The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
(Fig Tree $37)
The acknowledgments in Suzanne Rindell's first novel, The Other Typist, pay homage to "the first true love" of her teenage years: The Great Gatsby. Her admiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic is clear from her 1920s-set novel, which features a drunken car crash, a case of mistaken identity and bottomless champagne cocktails.
Gatsby fever has taken hold this year, thanks in large part to Baz Luhrmann's film. But while all things Roaring Twenties continue to fascinate some, mixed reviews of Luhrmann's adaptation attest to the difficulties of authentically capturing the spirit of Gatsby. It's a challenge also faced by Rindell's novel.
The story is narrated by Rose Baker, a typist in a dingy police precinct. Rose is plain and prudish, diligently typing up confessions of criminals by day and returning to a drab boarding house at night. The typewriter comes to play a critical part in Rose's downfall, yet in the initial pages, she dismisses contemporary concerns that it would "unsex" women entering the workplace: "And they needn't worry about the rest of it; a good typist knows her place. She is simply happy, as a woman, to be paid a reasonable income."
Everything changes when the Volstead Act comes into force. The United States enters an era of prohibition, filling the precinct with bootleggers and gangsters. Right on cue, in walks Odalie - the other typist, hired to help with the extra workload.
Enigmatic and glamorous, Odalie is suspiciously incongruous. Her clothes are luxurious and her glossy, fashionable bob looks "as though she wore a helmet of finely polished enamel". "Damned nice girl," the officers remark as rumours begin to circulate that she is a moll and that she once "danced on top o' the table with Clara Bow".
As stories about Odalie's past grow shadier, Rose becomes obsessed. Her observations about Odalie's behaviour are wonderfully disturbing. Rose notes: "O prefers tea to coffee.
Earl Grey, with a little milk. Drinks it with her finger curled." These grow darker and often seethe with jealousy: "O took Iris to lunch today! Over me. Old, expressionless Iris, with her mannish little neckties ... Clearly I have overestimated O. She and Iris can have each other."
Soon Rose is inextricably involved with Odalie and her contacts at the speakeasies the two women frequent. But as they hurtle towards tragedy, it is not clear which of the two has the upper hand, and who is really the victim. At one point Odalie grins "wolfishly", yet a few sentences later, Rose compares Odalie and an officer to "a couple of woodland creatures frozen instantly upon realising they are not alone in the forest".
A sinister new layer is added to the plot when it is revealed that Rose is actually retelling the story from within the confines of an asylum. The narrative is interrupted when Rose's doctor writes "acute cruel streak" in his notes. "I have complained before that he is not particularly keen on me," says Rose, with chilling nonchalance.
Rindell's novel is strongly reminiscent of Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal, exploring an obsessive, dangerous relationship between two women. There are a few clumsy sentences and her habit of ending paragraphs with hints of what is to come - for example, "It was moments like this, I would later learn, that would ultimately undo me" - spoil the tension.
Her references to 1920s New York are at times hasty and superficial, as her attention focuses firmly on the intricacy of the plot. Yet though this is by no means a flawless thriller, it is certainly addictive, with a deliciously unsettling ending.
It was recently announced that Keira Knightley will star in a film adaptation of the novel.
For Gatsby acolytes searching for a story of reckless glamour, The Other Typist is a winning concoction.