REVIEW: The Last Note of Warning: A Mystery by Katharine Schellman

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The Last Note of Warning is the third in the luscious, mysterious, and queer Nightingale mystery series by Katharine Schellman, set in 1920s New York.

Prohibition is a dangerous time to be a working-class woman in New York City, but Vivian Kelly has finally found some measure of stability and freedom. By day, she’s a respectable shop assistant, delivering luxurious dresses to the city’s wealthy and elite. At night, she joins the madcap revelry of New York’s underworld, serving illegal drinks and dancing into the morning at a secretive, back-alley speakeasy known as the Nightingale. She’s found, if not love, then something like it with her bootlegger sweetheart, Leo, even if she can’t quite forget the allure of the Nightingale’s sultry owner, Honor Huxley.

Then the husband of a wealthy client is discovered dead in his study, and Vivian was the last known person to see him alive. With the police and the press both eager to name a culprit in the high-profile case, she finds herself the primary murder suspect.

She can’t flee town without endangering the people she loves, but Vivian isn’t the sort of girl to go down without a fight. She’ll cash in every favor she has from the criminals she calls friends to prove she had no connection to the dead man. But she can’t prove what isn’t true.

The more Vivian digs into the man’s life, and as the police close in on her, the harder it is to avoid the truth: someone she knows wanted him dead. And the best way to get away with murder is to set up a girl like Vivian to take the fall.

Dear Ms. Schellman, 

You’ve written a heroine who isn’t always easy to love and she, at times, made me want to shake her a bit over her confrontations with other characters. But then Vivian Kelly has grown up in the world of orphanages and hard knocks where you have to look out for yourself first. 

Vivian has managed to advance in one of her two jobs where she worked long hours at a seamstress shop. In “The Last Drop of Hemlock” Vivian got her hands on some information (about her boss) which, in her time among the characters of this world, she’s learned can be valuable currency. A little blackmail later she now delivers handmade gowns to Society ladies rather than slave away making them. Today’s delivery though has landed her with a possible murder charge as she was the one who found the victim. The Police Commissioner, who doesn’t really care if she did it or not, has given her a week to find the real killer or he’ll happily throw her to the wolves. Can Vivian find the clues from the people involved in order to clear her name?

As this is book three in the series, there will be spoilers here for the first two. I think new readers could start here but it would be a steep learning curve to get all the relationships and tangled web of interactions straight. 

Vivian also still works at The Nightingale, a speakeasy carefully and ruthlessly run by Honor Huxley, a queer woman who wears pants, knows which palms to grease, and who takes few prisoners. Vivian and Honor have felt sparks as they dance and kiss but as Vivian finds, she is still very much on her own despite what Honor seems to feel for her. Another person helping Vivian is Leo who has his own issues with the Police Commissioner but also some contacts who might help Vivian. Most (though not all) of the NYPD aren’t anyone’s friends so smart people avoid them when possible. 

The people Vivian needs to assist her are usually not nice people and live by collecting and paying off debts. I do something for you and then can call in the debt when I need something from you. One sinister yet also interesting woman (who like Honor has bruisers who work for her) first appeared in book one and smilingly catches Vivian in a net of debt. Paying that off helps Vivian discover a few things. Other people Vivi knows from the Nightingale fill in some blanks in the puzzle. But Vivi’s Black friend Bea, who sings like a sultry angel, is probably the most helpful. 

Vivi chases clues, eliminates red herrings, struggles to keep from collapsing from the work and stress but does finger the killer though the end way things play out is still complicated. She also shows she’s been learning and manages to put herself ahead of the debt game with one person who has lots of power and now owes Vivian … big. I also enjoyed watching Vivi and her (now married and very happy) sister Florence who have worked through tough relationship times. 

There are still unresolved personal issues for Vivian and her sister as well as an upcoming and I hope happy event for them, and others, to look forward to. Vivian’s relationships with two other important people in her life have changed and yeah, now someone else owes her. Vivian is getting wiser, also a bit harder but is not one to go down without a fight. B-

~Jayne           

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Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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