Historical fiction tends to be a genre you turn into with an understanding that as the years turn back within the pages, so too does the understanding of the world. People are victorian in prejudices and judgements. One’s birth right is a moat of social circumstances. And life occurred within the shadows between indecency and impropriety. But oddly enough, Last Call at the Nightingale was a world more free and understanding than the world we currently live in.
Set in the roaring twenties, amidst prohibition and a thirst for life in the wake of World War I, was the underground club the Nightingale. Between the bar and the Charleston are some unique individuals; Schellman doesn’t over-utilize any of the existing stereotypes and caricatures of people in the twenties within this story. For instance, a short roster of sorts would show: a well-insulated and gambling woman owns and controls the club, a black waitress with aspirations to front the band is serving drinks to all of the customers, and a Chinese-American covers the bar, as well as some of the unruly crowd members that wander in. Our main character, Vivian Kelly, is an orphaned Irish girl—who I presume to have a bisexual identity based on various hints throughout the text—that is swept up in the rhythm of the Nightingale and the murder she uncovers. This mystery is more diverse, understanding, and representative than hundreds of texts set throughout the world, timeline, science fiction, etc. Katharine Schellman has created a standard for every author or creator. She has created a response for every writer with an excuse for not creating or depicting diverse worlds: the world has always been diverse, one just needs to choose to show it.
As much as I can say about the strength of this mystery, the characters in relation to the roaring twenties, there is something I am still struggling to put into words. It is the answer to whether or not this story satisfied my thirst by the end of it. While the primary mystery was closed, readers are left with a sort of laundry list of questions that remain for the characters. Who will end up with who, how are the lives really gonna change from this experience, what does looking in the past offer their future, etc. It was an ending that wasn’t near a cliffhanger, but was also far from being parked at the end of the storyline. Rather than offer specifics for her character’s lives, Schellman keeps the questions open. As though she could write her way into a sequel, but the story doesn’t depend on it. It’s an interesting solution for the writer, but a conundrum of sorts for the reader. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. How would you feel if you could only answer the question of the murder, but not the detective?