The Other Typist

RindellIt’s 1924, New York in the era of prohibition and Rose Baker is quietly proud of her job as a police stenographer. She is the fastest and most accurate typist at her police station, and she has an idol in the form of the Sergeant, with his moral rectitude and handlebar moustaches, and someone to despise in the form of the Lieutenant Detective, who is too greasily handsome and maverick for her tastes. For Rose Baker is an orphan who has been brought up by the nuns and one thing she knows how to do is judge. It’s another reason why she thinks she’s in the right job.

Rose’s comfortable but dull life is shaken up considerably when a new typist joins the precinct. The glamorous Odalie is a beautiful and dangerous manipulator, a woman with a hidden agenda and a secret life. When she befriends Rose, nothing is the same as it was before. In the early part of the story, we are not quite sure who we should be frightened for – Odalie is clearly an operator, but Rose has her secrets, too, including a girlhood friendship that ended in scandal, and a cruel streak that appears without warning. One girl is the cat, and the other the mouse, but which is which? When it becomes apparent that Rose is writing this story from some point in the future beyond its conclusion, when imprisonment is at stake, the tension doesn’t diminish; it becomes all the more intriguing to find out what happened and how.

There are all sorts of interesting influences in this book – it’s a kind of Single White Female meets The Great Gatsby, with a bit of Hitchcock thrown in too. But it rises above these elements in the pitch-perfect evocation of the 1920s and the remarkably consistent voice of Rose who narrates. I found it took a few pages to get into Rose’s voice – she is pedantic and eloquent, using long, complex sentences that nevertheless flow smoothly and well. But once I was in, I found this a clever, scintillating story, with a well-organised plot. This is a stunning debut for a first-time novelist, and the only place it shows is in the middle of the book, where Suzanne Rindell shifts her narrative around her characters, showing different aspects of their relationship in a way that can let the tension drop at the start of each chapter (though it’s quickly picked up again). The theme of identity – that we are all constructions one way or another, and this is the strongest and the weakest part of our personalities – is brilliantly explored.

I’m never sure about the term ‘literary thriller’ because literature slows the pace in order to make the reader appreciate the subtleties and nuances of events, whereas a thriller implies (to me anyway) some high-octane speed. But The Other Typist is pretty close to what a literary thriller might look like, if you take away the necessity of inhabiting fifth gear. I both admired and enjoyed it, and will be looking out for Suzanne Rindell’s next novel.



27 thoughts on “The Other Typist

  1. sounds like a great book. I will definitely watch out for it. There’s been a whole spurt of literary thriller recently isn’t it? I guess it’s because of the success of Gone Girl. I’m glad though because thrillers are my favorite genre.

    • Nish, I have a very soft spot for a good thriller myself! I think this one is more literary than Gone Girl (which is more thriller-y and faster paced), but it has the same claustrophobic relationship between two main protagonists who don’t always show the hands they are playing.

  2. Hey, all good literature thrills me! However can you send me one of these beautiful and dangerous manipulators please? Sounds a fun and intellectually engaging book, I’ll look out for it in my library.

    Thoroughly bad cat.

    • And only the smile remains hanging in the air…. This is a fun book, dear cat, simpler than much of your recent fare, but you might enjoy it in a relaxation type of way. Let me know if you get hold of a copy, won’t you?

    • It’s an awkward term, isn’t it? I’d say Secret History, definitely, and yes probably Fingersmith, too. For me, a thriller means that the main protagonist is always considered to be in peril by the reader. S/he may not always actually be, but the thrill is in waiting for danger to strike at any moment and in watching the protagonist use his/her wits to avoid it. There’s a long sliding scale involved in the above, of course. Then the literary qualities come from the writing, characterisation and situation of the story, which would need to be more finely drawn and complex than something written by, say, Lee Child or Simon Kernick. I guess a plot would be involved! And you are right that a lot of literary fiction seems to be plot-lite, or to involve very simple plots indeed so that the action can be slowed to a minimum while the writing considers everything else involved in the moment. Does that make it clearer? Or does it make it worse?

    • This one was sheer chance! The Book Depository had offered me money off a book, and so I browsed the site for a bit and noticed this. It was just luck. But let’s not talk about the mountainous TBR pile this novel circumvented to get into my hands… I could use those 30 hours too! 🙂

    • Yes, definitely a book I think you’d like, Lilian! And thank you, it was reading this one that made me think about what literary qualities did to thriller novels! 🙂

  3. Is it only me or did you read a lot of books set in the 20s this year. Possibly, what with the Gatsby movie and all, publishers were in favour of the period. I’m all for literaray thrillers.

    • Ha! You are so right! Even as I was choosing this, I realised that I hadn’t read The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles and that it was pretty much the same period. There is definitely a glut of books about this era at the moment, but given that it’s an interesting one, I won’t complain. I’m sure you’re right and that the Gatsby movie has had a big influence.

    • Emma, I’d love to know what you make of this! I found it had a touch of the European about it, in its sinuous and elegant sentences. I’d be very interested to know how it strikes you.

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