Monday, September 14, 2020

Relative Fortunes and Passing Fancies by Marlowe Benn

Recently, it was suggested to me that I buy two novels as companion pieces; Relative  Fortunes, and Passing Fancies, both written by Marlow Benn. They are indeed companion novels, and so I am recommending them to you as a pair. 

While in one sense, they are light reading, in fact there is much substance to each of the novels. They take place in 1920s Manhattan. You should read Relative Fortunes first, and I suggest that you then move directly to Passing Fancies. The heroine is an elegant and fiercely intelligent character by the name of Julia Kydd.  She has returned from Europe to Manhattan in order to collect her inheritance which has been held in trust and meted out in increments by her much older half-brother Phillip. She is to gain control of the inheritance when she turns twenty-five, and there is much made in the novel about the ridiculous laws that make it difficult for women to control their own money without the need of a male (husband, father, relative) to advise and control. 

For some reason (and Julia really does not understand what it is), Phillip has decided to contest the will that his father made leaving a small fortune for Julia, who was born to his second wife. Phillip does not need the money, since he already has a much more considerable fortune, and yet he makes it clear he intends to challenge the interpretation of the will, and to deny Julia her portion.

Since she has no residence in New York, she is invited to stay at Phillip’s brownstone, and the repartee between the siblings is witty, intelligent and captivating. The two discuss events of the day, the foibles of so-called high society, and women’s suffrage.  Julia insists she is not political at all and she wants only to launch her own private press with the emphasis on the beauty of the books more than  the content. 

While Julia claims not to be political, when it comes to the treatment of women, she cannot and will not be quiet. When a famous suffragist, Naomi Rankin dies suddenly, and it is deemed a suicide, Julia is more than skeptical, and suggests to Phillip that she may have been murdered. This thread in the novel makes it read like a mystery, and the repartee between siblings reminds me a lot of Dashiel Hammet’s delightful Thin Man

The reader comes to discover that Phillip is, in fact, very sympathetic to the suffrage movement and to the emancipation of women. He is also (if somewhat secretly) really enchanted by his young half-sibling. He proposes to her that if she can prove that Naomi’s death was in fact a murder, he will drop his challenge of his father’s will.

Clearly,  author Benn is more interested in the history of the period than in  simply writing a good mystery. The combination of mystery, comedy, and serious social political content make this a delightful read.

Without revealing the twists and turns of the mystery in the first volume, let me turn to the second, Passing Fancies. The political content of this second novel is obviously the controlling theme. Julia’s desires to launch her publishing company lead her into what is now called the Harlem Renaissance, described on the novel’s jacket as “a literary movement…where notions of race, sexuality, and power are slippery, and identities can be deceptively fluid.’

This second novel, published in 2020, is remarkably relevant to current issues. Julia becomes acquainted with a singer, Eva Pruit, who has written a book that is rumored to reveal ”lurid details about the Harlem nightlife.” A nightclub owner is furious about the book, because he thinks his character is the inspiration for it. When he is murdered and the manuscript and Pruit are nowhere to be found, Julia Kydd steps in to solve the mystery.

During a police raid on the nightclub, Eva is treated very badly, and would have been treated worse if Julia and her brother Phillip had not been present. Julia’s friend Christophine is informed of the raid:

Christophine was angry but not shocked to hear of Eva’s treatment. The police she knew were not white-lady police.

It was a horrid term, crawling with implications. It suggested there was no such thing as what Julia had always referred to as simply “the police” (Didn’t everyone? Or rather, didn’t every white person of her acquaintance?). The definition she considered standard and universal—a helpful force for public safety and well-being—was apparently only one version of a widely varying realty. Even more unsettling to consider: Eva’s experience might be the more common, and Julia’s the more rare. The notion upended something foundational.

Eva is an African-American woman who has passed for white, but once she is outed, she is treated as simply another Black troublemaker. 

I hope I have not given away much of the intricate plots of either of these novels, and yet said enough to encourage readers. The greater distance I got from my own reading, and the more I heard from reader friends I passed them on to, the more I felt it important to recommend them to Old Mole readers.

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