reviewed by Pam Guynn
Set in Harlem in the late 1920s, Harlem Sunset by Nekesa Afia brings to life the vibrant nightlife, jazz music, dancing, and cultural awareness of the times. It’s not just a historical mystery, but also the journey of protagonist Louise Lloyd as she comes to terms with who and what she is.
Louise is the new manager of a club owned by her friend Rafael Moreno, the brother of Louise’s girlfriend, Rosa Maria. As they are set to celebrate Louise’s birthday, Nora Davies joins them. Nora and Louise were two of the girls kidnapped a decade ago. Louise, Rafael, Rosa Maria, Nora, and Eugene (Rafael’s boyfriend) spend the night drinking and talking, but eventually fall asleep. When they awaken, Nora is dead, and Rosa Maria is covered in blood. Did Rosa Maria kill Nora or did someone frame her?
The author does a great job on characterization, providing not just a physical description, but gradually showing readers their shortcomings and strengths. Louise is a likeable but flawed character. She has a need to know the truth, is nonjudgmental, tends to joke in uncomfortable situations, tends to ignore things she shouldn’t, and suffers from PTSD from her earlier events including her kidnapping. She also was the main caretaker of her three younger sisters as they grew up. Louise is a dynamic character who changes and grows as the story progresses. The supporting characters had a variety of depths appropriate to their roles.
This story captivated me from the very beginning. The author brought the characters and the cultural lifestyles of the times and place to life. The plot is multi-faceted, and the conflicts move the story forward with twists and turns that gradually builds momentum.
The author does a great job of world-building. I was able to easily visualize the settings, the people, the clothing, and the homes. The atmosphere felt right for the times resulting in a strong sense of time and place. She effortlessly weaved themes of family, friendship, lifestyle, loneliness, the treatment and expectations of women, domestic abuse, grief, and murder into the plot. My only quibble is that the story slowed down too much in a couple of places.
Overall, this book was an engaging, captivating, suspenseful, and enjoyable historical mystery and character journey. I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series. While this novel is the second in the series, it worked well as a stand-alone. However, reading the books in order would enhance the reading experience. Readers that enjoy character-driven historical mysteries will likely enjoy this series.
Berkley Publishing Group and Nekesa Afia provided a complimentary digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley. This is my honest review. Opinions are mine alone and are not biased in any way. Publication date is currently set for June 28, 2022.