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THE LAST NOTE OF WARNING
by Katherine Schellman
Minotaur, June 2024
352 pages
$29.00
ISBN: 125032579X


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In this third entry in the Nightingale mystery series, the protagonist, Vivian Kelly, a young working-class woman who delivers dresses by day and dances her nights away in the Nightingale, a speakeasy where men are happy to supply a young partner with drinks and where Vivian has already solved two murders, now finds herself accused of that same crime. When delivering a dress to a mansion on Fifth Avenue, she is instructed to wait until the customer can see her. While waiting she has a brief chat with her client's husband and dozes off after he is called away. When she wakes up, she realizes she has been there too long and leaves the sitting room only to discover the husband's dead body.

Before she knows it, she is being run in on suspicion of murder, even though there is really nothing to connect her to the victim. Then she is given a week to prove she did not murder anyone or to settle her affairs if she can't do that. The police seem determined to nail her for the crime regardless of the fact that there is nothing to connect her to the victim. Of course, Vivian sets to work to free herself but finds few facts that would force the police to turn attention elsewhere.

It is difficult to generate suspense out of so flimsy a premise, and Schellman wisely doesn't try very hard to. Instead we follow Vivian to the Nightingale, where she finds herself rebuffed by her boss, Honor Huxley, for reasons as unclear as those motivating the cops. Vivian is especially bewildered as she and Honor were strongly attracted to one another in the past. Her disappointment is painful, especially as she recalls how Honor had defended one or another of her employees in the past. In many ways, the reason for Honor's behaviour is more compelling a question than why Vivian has been tagged as a probable murderess.

As part of her investigation, Vivian spends an evening in Harlem at the annual Hamilton Lodge ball that drew a capacity crowd of gay men and women, crossdressers, and a throng of people, some rich and bored, who simply embraced the chance to wear elaborate costumes or shockingly revealing dress. The crowd was racially mixed and the event was held in an Odd Fellows lodge that was a Harlem community centre. There is nothing fictional about it. It had been occurring more or less annually since 1869 and would continue until the late 1930s. But it required a bit of a stretch on the author's part to get it into the book.

The scene involving the ball is certainly intriguing, though it is has little to do with Vivian's investigation of the murder. Oddly, despite the evidence that Schellman has done considerable research in the period, it rarely expresses itself convincingly except in the speech of the characters. On the whole, except for the ball, the book could be set in any large American city for all the sense we get of life outside of the Nightingale.

This would be less of a problem if the mystery had taken centre stage a bit more often or if Vivian herself were somewhat more coherent a character. Though presented as a young woman rightly determined to make a life for herself that she wants, she is too often described as fighting back tears, or hoping that no one will realize her fears or inadequacies. A little of that sort of thing is a good way to humanize a character. Too much and the reader may begin to wonder.

But the real problem is with the mystery itself. From the outset, we believe that Vivian's improbable one-week investigation leave will not end with her arrest, and are therefore less concerned than we might be at her failures to solve the case. A mystery without suspense is not a mystery, but a book struggling to escape a genre. Perhaps the next installment in the series will make the leap.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, June 2024

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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