book review – One Night, New York

One Night, New York is a remarkable debut novel whose story will stay with me for quite some time.  Set in 1930’s New York, the plot positively bursts out of the pages.  It’s part thriller, part crime, part romance … and all too easy to lose yourself in.

‘transports the reader to the glitter and the danger of old New York’
Erin Kelly

what it says on the cover …

At the top of the Empire State Building on a freezing December night, two women hold their breath. Frances and Agnes are waiting for the man who has wronged them. They plan to seek the ultimate revenge.

Set over the course of a single night, One Night, New York is a detective story, a romance and a coming-of-age tale. It is also a story of old New York, of bohemian Greenwich Village between the wars, of floozies and artists and addicts, of a city that sucked in creatives and immigrants alike, lighting up the world, while all around America burned amid the heat of the Great Depression.

A thrilling debut novel of corruption and murder, set in the nightclubs, tenements, and skyscrapers of 1930s New York – from the winner of the Virago/The Pool New Crime Writer award.

One Night New York by Lara Thompson

SHELF: crime | thriller | 1930s
MY RATING: ★★★★★
AUTHOR: Lara Thompson
PUBLISHER: Virago (Little Brown)
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle
AVAILABLE: from 14th January

‘She could see why people jumped. The city seduced from up here, as though instead of dying on the fresh asphalt, you might leap right into the electric heart of life itself’
book excerpt

my review

When I first spotted this book on Twitter I did the whole ‘love heart eyes’ thing!  And then I recovered my senses long enough to compose a sensible email to the publishers to see if they’d be kind enough to send me a copy.  Lucky me … it arrived on my door mat later that week! The monochrome/neon cover is striking, and the title … that perfect comma … leaves you powerless to resist reading the cover blurb.  

One Night, New York starts … and ends … on the the seventy-second floor of the Empire State Building, on 21st December 1932. On this bitterly cold winter solstice night, Frances and Agnes are waiting for someone to arrive, someone dangerous who’s brought dreadful suffering to their lives.  It’s not until very close to the end that we finally learn who this man is, but as the book progresses it recounts the events of the weeks leading up to this moment.

The first chapter immediately hooked me. It’s been written in such a way that it revealed just enough to demand my attention, but left so much unsaid.  Within a couple of pages I was desperate to know who Frances and Agnes were waiting for, why Frances is wearing someone else’s coat, and what the note says. The tension is palpable, and although it was too early to have developed any sense of who these two young women are, I found myself immediately concerned for them, admiring their bravery, and itching to find out what’s led them to take such desperate action. 

I devoured the intervening chapters, following Frances’s break for freedom from the misery of her childhood home in Kansas.  Travelling third class with just a few scavenged dollars, she boards the train to Manhattan where her beloved older brother, Stan, is waiting to meet her.  The author uses the duration of the train journey to introduce us to two new characters; the glamorous Jacks (Jacqueline) and debonair Dicky (Richard). This chance encounter will ultimately pave the way to a new life for Frances, introducing her to Agnes, and exposing her to experiences that are profoundly estranged from her life with Stan.

Frances has been an enlightening character to get to know.  My initial perceptions of her as a down-trodden, simple farm girl were challenged at almost every stage of the book. Whilst she can’t read, and can barely write, she possesses an emotional maturity and presence of mind that command admiration. She quickly sheds the prejudices of her rural upbringing, proving herself to be an incredibly brave, optimistic young woman, whose unflinching moral fortitude carries the reader into the dark underbelly of the city.  Whilst I knew I was immersed in the book, I hadn’t realised quite how far Frances had worked her way into my affections until the author exposes her to an horrific loss … and then intensified my own emotional reaction with layers of anger, injustice, and fear.

Stan’s character is a shifting silhouette to that of Frances. Through a tenderly nuanced narrative, Frances set my expectations for a kind and brave man, but instead she’s reacquainted with someone almost unrecognisable; short-tempered, unpredictable, and controlling. Having said that, I found it impossible not to like Stan.  I was beholden to the author’s calculated absence of clarity when it came to his life; he simultaneously exudes danger and security, with lightening-brief flashes of lucidity coming only in the form of his encounters with Frances the day after the night before.

When Frances first arrives in Manhattan she’s overwhelmed by the sheer clamour of the city.  The author has written these elements of the story with wonderful attention to detail; to the point where I felt I was arriving in 1930’s New York too.  The noise, the crowds, the vehicles, the food-stand smells, the street hawkers, the myriad of cultures … it all popped right out of the pages so vividly.  This is a period of huge change for the city, with a race to construct landmark buildings, skyscrapers, lay new asphalt avenues and streets; the Empire State Building is only just over a year old at the time of this book, and its height is still a huge novelty even for jaded New Yorkers. 

The birth of this city is present at every step of the story; from Frances’s unbridled wonderment, to Agnes’s urge to capture as much of it as she can through her photography. But it also brings the much darker side to this book, epitomising the masculine conceit for dominance, entitlement and power.  With each passing chapter the malign extent of corruption and extortion becomes clearer, and I was struck by the exploitation of women and the impoverished, underpinned by the ever-present threat of violence. These authentic elements of the book really fascinated me … whilst One Night, New York is a fiction novel it’s clearly based on a great deal of factual research, bringing ghosts of untold stories to life in the background of Frances, Stan and Agnes’s stories.

The author creates some lovely relationships between the characters;  Frances and Stan’s deep-rooted sibling affection, the tender vulnerability of Agnes and Frances’s fledgeling relationship, Stan’s protective loyalty to his friend Ben, and the way in which Jacks and Dickie assuage each other’s flaws.  Each of these relationships became important to me; so much so that I frequently found myself wanting to reach into the book to check on the welfare of those characters who were ‘off-stage’, to hold someone back from witnessing the unthinkable, to warn them, console them, party with them.  Without exception, every singe character – good, bad, and ugly – elicited an emotional response.

One Night, New York is a remarkable book that I’ll be dwelling on for quite some time.  The style of writing beautifully captures and conveys tension, injustice, anticipation, tenderness, and love. It’s not sensationalist, but it reverberates with understated glamour, sophistication, and enlightenment.  The structure of the plot is exquisite; drawing you in to the magnitude of the story, but ever so enticingly teasing out the crescendo.

Thank you to Kimberley at Little Brown for kindly sending me an advance proof copy of One Night, New York in return for an honest review.

lara thompson

Lara is a lecturer in film at Middlesex University. She drew on her love of film noir, the photography of Berenice Abbot and her own family history to write One Night, New York, and couldn’t quite believe it when her manuscript beat hundreds of applicants to win the inaugural Virago/The Pool New Crime Writer Award competition. 
Read more here.

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