Death of a New American
Death, passion and good sleuthing combine in Death of a New American, the second instalment in Mariah Fredericks’ Jane Prescott series.
It’s 1912, just after the sinking of the Titanic, and the New York-based Benchley family is trying to move on with life as best they can. Mild, plain, older daughter Louise is set to be married soon, and her outspoken, even unkind, older sister Charlotte yearns to hobnob with the brightest lights of society (while lamenting that she never gets invited to the best funerals!) in the hope that people will forget that her engagement died a harsh death – just like her fiancé (who was shot in the previous book). Shrinking violet Louise thinks it inappropriate to proceed with the wedding so close to the recent tragedy, but her mother is apoplectic at the idea of her waiting any longer to become Mrs. William Tyler. Louise has enough to contend with socially, courtesy of Charlotte’s ill-fated engagement, and her fiancé’s family hates her because of the resultant scandal. Mr. Benchley, buried in his work, has little to no comment on the proceedings, and that drives his wife to distraction.
The servants of the house – like everyone else in the world – are obsessed with the Titanic’s sinking. Otherwise, they’re planning on joining a large, soon-to-be monumental march for Women’s Suffrage and are fascinated with William’s uncle, the politician Charles Tyler, and his battle with various Irish, Russian-Jewish and Italian street gangs. Some of them approve of his somewhat prejudiced attempts at fighting crime, specifically in shutting down the Black Hand Gang. This includes ‘rehabilitating’ its various members to prove that ‘not all Italians are criminals’. Watching over them all is Jane Prescott, Louise’s bright, loyal maid, who’s been with the family since Louise and Charlotte were girls. Little do they all know, but Jane is an amateur detective on the side, and that she’s the one who helped engineer William and Louise’s marriage to boot.
The Benchleys and Jane head to Pleasant Meadows and the Tyler family nest for the wedding, where things turn out to be much more complicated than anticipated. The Tylers are working under the strain of Charles’ prosecution of the leader of the Black Hand gang, which has resulted in tension between Charles and his wife, the normally fearless and globe-trotting Alva. She has become afraid to let the children outside or open the stuffy house for fear of losing them the way she lost one her sons, causing clashes with their Italian nanny, Sofia. The evening after the Benchley’s arrival, tensions reach a boiling point, and Jane wakens to the sound of William’s infant brother crying. She heads to the nursery, finds the baby sobbing on the floor as if he’d been dropped, and the window open – with Sofia lying dead just inches away, her throat slashed. With a murderer to catch, and the rest of the Tylers – as well as the Benchley brood – to protect, Jane springs into action. When Charles ignores her instincts about the possible guilt of his affable new chauffeur, Aldo – even accusing her of anti-Italian prejudice – Jane discovers that this will be one case she’ll have to investigate by herself.
Death of a New American does a good job in settling itself within the mores of life in early twentieth-century America. To that tune, there’s a lot of period-typical anti-Italian prejudice, complete with slurs and stereotypes, which readers should be aware of going in. The book manages to explore each character’s sense of prejudice and how they deal with it; even the nicest character is shown to harbor some level of it. Though this is the second book in a two part (so far) series, one doesn’t need to worry about feeling lost as there’s a brief summary of the events of the previous book before this one gets fully underway. For example, Jane’s continuing attraction to and flirtation with married, occasionally roguish and sometimes jerk-like journalist Michael Behan continues apace, but there are plenty of context clues to help new readers catch up.
The characters are fascinating. I loved spunky and smart little Mabel, poor hapless Louise, and the hilarious Charlotte; in fact, my bitterest disappointment with the novel is that Charlotte hardly appears in it Jane herself is a good heroine, savvy, quick-witted, sharp-eyed and brilliant. She has an interesting background – she grew up in her uncle’s refuge for former prostitutes, which results in people tarring her with the same brush – and her best friend is a socialist Italian activist.
The mystery is very twisty and goes in a lot of unexpected directions, but the final twist feels both expected and unexpected. The resolution is generally satisfying but might have been a little more original. Yet the historical moorings of both the plot and character work make it quite worthwhile. Fredericks’ writing is quite fine in general, and her sense of history and its spirit is lovely.
Ultimately, Death of a New American left me wanting, but in a good way. I wanted more of Jane beyond the two volumes we have so far of her story – the little glimpses we get of her in the future at the beginning and end of the story are so thoroughly tantalizing – I wanted more of her version of New York, and more stories about the women and men that inhabit the pages in which she dwells.