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Book Author: Katharine Schellman

THE LAST DROP OF HEMLOCK by Katharine Schellman: Book Review

The Roaring Twenties–jazz, Prohibition, gangsters, speakeasies–it’s all there in Katharine Schellman’s second novel in the Nightingale series, The Last Drop of Hemlock.

Vivian Kelly is working as a waitress/dance partner at the Nightingale, a New York City nightclub featuring hot jazz, cold (alcoholic) drinks, and young people looking for a fun evening.  Her best friend at the club is Bea Henry, the sultry singer who makes the club the hot spot that it is.  Bea enters late one night, an hour and a half after she was due to begin singing with the band, and tells Vivian in a whisper that her Uncle Pearlie, recently employed as a bouncer at the club, is dead.

Pearlie had moved to Manhattan from Baltimore a short time earlier, and Bea’s entire family immediately bonded with him.  He had stayed with the Henrys for a while, then moved into his own apartment, telling them that he would soon be coming into money and would use it to make their lives easier.  Thus his death has come as a huge shock.

The neighborhood’s local physician, Dr. Harris, has called Pearlie’s death a suicide, but Bea doesn’t believe that, and neither does Vivian.  Bea says the doctor’s visit after the death was superficial, merely saying that sometimes a man gets so despondent about his life and prospects that he simply can’t deal with it any longer and kills himself, as Pearlie apparently did by putting arsenic in his bottle of liquor.  However, Bea tells Vivian that her uncle felt he was on the way up, and that appears to be true when they visit his apartment, along with Vivian’s friend Leo Green.

It’s small but cozy, Vivian thinks, and she wonders how he was able to afford the well-made suit hanging on a wall hook as well as the silk handkerchiefs she finds in the small nightstand next to his bed.  Bea admits that Pearlie had told her he was working for a mob boss, that he had just “one more job to finish…He wasn’t despairing…He was downright jaunty.”

With Leo, who has his own connection to a New York City mob, Vivian begins her investigation into Pearlie’s death.  Vivian and Leo visit the morgue, and the medical examiner tells them that the death is suspicious, although looking into it more closely isn’t something he can do.  Leo had taken the liquor they found in Pearlie’s apartment and brought it to the medical examiner, and the doctor says that it was full of arsenic.  “If someone drank it, I can’t imagine they lived through the night,” the examiner says.

The Last Drop of Hemlock features an outstanding plot as well as a fascinating cast of characters.  In addition to Vivian, Bea, and Leo, readers will meet Alba, another waitress at the Nightingale and Pearlie’s girlfriend; Honor Huxley, the club’s owner with her own ties to the underworld; Florence, Vivian’s much less worldly sister; and Danny Chin, the bartender who just might urge Florence out of her shell.  The novel is a wonderful look into The Jazz Age in 1920’s Manhattan.

Katherine Schellman is a former actor, one-time political consultant, and current writer.  You can read more about her at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.