Monday, August 05, 2019

Relative Fortunes by Marlowe Benn begins a stylish mystery series set in 1920s Manhattan

With her debut novel, Marlowe Benn gives us a pair of family stories intertwined with a twisting mystery garbed in stylish language. The setting is Jazz Age Manhattan; while socialites party their way across the city, and suffragists relish the victory of the 19th Amendment, progressive women know more work needs to be done.

Into this buzzing atmosphere arrives Julia Kydd, an independent young woman who has returned home from a five-year stay in London to receive her inheritance on her 25th birthday. However, her half-brother Philip has put up an unexpected challenge to their late father’s bequest, which sets them at odds. It’s an awkward situation at best. They barely know one another, and Julia’s obliged to lodge with him since he still controls her funds.

While crossing the Atlantic, Julia had gotten reacquainted with a boarding-school chum, Glennis Rankin, whose own family woes are deepening. Glennis’s much-older sister, Naomi, has been found dead in her basement apartment, an apparent suicide, but there’s much that’s suspicious about her untimely passing. Apart from Naomi and Glennis, the Rankins are a ghastly, judgmental bunch – their pompous brother Chester criticizes Naomi in his eulogy – which prompts Glennis, confused and furious, to lean on Julia for support. Thus Julia is drawn into her friend’s personal drama, and she has added motive for doing so after Philip makes her an offer she can’t refuse: if she can prove Naomi was murdered, he’ll stop contesting her inheritance.

This bargain sounds contrived, and some readers may not be convinced otherwise, but knowing more about the context makes it feel less so. Philip is an enigmatic fellow who isn’t the greedy villain one may expect. A literary, urbane sort who’s fascinated by psychology and has solved “puzzlers” for the police, he seems to be testing Julia.

Julia herself is another character whose personality deepens over time. A modern 1920s woman who has a British lover but values her independence too much to marry, she saves her greatest passion for her aspiring career as a literary publisher. (It’s an interest that Marlowe Benn shares, and aficionados of fine bindings, colophons, and fonts will soak up the details.) Julia also discovers one irony: the freedom she loves depends on money. Without it, her choices are marriage or poverty: the same restrictive options faced by so many of the era’s women.

The standout character, however, is Naomi, a woman with many layers. Would that we could meet her in person, but then there’d be no mystery. Naomi was a devoted suffragist, to her family's dismay, and she may have been in a “Boston marriage” with the colleague, Alice, who shared her dreary basement flat in the family mansion. Naomi had been forced to live there in the first place because of a terrible choice her rich brother forced her into. While it’s possible she killed herself in despair at her circumstances, it wouldn’t be like Naomi to give up. It’s not in Julia’s nature, either.

Benn has a sure hand with sizing up people in words: “Vivian Winterjay stood across the room in a spotlight of wary silence, mustering one of those small, composed smiles meant to carry one through any occasion—the bare-knuckle refuge of impeccable breeding,” she writes of Naomi’s married sister. And the era as well; Julia notes Glennis’s shock at Naomi’s passing as follows: “Six years since death’s long romp across Europe, and still young people everywhere were caught short by its caprice.” The ending offers plenty of revelations in character and plot, and leaves opportunity for the enterprising Julia to appear in future books (hopefully with company, too).

Relative Fortunes was published by Amazon's Lake Union imprint on August 1st; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy.


  1. Sounds great. I've read many novel set in the Twenties that barely scratch the surface of what that era was, but this one sounds solid and well researched.
    And the characters seem superb.
    Goes in my TBR!

  2. I appreciated how it showed women's reactions to the suffrage movement, and how not all of them were in favor (unfortunately). And women's lives in general during that time. The characters are great. Hope you'll enjoy it!

  3. This sounds good, although I'm a bit wary about it (rich peoples' problems tend to turn me off), I might just give it a try.

  4. Hope you'll give it a try - you may be most interested in Naomi's story, since she had chosen social justice over wealth. There's a lot of great info on what the suffragists went through.