By Alisa Smith. Douglas & McIntyre, 232 pp, softcover
Alisa Smith’s novel Speakeasy isn’t about U.S. Prohibition (even though one of its characters is a former rumrunner). The title refers instead to the anguish that sometimes results from having to keep dark secrets. During the Second World War, Lena Stillman, a young Vancouver woman, is a codebreaker at the naval station in Esquimalt, trying to unscramble the ciphers used by the Japanese navy in the Pacific. She is afraid of being exposed as a mole—something she is not—but is even more frightened that her distant past may come to light. “I admit my upbringing gave me the old-fashioned notion of saving myself until marriage,” she tells the readers, “but when I took up with a gang of bank robbers, to have such scruples seemed ridiculous.”
The head of the criminal gang she ran with, robbing payrolls as well as banks, is based on a historical figure, Bill Bagley, who was frequently in the headlines in Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle in the early 1930s. He is depicted here as a thuggish American with an inverted personality. “Normal things made him angry and crazy things made him happy,” is how another member of the gang describes him. These Americans view B.C. as a somewhat backward locale. As one of them says, “The streets of Vancouver were only partly paved on the major arteries, even downtown, and there were fewer imposing stone buildings than in Seattle. Still, the place gave a feeling of self-importance as though it believed it would do great things one day. Of course the people failed to realize that America was so far ahead of them. But their optimism was bracing and I felt the possibility of launching adventures here.”
This first novel is a remarkable leap for a writer who often gets awards for journalism but whose only previous book (the winner of multiple prizes) was The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. Her author’s bio gives a few hints of how she has managed to merge a gangster noir with a feminist spy thriller. For example, her aunt, it seems, was a wartime cryptographer in the 1940s, and Smith herself is now pursuing a second career as a forensic accountant. Clearly, she is interested in crime. She goes to some length to describe how Depression-era bandits operated, just as she does when re-creating how wartime signals intelligence was carried out. The result is a satisfying and well-thought-out novel marred only by a few nitpicking errors. (The FBI and the IRS didn’t have those initials in the early 1930s.) The publisher points out that Smith is working on a sequel to be called Doublespeak.