In Michelle’s Cox’s debut novel A Girl Like You, teenage Henrietta Von Harmon enters the workforce in 1930s Chicago. Soon after, when her boss is murdered, she will find herself working undercover for the police to solve crimes.
I instantly fell in love with Henrietta because of her innocence and sweet nature but also because of her willingness to help support her family and for her strength of character in difficult situations. Henrietta’s father lost his job like so many others during the Great Depression, and unable to cope with the situation, he committed suicide. Henrietta’s mother was left to support her young children, but Henrietta, as the oldest, knew she had to help out, so she got a job at fifteen cleaning up at a bar.
Now, a couple of years later, realizing how badly her family needs the money, she decides to get a job as a taxi dancer at a local dance hall. A taxi dancer is a woman men pay to dance with, and it’s not a pleasant job. The men can be unsavory and Henrietta’s boss, Mama Leone, is brusque and, despite her claims, doesn’t mind if the girls have a little hanky-panky on the side. Occasionally, there is a handsome man to dance with, but the one Henrietta likes the most asks too many questions.
As if things couldn’t get worse for Henrietta, one morning Mama Leone is found murdered. Henrietta is soon being questioned by a police inspector—yes, the man who had danced with her and asked so many questions. He turns out to be Inspector Clive Howard. Henrietta is worried because she knows her mother won’t approve of her working in a dance hall. Her mother thinks she got a job working for the electric company. Inspector Howard promises to keep Henrietta’s secret, but he also wants her to help him.
He talks her into getting a job as an usherette at the Marlowe, a theatre where he has reason to think criminal activities are being conducted. Henrietta is unsure she wants the job, even though he offers to pay her double what she was earning at the dance hall. When she tells her friend Polly she is going to work at the Marlowe, Polly warns her not to because her sister Libby worked there and disappeared and no one knows what became of her. Henrietta is only the more determined then, wanting to help her friend find out what became of her sister.
Throughout the novel, I admired Henrietta’s spunk. During the Great Depression, people learned how to be tough, and Henrietta doesn’t give working to help her family a second thought. She is selfless and does whatever is necessary while still holding onto her innocence. I was impressed by her courage to go undercover and put herself in dangerous situations to help others.
Before the novel is over, there is plenty of danger for her. But Henrietta also has another reason for placing herself in danger, though it isn’t really clear to her at first—she finds Inspector Howard attractive. As the story goes along, we learn that Inspector Howard has his own secrets, and that he is also developing an attraction for Henrietta.
For a debut novel, A Girl Like You reads very smoothly and has well-developed characters. I’m not at all surprised that it recently won the Best Historical Fiction Award in the Reader Views 2016-2017 Literary Awards. Cox makes all her characters come to life as individuals, including the girls at the dance hall, Henrietta’s siblings and mother, and one of my favorite characters, Stanley, the neighborhood boy who has a crush on Henrietta and follows her everywhere in an attempt to protect her.
I was also impressed by how Cox weaves in historical detail. The dance hall and theater gave her perfect opportunities to reference the music of the day—Fred Astaire, Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong—as well as to depict the seedy side of 1930s Chicago.
Cox is planning to develop this novel into a series and the second book A Ring of Truth will be released in April, 2017. Anyone who loves a good romance mixed with some mystery and intrigue and a strong historical setting will fall in love with Henrietta and Inspector Howard and be delighted that the story will continue after the last page is read.
For more information about Michelle Cox and A Girl Like You, visit the author’s website.