The milieu of early-20th-century New York City remains almost exclusively the purview of Edith Wharton, and any author who dares to set their novels in the same time period will suffer in the comparison. To his credit, Gregory Murphy isn’t as interested in the manners and moirés of the time as Wharton was. By necessity, he isn’t as familiar with them as the steeped-in-tradition Wharton; instead, Murphy has used the period as the setting for a teasingly unfurled mystery in his Incognito, set in 1911.
Wealthy and unhappily married lawyer William Dysart, whose wife Arabella is cited as the most beautiful woman in New York City, despite her scheming social climbing, finds a breath of fresh air in the young, mysterious Sybil Curtis, who lives alone in a Long Neck cottage and is the target of one of William’s rich and vindictive clients. As Dysart tries to unravel why he is being ordered to buy Sybil out of her home, he also returns again and again to the mystery surrounding his mother’s sudden death, an event that his distant father never fully explained.
Murphy has clearly done his research, and he’s determined to not waste a detail of it. References to things we think of as more modern than 1911 (like the Queensboro Bridge) prompt trips to Wikipedia, but they always check out—though the wealth of minutiae can be somewhat distracting.
The story itself is somewhat flimsy, reliant upon skeletons in too many closets to be fully effective. Everyone’s secret life seems to revolve around the pleasant Sybil, whose true story is straight out of a penny dreadful. She’s always a bit of an enigma, written to be an ideal of womanhood without ever feeling truly alive. In that, she is a perfect foil for the equally enigmatic Arabella, who is as icy as Sybil is down-to-earth. Caught between them, William’s consuming conflict is whether to throw away decorum and social standing to be truly happy. Wharton might have made something on a truly tragic scale out of the unhappy trio Murphy has concocted; Murphy is content to let their story play out on a smaller scale. As a result, the many pleasures of Incognito are also of a smaller scale.
Incognito (Berkley Trade), by Gregory Murphy, is out now.
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