By Ann Aptaker
Mystery/Era historical 1940’s/ Lesbian/ Crime/ Noir
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Midnight, New York Harbor, 1949. Cantor Gold, dapper dyke-about-town, smuggler of fine art, waits in her boat under the Brooklyn Bridge for racketeer Gregory Ortine. In the shadow of the bridge, he’ll toss Cantor a satchel of cash, and she’ll toss him a pouch containing a priceless jewel. But the plan, and the jewel, sink when a woman in a red sequined dress drops from the bridge and slams onto Cantor’s boat. She is Opal Shaw, Society Page darling and fiancée of murder-for-hire kingpin Sig Loreale. Through a night of danger, desire, and double-cross, Cantor must satisfy Loreale’s vengeance, stay ahead of an angry Ortine, and untangle the knots of murder tightening around Opal’s best friend and keeper of her dirty secrets, Celeste Copley, a seductress who excites Cantor’s passion but snares her in a labyrinth of lies. The lies explode in a collision of love, loyalty, lust…and death.
I became aware of this book before it came out and it’s one of those rare books with an unknown author to me that I know I want to read before it comes out. So I was quite excited to read it and it definitely hit the spot for me.
Basically the blurb gives a great idea of what this story is about and the all the main characters involved, so I’ll go more into what I enjoyed about it.
Mostly what I loved about this book was Cantor Gold as a character. She’s not that typical female protagonist/ heroine who does bad things for the greater good. No. She really is a badass, tough woman who makes no excuses for how she lives, what she’s done, and that she lives on the wrong side of the law. I liked this. I’m always fond of characters who don’t fit society’s expectations of what their role should be. Particularly I enjoy female characters that buck the Donna Reed ideal for women of this time period.
She’s also an out lesbian, which for the time period was very dangerous. And as the first scene in the book shows, could get you hurt, badly. But I loved that she dresses like a man and walks through her criminal world unabashedly lesbian and butch. While she is accepted as such in that world in the surface, of course, when push comes to shove she’s once again shown that she will never be accepted in any world due to that. And while it hurts her at times, she ultimately doesn’t care; it’s more important for her to be who she is.
She’s also ruled by her passions. Damn but I loved the scenes with her and Celeste. Even though Celeste is no one to be trusted---she’s definitely a femme fatale type with no loyalty to anyone--- Cantor finds herself fantasizing about all the delicious things she’d do with her. Cantor struggles internally with wanting to save Celeste, mainly because she feels attracted to her, but knowing what ultimately might/probably will happen.
But what’s also appealing about Cantor is that while she’s tough and is mostly out for herself and is portrayed as a player, she does find in the course of events she’s been thrust into that she cares more for Rosie, her current friend with benefits, than she thought. And there’s also a hint that she loved someone once very deeply, showing a more vulnerable side of her.
The language author Ann Aptaker uses is very colorful and evocative throughout, which added a lot to my enjoyment of this book. Particularly, even though not a romance or descriptive in terms of common erotic language, I found the dance between Cantor and Celeste to be somewhat erotic and, well, very entertaining:
“I hope you like Chivas,” I say, handing her a glass. “What’s not to like?” There’s nothing not to like. The whiskey is smooth, the woman sharing it with me is gorgeous, and the way the light from the desk lamp slides along her leg is picturesque. I wouldn’t mind taking my own ride along Celeste’s shapely calves.
…after I take the scenic route along her leg and continue up the rest of her, I finally arrive at her face, where on the other side of that hat veil her eyes accuse me of doing exactly what I am doing: undressing her mentally and having my way with her.”
Outside of some of the focus being on what’s going on through Cantor’s head about Celeste, this is a fast paced crime drama. As Cantor tries to figure how who actually killed Opal, while thinking it’s Celeste and trying to save her life, she falls into all kinds of situations that both luck and smarts get her out of. This story if rife with constant alliance shifts and betrayals in this underworld of criminals and I never really knew how it all might pan out. All of the characters are well-rounded, interesting and solid in who they are.
Almost as important as the language, characters, story, pacing, etc, Criminal Gold definitely had the feel of the time period. I could really imagine being in 1949 in NYC with those characters. The ambiance of it was perfect. Loved it.
Will definitely pick up the next book by this author.
Heat level: 0 – no sex, but a lot of linguistic foreplay.
Grade: 5 Stars