugar daddy guarding secrets of his own.

From Broadway’s glittering lights to its sordid underbelly to the machinations of the country’s most powerful men, Julia embarks on a quest for justice. What she discovers, twist after breathtaking twist, might be even more nefarious than murder.

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Chapter One

4:00 p.m. Mineola, Long Island. Nassau County Courthouse.

“All rise!” the bailiff called.

Julia Harpman stood with the rest of the assembled crowd as the judge swept from the room, his black robe billowing ominously behind him. The Pettit-Wells murder trial had reached closing arguments. It would soon be up to the jury to decide the fate of Miss Billie Wells, the scorned mistress who stood accused of shooting her violent, hard-drinking, loose-spending, live-in lover, “Roadhouse Jim” Pettit. The trial had looked fairly bleak for the accused until Mrs. Pettit, Roadhouse Jim’s estranged wife, had stepped forward to testify in support of her husband’s mistress.

From the start, the case had every ingredient to make sensational, front-page news—a mistress, a bad man, and a murder. But the wife-mistress alliance was a twist nobody had seen coming, and the public and press had seized on it with equal glee. Julia had carefully hewed her coverage to capture each scintillating detail, and when the case reached its sure-to-be searing verdict, she’d be there to report on it for the Daily News. Just as she always did.

As the rare female reporter—and the even rarer woman on the hard-hitting crime beat—Julia had found the solidarity of mistress and wife, defendant and widow, particularly interesting. The few other women at her paper, and in the newspaper field as a whole, covered cooking, astrology, fashion, and advice for the lovelorn. Julia, too, had started her career on the “ladies pages,” but since then, she’d become the lead crime reporter at the paper, and one of the best in the New York City, which meant she found herself with the power to shape the narrative of the news, not only by which stories she covered but also by how she covered them. So when, like this case, the accused was a woman and the Brooklyn Daily Times headlines had crowed, State Flays Wells Woman at Start of Murder Trial, Julia had ensured her paper’s headline trumpeted, Innkeeper’s Wife Aids Miss Wells; Calls “Roadhouse Jim” a Wastrel.

Facts were facts. But the storyteller steered the narrative and the narrative steered public perception. It was an invisible power. And Julia was the rare woman to wield it.

“Recess! Fifteen minutes!” the bailiff called.

While the rest of the packed courtroom streamed toward the lobby and restrooms, Julia headed toward the pressroom, grabbed an open phone, and waited while the operator connected her to Philip Payne, the city-desk editor at the News.

“It’s me,” she said when Philip came on the line. “Did I miss anything?”

“Hellinger just got a tip that some Broadway butterfly offed herself over on West 57th. Apparently, he’d met her a few times. Says she was one of the prettiest girls in New York—some sort of model or something.”

“Of course he did,” Julia said, shaking her head.

Mark Hellinger was a baby reporter and the newest addition to the city desk. Fresh off working at some stage-industry rag, he now covered the theater beat for the News and seemed to know every Broadway bum and sugar baby the city boasted.

“Well, as soon as the verdict comes in, hurry up and get back here. Should be quick and easy, but I need your touch on it: Good-Time Girl Crumbles under Pressures of Big City Life! Tug the heartstrings. Sob-sister stuff. You know the drill.”

Julia did, indeed, know the drill. She wasn’t surprised Hellinger knew this girl who’d taken her own life, or that the girl had done it. The city could be a harsh place, especially for women.

“I’ll take care of it,” Julia promised. Under her pen, she would honor the girl’s life and write her as a full-fledged person, even as she tugged the requisite reader heartstrings. “I better go.”

“Wait!” Philip said urgently. “What’s my star crime reporter predict for Miss Wells?”

“Acquittal,” she said.

“Yeah?” Philip asked, notably perkier. “I got a little pool going. Maybe I’ll increase my wager.”

“Right. It’s all about your wager. Who cares if a murder was committed and a woman’s life hangs in the balance?” Julia countered. Gallows humor and a thick skin were requirements on the crime beat.

“Is that sarcasm, or do we have a bad connection?” Philip joked. “Just hurry up and get back here, will ya?”

She rushed back down the hall toward the courtroom. Juries were unpredictable, but she was confident they would acquit the sweetly smiling, indefatigable Miss Wells, despite the DA’s argument that it would be physically impossible for a man to shoot himself with a shotgun that was four inches longer from muzzle to trigger than his arm.

Male jurors—and of course, all jurors were male—didn’t want to believe women were capable of murder. It threatened their sense of safety and world order, where only they were capable of passion, violence, and retribution. A wife and a mistress teaming up against their man struck inordinate fear in men who were as comfortably settled with their ideas about women’s roles as wives and mothers as they were with their pipes and newspapers after a day of toil.

Julia yanked open the courtroom door, wondering just how many women surrounded by laundry, stacks of dishes, and children in need of attention, and all too often, themselves victims of violence and hardship, would have to cluck reassuringly that of course Miss Wells hadn’t done it . . . all while a certainty roiling deep in their marrow that she probably had.

Julia made her way past rows of gum-chomping newspapermen, her colleagues and competitors from every paper in the city, and the usual assortment of curious spectators. A brittle, keyed-up excitement zinged through the air as the gallery waited to see how the DA would close, what impassioned plea for justice he would make, how he’d try to remind the jurors of poor “Roadhouse Jim,” and how the man’s small but murderous mistress must’ve been the one to pull the trigger.

Every living creature seeks survival first and foremost. A cornered animal will attack. Women, Julia had learned from ten years on the beat, were no different. Women mostly committed homicide out of sheer desperation to protect themselves and their children.

Men, on the other hand, were more apt to murder for lust, rage, revenge, greed . . . or simply because they could.


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