Lara Thomson’s debut One Night, New York, opens at the top of the Empire State Building in the height of the depression. Two women, Frances and Agnes wait up there, planning to push someone over the edge. In returning to this setup, Thompson will range across the highs and lows of New York City in the early 1930s.
The main narrative opens with Frances escaping from her abusive family life in country Kansas. Her brother Stan, who had left years before, has sent her enough money to buy a ticket for New York,. A chance encounter with a high class journalist and photographer towards the end of that three day trip will end up becoming a huge influence on her. Stan and Frances live together in a crowded tenement building on the Lower East Side where she works doing embroidery jobs for one of the other tenants. Eventually Frances works up the courage to go to Greenwich Village and find Dicky and Jacks, the wealthy pair she met on the train who want to interview and photograph her for an article and her life changes. There she meets Agnes, a photographer looking to make her way in the world and the two slowly form a connection. At the same time, she befriends Ben, Stan’s neighbour, and through him tries to find out exactly what shady business her brother is involved in.
Thompson’s narrative effectively captures the contradictions in Depression Era New York. The huge disparity between rich and poor, the hypocrisy of the prohibition rules, the rampant corruption and exploitation that goes all the way to the Mayor’s office. The story ranges from Lower East Side slums to the lower ebb of Hooverville, from the high class houses of the Village, through to the clubs and speakeasies of Harlem. And sitting under all of this is the push for development with the Empire State Building and the partly finished Chrysler Tower as beacons of a progress that is pushing the poor further to the margins.
Thompson places Frances’s illiterate, country mouse character in the middle of this whirl. But Frances is anything but helpless and she throws off her naivete quickly as she learns to navigate and survive in the city. And she is supported in this by a diverse collection of friends and acquaintances. No more is this more evident than in the plan that is hinted at in the cold open.
The manuscript for One Night, New York won the Virago/The Pool New Crime Writing Award which sought out new women crime writers for the imprint. And for good reason, Thompson has delivered a debut crime narrative with a great sense of time and place and anchored by an engaging heroine.
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- The Long Call (Ann Cleeves) – book review
- River of Salt (Dave Warner) – book review
- You’re Never the Same (Bill Bateman) – book review
Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.