The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
Published by Penguin
2nd January 2014
New York City, 1924: the height of Prohibition and the whole city swims in bathtub gin.
Rose Baker is an orphaned young woman working for her bread as a typist in a police precinct on the Lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precint. While she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid.
But when the captivating Odalie begins work at the precinct Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell. As do her bosses, the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. As the two girls’ friendship blossoms and they flit between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the precinct by day, it is not long before Rose’s fascination for her new colleague turns to obsession.
But just who is the real Odalie, and how far will Rose go to find out?
They said the typewriter would unsex us.
One look at the device itself and you might understand how they – the self-appointed keepers of female virtue and morality, that is – might have reached such a conclusion. Your average typewriter, be it Underwood, Royal, Remington, or Corona, is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy. Add to that the sheer violence of its iron arms, thwacking away at the page with unforgiving force. Unforgiving. Yes; forgiving is not the typewriter’s duty.
I don’t suppose I know much about the business of forgiveness, either, as my job ha so much to do with the other end of it. Confessions, I mean. Not that I extract them – that is for the Sergeant to do. Or for the Lieutenant Detective to do. But it is not for me to do. Mine is a silent job. Silent, that is, unless you consider the gunshot clacking of the typewriter that sits before me as I transcribe from a roll of stenotype paper. But even then I am not the originator of this ruckus, as after all, I am only a woman – a phenomenon the Sergeant seems to observe only as we are exiting the interrogation room, when he touches my shoulder gently and says with great and solemn dignity, “I am sorry, Rose, that as a lady you must hear such things.” He means the rape, the robbery, whatever it is we have just heard confessed. At our precinct, located in the borough of Manhattan in what is known as the Lower East Side, we are rarely left wanting for more crimes to hear.
Suzanne Rindell’s debut novel is a mix of The Great Gatsby combined with the thriller elements of Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith, which transport you to America in the 1920s. The First World War has just ended and the 20somethings are living it up. However, the Volstead Act, introduced in 1920, to control the production, importation and distribution of intoxicating beverages, intends to stop this. As a result the criminal underworld latches on to it, and the world of the speakeasy emerges - secret bars to consume prohibited drinks.
Rose Baker is a well-brought up, straight-laced girl. Raised by nuns, she wouldn’t dream of visiting a speakeasy, or of even consuming a drink. That is, until she meets the other typist, the glamorous, flirtatious Odalie. Determined from the start to dislike her flamboyant ways, Rose is soon drawn to Odalie, and a friendship quickly develops which takes Rose to places she has never dreamed of. But how much control does Rose actually have over the situation. Is Odalie really all she seems?
From the beautiful cover, in both hardback and paperback editions, this book is a steady-paced but well written story right from the start. Rindell manages to bring America in the 1920s to life, especially the environment of the police precinct, and that characters that both work there, and are brought there. I loved The Other Typist with its contrast of glamour and seediness and think this could be an ideal book for group discussion.