About 80 pages into “The Other Typist” (Putnam/Amy Einhorn Books, 356 pages, $25.95), Suzanne Rindell’s superb debut novel, the first-person narrator, Rose Baker, interrupts her tale to inform us that she is getting the events out of order. Then comes her bombshell: The doctor she is seeing has said it is vital she tell her story chronologically — “He says that telling things in their accurate sequence is good for healing the mind.” Rose throws us with this revelation. Until this point we trusted her every word; now it transpires that she is ill, her mind sick. From this moment on Rindell forces us to view her heroine as an unreliable narrator, to sift and evaluate the details of her account, no matter in what order they are presented. And the more we read, the closer we are drawn to the edge of our seat, such is the pull of this fiendishly crafty psychological thriller.
New York City, 1924, and Prohibition is in full swing. Rose is an orphaned young woman working as a typist at a police precinct. She is plain, her life dull, despite the grisly confessions she types up on a daily basis. Then one day there is a new addition to the typing pool. In saunters glamorous, mesmerizing Odalie, and as Rose falls under her spell her world is transformed. Suddenly she is plunged into the gaudy glare of illicit dance halls and speakeasies, hobnobbing with Brooklyn bootleggers and Newport socialites and intoxicated by bright lights, moonshine, bathtub gin — and her new friend, Odalie.
Rindell ensures that both girls share top billing. Odalie is a shrewd Fitzgerald flapper, complete with bob and cloche hat, but possessing Gatsby-esque mystique — is she an actress? a gangster’s moll? — and a shady past. Prim Rose blooms from shy wallflower into clinging creeper, and as she partakes in “dressing, drinking, and dancing,” her fascination for cool seductress Odalie edges ever closer toward obsession. Rindell boosts the tension by unleashing skeletons from closets, serving up one subterfuge and slippery evasion after another and dazzling us with a hall-of-mirrors finale.
“The Other Typist” re-creates the Roaring Twenties in all its decadence. The period detail is excellent and it is as much fun following our leads to secret parties in hidden cellars and back rooms as it is to hear straitlaced Rose being scandalized by the modernists of the day, from “bizarre” Stravinsky to the “jibberish” verse of a poet called Eliot — “the ravings of an utter lunatic.” Rindell handles the suspense with aplomb, although occasionally feels the need to signpost it (“something dark was brewing”) rather than trusting it to run its natural, diabolical course.
It is not every first novel that can successfully evoke a lost era or recall the cruel machinations and tortuous entanglements of Patricia Highsmith’s fiction. But Rindell has done just that, and as it becomes apparent to both Rose and the reader that the enigmatic Odalie “walked both sides of the law,” we find ourselves not recoiling but succumbing, even more entranced, and hang on rapt all the way until her last dramatic act.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.