Books

‘I’ll Be You’ excels in a family drama; Prohibition backdrop for exciting new series – Sun Sentinel

‘I’ll Be You’ by Janelle Brown. Random House, 368 pages, $28

Identity questions are bedrock of the mystery genre: Who is the villain, how does this story affect the sleuths, how does this story affect the community. Janelle Brown takes this theme of identity and ups the ante as she explores the relationship of twins who have sometimes posed as the other in “I’ll Be You.”

In her fifth novel, Brown returns to the family thriller for an intense story in keeping with a current trend in mysteries — a low-boil plot that is big on tension and the connections between people but has little, or, as Brown has chosen, no violence. Yet sinister doings lay just below the surface. This tack worked well in her best-seller “Pretty Things” and excels in “I’ll Be You.”

As children, twin sisters Elli and Samantha “Sam” Logan had a bit of success as actresses in two TV series. Sam reveled in being an actress but Elli did not, hating every moment learning lines, being on the sound stage, being on camera. The girls would play the same character, switching to adhere to laws protecting child actors from overworking. But often, Sam would pretend to be Elli when her sister balked at filming.

Few people ever guessed that Sam was working double time. The sisters learned that identical twins are “a precious commodity in Hollywood” when they are children; not so much when they are adults.

Elli couldn’t wait to get out of show business, marrying a wealthy man and starting a thriving floral business in Santa Barbara, Calif. After a few minor roles, Sam became an addict, ruining any career she may have wanted and destroying relationships, including an estrangement with Elli.

Now sober for more than a year, Sam’s parents ask for her help. Elli has gone on an extended but mysterious spa getaway in Ojai after her marriage broke up. Their parents need Sam to help with Charlotte, Elli’s 2-year-old daughter she recently adopted. Neither Sam, nor her parents, had been told Elli was adopting a child.

Against her parents’ wishes, Sam looks into the spa, run by a group to which Elli has invested more than a million dollars. Sam believes Elli, who has cut off contact with everyone since she left, has joined a cult.

Brown’s investment in her characters and the family dynamic elevate “I’ll Be You.” Sam’s years impersonating Elli gives her insight into her sister’s persona — two people who are the same, yet also are individuals. Their parents’ lack of involvement in their daughters’ lives, and pain, is a pattern going back to childhood. Their New Age mother has been more interested in reincarnation, yoga and cleansings, “marinating in her own blind optimism,” than face the reality that her children are hurting. Their father just wanted to watch TV. Both parents loved their children but equally loved the money the acting paychecks brought.

“I’ll Be You” moves at steady pace, moving from the twins’ childhood to their adult lives, as Brown engulfs the reader in the sisters’ lives.

‘Last Call at the Nightingale’ by Katharine Schellman. Minotaur, 320 pages, $27.99

A popular Manhattan speakeasy that offers a refuge during the height of Prohibition provides an intriguing background in this series launch from Katharine Schellman, best known for her Lily Adler mysteries. Set during 1924, “Last Call at the Nightingale” succinctly delves into the culture, prejudices and struggles of the era while showing that even at the peak of Prohibition, nightclubs thrived and alcohol flowed.

For the regular customers, the Nightingale is more than their favorite place to drink and dance. It is their home where gays and lesbians, straight couples and minorities such as Blacks and Asians are equal within those walls. That’s an attitude demanded by owner Honor Huxley, a lesbian.

That safe harbor is why young Vivian Kelly is there nightly until the early morning, earning the disapproval of her straight-laced sister, Florence, before catching a few hours’ sleep until she has to show up for her job as a seamstress.

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As young Irish women raised in an orphanage and without family, the sisters are well aware that the Irish are considered low-class, and Florence wants them to be respectable. But for Vivian, the Nightingale allows her to escape “the narrow prison of the life she had been born into,” and get away from their small tenement apartment. She also can dance, drink and hang out with her best friend, Bea Henry, who is Black, and bartender Danny Chin, the unofficial second in command.

But Vivian’s fun halts when she finds the body of a man, murdered behind the Nightingale. Honor convinces Vivian to look into the murder. People tend to talk to Vivian, whose charm, youth and station in life are disarming. Vivian is not educated, but she is intelligent and, during the course of the expertly plotted “Last Call at the Nightingale,” she will learn that she has skills she never knew she had.

The Nightingale is an evocative setting. Here, “the rules could be different behind back-alley doors with no addresses — the ones that opened only when you knocked the right number of times, where the steps swept down to the dance floor and the gin made its way from Chicago.”

“Last Call at the Nightingale” briskly moves, illustrating how New York is a distinct ruined city for the rich and the poor and still different for minorities and where unsavory gossip can a person. Vivian is an appealing, bright character who will make a terrific series heroine. At the Nightingale, she doesn’t have to have a mansion on Fifth Avenue “to be someone who mattered.”

Vivian’s growing affection for Honor and for a young man from Chicago adds texture to the plot. Honor emerges as a formidable character, a female business owner who has to show she is tougher than the men and, as a lesbian, knows she will often be discounted.

The band should be well tuned and the drinks flowing for several novels in this exciting new series.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at olinecog@aol.com.

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