Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Passing Fancies by Marlowe Benn, a Jazz Age mystery set amid the Harlem Renaissance

The title of this sophisticated second entry in the Julia Kydd mystery series (after Relative Fortunes) is cleverly apropos. It’s set in Manhattan during the freewheeling Jazz Age, circa 1924, which conjures up images of frivolous, fun-loving pursuits, but here, “passing” also refers to racial identity and crossing the color line.

Julia, a wealthy 25-year-old recently recovered from the near loss of her inherited fortune, is a bibliophile with ambition. She dreams of expanding her small private press, and for this, she needs authors.

At a publishing soiree, she meets the tall, fair Eva Pruitt, an up-and-coming novelist, and they develop a close rapport. Later, Julia is startled to learn that Eva is Black; Eva’s debut, it’s implied, will be a roman à clef about her experiences as a Harlem nightclub performer. When Eva’s manuscript (she only had one copy; one can sense all authors cringing) goes missing, and her boss is found dead, Eva’s the most likely suspect, but Julia can’t believe she did it.

Set amid the Harlem Renaissance, the themes of this novel taking place nearly a century ago are also unerringly modern, including police brutality, African American writers’ difficulties with the publishing industry, and white blindness to racial inequities. Eva is a well-rounded character with a complicated past, though her friendship with Julia blossoms too swiftly. Those enamored of fine bindings and quality fonts can indulge in their passions along with Julia, and language aficionados will appreciate the cultured writing.

As with the previous book, Julia’s one-time nemesis and half-brother, the urbane Philip, who helps to solve puzzlers for the police, is probably the most interesting character of all. He and Julia make a good investigating team, a revelation Julia slowly catches onto.

Passing Fancies was published by Lake Union in 2020 (I reviewed it from NetGalley for August's Historical Novels Review).

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