We’ve all had the unsettling feeling that comes over us when we realize the person speaking to us might be…well…a liar. Your mind spins, trying to piece the story into a true one, your stomach clenches, and you start to plan your getaway. But once in a while, a liar’s story is so damn compelling that you can’t stop listening, no matter how clammy your palms. And Rose Baker, the protagonist of Suzanne Rindell’s first novel, The Other Typist, which Kirkus starred, is one of these most dangerous narrators.
Rose is a 1920s police stenographer in New York City, accustomed to typing up murderers’ confessions, rapists’ recollections and the ramblings of garden-variety winos. An orphan raised by nuns, Rose lives in a dreary boardinghouse with a bitter young widow and an “absolute ninny” named Helen. Into this lonely life sweeps Odalie, the new typist in the precinct, “swathed in all her fashionable clothes and dark mystery.” Rindell hooked me with the next sentence about Odalie: “And unlike Helen, Odalie’s influence turned out to be much more difficult to get out from under.”
As Rose’s story continues, Odalie whisks the plain girl into a life of luxury and Prohibition-era speakeasies. Rose is prim and judgmental: “I don’t go in for gossip myself, and it’s not as if I approve of…busybody chatter.” Even so, Rose can’t help but be dazzled by Odalie’s lifestyle: “’What is it? I asked as I hesitantly lifted the second glass from the tray. ‘A little splash of heaven,’ Odalie replied. I gave her a look. She laughed. ‘One part absinthe, two parts champagne. Try it—it’s positively lovely.’”
And try it Rose does, later dancing the Charleston, smoking a cigar, and babbling “Not. For. Nice. Girls” in a taxi (to which Odalie replies, “Oh, hush.”). But as we follow Rose into a new, thrilling adventure, she stops us cold with statements like, “The thing about rules is that when you break one, it is only a matter of time before you break more, and the severe architecture that once protected you is destined to come crashing down about your ears. I can only say I did it for the love of her, though the doctor I am seeing now hardly accepts that answer.”
Reading The Other Typist, I found myself speaking to the book, saying, “Whoa, Rose! Did what? And did you say, ‘the doctor I am seeing now’? Are you institutionalized? Are you in jail?” It was the same kind of horrible fascination I felt reading Humbert Humbert’s confessions in Lolita, and indeed, Rindell names Lolita among the novels that influenced her work: “Humbert Humbert’s voice is very prose-y, wordy…you know, he has gentlemanly tics, baroque, but then when you actually think about the content, you’re shocked,” she points out. “So it’s an elaborate dance that tries to sidestep around the shock of what it is that’s being conveyed and their role and their culpability in that role.” Rindell also names Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and What Was She Thinking?: Notes on A Scandal by Zoë Heller as influences, though she didn’t read Heller until late in her editing process.
When I asked Rindell how she created such a winning unreliable narrator, she said, “As I was writing the novel, I was just really into the voice of Rose. And so I was following that where it went. There were times where I was writing when even I was wondering, ‘Wow, how crazy is this woman?’”
Rindell found the inspiration for Rose in an obituary while researching her dissertation on modernist literature. She was sifting through various newspaper articles, magazines and advertisements when she came across the obituary of a woman who worked as a typist in a police precinct during Prohibition. “I started imagining what she must have seen during the course of her daily job and the different kind of reports she might have typed up,” Rindell says. “And then I just started hearing Rose’s voice, which I realized was not completely a reliable voice…and I just followed where it led.”
But Rose’s voice, says Rindell, “has certain tics that I don’t like writing in. She winds around the subject quite a bit, she does a lot of side-stepping, she takes quite a wind-up to make her point. I realized in the course of [writing with her tics] that she was lying to herself a good deal of the time, and I was intrigued.”
One of the risks of an unreliable narrator is that readers will be alienated. “When I first sold the book, my editor and I had a long talk about the fine line of writing an unlikable narrator and what’s…too unlikable,” Rindell acknowledges. She wondered, “Is Rose someone you love to hate, or is she someone who you think is a bit broken but you root for her in spite of yourself? I rooted for her when I was writing even though she is so completely messed up.”
In fact, Rindell’s editor suggested she tone down Rose’s attitude toward the Lieutenant Detective, a character who tries to romance Rose and is spurned time and again: “Rose is so repeatedly unkind to him…to the point of being almost nasty.” Her editor thought that perhaps Rose shouldn’t be so mean to him. “It just makes you think, ‘Wow, what a nasty woman,’” Rindell says.
But like the most fascinating liars, Rose wouldn’t be tamed: “I tried to make Rose be nice to him,” says Rindell, “but she just wouldn’t do it.”
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of a short story collection and four novels, most recently Close Your Eyes, which was named one of Kirkus’ Best Books of 2011 and Elle’s Book of the Year.