Lyndsay Faye‘s latest novel, The Paragon Hotel, is as dark and immersive a read as you could hope to find. It is divided into sections labeled “Then,” and “Now,” and the “Now” sections take place in 1921, mostly in Portland, Oregon.
This is, in fact, quite the coast-to-coast American mystery novel. Alice (also known as Alicia, also known as Nobody) grew up in the slums of New York City, the daughter of a prostitute and, as she grew up, a daughter of the Italian mob as well. When Alice gets on the wrong side of some desperate criminals and gets shot, she and her bullet wound manage to board a cross-country train, on the idea that when you have run afoul of organized crime, it’s better to get as far away as you can without actually landing in the ocean. She ends up at the Paragon Hotel in Portland, Oregon, thanks to the kindness of one of the porters on the train who can see that Alice is suffering from far more than the mild illness that she claims. The Paragon Hotel is notable in Portland because it serves an exclusively black clientele.
Race relations in Portland are literally going up in flames, as laws targeting black people are enacted and the Ku Klux Klan is lighting crosses on fire to terrorize Portland’s black residents. Alice, a white woman living in a hotel among black people, is in a unique position to do what she can to advocate alongside of those who have befriended her.
This is a complex story, and not just because of the “Then” and “Now” sections. There are subplots galore; there are mysterious disappearances; there is murder; there is gruesome gore. I tend to be a little sensitive about elements like gruesome gore, and while I needed to skim lightly through a few paragraphs, I found this an engrossing read. It evokes the language, style, and music of the 1920s, on East and West coasts alike, while also treating the decidedly grim (when not atrocious and horrifying) aspects of American society at that time.
I can’t resist concluding this review by observing that this is truly a paragon of a book.
More thrilling books that showcase Lyndsay Faye’s talent for writing historical fiction include: