I’ve never been terribly interested in historical mysteries.
It really doesn’t make sense, when I sit and think about it. I love history, I love crime stories; you’d think a novel or short story that combined the two together would be my proverbial catnip. Yet with few exceptions (Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell, and Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder, to namecheck a few) I generally don’t read historical mysteries. I am not sure why that is, to be honest; I used to love historical fiction when I was a kid, and of course, the great Gothic ladies of the mid-century often set their novels in the past–looking at you, Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt–and yet…I also love reading books written contemporarily that are now historical in setting (Margaret Millar, Mary Stewart, and Charlotte Armstrong spring to mind, as do Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, and Agatha Christie, for that matter).
Paul and I are also huge fans of the German series Babylon Berlin–I really do need to read the books sometime, as well as those of James Benn–but for some reason, I never ever reach for the historical mysteries when I am looking for something to read.
But I am really glad I put my hands on Dead Dead Girls when I was looking for something to read when the power was out.
The wind whips against her face. Snowflakes stick to her hair, her cheeks, her eyelashes.
She’s disoriented as she tries to find her way home. The sun set at four in the afternoon, but it’s much later now. It’s so dark that it feels as if blackness has swallowed up the city. She’s making her way down the streets, relying on streetlamps and muscle memory. It’s impossible to see in the snow.
She knows two things: first, that she’s going to be in big trouble for being so late; second, that it’s not going to be easy to locate her house in this terrible storm. It’s a small home. She’s the oldest of four girls. The youngest are twins–high energy and overly demanding of her patience. It’s exhausting to keep them in line. They don’t behave as they’re supposed to. Even worse, they’re all crammed into one bedroom.
They live with their widowed father and his sister. Her aunt is strict, but her father is ruthless. He works in the church and has high standards for his children. She also suspects he resents all of them for not being boys. He can snap at any time, for ay reason. Anything she can do to protect the twins, she will do.
Nekesa Afia’s debut novel is an absolute pleasure to read. The 1920’s are a great decade for crime novels, with everything that was going on during that post-war, post-plague decade. Prohibition and speak easies; the rebirth of the Klan; grotesque class inequities and racial discrimination codified; it was a period when there was money to be made in bootlegging and investments and everyone was frantically trying to have a good time to make up for the misery of the previous decade. I have often thought a stand alone–or series–set in New Orleans during this time would be interesting; as Storyville was being broken up and broken down, and of course everyone in the city was ignoring Prohibition…but it was also the time of the Harlem Renaissance, and that is the setting for Afia’s impressive debut.
The main character is Louise Lloyd, a young Black woman who works as a waitress at a tea room (which is actually a cover for the nightclub/speak easy on the upper floor. Louise is strong-willed and determined; when she was young she was kidnapped, along with some other girls, and Louise not only got away but helped the others do so as well, and took down the kidnapper, earning her some notoriety as Harlem’s Hero. Years later, she is estranged from her minister father and the rest of her family, is staying at a Harlem boarding house for women and sneaking out at night to go drinking and dancing in the speak easies of Harlem. Young Black women–many of whom are also working as prostitutes, meeting johns at the speak easies and then retiring with them to rooms or apartments–are being murdered; their bodies being left at the doors of the speak easies. Louise knew the most recent victim, and as someone who can get places the cops can’t–and can possibly get others to speak to her in ways they won’t speak to the police–Louise is dragged into the police investigation, at a huge risk to not only her life but those of the people she is closest to-especially a beautiful young woman named Rosa Maria, and Rosa Maria’s brother Rafael.
It’s a fun read; Afia brings the period–and it’s horrible racism, both casual and overt–to life. Her depiction of the most popular of the clubs, the Zodiac, makes you wish you could actually go and dance to the live music and drink the swill of the liquor served, working up a sweat on the dance floor. Louise is an interesting and likable character; with her flaws and foibles and estrangement from her family, you can’t help but root for her as she navigates a path that is made that much more difficult by her gender and her race–and then Afia adds in, like it’s nothing, that Rosa Maria and Louise are actually in love, and Rafael also swings to the beat of his own gender. It was so matter of fact the way these sexualities were introduced into the story, so nonchalantly, and not mentioned on either the cover or the publicity materials–which is really kind of how it should be; it’s just another facet of the character, it’s not that big a deal to them and therefore it shouldn’t be for the reader, either.
I greatly enjoyed this story, and I am hoping that it’s the first in a series. Towards the end of the book Louise gets a pair of pants–and I felt like this was a huge step in her development as a series character…fingers crossed, because I would love to get to know her better and watch the character develop over the years in a series.
And like Babylon Berlin, this could be the basis for a terrific television series. Fingers crossed.