Monday, February 15, 2016

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

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…is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy. 
So begins the humorous and entrancing debut novel by Suzanne Rindell, The Other Typist.  Set in New York in the middle of the 1920s, the book has a nice mixture of mystery, feminism and social commentary.

Rose Baker is a typist for the New York City Police Dept. Her job is to type up the confessions of those who have been arrested. Quite the proper (even prudish) young woman outside of her job, her detective boss worries about the coarsening effect of listening to those confessions.
And I am largely indifferent to the content of the confessions I must take down and transcribe. Like the typewriter itself, I am simply there to report with accuracy. I am there to make the official and unbiased record that will eventually by used in court. I am there to transcribe what will eventually come to be known as the truth.
All goes well for the young Rose until another typist is hired, and the new typist, the other typist, is a young woman of a very different sort. She dresses in fine and provocative clothes, lives not in a modest boardinghouse like Rose, but in a rather fancy hotel. Rose wonders how Odalie, the other typist, can afford such a lush lifestyle on the meager income of a typist. At first, she accepts Odalie’s muttered explanation of a rich father, or some behind the scenes benefactor, but once she accepts Odalie’s invitation to live with her and is introduced by Odalie to the world of jazz and bootleg liquor in illegal speakeasies, she slowly comes to the realization that Odalie, herself, owns all or part of one of these clubs, and the source of her income is that underworld scene. She also comes to question more and more the whole notion of truth and truthfulness.

Like so many mysteries these days, commentators suggest that if you liked Gone Girl  and its complex intrigue, then you will probably like The Other Typist. In fact, this is a much better novel and one that this reader, at least, thinks is far more subtle and psychologically interesting than Gone Girl. And I very much appreciated the feminist themes that crop up in the novel, and provide much of both the humor and the intrigue.

Although Rose soon comes to enjoy the jazz and bootleg liquor Odalie introduces her to, she does not so easily adopt Odalie’s unconventional, even scandalous, sexual behavior.
She [Odalie] acted as though it were the most natural thing for a woman to do whatever she wanted, with whomever she pleased. This confused me.  
You see, I didn’t know then what I know now, which is this: Only the very rich and the very poor enjoy sex with a careless, indifferent abandon. Those of us who find ourselves in the middle…--only those of us in the middle class are obliged to maintain an attitude of modesty and discretion when it comes to sex. This is especially true of middle-class young ladies. We are the ones obliged to lower our eyes and blush during educational lectures on human anatomy; we are the ones who must tsk and shout fresh! with indignation whenever a young man tries to proposition us. We are given to believe we are the supreme keepers of sexual morality, and I, like any properly instructed schoolgirl of my day, earnestly felt there was something sacred in the keeping. Some keep it as a matter of burden, but I kept it as a matter of privilege.
Slowly, Rose is sucked into Odalie’s life, even to the point of risking her employment by lying for her on the job, and falsifying some typed records that would implicate Odalie in illegal activities.

Although Rindell manages to keep a light tone throughout this debut novel, the mystery that slowly unravels is an intriguing one, and the friendship (or is it more like a love-affair?) that she has with Odalie is psychologically intriguing.

I think this is a first-rate little novel, sometimes dark, but always humorous and clever. It may seem lightweight in comparison with some of the excellent books I’ve reviewed lately, but I think it is well worth reading. If you start it, you will have a difficult time putting it down.

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