One of the things I like about historical mysteries is that they teach us so much about interesting times. Some of the best selling of these historicals have taken us back to Roman times, Byzantium, medieval Italy, and Victorian England.
But we don’t need to travel back that far or row across the pond to get good history lessons. One of the most intriguing historicals I’ve yet come across is Persia Walker’s Black Orchid Blues, set in the Harlem of the 1920s. Here we learn about Strivers’ Row, the neighborhood where upper class African-Americans hold court in elegant brownstones and sophisticated salons. The Black Orchid of the title is Queenie, a transvestite jazz singer, whose beauty and voice have made her the talk—and scandal—of the town. When Queenie is kidnapped during a bloodbath at a Harlem nightclub, society columnist Lanie Price, curious about Queenie’s growing reputation, is there to witness the entire thing. A shaken Lanie meets her deadline, then uses her society connections to find out who might be behind Queenie’s kidnapping and its attendant killings. The search immerses her in the world of organized crime, Harlem’s hard-partying gay community, and the conflicts about gender identity at a time and place where Harlem’s “strivers” are desperately seeking equality in a Jim Crow world.
Author Walker’s skills are more than up to the task of dealing with serious topics. She shows us each side of an issue, then lets us draw our own conclusions. Her intricate plot takes so many twists and turns that it’s often difficult to tell villain from hero, evil from expediency. Walker cares about the small stuff, too. Her period details are dead on, from the radio programs of the day, right down to the shape of the telephones. And her characters? In a word, superb. Lanie makes an intelligent, sympathetic protagonist/sleuth, yet in the end, it’s the spectacular Queenie herself who remains with us when we close this breathtaking book.