In 1925, whites are lynching African-American men in Mississippi, speak-easies are doing a bang-up business in New York City, and trains with elite Pullman porters bind the cities together in this mystery.
Lomax (Stand Your Ground, 2015) begins his tale with the real-life killing of Lindsay Coleman, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Lindsay’s best friend, and the main character of this novel, is Beau LaHood, a highly respected, veteran Pullman porter. The real murderer appears to have escaped on Beau’s train, the Yellow Dog, which is heading north. Also on the train is the ravishing, crafty Shelby Prevette, the daughter of a very rich plantation family. Is she trying to escape the murderer, Marston Cobb, who’s also abused and threatened her, or is she up to something else? Then there’s her equally striking cousin, Zola, a nurse embittered by her World War I service. As character introductions pile up, readers wind up in the Big Apple in the midst of Prohibition, complete with cameo appearances by writers Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker and speak-easy owner Texas Guinan. Meanwhile, the quietly competent Beau holds the story together. The train setting becomes a wonderful narrative device, featuring scenes reminiscent of those in many a French bedroom farce. Later, tension builds as the Twentieth Century Limited roars west toward Chicago packed with New Year’s Eve revelers. Almost everyone has a secret (or a secret agenda), and readers learn some startling things about Shelby. The story has a few loose ends, but Lomax has a knack for memorable phrases; one character, for example, has “a face as long as a sermon,” and another “smiled the way a crab crawls.” The author also has a gift for the sort of wiseacre repartee that one imagines people speaking in the Roaring ’20s. Period details, meanwhile, are spot-on; Lomax has clearly done his homework. But it isn’t all wit and sparkle: the Mississippi chapters sickeningly show how black men were forced to be deferential under threat of death.
Lomax keeps the plot (and readers) hopping in this quirky novel.