I was really pleased when I learned that Frank Tripp, high-flying lawyer to the rich and famous of Gilded Age New York, would be getting his own story in The Rogue of Fifth Avenue the first book in Joanna Shupe’s new Uptown Girls series. Handsome, charming and urbane, Frank made for an attractive, somewhat enigmatic supporting character in the recent Four Hundred series, and I was more than eager to read his story. Frank is a great character who undergoes significant growth throughout the course of this novel, and once the main plotline gets going – a legal thriller which will pit Frank against the society he’s worked so hard to fit into – I was fairly gripped by it. But I wasn’t as drawn to the romance, mostly because I didn’t care for the heroine all that much. Up until now, I’ve enjoyed Ms. Shupe’s female leads; they’ve been spirited and intelligent women who are determined to do more than be simply ornamental. Marion – Mamie – Greene is very much in that mould, but while she displays an admirable social conscience, she’s also naïve and reckless. It’s hard to root for a couple when you believe one of them – in this case the hero – deserves better.
For the third or fourth time in as many months, Frank Tripp finds himself ‘escorting’ the daughter of one of his biggest clients away from a gambling hall. He tries (unsuccessfully) to extract a promise from her never to go there again, but Mamie, not content with the role life has allotted her as a woman destined merely to marry well and spend her life going to parties, isn’t going to give in, especially given the altruistic motives for which she gambles and picks pockets:
She gave the money either to a charity or directly to a tenement family herself. There were too many needy families in the city, and the charities were oftentimes more concerned with temperance and religious conversion than distributing aid. Mamie would rather not see any restrictions placed on relief, which was why she traveled downtown herself a few times a month.
Which makes stealing perfectly okay, apparently. Yes, I understand why she’s doing it, and yes the idea that charities would make religious conversion a condition of giving aid to someone in need is utterly disgusting. But instead of doing something that would benefit even more people than she can help alone, like establishing an aid society or charity of her own, Mamie gambles and steals.
Okay. So, moving on. Mamie and Frank argue about her illicit activities, but there’s also a strong attraction there that pops and fizzes, even though they both know nothing can come of it. Mamie has been promised to the eldest son of her father’s closest friend since birth and the betrothal is about to be finalised, and Frank has no intention of settling down, ever.
Not long after this, we find Mamie visiting one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the city in order to dispense her ill-gotten largesse. She’s carrying a large sum of money, and is completely alone, but has done this several times and has somehow never been accosted. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that she might be. Making her way into the dingy room occupied by the Porter family, Mamie is dismayed to find the dead body of Mr. Porter lying on the floor surrounded by policemen, who immediately arrest Mrs. Porter for the murder. The police won’t listen to Mamie when she tells them that Mr. Porter beat his wife and that she must have been defending herself – after all, what does a Fifth Avenue princess know of such things? – and tell her she should go home and not bother her pretty little head about it. But Mamie isn’t about to stand by and allow such a terrible injustice to be done, so she summons Frank and asks him to defend Mrs. Porter. Naturally, he’s not keen on the idea and tries to explain that he’s not a criminal lawyer, and how damaging taking on the case could prove for both of them. But Mamie isn’t interested in any of that; an innocent woman’s life is at stake, and that’s far more important that her reputation.
Frank does eventually agree to do what he can, partly because Mamie has asked, but also because he’s not unsympathetic to Mrs. Porter’s plight, having himself been raised in a household where violence was common. Because Frank Tripp, scion of a wealthy Chicago family and Yale graduate is no such thing; he was born Frank Murphy in the New York tenements and he, his mother and siblings were regularly beaten by his drunken father. Frank escaped when offered the chance to go to school and has never looked back; his law degree is genuine although not from Yale, and he’s worked hard to make a name for himself, rising to be the most respected – and, by some, feared – lawyer in New York. He knows all too well the importance of fitting in, how the highest in society stick together and would turn their backs on him were the truth of his origins to become known. He knows that by agreeing to help Mamie – and Mrs. Porter – he’ll be walking a tightrope. But he also knows it’s the right thing to do.
This is the part of the book I enjoyed the most, watching Frank build his case with the help of Pinkerton Detective Otto Rosen (who is Jewish and therefore not allowed to join the police force) while his colleagues express their displeasure and whiffs of police corruption swirl around the case he’s building. I liked the way Frank takes a long look at himself and realises that he doesn’t much like the man he’s become, one as heartless and money-focused as the men he associates with, and how he decides it’s time to change that and put something other than money first.
At the same time, he and Mamie are becoming closer, and finally act on the mutual attraction neither of them can ignore or deny any longer. By this point, I was starting to come around to Mamie a bit; if Frank had finally woken up to the need to make personal changes, so was she benefitting by her association with him – until near the end, she draws a conclusion (about Frank) that made no sense and then proceeds to act in a way that made me want to tell her not to be so stupid. Fortunately for my sanity, a number of other characters pointed out that she was being unfair; it’s just a shame Mamie wasn’t mature enough to work that out for herself.
While I liked the way things ended up for Frank and Mamie, I wasn’t completely convinced by her father’s sudden volte-face towards the end of the book. I can’t deny that it was nice, for once, for a heroine to have a supportive father than a ruthless, dictatorial one, but given his intractability early on, I found it a little hard to swallow.
Ultimately, The Rogue of Fifth Avenue was a bit of a mixed bag. I liked the plot and I loved Frank – I just wish he’d been paired with a heroine with intelligence, wit and an actual personality. The book would have been a DIK had that been the case; as it stands, the B grade was earned by Frank and the legal plot alone.
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