Book Review: Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman

Last Call at the Nightingale, a riveting story—well-written, beautifully crafted, and brilliantly imagined.

I’d heard a lot of good things about Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman, which made me eager to read it even though historical mysteries aren’t my usual forte. But now that I’ve read it, I’m happy I did. Schellman introduced us to an engaging lead in Vivian Kelly and I liked the surprising and intriguing support cast we meet and hope to see again from this novel advertised as the first in a series—Vivian’s sister Florence, her best friend Beatrice, her friend Danny, love interest Leo, and Honor Huxley, owner of the speakeasy called the Nightingale.

There’s a backstory and baggage in relation to the Kelly sister’s dead mother and absent father, but it informs rather than overwhelms the story unfolding here which gives the reader a nice balance of the crime-at-hand and the usual personal stuff impacting on the character’s lives—particularly that of Vivian Kelly.

Last Call of the Nightingale

by Katharine Schellman

Published by St. Martin’s Press, Minotaur Books

on June 7, 2022

ISBN 9781250831835

Genre(s) Historical mysteries

320 pages

From the publisher

First in a captivating Jazz age mystery series from author Katharine Schellman, Last Call at the Nightingale beckons readers into a darkly glamorous speakeasy where music, liquor, and secrets flow.

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.

We get a murder close to the very start, which is how the best crime fiction novels begin, and that gets coincidentally linked to Vivian when she and Beatrice discover a dead man in the alley behind the Nightingale. Beatrice works at the jazz club as a waitress and it’s where Vivian goes almost every night to enjoy a brief respite from her hand-to-mouth existence and the grind of her day job as an underpaid seamstress.

The story takes place in New York City in 1924, during Prohibition, a time when speakeasies flourished and bootleg alcohol flowed freely. Honor Huxley, who makes it her business to know where all the bodies are buried, eventually presses Vivian into trying to identify the killer of the man found dead in the alley, and somewhat reluctantly at first, Vivian plays the role of an amateur sleuth in the endeavor. That, of course, places her in all manner of personal danger, and the fallout even spills over and splashes onto her sister Flo before it’s all said and done.

Reading Last Call at the Nightingale often made me think of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, although this book focuses more on the circumstances of the poor, downtrodden, and marginalized minorities of the twenties than the uber wealthy. Still, there were comparisons I easily drew, and Schellman effectively presents to us the social stratification that existed between the haves and have-nots during The Roaring Twenties, a period of rapid economic growth and social change.

Schellman’s fanciful imprinting of the elements of 2020s wokeness culture on The Roaring Twenties seems a bit farfetched, but at the same time, the slight departure into historical revisionism adds depth and interest to this fictional tale. I suppose many find it empowering and take comfort in imagining facets of purely modern culture and contemporary social constructs they embrace to have a long history in society, even when they do not.

Overall, I found Last Call at the Nightingale a riveting story—well-written, beautifully crafted, and brilliantly imagined. Schellman is a talented writer who keeps the pages turning and I’m eager to read more of her work.

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