Back in mid-May I mentioned Susanna Calkins’ new novel (the first in a new series, I think), Murder Knocks Twice, a period mystery set in early 1929 Chicago. Struggling to care for her ailing father, young Gina Ricci takes a job as a cigarette girl in a local speakeasy, only to learn that the girl she’s replaced was recently murdered, and the club’s brooding, mysterious photographer turns out to be an estranged cousin from the family that disowned her and her dad. When Gina witnesses that same enigmatic photographer brutally murdered, she obeys his dying words and takes his camera, then learns to process film, and that’s only the start of the multiple mysteries that erupt in Calkins’ novel, all of which is set against a backdrop of the Capone-Moran gang wars, the book’s final pages playing out just as the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurs. It’s a fun read, leisurely paced (or methodically, depending on your assessment) and brimming with red herrings and subplots. Some may think Calkins’ tale is a little light on mayhem and Roaring Twenties decadence, considering the time, place and characters. But if so, it certainly didn’t detract from her good storytelling.
Two things struck me as I read Murder Knocks Twice.
First: how Calkins used photographs and her hero’s urgent need to learn photography and film processing as a crucial driver in the narrative. That intrigued me, since it’s similar to things going on in both the first The Stiletto Gumshoe novel currently making the rounds and its sequel, still underway. A female protagonist, a Chicago setting — albeit with thirty years separating the two, my tale set in 1959 – it’d be presumptuous of me to say ‘great minds think alike’. I will say it was nice to see another author use photos and processing the way Calkins did.
Second: Calkins wise choice of a nightclub cigarette girl for her main character (and what looks like a series character at that). It got me thinking about just how few cigarette girls have helmed mystery/crime fiction novels, when it’s such an obvious role. If you’re writing period crime fiction, which understandably may involve speakeasies, casinos, roadhouses and nightclubs, a cigarette girl is ideal for a character that needs to be right in the middle of the action. I’ve thought about it, I’ve browsed my own bookshelves and I’ve surfed online, but found precious few (if any) cigarette girl characters, much less lead characters, even among vintage pulps. So, hats off to Calkins for finally giving a vintage crime milieu fixture her proper due!
And while we’re at it, congrats to her for a job well done. If you insist on non-stop gunplay, grisly violence or sizzling bedroom hijinks, (and frankly, I often do!) then Murder Knocks Twice may not be the next book you’ll consider. But, consider it nonetheless. It really is a good read.
P.S. Yes, that’s a young Audrey Hepburn in the cigarette girl costume in the quadrant of photos above.