The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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    My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie...
A Death of No Importance
A Death of No Importance
A Mystery
by Mariah Fredericks

Paperback (12 Mar 2019), 288 pages.
Publisher: Minotaur Books
ISBN-13: 9781250306555
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Through her exquisite prose, sharp observation and deft plotting, Mariah Fredericks invites us into the heart of a changing New York in her remarkable debut adult novel.

New York City, 1910. Invisible until she's needed, Jane Prescott has perfected the art of serving as a ladies' maid to the city's upper echelons. When she takes up a position with the Benchley family, dismissed by the city's elite as "new money", Jane realizes that while she may not have financial privilege, she has a power they do not - she understands the rules of high society. The Benchleys cause further outrage when their daughter Charlotte becomes engaged to notorious playboy Norrie, the son of the eminent Newsome family.

But when Norrie is found murdered at a party, Jane discovers she is uniquely positioned - she's a woman no one sees, but who witnesses everything; who possesses no social power, but that of fierce intellect - and therefore has the tools to solve his murder. There are many with grudges to bear: from the family Norrie was supposed to marry into, to the survivors of a tragic accident in a mine owned by the Newsomes, to the rising anarchists who are sick of those born into wealth getting away with anything they want. Jane also knows that in both high society and the city's underbelly, morals can become cheap in the wrong hands: scandal and violence simmer just beneath the surface - and can break out at any time.

1

I will tell it. I will tell it badly, forgetting things that are important and remembering things that never happened. In that, this narrative will be no different than any other. Only the specifics of what is forgotten and remembered will distinguish it as mine.

Why tell it at all, then—a story already so well known, concerning, as it does, wealthy families, a handsome couple, and murder?

Because the story you have heard is wrong. The headlines you've seen, the editorials bemoaning the sorry state of our modern world—all sincere and well intentioned. But since they did not know the truth of the matter, all quite beside the point.

Many decades have passed. There is no one now living who experienced that particular horror—except for myself. And who am I to claim to know the truth behind what may have been the first of the many Crimes of the Century?

Nobody. Less than nobody.

I was Charlotte Benchley's maid.

But before you dismiss my tale as a gain-inspired fantasy of a woman seeking brief, cheap fame, let me say something. It is the life's work of some to pay attention to things others wish to ignore. If it is your job to make sure the silver is clean, you must have a sharp eye for tarnish. If the sheets are to be smooth and straight, you must first find the wrinkles. In the matter of the Benchleys and the Newsomes, I saw the tarnish, the wrinkles, and the dirt.

If it is your opinion that a maid does not possess the capacity to understand these things, then there is no reason to read on.

But if your view is otherwise, please, continue.

* * *

At the time of the events that so enthralled the country, I had been with the Benchleys for a year. My former employer had died, leaving the bulk of her fortune to charity—and me without a job.

It was a time for funerals. The city had only recently stopped mourning the aristocratic Mrs. Astor when it became necessary to don the crêpe for my employer, Mrs. Armslow, who was connected by birth or marriage to the finest families in the city. In England, the rakish Edward VII was ailing. Leopold of Belgium had died. Earlier that year, the Apache chief Geronimo died in a prisoner of war camp at the age of nearly ninety. According to the newspapers, he had remained "one of the lowest and most cruel savages of the American continent," merely biding his time in captivity until he could return to the warpath.

After the memorial, Mrs. Armslow's niece, Mrs. Ogden Tyler, sought me out. Coming from a less affluent wing of the family, Mrs. Tyler had a democratic streak. Laying a light, friendly hand on my arm, she said, "Now you'll think me a perfect ghoul, but I must ask: have you found a new position?"

When I shook my head, she said, "Well, here's what you must do. A dear friend of mine, a Mrs. Benchley, has just moved here from Scarsdale of all places, and she is quite desperate. Her husband invented—or is it patented?—an engine. An engine part. Or was it something to do with rifles? At any rate, whatever it is, the government wants it. The point being: oodles of money, but not the first notion of how to live. Live properly, I mean. What to wear, who to hire, what to serve. The poor woman has two daughters, as I do, and so I thought to myself, how can I help? And the very first thing that came to my mind? Jane. Jane's so clever, I said to myself. So clever and so discreet. Dear Jane, you're just what the Benchleys need. Won't you see them?"

When I arrived at the Benchley home in May of 1910, I came with the best recommendation an employee can have: the failure of all who preceded me. The Benchleys had taken up residence in a five-story town house on Fifth Avenue. Located on Forty-ninth Street, it was perilously close to the commercial district. But Mrs. Tyler had avoided the bullying ostentation of some of the newer millionaires and steered them to a house that was reassuringly modest—by millionaire standards at least.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from A Death of No Importance by Mariah Fredericks. Copyright © 2018 by Mariah Fredericks. Excerpted by permission of Minotaur Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Jane begins her story by stating, "I will tell it. I will tell it badly, forgetting things that are important and remembering things that never happened." How do these first two sentences set up Jane's reliability as a narrator? Does Jane acknowledging her potentially faulty memory affect your trust in her positively or negatively?
  2. How does Jane's status as a servant impact her investigation?
  3. Who did you initially suspect was the murderer? Looking back, which clues pointed toward the killer, and which were red herrings?
  4. How does the relationship between Jane and Anna change throughout the book? Do you think Jane's friendship with Anna affects how she views the case?
  5. Jane begins her partnership with Michael Behan quite reluctantly, mostly because of his profession as a journalist. How does the press contribute to their investigations? Clippings from various newspapers also appear periodically throughout the story. What impact do these clipping have on the story, and on the lives of the characters?
  6. Which "upper-class" characters did you find the most sympathetic? How was their likeability reflected in their relationships with Jane? In their relationships with each other?
  7. In the final pages, Jane draws a comparison between Tip the elephant and Josef Pawlicec. In what ways are their situations similar? In what ways are they different?
  8. In the end, do you feel justice was served?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Minotaur Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A murder mystery set in the heart of a changing turn of the century New York.

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Bringing the reader deep into the intrigue and privilege of the most elite boudoirs, A Death of No Importance is a charming, fast-paced mystery set in turn-of-the century New York. Seen through the eyes and ears of an observant chamber maid, Jane Prescott, the murder of the city's most eligible bachelor shakes New York high society to its core. As Jane, determined to protect her mistress, digs deep into the shadowy corners of the most illustrious homes, she finds a mystery much more sinister than she imagined.

Whether you are a fan of mystery novels or not, A Death of No Importance is a highly engaging read. Jane is a delightful protagonist – brilliant and attentive, loyal and kind – and she finds friends and helpers everywhere she goes. She is a skillful guide to the elite homes and families she encounters. The story picks up quickly from the first page. The action is never-ending and each chapter ends with a suggestive hook, urging you to read on. And even though this technique becomes quickly predictable, it continues to entertain. The resolution is not quite obvious but the mystery itself is fairly straight-forward. The board is set and all the relevant players are in motion within the first fifty pages. There are many familiar tropes – a jilted lover, a newly risen socialite with something to prove, and a spoiled rich boy with many enemies. However, it is pleasurable to watch the layers peel back to reveal the truth – it is done with an almost mechanical precision, new details revealed at every turn.

In addition to this well-structured plot, Fredericks brings a bit of social commentary into her narrative. The stories of the rich are balanced, to some extent, with those of the struggling workers around them; on the outskirts of the story there is a band of anarchists, looking to strike and make themselves heard. There is also Jane's uncle, a reverend devoted to the care and rehabilitation of "fallen women." And Jane herself – devoted to her work, yet always wanting something more than a life of servitude – exemplifies the class struggles at play. While these side stories do not surface anything unknown or revolutionary, they do make for a more nuanced portrayal of the story's time and place.

A Death of No Importance is a simple, clean-cut mystery that yields easily to anyone in search of a satisfying read. A shrewd and exacting reader may find "holes" in the plot – for example, the facility with which everyone seems to open up, or the level of access a lady's maid seems to have to everyone and everything she seeks – but for those willing to suspend disbelief, this is a great way to spend a few hours and maybe even learn something about the New York of a different time.

Reviewed by Natalie Vaynberg

Booklist
Deftly woven...[An] intricate historical mystery and pointed commentary on human nature.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A sparkling mystery ... The novel's voice, plotting, pace, characterization, and historical background are all expertly crafted, while the resolution - which feels both surprising and convincing - will leave readers hungry for more.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Jane is an appealing amateur sleuth ... With its vivid depiction of contrasting worlds this series debut should appeal to readers of Alyssa Maxwell's 'Gilded Age' historical mysteries.

Author Blurb Meg Cabot
A Death of No Importance has such rich historic detail that you feel as if you've been transported to early twentieth century New York. Mariah Fredericks is the best at creating compulsively addictive, fresh, twisty reads.

Author Blurb Susan Elia MacNeal
Fredericks has written a taut, suspenseful, and complex murder mystery with gorgeous period detail.

Author Blurb Laura Joh Rowland
A sharp, engaging, and intimate treat of a historical mystery. Jane Prescott is a smart detective and a keen observer of both the upper crust and the dark underbelly of early twentieth century New York society.

Author Blurb Nancy Bilyeau
A suspenseful, moving, sharply observed mystery that illuminates a fascinating time in America's history, when there was indeed ugliness beneath the beauty of the Gilded Age.

Author Blurb Susan Elia MacNeal
A taut, suspenseful, and complex murder mystery with gorgeous period detail.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by BeckyH
A good mystery with great characters
The backstairs folk always see more than the upper class folks think. Lady’s maid Jane sees and thinks. The writing is good with great characterization, good atmosphere, a realistic portrayal of time and place. Fredericks throws in some real people and real incidents to give breadth to her story.
This is the first of a series with Jane as the sleuth in a tightly crafted mystery. The death is pretty gruesome but, for the squeamish, not dwelled upon. Also, no foul language or steamy sex, just a really good mystery with fully fleshed out characters.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Michael Haughton
A Death of No Importance by Mariah Fredericks
I will start if with this excerpt from the first paragraph as it seem fitting to what I'm about to say about the writer's style of a so-called mystery book. Here goes

This narrative will be no different than any other. Only the specifics of what is forgotten and remembered will distinguish it as mine. I find this so strange for a novel to be in a writer's narrative as most stories don't.

I was therefore confused by this and I doubt the writer wanted the reader to. A mystery novel like this should never began in a narrative manner. This was disappointing.

As the story unfolds Jane who is the main character was a maid for two wealthy families in England. But one of the families died so Jane had to seek work so that how she got to be apart of the Benchley home as there maid.

I got a little annoyed by what the writer did by mentioning a book and the writer when describing the state if the house when Jane first entered the rooms. Here it goes Mary Roberts Rinehart's thriller When a Man Marrieswas spread-eagled on top. This was not good as most reader would think this book was only written to exposed books.

I will just end my review with this summary and then give my ratings. Here goes : But when Norrie is found murdered at a party, Jane discovers she is uniquely positioned - she's a woman no one sees, but who witnesses everything; who possesses no social power, but that of fierce intellect - and therefore has the tools to solve his murder. There are many with grudges to bear: from the family Norrie was supposed to marry into, to the survivors of a tragic accident in a mine owned by the Newsomes, to the rising anarchists who are sick of those born into wealth getting away with anything they want. 

Not much was said to be excited about but not a bad novel so my ratings is 3 out of 5

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Evelyn Nesbit and the "Trial of the Century"

Evelyn NesbitFor her novel, A Death of No Importance, Mariah Fredericks borrows heavily from the story of Evelyn Nesbit and the violence that surrounded her life. What exactly happened to Evelyn Nesbit and how did she come to be a part of the "Trial of the Century" as it later came to be known?

Nesbit was born Florence Evelyn Nesbit on December 25, 1884, in Tarentum, a small town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. However, her actual year of birth remains unconfirmed; her real year of birth may have been 1886. In later years, Nesbit confirmed that her mother at times added several years to her age in order to circumvent child labor laws. She was raised in extreme poverty after the death of her father. Although her mother and brother tried to make ends meet, it was Evelyn who became the primary breadwinner for the family when she was discovered at age 14 for her extraordinary beauty. She quickly went from an artists' model, to a professional model, gracing the covers of popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar and Ladies' Home Journal. Her face was well-known and well-loved, so it didn't take her long to progress to acting in Broadway shows, including the highly popular musicals Floradora and then The Wild Rose.

Sanford WhiteEvelyn's beauty quickly turned into a curse. Two years after she began to work on Broadway, she caught the eye of Stanford White, a classically trained architect, known for his exceptional work and his early rise to fame. By 27 he had co-founded McKim, Mead, and White, the architecture firm responsible for many well-known landmarks including the Washington Square Arch and the Brooklyn Museum. White's own contribution to the New York City skyline included Madison Square Garden, the tallest building in the city to date.

Unfortunately, White's talent and social prowess hid a disturbing appetite for young girls. Once Evelyn caught his eye, he spent a great deal of time and effort securing her family's dependence on him; his money funded both Evelyn and her brother's education and ensured their financial security for a time. Yet Evelyn became victim to his sexual appetite while she was still 14 and was then subject to his jealous control, which included his breaking up of her romances and dictating her social life.

Harry Kendall ThawGiven her visibility and involvement in high society, it was only a matter of time before Evelyn Nesbit met Harry Kendall Thaw, a wealthy scion of Pennsylvania's mine and railroading fortune. Although seemingly an eligible bachelor, there were many rumblings of Thaw's penchant for drugs, violence and assault. Thaw worked hard to woo Evelyn, squiring her and her mother across Europe and eventually getting her alone to propose marriage. At this point, Evelyn confessed her history with White, knowing Thaw's obsession with female purity. This, in essence, sealed all of their fates.

Thaw became obsessed with possessing Evelyn and avenging her. After kidnapping Evelyn to an Austrian castle and devoting weeks to serious sexual and physical assault, Thaw brought her back to the United States, finally winning her hand in marriage, yet never forgetting Stanford White and the role he played in his wife's life.

In 1906, on the night of June 25, Thaw and Evelyn attended a premiere of a new show, Mam'zelle Champagne, playing on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden. Here they met Stanford White and finally Thaw's fury came to a head – he shot White three times, squarely in the face.

Evelyn NesbitAlthough arrested initially, Thaw had money and power on his side. His trial, known as the "Trial of the Century" raged on for four months, with many speaking out about his violent behavior with prostitutes, while others, including Evelyn, defended his actions for the right price. After 47 hours of deliberation, Thaw was deemed mentally ill and was committed to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Fishkill, New York. But, again, money goes a long way - Thaw was released in 1915 and had a few other brushes with the law, before being committed yet again.

Evelyn also did not escape unscathed. Though she continued to perform in various dance and burlesque shows over the years, she suffered from morphine and alcohol addiction as well as a string of failed romances. Truth is even more scandalous than fiction when it comes to Evelyn Nesbit and her tumultuous entanglements.

Evelyn Nesbit around 1900
Stanford White
Harry Kendall Thaw
Colorized photograph of Evelyn, courtesy of www.express.co.uk

By Natalie Vaynberg

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