In Conway’s (Thieving Forest, 2014, etc.) latest novel, a young jazz pianist encounters kidnapping, rumrunning, and gunplay in 1920s Chicago.
In 1921, Eve Louise Riser is living her dream, getting by on her own and hopping trains from town to town as the pianist in the Stoptime Syncopaters trio. Still in her early 20s, Eve “had four songs published already under the name E. R. King.” But everything changes for the worse one night when she stumbles back to her railroad car with the band’s good-looking saxophone player and they’re accosted by a mysterious thug. Soon Eve faces “one hard turn after another” in Chicago, as she and her sister, Eulalie, nicknamed “Chickie,” find themselves mixed up with gunrunners, mobsters, and a cross-dressing bootlegger. At one point, a sudden hail of bullets strikes Eve and kills the stranger beside her. Eve is an African-American in a racist town, and the ubiquity of discrimination (and lynchings in the nearby countryside) shows her how “fear turns to something you can smell or taste.” Readers meet a cast of dozens, among them pretty-boy Gavin Johnson, the aforementioned sax player, who slips Eve a wad of cash and puts her on a train to escape a murder rap; Nathan Cobb, an ex-musician with a temper and a rolodex of shady connections; and a mysterious scar-faced gangster known as Victor “The Walnut” Rausch. Impressively, each character stands out clearly and does real work to move the story forward. The author marvelously keeps events gliding along without sacrificing either detail or atmosphere. She deftly evokes the neon streets of Chicago, where “soon there’d be more motorcars than horses,” in a few spare strokes (“on the corner some kids were playing instruments in the rain—a washtub with a string, a drum made of hubcaps”). Conway is a straightforward writer but not one that disdains eloquence; there are some deft phrases here (Eve’s mother “drank too much and took in laundry. In that order”) and real suspense for anyone who likes a good mystery.
An absorbing whodunit full of gangsters and glitz.