“A taut, suspenseful, and complex murder mystery with gorgeous period detail.”Susan Elia MacNeal
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, A Death of No Importance.
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 notshe 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 positionedshe’s a woman no one sees, but who witnesses everything; who possesses no social power, but that of fierce intellectand 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 surfaceand can break out at any time.
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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.
I was admitted to the house not by the housekeeper or the butler, but a stout woman I later discovered to be the cook. She led me up the backstairs of the house to the main hallway. As I waited, I looked down corridors and into adjoining rooms to get the measure of the house. Each room was stuffed from floor to ceiling. Persian rugs covered the floors in profusion. A frieze above the entry depicted a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, King Harold pierced through the eye. A jumble of curios crowded every surface. Vases from China and Turkey jostled with leather-bound books and Greek statuary. A sphinx and a china pug dog peered at me from the mantel. The sitting room resembled a tent, the windows lost behind an avalanche of drapery. A museum collection of paintings and portraits hung on the walls. An English tea set rested precariously on a French ottoman. A variety of gilded mirrors reflected and extended the chaos.
The neglect hinted at by Mrs. Tyler was obvious. The mirrors were dull, the rugs stained. Dust was everywhere. Coffee cups and used ashtrays sat unattended on the mantel. The coffee drinkers were of two different temperaments: one, careless, had left the spoon in the half-filled cup; the other, fastidious, had carefully arranged the cup back in its saucer and placed the spoon beside it. The smoker, I guessed, had been a visitor. The brand of cigar was far too exotic for the Benchleys as described by Mrs. Tyler, and clearly the staff was not used to emptying ashtrays. Muddy, discarded shoes — well made, but poorly tended — lay at the fireplace and something that looked disturbingly like animal feces lurked by an armchair.
A copy of this morning's Times lay on a table next to a chair that was some distance from the others; from the depression in the cushion, I guessed the man of the house sat there. A bookmark was stuck three pages into a copy of Middlemarch. Mary Roberts Rinehart's thriller When a Man Marries was spread-eagled on top.
Hearing the thud of footsteps on the stairs, I stepped back into the hallway, and saw Mrs. Alfred Benchley.
Mrs. Benchley, formerly Miss Caroline Shaw, was a plump, anxious woman. Her tea gown was hopelessly old-fashioned: mustard yellow with lace panels on the collar that looked as if someone had slapped napkins on her shoulders. The dark brown sash had not been properly tied. A careless laundress had shriveled the ruffles at the sleeves. The pins in her hair had not been fixed at the right angle, and the back was in danger of collapsing. In the grandeur of the house, she seemed a country cousin visiting her city relations, who sigh and count the days until "dear Caroline's" departure.
"I do apologize," she said breathlessly. "Did someone let you in? Oh, yes, of course they did. Shall we speak in the sitting room?"
Sweeping into the sitting room, she remarked over her shoulder, "We are in a complete muddle. I know everyone says it, but it is so hard to find good help. I'm told girls no longer seek domestic employment; they prefer to work in shops or those dreadful factories."
It was not the first time I had heard the complaint. Mrs. Armslow and her acquaintances had also lamented the ungrateful refusal of the lower classes to employ themselves meeting the needs of their betters. Houses that used to have sixteen or more servants now made do with twelve or even nine.
I said, "It's not every young woman who finds her purpose in service to others."
"My friend Mrs. Tyler says wonderful things about you. She's been so helpful getting us settled in New York. I don't know what we'd do without her. I understand you worked for Lavinia Armslow." I nodded. "And before Mrs. Armslow?"
"Before Mrs. Armslow, I worked for my uncle, the Reverend Prescott. He ..."
I hesitated. My uncle ran a home for women who once sold themselves, but wished to find different employment. Until they could, and until those who profited from their labors got tired of looking for them, they stayed at the refuge.
Mrs. Armslow chose to devote a small part of her vast fortune to my uncle's cause. Once a year, she would visit in order to survey the souls in the process of salvation. During one visit, when I was fourteen, Mrs. Armslow questioned the wisdom of raising an impressionable girl among so many fallen women and offered me a position. My future would be secured and my morals protected.
"My uncle administers a home where fallen women who seek a better life may stay in safety," I told Mrs. Benchley.
Mrs. Benchley nodded. "I imagine it's terribly difficult for these women to return to any kind of respectable life. And when you think so many were forced into it, even kidnapped —"
She paused, eager for colorful stories of white slavery and innocent country girls seduced into vice. I asked, "Is it you who requires a maid, Mrs. Benchley?"
"Me?" Her mind still on prostitutes, it took Mrs. Benchley a moment. "Oh, no. I have my own dear Maude, she's been with us for ages — Matchless Maude, I call her — and the girls need someone more their own age. But they're very different girls, and finding one person to suit both has been so difficult. I had thought, Well, we'll simply get two, but my husband doesn't see why they can't make do with one, and when Alfred doesn't see something, it's ..." Nervous, she rubbed one hand over the other. "So, you see ..."
"Yes," I assured her. "Your daughters require a maid."
With a sigh, she dropped her hands to her lap. "Oh, you do understand. And you speak English. They say the Irish do, but I can never make it out. Oh — you're not Irish, are you?"
"No, ma'am, from Scotland. When I was three."
Beaming, she said, "Well, that's fine. Shall we speak with the young ladies?"
As I followed her up the stairs, she said, "We'll see Charlotte first. She made her debut a month ago. Oh, it was marvelous, hundreds of people."
One of whom was Mrs. Gibbes, a friend of Mrs. Armslow's, who described the event as "a pageant of vulgarity," although she allowed "the girl was a pretty little thing."
Mrs. Benchley said, "Again, I must credit Mrs. Tyler; she told us who the best caterers were, where to get the flowers, who we must invite, and not invite, which is apparently just as important."
I wondered if there had been financial remuneration for Mrs. Tyler's helpfulness. She would not be the first lady of great name but small wealth to accept a fee for such guidance.
We were interrupted by a scream from down the hall. Mrs. Benchley hurried to the next door and flung it open. Coming up behind her, I saw a beautiful, airy room that looked directly onto the avenue. In the center of the room, a lovely girl stood in her chemise, fists clenched, glaring down at a bundle of light blue cloth heaped about her ankles. A sullen older woman in an ill-fitting maid's uniform stood at a safe distance.
"Whatever's the matter, Charlotte?" asked Mrs. Benchley.
"It's ..." She waved a dismissive hand at the maid. "She's completely hopeless. She hasn't got the first idea what to do."
Small wonder. The bundle of cloth was a hobble skirt. It had only recently become all the rage among the fashionable set. A tight, narrow column of fabric, it obliged women to take tiny, awkward steps; in the words of its creator, Paul Poiret, it "freed the bust and shackled the legs." This made it difficult to put on, as one could lose balance as the skirt clutched tighter and tighter around the body.
This, it seemed, was my cue.
"If I may," I said, stepping into the room. "Mrs. Armslow's granddaughter had a skirt similar to this." Kneeling beside Charlotte Benchley, I said to the older woman, who I guessed was the Matchless Maude, "Could you bring that chair here? Miss Benchley, if you would hold on? Thank you."
Taking the skirt carefully with the tips of my fingers, I eased it over Miss Benchley's legs. A matching jacket was added. Miss Benchley surveyed herself in the mirror as I adjusted her hair and placed the hat. In some ways, she would be a pleasure to dress. She was not above seventeen years old, blessed with a natural hourglass figure, a slender waist, and graceful arms. Her fair hair was fine, but her smile, when she bestowed it, was beguiling. She had a look favored in that day, a childish prettiness, round in the cheek and bosom, with wide, admiring eyes. A girl not quite out of the schoolroom. If she knew how to give a man a look that hinted she might know a little of what happened outside of schoolrooms, then blush straightaway when he answered her look, so much the better. Charlotte Benchley, as I discovered, knew very well how to give that look.
She had a sharp eye for her own appearance and watched everything I did. She wanted the hat just so. The ruffles of the blouse should be out, not in. At one point, I wondered if her white gloves were too bright for the suit; did Miss Benchley perhaps have a gray pair? Miss Benchley did and was satisfied with the result.
Smiling, Mrs. Benchley said to her daughter, "I think she'll do very well for you, don't you?"
She put an arm around Charlotte's shoulders, but the young woman disengaged herself, saying, "And I suppose she'll be doing very well for Louise as well."
Mrs. Benchley said, "Your father feels ..."
Charlotte tugged angrily on her gloves. "It's absurd. He brings us here, expects us to manage, then doesn't provide the most basic ..." She waved a hand, dismissing any answer her mother could make. Then, taking up her bag, she said, "If you don't mind, I'm late. Very nice to meet you, Miss ... whatever your name is. Who knows if you shall be here when I return."
As she said this last, our eyes met and I got my first clear look at the young lady of whom so much would be written in the months to come. I decided that Mrs. Gibbes had been very wrong to dismiss Charlotte Benchley as a pretty little thing.
As we made our way down the hall, Mrs. Benchley sighed. "It's too hard, having two daughters. I don't worry about Charlotte. She may be a tiny bit stubborn about getting her own way, but very often she's right. But Louise, my eldest! If you could help me with Louise, well, you would be I can't say what, but something like an angel. She's a good girl. Most modern girls don't listen to their mothers, and Louise does, you know. But poor thing, she can't seem to ..."
We were at the third door. Mrs. Benchley whispered, "Well, you'll see what I mean. Louise!" She rapped on the door.
A small voice said, "Yes?" and we went in.
My first impression of Louise Benchley was of a turtle without its shell. As we entered her room, she was sitting at her dressing table, her shoulders hunched and her long back stooped. She was too thin. Her hair was a dull blond; it hung lank on her head, as if despairing of its lack of shape. Her gray eyes were large and protruding. Her arms were long, so long she often seemed to forget she had hands at the end of them. Clearly — and unfortunately — she did listen to her mother; her dress was much in her mother's style. The shade of cherry bordered on cruel.
She leapt up as we came in, extending an uncertain hand as her mother introduced us. Her anxiety was catching, and I found myself at a loss until I noticed an array of dolls upon her bed and remarked what a lovely collection she had.
"Oh." Louise glanced around the room. Truthfully, the dolls made me uneasy. Rows and rows of little female forms with porcelain faces and stiff, tiny hands. They sat suffocated in ruffles and ribbons. Mouths too perfect and small to permit breath, let alone utterance. Their hair was beautifully set — all human hair. I could not help thinking these creatures had cannibalized real women to make themselves even more perfect.
I said, "Perhaps you'd like to tell me what you seek in a maid."
Louise looked panicked. "Oh, I don't know. Anything."
Mrs. Benchley said, "Louise —" But she was interrupted by a shriek and crash from downstairs. Hurrying toward the door, Mrs. Benchley exhorted our better acquaintance and left.
Gazing at the dolls, Louise said, "Have you met my sister?"
"Miss Charlotte. Yes, I have."
She took the hand of one of the dolls, swung it as if they were walking together. "She belonged to Charlotte. When we moved, Charlotte wanted to throw them out. Maybe it was silly, but I couldn't bear it. Something you've had always, just tossed aside. I suppose that's why I have so many." She looked up at me. "I warn you now that I am completely hopeless."
"My uncle is a reverend. He says no one is completely hopeless."
"Well, I am. At everything. Everything that matters. Except badminton." For a moment, she brightened. "I am very good at badminton."
Excerpted from "A Death of No Importance"
Copyright © 2018 Mariah Fredericks.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
New York in the Gilded Age, Edith Wharton territory. The glamorous-seeming upper class life is actually filled with uneasiness, insecurity and some very ugly secrets. Who better to describe it all than an intelligent, educated ladies maid, who sees everything but is often invisible? Jane Prescott’s voice – skeptical, determined, responsible – is perfectly written in this fascinating historical mystery. When the young and foolish daughter of the house is suspected of murder, Jane becomes drawn ever deeper into a complex story that smoothly draws in levels of society well beyond the tight world of the very rich. The result is a richly layered story and the ending is at once clever and haunting. Can’t wait for the next book in the series.
A Death of No Importance by Mariah Fredericks takes readers back in time to New York City in May of 1910. Jane Prescott is a lady’s maid for the Benchley’s daughters, Louise and Charlotte. Charlotte is the more vivacious and fashionable of the girls. She sets out to capture Robert “Norrie” Newsome despite the rumors that he is practically engaged to Beatrice Tyler. In September, Charlotte tells her mother that Norrie has proposed, and it is decided to announce the event on Christmas Eve at the Newsome Annual Christmas Eve Ball. When it is near time for the announcement, Jane goes looking for Charlotte and finds Norrie dead on the library floor. Inspector Thomas J. Blackburn is assigned the case and Charlotte finds herself a suspect. Jane with the aid of reporter, Michael Behan delves into Norrie’s life. There is a myriad of suspects who all had good motive to eliminate the victim. Join Jane Prescott as she sets out to catch a killer in A Death of No Importance. A Death of No Importance had a good beginning that drew me into the story. After a while, though, the pace slowed down and the content was less captivating. The book became political with the author being on the side of the poor (the rich industrialist versus the working-class poor). We get detailed descriptions of the indulgences of the upper classes. The author tried to capture the time-period by including various historical happenings including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (it was a devastating fire that killed 146 people—mostly immigrant women), Hull House, and the bombing at the LA Times Building They were not integrated into the story properly (felt like add-ins) and had nothing to do with the mystery. The murder mystery appears complex, but the solution was apparent. The book needed action and active investigating that would help move the book forward. The investigating that Jane can do is limited due to her gender and ability to leave her work (she does manage it at times though). The story is told from an older Jane Prescott (reliving her younger days). Jane is an observant main character whose eye for detail aids in her solving the case. A Death of No Importance had a disappointing ending (a big letdown). A Death of No Importance was not the right fit for me.
There is no question that the author knows and loves NYC and the general area. She paints such a clear picture that the reader is IN 1910 NYC with all its strengths and weaknesses. As the various reviews point out, the main character is uniquely positioned as a lady's maid to be seemingly invisible to the upper classes, yet bright enough to see and hear important details. This is an excellent read. The time is clearly delineated. The class structure unavoidable. The people unique. And the mystery fascinating.