Where is that pretty girl I once knew?
Blame F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Because of its recent resurgence by way of a blockbuster Hollywood adaptation you may just find yourself jonesing for another fix from 1920s prohibition America. In theory this one does contains all the elements you crave: a big city setting, some strong sexual tension, adventures in blind tigers, and a healthy dose of strange, alluring women. The reality however, is that for all of its potential, the story never quite rises beyond the cursory.
Told in first-person through the eyes of Rose Baker, a young stenographer charged with witnessing and documenting the confessions of some of the New York City’s most hardened criminals, The Other Typist is content to draw sketches, rather than paint portraits, of the time period and locations in which it operates. Reading the novel, one never truly feels the tension of being in a windowless police interrogation room with a murder suspect. They never experience any of the danger inherent with frequenting a speakeasy. In fact, there’s very little offered by way of intensity or excitement for the bulk of the tale.
Part of the problem lies squarely with the limited viewpoint offered up by protagonist Rose. We know from the get-go that she’s unreliable, because she tells us herself several times over (!) and therefore cannot be trusted, but author Rindell never quite manages to find a way to maximize this fact to its fullest advantage. Rose repeatedly teases the reader with lines like “Little did I know, my low point was looming just out of my line of vision” and “I also understood this clock was ticking down to something, but why and to what event of course I could not know just then.” You don’t manufacture tension by hinting at facts that shall be revealed later. It’s something you have to slowly, yet increasingly build towards, doling it out in small, satisfying doses as the story progresses.
Rose also seems rather content to try her damnedest to convince us of the strangest things. For example, throughout the novel Rose dedicates an inordinate amount of time obsessively trying to convince the reader that she’s not a lesbian. Why we should care about her sexual preference and what bearing is it supposed to ultimately have on the overall story? Historically speaking, The Roaring Twenties are remembered as a time period in which homosexuality became more mainstream and acceptable in society. It’s the 30s where things started to take a wrong turn. So what’s the point here? Her endless justifications aren’t interesting or titillating, they just come off as being rather annoying.
When we finally do get to the heart of the mystery, and boy oh boy does it take some dedication to do so, the explanations offered up just don’t seem all that plausible. It’s easy to appreciate the dash of Hitchcock that’s thrown in for the reader’s enjoyment, but it’s simply not enough to channel Psycho and offer up a variety of mental illness as a catch-all that can serve to explain away some very enormous questions with regards to the plotting of the piece. One doesn’t need to every single burning question answered in order for a novel to be successful, but they should be able to at least somehow connect the dots back to make some reasonable assumptions about how things might have occurred. Here that’s just not possible. The logic is flawed. The holes are too big.
Sadly, it would take massive amounts of liquid paper and correction fluid to fix all that’s wrong here. As a wordsmith Rindell does show some flashes of promise all along the way, but ultimately she’s simply not up to the task of delivering on the stated promise of a complex, taut, page-turning mystery.
The Other Typist
By Suzanne Rindell
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam