Relative Fortunes

This is it. The summer read I’ve been waiting for: a tantalizing mystery that blends chic characters, cheeky repartee, glamorous settings, and – as a bonus – lively historical perspective.

Marlowe Benn, the pen name of Bainbridge Island writer Megan Benton, pulls it all together for her debut novel, “Relative Fortunes.”

The story takes place in the Roaring ’20s, when Julia Kydd, a budding young publisher, sets foot back on American soil after several years away in England.

Her half-brother, Philip, is a decade her senior, and has served as her guardian since her mother died years ago. He has summoned Julia to New York because she is about to turn 25, and Julia, who’d “lived all her life in money-lit radiance,” assumes she will come into her inheritance.

She is mistaken.

With the backing of a phalanx of attorneys, Philip instead asserts ownership of the entire estate.

A droll man, inclined to whims, Philip makes this claim with a veneer of amiability, but when a judge sides with Philip’s interpretation of the will, Julia suddenly faces an unanticipated future of penury.

She is stunned that the old boys network has so summarily rendered her unable to pursue her ambitions, and with no apparent recourse.

Subjecting herself to honest self-assessment, she realizes she has few practical assets to fall back upon: “her education had been expensive but haphazard and ‘female’ – meant to breed appreciation more than inquiry, competence more than command.”

She’s not the only one facing troubles.

On her voyage back to America, Julia runs into an old school chum, Glennis Rankin, who comes from a wealthy New York family. The two young women rekindle their friendship and once back in New York, Glennis offers to tide Julia over while she considers her now severely limited options.

But a sudden death in the Rankin family – one of Glennis’s older sisters has apparently overdosed on pills – throws everything into further turmoil.

The deceased, Naomi Rankin, was an outspoken suffragist, with political ambitions of her own. Many in her family regarded her as an embarrassment, and there is now an almost unseemly sense of relief that she will no longer be a thorn in the family’s side.

But this is not the case for Glennis, who thinks there’s something suspicious about Naomi’s untimely death. She implores Julia to assist in her muddled efforts to investigate – and how can Julia deny her?

Philip becomes aware of the female duo’s caper and is amused. He glibly ups the ante should their inquiry provide evidence of foul play.

“Relative Fortunes” is the perfect title for this frisky murder mystery – even while dealing with family relations, gender discrimination, women’s rights and the political landscape, the author also treats us to the insouciance of the Jazz Age, from fashion and lingo to cigarettes and speakeasies.

There are some early fits and starts with pacing, but thanks to terrific language, a twisting plot and immensely engaging characters, the story soon becomes a grade-A romp.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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