Nancy Geary, Misfortune (Warner Books 2001)
It is often observed that a writer's first book is frequently highly autobiographical. Many new authors are most comfortable writing about the familiar, and find inspiration in their own life experiences.
One need look no further than the debut works of some of our most popular writers to find prominent examples from The Naked and the Dead, the 1948 classic about a platoon of American soldiers in the Pacific War, by Norman Mailer, a World War II infantry soldier; to One L, Scott Turow's account of his first year as a Harvard Law student; or, more recently, to Primary Colors, the initially anonymous fictionalized account of a Southern Governor's presidential campaign that turned out to have been written by Joe Klein, a political reporter covering the 1992 Clinton campaign.
So it is not surprising that Nancy Geary a lifelong summer resident of Southampton has set her debut novel, Misfortune, in New York's tony Hampton beach resort district. Nor is it surprising that Geary, a former prosecutor who specialized in violent crimes, has written for her first novel a murder mystery.
The mystery centers on the curious death of a wealthy Hamptons socialite during a July 4 holiday weekend. Set in the exclusive and genteel world of the country clubs and summer retreats of New York's wealthiest and most spoiled citizens, the novel aims to give an insider's account of the excesses of wealth and power found in the Hamptons summer scene.
A Socialite's Murder
Misfortune tells the sordid story of the murder of Clio Pratt, a selfish, vain, and disagreeable fifty-one-year-old socialite. Her body is found in the bathroom of Southampton's lavish Fair Lawn Country Club on the morning of the Fourth of July. The cause of death at first appears to be a heart attack. But after an autopsy reveals it was, instead, an overdose of dangerous drugs, the police determine that Clio was murdered.
The novel's heroine is Frances Pratt, Clio's stepdaughter, who happens to be a prosecutor with the Suffolk County District Attorney's office. She harbors a lifelong dislike for Clio, her father's second wife who virtually ignored Frances and her sister after marrying her father. Still, she is determined to find Clio's killer, if for no other reason than to help her ailing father, Richard Pratt, who has been physically devastated after a debilitating stroke, and is now emotionally devastated as well. Despite being told by her boss to stay off the case, Frances launches her own investigation to find the person responsible for Clio's death.
A Myriad of Suspects, And A Compelling Villain/Victim
In a manner that somewhat resembles the board game "Clue" (perhaps played by the author on too many rainy days at the beach), Geary provides a rich cast of characters as possible suspects in the murder.
The list includes a distinguished African-American heart surgeon who became furious at Clio after learning that, as a member of Fair Lawn Country Club's Membership Committee, she denied him a membership in the Club solely on account of his race. There is also Clio's husband's business partner, who found himself frozen out of the investment company he founded with Clio's husband after Richard Pratt suffered his stroke and withdrew from the business.
There is the middle aged widow Beverly Winters, who was ostracized by Hamptons society after Clio launched a whispering campaign suggesting that Beverly was somehow responsible for her husband's suicide. Even Frances' own sister, Blair, falls under suspicion: She despised her stepmother even more than Frances, particularly because Clio coldly turned down Blair's request for a loan to save her failing Manhattan art gallery.
Yet, despite the long list of individuals that populate the world of Misfortune, it is the novel's villain and murder victim, Clio Pratt, who is the book's most interesting character. Many murder mysteries begin with the crime. But in Misfortune, the victim remains alive for the first third of the novel. While Clio is unquestionably a villain a racist, cruel, and self-absorbed woman her presence gives the book its only spark. And Clio's death robs the book of its most intriguing personality. Once she is gone, the Hamptons become a much less interesting place.
And without the devilish attraction of Clio Pratt, Misfortune never quite comes to life. With the possible exception of the prosecutor Frances Pratt, a reclusive and lonely figure approaching middle age, no other character is fully realized. Most are merely stereotypical, one-dimensional examples of the "out of touch" Hamptons monied elite.
Geary also spends too much time on repetitive and painstaking descriptions of the estates of the rich and famous material more suited to a Martha Stewart public television special than a thriller. Thus, we learn that "Beverly Winters lived in a Tudor-style stucco home with a slate roof and midnight blue shutters" and that "[t]he landscaping of boxwoods, azalea, and rhododendron, though unoriginal, was well maintained" and, if all this wasn't enough, "a slate patio off the left side of the house overlooked a swimming pool." This is one of about a dozen similar tedious descriptions of landscaping and home architecture that burden the book.
Despite all this, the novel is not without its virtues. Geary does a good job of maintaining the suspense of the storyline until the very end. She is at her best when exposing the pretenses and prejudices of the self-important members of Hamptons society who, in the words of one character, a disgruntled long time resident, are "a very affluent, very insecure group of people that want to keep the rest of the world out . . . [and who don't] care about anything but having a good time." This is a theme well timed this summer, in the wake of the widely publicized reckless behavior of real life Hamptons socialite Lizzie Grubman.
All in all, Misfortune offers easy, if not particularly challenging or gripping summer reading. Ultimately, however, like the society it depicts, Misfortune is too genteel and well- mannered for its own good.