Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman

New York, 1924. Vivian Kelly’s days are filled with drudgery, from the tenement lodging she shares with her sister to the dress shop where she sews for hours every day.

But at night, she escapes to The Nightingale, an underground dance hall where illegal liquor flows and the band plays the Charleston with reckless excitement. With a bartender willing to slip her a free glass of champagne and friends who know the owner, Vivian can lose herself in the music. No one asks where she came from or how much money she has. No one bats an eye if she flirts with men or women as long as she can keep up on the dance floor. At The Nightingale, Vivian forgets the dangers of Prohibition-era New York and finds a place that feels like home.

But then she discovers a body behind the club, and those dangers come knocking.

Caught in a police raid at the Nightingale, Vivian discovers that the dead man wasn’t the nameless bootlegger he first appeared. With too many people assuming she knows more about the crime than she does, Vivian finds herself caught between the dangers of the New York’s underground and the world of the city’s wealthy and careless, where money can hide any sin and the lives of the poor are considered disposable…including Vivian’s own.

CW – violence, sexual abuse (nothing on page) of a teenager

Dear Ms. Schellman,

Whoever designed the cover of this book lured me right into wanting to read it however the book is more than that. What I found was a book with depth and layers. The murder mystery is certainly front and center but it’s back by great period feel, complex and often flawed characters plus what I love the most in this genre – both the clues to solve the mystery and yet one that kept me guessing until right when the killer is unveiled. Brava.

Vivian Kelly and her sister Florence work hard to barely scrape by. Orphaned when their mother died, kept together in the orphanage at the demand of a judgmental neighbor who got them placed together and who has milked that ever since, they view the world differently from each other. Florence wants more but keeps her head down at the seamstress shop where they work for a chilly demanding woman while Vivian has found her people and her freedom dancing and drinking at a small speakeasy what welcomes all classes, races, sexual persuasions, and religions. Florence doesn’t approve of Vivian staying out until the early morning hours but Vivian needs her time there and will pay the price of exhaustion to get it.

When Vivian discovers a dead body in the filthy alley behind the speakeasy, she’s shaken but hands the decisions over to the sexually ambiguous bar owner, Honor, a tough woman who keeps her place open with the expected bribes but she also the power of the knowledge has acquired and accumulated. After Vivian gets caught up in a raid the night after the murder, she finds herself owing Honor a debt which Honor expects to be paid with information she wants Vivian to keep her ears open to get. Help Honor discover who killed this Fifth Avenue swell and get the police commissioner off Honor’s back, and the debt will be paid plus the Nightingale – the place Vivian needs – can remain open. As Vivian is friends with many of the staff who depend on the place for jobs they couldn’t get elsewhere, Vivian agrees.

Soon she finds herself up against forces she doesn’t know who are invested in hiding the truth with no care as to the cost a working class woman will have to pay.

Yes, I inhaled this book. It’s dark and gritty but also filled with friendships. Vivian and Florence love each other but that doesn’t stop the fights, the silences, and the despair between them. Vivian’s best friend Bea, a waitress at the club, is Black and longs to sing there but that takes connections and as Bea bitterly tells Vivian, her family lost their connections when her father, a former Pullman porter whose job gave the family status, died of the influenza. Danny Chin, the smiling chatty bartender who is friends with a man showing Vivian attention, works nights at the club and days at his family’s restaurant and tells Vivian he learned his alley fighting skills because too many White men think of Asian men as punching bags.

Vivian starts investigating – well, careful listening really – to pay off her debt but discovers she’s the type who wants to know the answer. Clues are sprinkled lightly through the book but there are enough ambiguities and red herrings to allow a reader to follow down trails and wonder, along with Vivian, just who is who and what secrets they’re hiding. Since Vivian isn’t a detective and has never done this sort of thing, her missteps are expected but she’s shrewd and smart and willing to put on a front of bravado when needed. There weren’t too many times when I (mentally) shook my head at her and in the end, she gets the main answer plus negotiates a better deal from those who owe her.

The book wraps up the murder mystery and doesn’t end on a cliffhanger but there are some slightly unraveled threads left plus a maybe relationship that could take us into a sequel. I’d be happy to see what Vivian makes of her opportunities and what is in her future. B+


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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

→ Jayne

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