Book Review: Murder Knocks Twice by Susanna Calkins
By Corrina LawsonApril 30, 2019
Murder Knocks Twice by Susanna Calkins is the first mystery in a captivating new series that takes readers into the dark, dangerous, and glittering underworld of a 1920s Chicago speakeasy.
Murder Knocks Twice by Susanna Calkins, the first in a new series set in Prohibition-era Chicago, takes the reader inside the world of an illegal 1920s nightclub ruled by Chicago’s mobsters.
We experience the club for the first time through the eyes of Gina, a new cigarette girl at the Third Door Club. Gina plunges into this strange new world, equal parts entranced and wary, needing the money, and willing to overlook the illegality and potential danger:
Ned led Gina down three steps, turned to the right, and stopped. Following him, Gina was about to make a cutting remark about booze in a basement but the words died on her lips when she found herself on a balcony of sorts, overlooking a vast and unexpectedly beautiful room. “Oh” was all she could muster, as she gaped in amazement…
Great chandeliers hung from a patterned tin ceiling, casting enough light for Gina to easily see the world below. About fifteen mostly empty oak tables were arranged around a wooden dance floor, a grand piano toward the back of the room. A long ornately paneled bar with dozens of colored bottles and glasses ran the length of the room, with five framed mirrors catching and reflecting the lights. Two red upholstered love seats were positioned against a richly paneled wall, and a set of plush purple chairs was in another corner, where the original brick of the basement could still be seen. A portrait of Mussolini was mounted on one end of the bar, and a framed painting of a nude woman stepping from a bath was positioned at the others.
From the beginning, it’s clear that Gina has good reason to be concerned about the pitfalls of her new job. It seems glamorous, with good money behind it, but there’s an undercurrent of death beneath it, as Gina was hired to replace Dorrie, a woman who was murdered across town, but likely dead as a result of her connections to the Third Door. And Gina soon finds herself in the middle of another murder mystery, one that hits much closer to home.
Meanwhile, she must learn how to charm the patrons without letting them get too handsy and navigate the undercurrents of jealousy and competitiveness among the other waitresses/dancers, who view her as the interloper who may take their jobs.
Yet, Gina’s curiosity is her most prominent trait, and she’s driven to find answers to all her questions, especially when the second murder occurs, quite literally, in front of her, leaving only her with the vital clue to solving the mystery.
To say more would be spoiling the plot for the reader.
Murder Knocks Twice is filled with the flavor of this era of Chicago, and I was as entranced as Gina was by the nightclub and this new world. Patrons of the Third Door include Clarence Darrow, numerous members of the police being paid to look the other way, mobsters looking for a good time, and lost souls like the Great War veteran who is dealing with his trauma by drinking away his life.
“It’s a volatile mix of people, with plenty of murder suspects . . .”
It’s a volatile mix of people, with plenty of murder suspects, including the nightclub owner, his dignified and careful wife who employs the girls, the pianist, the bartender, and the showgirls.
The most vivid character is the veteran, Roark, who’s shellshocked, suffering physical and emotional effects from his time in the trenches in the Great War. And, after the second murder, another group of fascinating supporting characters walks onto the story’s stage, including a tight-lipped policewoman who may or may not be an ally.
Unfortunately, one of the least vivid characters in all this is Gina herself. She almost gets lost in the story, though two traits give her depth. The first is her relationship with her father, who is suffering what we’d call today early on-set dementia, perhaps from his days as a boxer:
Right now, though, she was very glad to hear her papa humming along to “My Blue Heaven” with Gene Austin. He’d been more down than up ever since he’d lost his job driving the L train eighteen months before, after he had crashed the train at the Randolph Street Station. Even though no one had been seriously injured, the Chicago Rapid Transit Company had deemed him physically unfit to safely manage the equipment. Since then he had cobbled together a series of jobs, often fixing small electronics and household items for neighbors, building up a small enterprise in the process. On his good days, he could still complete such tasks but on his bad days—which seemed to be increasing in number—he could barely handle a broom, let alone rewire a radio. Customers didn’t trust a man who couldn’t hammer straight, or fix the insider of a lamp or radio. So Gina had taken to fixing them herself with their neighbors none the wiser.
The second is Gina’s ability with electronics, mentioned above, which gives her the confidence to learn photography, a skill that will come in demand in order to solve the mystery.
There’s also an intriguing connection between Gina and her late mother’s wealthy family, a connection that family severed when her mother married a man they consider far beneath her. I expect this family to play a wider role in Gina’s life later in the series, especially given it seems Gina will come into some money herself.
The story also takes us all over Chicago, from Gina’s neighborhood, to the Third Door, the tea and pastry shop above that fronts as a legitimate business, the seedier side where bodies are found, the police station, and over to the wealthy side. That’s a great deal to cover with the first book in a series and these settings are as well-rendered as well as the Third Door.
As the story ends, Gina is less naïve, has greater experience, perhaps enough money to make independent choices, and a solid and intriguing supporting cast.
Her skill with electronics (shades of Hedy Lamarr) will also no doubt come into play with each new mystery as well, giving the reader more fascinating insights into the technology of the day.
As a first installment, Murder Knocks Twice is full of possibilities and readers will have a good time walking inside it, with Gina as guide.