I thought Gregory Murphy’s novel Incognito would be fun because it is set in Manhattan and Lloyd Neck, on Long Island’s North Shore – practically my back yard. I was wrong.
The story, which begins in 1911, revolves around William Dysart, a socially prominent lawyer, who has been asked to convince Miss Sylvia Curtis to sell her waterfront Lloyd Neck cottage to her neighbor, the powerful dowager Lydia Billings. Billings wants to turn her estate over to the state to be used as a park – much as the former Marshall Field property on the Neck is today’s Caumsett State Park. Miss Curtis regrets. Here’s a surprise: Dysart, though married to the beautiful, shallow and avaricious social climber Arabella, falls for Sylvia. Trying to understand the reasons behind Lydia Billings’ and Sylvia’s mutual dislike, Dysart uncovers a mother lode of scandalous secrets. Along the way, he finally learns why his own mother abruptly abandoned him when he was a young boy.
Clearly, Murphy wants to emulate Henry James and Edith Wharton by mining the rich vein of corruption running beneath early 20th century New York “society.” Sadly, he simply isn’t up to the task.
He’s a sloppy writer. I knew I was in for trouble within the first three pages when he described Arabella’s hair: “The late October sun streaming in through the beveled glass windows turned her red-gold hair to fire.” On the next page, she “tucked a curl of reddish blond hair away from her sleepy green eyes.” Got it the first time. She’s a strawberry blonde.
Murphy clunks along: “He fiddled with one of the silver cufflinks his father had given him for his birthday, but the clasp wouldn’t hold and he tossed it on his dresser. He would have to forgo this token of filial devotion, however much he might feel the need for it that evening.” Really?
While he earnestly inserts local color (Target Rock! Matinecock Indians!), he didn’t do his research in more critical areas. Here we go: “It took an hour for the call to go through to the Villa Corsini outside Florence. . .” Umm, last I looked, the first transatlantic phone call was made in 1926. And “damn(ing) the expense,” Dysart makes more than one overseas call.
Our hero also repeatedly jumps in his motorcar to zip out to Lloyd Neck, making the trip from Manhattan in one instance in under an hour. Say what? Today, it takes about 15 minutes to drive just from downtown Huntington to where you can see Target Rock – and that’s on paved roads. Remember, this book is set in 1911 and 1912. There was no LIE.
But, all could be forgiven but for one sad fact: Even though he violates just about every possible lawyer-client confidence, even though he dumps his ravishing wife and eventually — sort of — stands up to his overbearing father, Dysart is a wimp. He’s a wimp who falls in love with the “lovely” cipher that is Sylvia Curtis. Best let Incognito remain unknown.
Should you feel the need to get to the bottom of Incognito, you can find it on amazon.com and at New York bookstores.