If New York’s Gilded Age had once appeared to be gently disappearing into the pages of the history books, the last few years, laden with financial malfeasance, Wall Street greed, burgeoning poverty, and an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor, have made it chillingly relevant.
Berkley Books, $15
In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “In the United States the more opulent citizens take care not to stand aloof from the people.” He spoke too soon. A few decades later, New York society, the 1 percent of its day, was marked by a rigid caste system of snobbish old money, striving new money, draconian rules of social behavior, and mindless excess.
Gregory Murphy’s “Incognito” captures with quiet assurance the tail end of the Gilded Age in all its glittering hypocrisy. He paints a picture of a world where appearances were all that mattered and a universal collusion denied, or at least ignored, the corruption and venality that lay just below the surface. This is a mystery without dead bodies (although with a whole truckload of closeted skeletons) — a Chinese box of a mystery in which puzzles solved lead only to more puzzles.
William Dysart is a lawyer born to old-moneyed wealth. Although unhappy with the vapid society around him, with his controlling father, and particularly with his beautiful, cold, and manipulative wife, he seems mired in inertia, in a desire for a quiet life with no boats rocked.
Until, that is, he is sent on a routine errand for the widow of a rich financier represented by his firm. She intends to donate her vast estate on Long Island Sound to become a public park, and he is instructed to make a generous offer to buy a tiny plot of adjoining land with a cottage. The land, he has been told, is essential to the development of the entire park.
But the reclusive young owner of the cottage, Sybil Curtis, refuses to sell, even though she knows the widow has the influence to get the land seized by the state for far less than it is worth. William realizes there is some kind of personal relationship between the women, though both deny it. He also realizes that the land is in no way important to the development of the park. Intrigued by the contradictions of the case, and increasingly attracted to the young woman, he finds himself trying to help her.
What was her relationship with the rich financier? Where does she come from? Why does an attractive woman live in isolation in a cottage that seems to be all she possesses but which she appears willing to throw away? Is she an innocent or, as becomes more and more apparent, something quite different?
As he tries to discover who Sybil is, William is also forced to discover who he is himself, to stir himself out of his inertia and begin to question his own past for the first time. Why did his mother suddenly leave when he was 6, and how did she die? Why will his father not speak of it? Why does no photograph or drawing of his mother exist? His only maternal relative is an aunt whom he has never met. He has always accepted his father’s description of her as some kind of unnatural monster. But is this true? As he begins to find answers to his questions both about Sybil and about himself, he at last takes control of his life.
“Incognito” is full of toothsome Gilded Age details about the great mansions of the day, about yachts and private railroad cars and gentlemen’s clubs, about trunkloads of couture dresses ordered from Paris and sent back again each time they needed cleaning, about the endless rounds of balls and teas and nights at the opera. But what will remain with you is when Mr. Murphy, who is the 7th of 11 children born and raised in Amityville, peels back the gilded lid to reveal a little of the sad depravity underneath.
And last, but by no means least, “Incognito” is a tender and satisfying love story.
Gregory Murphy is the author of “The Countess,” a play about the marriage of the 19th-century art critic John Ruskin and Effie Gray. He lives in New York City.
Sheridan Sansegundo, a former arts editor at The Star, lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.