One of the passages which resonates most in Beatriz Williams new novel The Wicked City, is in the voice of Geneva “Gin” Kelly, a woman who is sassy, saucy and takes no prisoners while she describes her earned position at the upper echelons of a Manhattan speakeasy:
I started to glimpse my place in the hive, how each tiny insect contributed her mite of pollen, how grand it was to live in a hive like this at all, even if you had to pawn your favorite shoes each month to pay the milkman for a quart of milk, even if—well, you get the idea. That you belong. That you have your seat at the Christopher Club bar, and that seat, if you’re clever, can propel you from a typing pool downtown to a swank party uptown to the front of a camera in a tatty Village studio, so any man with a nickel in his pocket can admire the tilt of your tits.
And I’ll be damned if I’m ready to give up my seat just yet.”
Williams is a master of historical fiction because her narrative is so on point with the time period she makes us believe that we are smack in the middle of the Jazz Age sipping bathtub gin in a clandestine Juice Joint. Adding to the versimilitude her characters speak with era compliant idioms and slang that’s been dead for decades. To say The Wicked City is solely a work of historical fiction would be to miss the mark of the other elements Williams conveys in this novel, one of a gentle ghost story and how the tale of a forgotten flapper makes its way into the life of a woman who lives in 1998 New York City.
Ella Hawthorne is on the run from a cheating husband and trying to carefully plan her next move while navigating the waves of a broken heart. Leaving her cozy SoHo apartment for tiny studio in the Village, Ella is confident that she can get a clear picture of how to move forward. But in the new building she meets Hector, an attractive neighbor to whom she is immediately attracted although she can’t explain why. He makes himself more engaging still when he tells Ella to stay away from the building’s basement. Strange noises and music from a forgotten era are rumored to run amok after midnight, and this unsettling place is rumored to once been a locale for a speakeasy.
Williams inserts another tale alongside Ella’s, that of Gin Kelly’s, whose desire to shed her tame western Maryland ways and live in the fast lane in 1924 Manhattan, brinks her smack into trouble when her hangout of choice the Christopher Club, is subject to a raid led by agent Oliver Anson. While Gin exchanges her freedom in agreement to help Anson put her notorious bootlegger stepfather in prison, Ella can’t stay away from the mystery that the old basement space represents and the music that haunts her every night, daring her for once to take the reins and make up her own rules.
A distinctive element in all of Williams’ books, is that characters from her previous novels always drop by for a visit. In The Wicked City, Gin has managed to snag the affections of Billy Marshall, the son of Manhattan society queen Theresa Marshall whose love affair with a much younger army officer was the premise of Williams’ last story, A Certain Age.
The Schuyler family are additional recurrent characters, in the form of new players that we have yet to meet or known acquaintances like wealthy socialite sisters Pepper, Tiny and Viv Schuyler. Each have taken their turn center stage, with their loves, affairs, hopes, dreams, and disappointments the subject of Tiny Little Thing, Along the Infinite Sea, and The Secret Life of Violet Grant.
While The Wicked City in a way may be reminiscent of The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise, Williams has her own distinct narrative and use of language that set her books in their own category. While Gin may be a flapper with self-described loose morals, she is by no means a character to be lumped in with other Roaring Twenties doppelgangers. She may be cliché in her desires and surprising naiveté despite her night life debauchery, but she manages to leap off the page with her own voice, her own mannerisms, and her own ambitions compel us to stand up and pay attention. Ella on the other hand is a a bit harder to sympathize with, her watery personality and constant hesitation when it comes to important decisions is a major letdown until almost the very end.
But this may be Williams’ point. To show us the lives of two very different women, from such different eras and backgrounds whose choices are so dissimilar but in some ways manage to find each other through their narratives, mirroring each other in their desire to live amply and fully in a city that’s always morphing but at its brilliant and bewitching core, remains the same.