Last Call at the Nightingale
reviewed by Fiona Cook
Vivian Kelly is poor, living with her sister in New York in 1924, both of them working to keep a tenement roof over their heads and themselves from the streets. Despite this, she’s not afraid to dream, and her nightly escapes to the underground dance hall The Nightingale provide her life with a secret glitter and glamour, not to mention a whole lot of fun.
But when she discovers a dead man in the alley behind the club, she has no idea just how complicated her life is going to become.
Prohibition may have only lasted for 13 years, but it’s sparked the imagination of many an artist. Katharine Schellman hasn’t just set her novel here for the aesthetic though – instead, she touches on issues of segregation, poverty, and class divides with a deft hand that leaves plenty of room for a very satisfying murder mystery with a great deal of heart. The club at the center of the novel, The Nightingale, is more than just a place to dance the night away; it’s a refuge for anyone not completely accepted in the daylight world. Whether they be poor, people of color, LGBTQ+; all are welcome, and there’s an acceptance among its patrons that what happens at the Nightingale stays there.
All of this, of course, means that Vivian Kelly has a lot at stake; and if there was ever a protagonist to get the reader onside it was her. Vivian is charming and vivacious, a hard worker who cares about her family and friends, and a courageous woman who can be afraid and persist regardless. Every character in this book felt natural and realistic, but Vivian stood out as a clear favorite for me. The historical setting is great, too; well-researched and portrayed with the kind of detail that brings a setting to life, without over-egging it and pulling too much focus from the characters or the mystery.
All around, a very good book, one I really enjoyed, from an author I’m very excited to see more from. The ending, while wrapping this up into a standalone novel if it needs to be, leaves me hopeful that we may see more from these characters – and what luck if we do.