REVIEW: The Last Drop of Hemlock : A Mystery by Katharine Schellman
In The Last Drop of Hemlock, the dazzling follow up to Last Call at the Nightingale, even a dance can come with a price…
The rumor went through the Nightingale like a flood, quietly rising, whispers hovering on lips in pockets of silence.
Life as a working-class girl in Prohibition-era New York isn’t safe or easy. But Vivian Kelly has a new job at the Nightingale, an underground speakeasy where the jazz is hot and the employees look out for each other in a world that doesn’t care about them. Things are finally looking up for her and her sister Florence… until the night Vivian learns that her friend Bea’s uncle, a bouncer at the Nightingale, has died.
His death is ruled a suicide, but Bea isn’t so convinced. She knew her uncle was keeping a secret: a payoff from a mob boss that was going to take him out of the tenements and into a better life. Now, the money is missing.
Though her better judgment tells her to stay out of it, Vivian agrees to help Bea find the truth about her uncle’s death. But they uncover more than they expected when rumors surface of a mysterious letter writer, blackmailing Vivian’s poorest neighbors for their most valuable possessions, threatening poison if they don’t comply.
Death is always a heartbeat away in Jazz Age New York, where mob bosses rule the back alleys and cops take bootleggers’ hush money. But whoever is targeting Vivian’s poor and unprotected neighbors is playing a different game. With the Nightingale’s dangerously lovely owner, Honor, worried for her employees’ safety and Bea determined to discover who is responsible for her uncle’s death, Vivian once again finds herself digging through a dead man’s past in hopes of stopping a killer.
Dear Ms. Schellman,
Last year in “Last Call at the Nightingale,” readers were introduced to Vivian Kelly, a young woman hanging on to the edge of survival in 1920s NYC who dances away her blues at “The Nightingale” a speakeasy where the employees take care of each other. She solved a murder, renegotiated the terms of her employment for herself and her older sister at the (basically sweatshop) dress shop where they work and was also able to pick up a side hustle at “The Nightingale.” With the (somewhat) easier hours and (a little) extra cash, Vivian and Florence can breathe a bit easier. But when Vivian’s friend Bea’s uncle is found dead, sorrows appear to be back.
The coroner has ruled that Bea’s uncle Pearlie’s death is suicide. Bea isn’t convinced and begs Vivian to help her. Vivian in turn asks Leo Green, with whom she worked earlier, to help her search Pearlie’s room and then asks Leo to use his connections to get her in to talk to the chief medical examiner at Bellevue. Sure enough, the bottle of top drawer booze they found was dosed with enough arsenic to kill a man quickly and there’s an odd letter in the room.
That isn’t the only mystery that Vivian, Leo, and Bea are trying to solve. Someone has been sending people in their neighborhood extortion letters. The victims have to leave a valuable object – often the only one they own – at a certain place at a certain time or they risk “unfortunate things” happening to their family. When Vivian’s sister Florence gets such a letter, Vivian has to decide what she’ll do to keep her sister, and herself, safe.
As I did last year, I devoured the book in two days. The world that the sisters and their friends live and work in is just as dark and just as hard as it’s always been. The poor eke out a living, are stuck in crowded tenements, and know that the police don’t work for people like them. Now that Vivian is an official employee at the speakeasy, she learns first hand that owner Honor – a tough woman with whom Vivian shares some dances and kisses – takes care of her own but, if Vivian initiates an interaction with a powerful bootlegger, then Vivian will be the one to steer the conversation and must stand up for herself.
There are some unresolved threads from the last book that get carried over and partially dealt with. A co-worker who offers to shelter Vivian and Florence tells, and shows, the sisters the effect of anti-Chinese immigration laws. Bea, a Black woman, and her family know that their concerns are of no importance to most of the police force. And everyone learns that when you ask questions, you must be prepared to learn answers you might not want to hear. The mystery in this book is solved (I tentatively side-eyed one character and ended up enjoying how the clues were there and all put together in the end) but some intriguing developments have me ready and eager for the next installment in the series. B