“Speakeasy” by Alisa Smith

Genre:          Historical FictionSpeakeasy
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:   April, 10, 2018

So why did I like this book so much?   Maybe I am just a sucker for a bygone era.  I still love the old black and white 1930s and 1940s gangster movies.  I am filled with nostalgia for the Prohibition Era, with its handsome celebrities playing the main roles.  Think “Key Largo” with Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and the great beauty, Lauren Bacall.  Or, “The Glass Key” with the handsome actor, Alan Ladd, and his gorgeous costar, known for her peek-a-boo hairstyle, Veronica Lake.

the glass key

Do not expect a “We had it all just like Bogey and Bacall” type of read.   There are many smart twists in this novel.  Don’t be fooled by the title; this not a story about bootlegging.   This reviewer is impressed with the author’s choice for the book’s title, very clever.  I will not spoil it for you with an explanation.   The entire story is not what it appears.   I suspect some will be disappointed in “Speakeasy.”   Between the book’s title and blurb, it is fair to expect a novel that leans heavily into women’s fiction.   However, that is simply not this book.   You will soon discover that it’s written more literary than contemporary in how it begs the question: Which life would you choose?   Would you prefer stable but boring or dangerous but exhilarating?

Here is what is hard to buy about this book.   It is two novels in one.  The female protagonist is an outlaw in a gang during the depression robbing banks with her boyfriend, the gang leader.  Ten years later, she is a naval code breaker during World War II, intercepting Japanese messages.  Both subject matters would be enjoyable to me.  But together it becomes a hard sell.  It took me a while to accept the disjointedness of these two stories, but the author pulls it off.   She manages to successfully merge a gangster noir with a spy thriller.

There are two first-person narrators that alternate between paragraphs —tricky to follow, but worth the effort.  Our gal’s voice and a male voice from the past, who is another gang member though, not her man.  These two characters have something in common.   He is a law-abiding citizen until the likable bandit comes and shakes up his dull and friendless life.  She is a beautiful law-abiding bank teller, who happens to be bored out of her young mind.  When the bank is robbed, she can see that the unmasked leader is Clark Gable handsome, with the sort of killer smile women melt over.  During the robbery, she asks the charming but violent man to take her with them.  This is the beginning of her Bonnie and Clyde years.

There are certainly flaws in the story.  In order to become a high ranking naval code breaker, our heroine must be a very bright woman.  Yet, she has no way of assessing the character of the people in her life.   Plus, she repeats past errors, which is incongruent with a sharp mind.  At age twenty, she has to get beat up by her boyfriend to realize her honey is a creep.  In typical noir style, he slaps some sense into her.  That incident prompts her to run away from him and return to a lawful life.   At age thirty, she fears that her past is catching up with her, but has no clue who in the naval unit is digging into her youth.   And, even though she is now a grown woman, she once again falls for a guy who does not have her best interest at heart.  I wanted to jump into the pages and yell, “Enough already with the bad boys.”

In ways, Alisa Smith reminds me of the wonderful Joyce Carol Oates.  In Oates’ novel, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” she writes an historical fiction about a woman who falls for a charismatic, abusive, hard-drinking man sounding similar to our bank robbing code breaker.  Like in all of Oates’ work, this book too is a well written powerful drug—one page and you are addicted.  Such talent cannot be found in a cheesy plot-driven tale about domestic violence.  I highly recommend “Speakeasy,” that reads partly as an historical espionage, and partly as an intellectual version of Mickey Spillane.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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