A few weeks ago I predicted a surge in books set in the 1920s (let’s call it The Gatsby Factor). If The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell is indicative of that trend, then the bar has been set wonderfully high.
The Other Typist is set in New York in 1922. It’s the height of Prohibition and behind secret doors there’s gin aplenty. Rose Baker, raised an orphan in a convent, lives in a boarding house and works as a typist in a police precinct on the lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precinct and while she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid. Her job is to record what will come to be known as the truth.
“…we typists are considered an extension of the typewriter and the mechanical neutrality of all it produces.”
But then the captivating Odalie begins work at the station and Rose finds herself bewitched by the new typist, as do her bosses – the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. The two girls become friends, flitting between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the station by day, however Rose’s fascination for her colleague soon takes an obsessive turn.
It’s hard to avoid being very quickly drawn into this story. Little incidents hint at trouble – Rose pockets a brooch accidentally dropped by Odalie; Rose has a run-in with a house-mate; Rose begins keeping note of particular events. On their own, these actions may seem inconsequential however Rindell’s almost off-hand prose edges you toward something greater, something darker and before you know it, your eyes are racing across the page, rewarded with tantalizing lines such as –
“Oh! But I’m getting it out of order; I should explain how Odalie and I got to be friends in the first place. How she won me over finally and all that. The doctor I am seeing now tells me I should concentrate on telling things in the proper order – chronologically, he means, of course.”
“‘Thank you Gene,’ she said, and smiled again in her innocently bright, sunny manner. I had already observed that Odalie had at minimum one hundred smiles in her arsenal, but this one – the particular variety she was smiling now – was the one she called upon most often.”
Rindell punctuates the story with superb details from the twenties – snippets of life in New York, references to current events and the fashion –
“Even before Odalie bobbed her hair, I had my suspicions the Lieutenant Detective liked that variety of shocking hairstyle, and the kind of women who dared to wear it. I can recall the day Odalie came in and removed her cloche to reveal her jet-black hair swinging in a similar shape just beneath it. It had been cut to her chin, the line of it very precise.”
Again, it’s The Gatsby Factor, but Rindell’s descriptions of speakeasies were captivating – I could taste the sharp lime in the gin rickeys, I could smell the cigarette smoke, I could hear the band, I was on edge, for fear of a sudden bust.
“The crowd was engaged in its usual revelry…. girls appareled in dresses made entirely out of swinging strings of beads were shimmying atop a nearby table… The beaded dresses were so reflective and bright, the girls’ bodies shimmered with a watery mystique, like the opalescent scales of freshly caught trout.”
Much will be made of Rose, an unreliable narrator and I must admit, she had me re-reading some lines, searching for clues. I have a strict ‘no-spoilers’ policy on this blog (I know some people find this annoying because they like to discuss the endings of the books). Thanks to my self-imposed policy, I can’t get into the nitty-gritty of the final twenty odd pages of this book. I re-read it twice (all the while thinking ‘Whaaaaaaat?!). It’s an ending that deserves discussion (much like the ending of Chloe Hooper’s The Engagement) – I need to de-brief with a fellow reader; I need to compare notes; I need to explore the possibilities. So basically, all of you need to read The Other Typist as soon as possible.
It’s all bathtub gin and cocktails in The Other Typist. And I can never say no to a Southside Fizz.