Harlem Sunset (A Harlem Renaissance Mystery)

Written by Nekesa Afia
Review by Sarah Johnson

This novel, second in the Harlem Renaissance Mystery series, is a continuation, not a standalone. Not having read Dead Dead Girls first, it took a while for the characters and plot to become clear in my mind; in addition, the culprit from the first book is (surprise!) named in Chapter 2. Nonetheless, I found myself drawn into the life of Louise Lloyd, manager at the Dove, a popular nightclub in 1927 Harlem. Things should be looking up for Louise: besides her job, she just moved in with her girlfriend, Rosa Maria Moreno, and loves dancing the night away in a bright red dress and heels. But despite having solved the Girl Killer case, Louise remains haunted by its resolution. Also, after being kidnapped as a teenager, she had saved herself and her fellow victims and still deals with the resulting fame and trauma.

Afia presents a credible portrait of a young Black woman striving to overcome PTSD and reclaim her life. Then Louise’s situation becomes more troublesome. On the morning after her 27th birthday celebration, Louise awakens on the floor of the Dove next to her friends, with one of the girls she’d rescued years ago—who she’d just met again the night before—stabbed to death alongside them. To the cops, Rosa Maria appears guilty, so Louise turns detective to clear her lover’s name.

The pace is snappy, the historical atmosphere cleanly evoked without excessive detail. As Louise ponders a motive, she combs through the dead woman’s past as well as her own. This novel works better as a character-centered crime novel than a traditional amateur sleuth tale, since the mystery plot gets digressive and has some implausible aspects. Louise’s friends and family members are an intriguing bunch with realistically drawn relationships, though, so much so that I find myself eager to pick up Dead Dead Girls to see them again—even knowing whodunit.