Last Call at the Nightingale (Last Call at the Nightingale, 1)

Written by Katharine Schellman
Review by Jinny Webber

A murder mystery set in New York City in 1924, Last Call at the Nightingale features the saucy Vivian Kelly. She and her sister, who grew up in an orphanage, now work in a grim dressmaking shop and share a tenement flat. At the end of their workday, the proper Florence stays in, but Viv heads out to the Nightingale, with its illegal liquor, lively band, and best of all, dancing.

Schellman re-creates the vibrant and dangerous Jazz Age, where Prohibition has given rise to a new criminal class. With her Black waitress friend Bea, Viv discovers a corpse in the alley behind the club and gets involved in discovering who he was, who killed him, and why. Trust is hard to come by, as everyone seems to lie or misrepresent themselves.

The reader is pulled into Viv’s wild life, admiring her spunk and sharp repartee but worried for her safety. It’s not just bootleggers that take the law into their own hands, and Vivian both witnesses and is part of intense fight scenes. The no-nonsense woman who owns the Nightingale insists on being addressed as “Ms.,” some fifty years before the term is spelled that way. Pronounced “miz,” it gives women like her a freer identity. Freedom runs rampant at the Nightingale, where Black, Irish, Jewish, Chinese and every other identity mix, where sexual preferences can be ambiguous, and where rich and poor mingle to blaring music, champagne, gin, and the ever-present amber liquid.

As with the Nightingale club, the mystery plot crosses lines of class, gender, and ethnicity. This novel plays with our expectations and keeps our attention on every fast-moving page. The author’s note elaborates on Schellman’s research into the history of this volatile era. Highly recommended.