New York City, 1924: the height of Prohibition and the whole city swims in bathtub gin. Rose Baker is an orphaned young woman working for her bread as a typist in a police precinct on the lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precinct. While she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid. But when the captivating Odalie begins work at the precinct Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell. As do her bosses, the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. As the two girls’ friendship blossoms and they flit between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the precinct by day, it is not long before Rose’s fascination for her new colleague turns to obsession. But just who is the real Odalie, and how far will Rose go to find out?
Although not strictly speaking falling under the mantle of crime fiction, I think that The Other Typist has more than enough touches of the criminal for inclusion here. Charting the day to day existence of the Rose Baker, a typist within a police precinct on the lower East Side in the 1920‘s, and the effects of her friendship with the gregarious Odalie- the other typist of the title- what unfolds is a tale of betrayal and murder with more than a twist or two along the way….
What I really liked about this book was the way that Rose’s dull, sepia-tinged life merely pivoting between the intensity and masculine world of the police department, and her down-at- heel lodgings with a war widow and bitchy room mate, is suddenly infused with colour and excitement. Her, at first, tentative friendship with the sparkling Odalie, is hampered by Rose’s very stiff and prudish attitudes to the world in general which leaves those who interact with her as perceiving her as something of a cold fish. However, as she gets sucked in deeper to Odalie’s less than legal after hours pursuits, and finds herself immersed in a world of parties and gaiety, it soon becomes obvious to us just why Odalie is so eager to court Rose’s friendship- despite their very obvious differences- and that Rose may have a very different side to her character after all…
From the outset this novel is incredibly engaging, plunging the reader headfirst into the very contrary environments in which Rose and Odalie’s friendship begins to take root. I found the depiction of their work life in the police department- taking notes and observing police interviews to type in endless reports- especially well-realised, stressing that they may only be lowly typists, but that their experience of the world within these confines was so exceptionally different to most women’s lives in this period. There is at the beginning, a tangible atmosphere of trust between themselves and the central male figures in the police department- the Sergeant and the Lieutenant Detective- although Rose remains startling blind to her physical effect on the latter and treats him with utter disdain, as gradually the symbiotic relationship between police officer, typist and suspect is put under the microscope. As we discover by some of Rose’s actions later in the book, this relationship can be manipulated in many ways, and not everyone is beyond reproach, or as good at reading the other’s motives as they should in fact be, leading to a powerful denouement between the central characters.
As Rose and Odalie’s friendship blooms, Rindell unfurls a world of speakeasies and lavish parties, set against this time of Prohibition, that captures the sense of time and place perfectly. As Rindell acknowledges her writing is undoubtedly influenced by Fitzgerald, and one scene in particular at a weekend house party, smacks of Gatsby, but with the assured touch of an author assuming the style but not directly copying it. Particularly within the backdrop of this world, largely alien to Rose, the diametrics of her friendship with Odalie become incredibly interesting, as Odalie manipulates and courts the affections of Rose, inveigling her in a world of excess, frocks and louche behaviour that ends in murder. But all is not as it appears, and there is more to both women than meets the eye. I loved the characterisation of both women, who are fundamentally opposite, but linked in an insidious and ultimately destructive way. The increasingly unreliable narrative of Rose, lends a deeper sense of mystery to the whole affair, that cleverly plays with the empathy of the reader as your loyalties switch constantly between them.
I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of twisted loyalty resulting in murderous betrayal. From the perfect capturing of the period, to the locations, to the characterisation and the wonderfully placed reveals, this was a deeply satisfying read and I have no hesitation in recommending this to any reader who appreciates well written and sophisticated fiction, with a dark sting in the tale…
Suzanne Rindell is a doctoral student in American modernist literature at Rice University. The Other Typist is her first novel. She lives in New York City and is currently working on a second novel. http://suzannerindell.com/
(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)