Mariah Fredericks’s second Jane Prescott mystery, Death Of A New American, has a rich, layered, vivid backdrop: 1912 New York. Indeed, Fredericks’s vibrantly-rendered historical detail may be as immersive and compelling as her mystery and characters. Of the latter, her amateur sleuth, lady’s maid Jane Prescott, is eminently sympathetic: intelligent, observant, and compassionate. Jane’s lowly social status allows her the freedom to fade into the background and take in the details of the wealthy, privileged, and as aristocratic as Americans can be, families she serves. Fredericks may write about the rich and powerful, but the moral core of her mystery lies with the people of the “downstairs”. Their lives, thanks to the historical context in which Fredericks situates them, will change as social, economic, and political tides sweep over early twentieth century New York.
Fredericks has penned a novel as richly conceived historically as it is domestically. When it opens, the papers are crying the news of the Titanic‘s sinking. On the domestic front, Jane is preparing a trip to the Long Island home of the Tylers, as her mistress, Louise Benchley, prepares to marry their nephew, William. Charles, William’s uncle, is the powerful, influential, and famous-for-fighting-the-emerging-Italian-NY mafia, police commissioner. But, who is the “new American” and how and why does she die?
When Jane arrives at the Tylers’ home, Pleasant Meadows, she notes a strain in the family. Charles’s wife, Alva, is taxed by motherhood and still grieving an infant son’s loss. There’s a new baby, a chubby cherub, Freddy, and a daughter, Mabel, but they seem to spend their time with the beautiful, mysterious, newly-made-American nanny, Sofia Bernardi. Fredericks does a marvelous job of showing the bigotry and “othering” new Americans faced, in this case, Italians, and echoes present-day sentiments, in certain quarters, towards refugees and newly-arrived immigrants from Muslim countries. When you read her novel, you can’t help but think of these parallels. As has by now become obvious, the eponymous new American is Sofia and it is her murder, in an attempted kidnapping of baby Freddy, that provides the who and why dunnit as tackled by our intrepid, sympathetic Jane.
Into Jane’s amateur investigation walks journalist Michael Behan, less invested in justice for the oppressed than his own glory in scoring a scoop for his newspaper, the Herald. Behan and Jane’s relationship is a complicated one and obviously carries over from the first novel in the series. Behan is a bigot and the name-calling and negative opinions he expresses about Italians puts him in the “better not make him Jane’s significant other” and he-can’t-be-the-hero territory. Glad to see that Fredericks gives him a few redeeming moments, thanks to Jane’s tutelage in tolerance and understanding, but keeps him well out of Jane’s action after the novel’s first half. It is definitely Jane’s book; her ethic, compassion, and care make this a strong book and relegating Behan to the margins helps this along.
As quiet, unassuming, yet dogged in her pursuit of justice and truth, as Jane is, the sweep of history and the face of a demographically changing America elevate Fredericks’s novel. I particularly loved Jane’s friendship with Anna, her Marxist friend, as she campaigns for workers’ rights. (Fredericks even nods at the ILGWU, the now-defunct union that Mrs. Bates mère belonged to!) The social and political tensions that marked the era make for a thematically-intense narrative: Sofia the nanny’s murder becomes a commentary on how Americans view the newcomer, how immigrants bring their own troubled, fraught histories to America’s shores, and how perception and prejudice make for social and political conflict.
In the end, when Jane puts the puzzle pieces together to give Sofia, if not vindication, a modicum of justice, the who and why dunnit devolves to domestic drama. This was a letdown. The mystery’s resolution, however, occurs well before the novel’s conclusion. That conclusion, on the other hand, is magnificent, as Jane and her “downstairs” colleagues watch and then join the NYC Suffrage Parade of May 1912. Fredericks’s description of the parade is rendered in loving detail. It moved me to tears, as did Jane’s realization of the world of possibility it opened to women. I would urge you to read Death Of A New American for the mystery, the wonderful Jane, the sympathetic characters and even the negative but interesting ones, but mostly for Fredericks’s vision of women on the march for autonomy, a voice in the political arena, and feminist identity. With Miss Austen, who forged her own unique vision of what women could be and have, we say that Mariah Fredericks’s Death Of A New American offers “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Mariah Frederick’s Death Of A New American is published by Minotaur Books. It was released on April 9th and may be found at your preferred vendors. I am grateful to Minotaur Books for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.