Title: Last Call at the Nightingale
Author: Katharine Schellman
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication date: June 7, 2022
One Sentence Summary: When Vivian accidentally spots a dead body in the alley outside her favorite speakeasy, everyone starts to think she knows more than she does, leading her straight into danger.
Last Call at the Nightingale is the first in a Jazz Age mystery series. It nicely sets up the world as being both full of diversity and full of societal divides, but I wish more of the times had made it into the way the characters spoke. The mystery was slow to start, but ended up being nicely layered without being too weighty and twisty. I also liked Vivian’s back and forth on whether to investigate or not. It was a great introduction to her and the series and I appreciated how she’s smart, but also values self-preservation. The character diversity was my favorite part and it was such a surprise at how much there is. I also adored the main characters and those around them and really loved getting a close knit feeling of the Nightingale. Overall, it’s fun and fairly quick, but I wished for the kind of world building that just dumped me into 1920s NYC.
It’s 1924 in NYC and Vivian Kelly and her older sister Florence are just scraping by as dressmakers. While Florence lives an upstanding life, with long hair, long skirts, and no alcohol, Vivian escapes the drudgery of her daily life by spending her nights at the Nightingale, a speakeasy where socialites mingle with working girls, men can dance with men, and women can kiss other women. Her best friend Bea is a young black woman working there as a waitress and, one night, they stumble on a body in the alley. Bea wants nothing to do with it, but, when Vivian is picked up during a police raid, she ends up owing a favor to the woman who bailed her out: Honor Huxley, the owner of the Nightingale.
Honor wants Vivian to keep an eye on a man who showed up the night after the dead body, a man with secrets who also happens to be sweet on Vivian. While Vivian would rather keep out of it, danger follows her as too many coincidental meetings start to occur and everyone starts to think she knows more than she actually does.
I am not a big fan of historical novels, but I do have a soft spot for the Jazz Age. As a Jazz Age novel, Last Call at the Nightingale took me in and out of the time, but I enjoyed the setting and loved all the diversity. There were some fun intersecting layers in this mystery, but sometimes I felt like things were too coincidental or just didn’t link up well. The characters, though, stole the show for me. I really liked the exploration of the lower and upper classes, but the romance felt like it was building up to something that never materialized and then felt like everything was back to square one. Overall, though, it was a fun, quick read, but not particularly evocative of the Jazz Age.
Last Call at the Nightingale is the first in a new Jazz Age mystery series. It’s fast-paced once the slow starts wears off and Vivian seems to run into trouble at every turn. I liked how layered the mystery was with so many players who revolved around each other engaging in an intriguing dance, but sometimes I felt like characters and sub plots were thrown in either for more interest or to make the novel longer. As a mystery, it had the twists and turns with characters who seemed to be playing multiple sides, but I felt the conclusion was a little too low-key and too easily swept under the rug. As a mystery to get Vivian started, I thought it was perfect considering Vivian is just a young woman who toils six days a week making dresses for socialites. Otherwise it’s slow to get started despite the dead body appearing early on, and the pieces Vivian just abruptly puts together caused a little bit of whiplash.
Vivian was an intriguing character. She’s a working girl just trying to get by, but who wants more for herself. I loved her enthusiasm for living a good life, for having fun whenever she can. She’s a flirt who doesn’t discriminate between men and women and just wants a respite from her daily life. She’s also very smart, but has a self-preservation streak and a strong duty to protect her sister no matter how much she and Florence butt heads. Speaking of Florence, I loved her. She’s the responsible older sister, though she still has dreams of her own. Her duty to Vivian, though, always comes first and, while she doesn’t approve of what Vivian does, she knows she can’t stop her sister, but tries instead to protect them as best she can. I loved the relationship between the sisters. They’re all they’ve got since their mother died when they were young, but they’re basically two sides of the coin. Where one is uptight and responsible, the other is loose and carefree.
My favorite part of Last Call at the Nightingale, though, was all the diversity. Vivian’s best friend is black and Vivian and Florence regularly spend time with Bea’s family. I loved how close Vivian and Bea are, but, as the story wore on, I felt like Bea faded into the background to make room for Leo, one of Vivian’s love interests. I liked how Bea kept her head and was always there for Vivian, but I wish there had been more of her. Then there’s the atmosphere of the Nightingale itself. It’s a safe place for the LGBTQ community, and Vivian is right at home as she’s torn between Honor and Leo, but can also be found flirting and dancing with other men and women. Then there’s the bartender, Danny, who is Chinese and such an amazing help to both Vivian and Honor. I never was quite able to pin him down, but he’s clearly loyal to Honor and has a fantastic sense of duty. I loved the diversity and how it never phased the main characters, but they were also careful about appearances in the light of day.
Set in the 1920s in NYC, I loved the duality of society. During the day, the socialites and working people kept to their own parts of the city and people of different ethnicities kept to their own areas. There seemed to be dividing lines and it was strange to see someone who didn’t belong wandering around. At night, all those barriers came down in the speakeasies. I really enjoyed seeing Vivian at the Nightingale, clearly flirting and dancing and socializing with people of all backgrounds, and then she would meet them during the day and those divides are back in place. It was sometimes startling, but I felt like it was the best part of the world building. There were a lot of little things that spoke of this being set during the 1920s, like the working conditions and how far a quarter could get someone, the fact that Vivian always had to have a good pair of stockings, the rampant smoking. But, especially when it came to the way the characters spoke, I struggled to hear that Jazz Age voice. None of the slang of the times, as far as I could tell, other than the pet names, seemed to make it into the characters’ speech, so I often struggled with remembering this is a Jazz Age novel. I wish the sense of time had been strong and really played up, but I did appreciate the small details.
Last Call at the Nightingale was a fun, quick read despite the slow start and my struggles with really feeling like it was dropping me into the 1920s. I adored the characters and the diversity, but the romance seriously left me wanting and I felt like zero progress had been made other than utterly confuse Vivian. But Florence had a lovely character arc and I liked that I couldn’t always figure out all the characters and their motivations. I enjoyed this mystery, though there were a few things I struggled with.
How many cups of tea will you need?
Get your copy (The Lily Cafe is NOT an Amazon affiliate)
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
Pin this! (mostly a reminder to myself, but also an invitation to you!)
This blog is my home base, but you can also find me on: