Thursday, April 30, 2020

Death of an American Beauty by Mariah Fredericks, a stylish mystery of 1913 Manhattan

In the latest in Mariah Fredericks’ Jane Prescott novels, murder meets Mr. Selfridge in 1913 Manhattan.

Any heroine in an amateur detective series should expect disruptions of her vacation plans, since crime doesn’t wait for R&R to end. Jane, the lady’s maid to the newlywed Mrs. Louise Tyler, anticipates taking a week’s holiday that involves seeing the Armory Show’s shocking modern art exhibition and then staying with her uncle, the Reverend Tewid Prescott, who raised her at the boardinghouse he runs for former prostitutes in the Bowery district. There’s a lot going on (which makes the plot seem busy at first). Jane finds herself in the thick of the action.

Her uncle’s refuge is surrounded daily by holier-than-thou religious protesters – the “Purity Brigade,” Jane amusingly dubs them – and defiant counter-protesters. When one of the young women at the refuge is found dead in an alley, her face cut up like in a Cubist painting, Jane’s sure the killer is the abusive boyfriend, but circumstances prove otherwise. Jane’s uncle is perplexingly tight-lipped about his whereabouts at the time of death. With her mind reeling over the ghastly crime and related newspaper reports, Jane gets called back to help her employer, who’s participating in a play commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation’s 50th anniversary and a related beauty pageant at Rutherford’s department store. Their seamstress has quit, leaving the society ladies in desperate straits (“desperate” is a relative term).

Amid the developments with both the pageant and the crime, Jane finds her attention returning to two intriguing individuals: Leo Hirschfeld, a witty piano player who enjoys a good time, and Otelia Brooks, a talented Black artisan with a painful past who’d left the refuge years ago. As Jane realizes what Miss Brooks has had to face, she doesn’t become “woke” exactly – this would be unrealistic – but she does come to a greater awareness about racial disparities. As for the mystery itself, Jane carefully considers the many likely suspects before the truth sinks in.

Third in a series, the book stands well on its own. Full of a period-appropriate social consciousness and apt cultural references (like the craze for “animal dances”), this is a fine portrait of late Gilded Age New York and its pertly appealing young heroine.

Death of an American Beauty was published by Minotaur this month; thanks to the publisher for the review copy. Coincidentally, the day before the review copy arrived, I attended an online launch for the book via Facebook, which got me interested in the characters and historical setting.


  1. I like the Phryne Fisher type of vintage mysteries. This sounds another one like this.

  2. I haven't read the Phryne Fisher series yet, but really should!