Mystery and Fantasy in Prohibition-Era New York: A Review of Westside by W.M. Akers
Words By Madeline Hosack
Published on May 7, 2019 by Harper Voyager.
Going into W. M. Akers’s debut novel Westside, I assumed I’d be relatively familiar with its world—1920s New York would mean tenements, speakeasies, possibly a brawl or two. Yet the first few pages quickly indicated that I was hopelessly (and happily) out of my depth, as the streets and buildings about which I’ve read countless times were both familiar yet utterly unrecognizable: “Damp moss broke my fall. Broadway was muffled by the sound of falling water. A silver cataract cascaded down the crumbling façade of an abandoned tenement, pouring over broken windows, splashing onto the moss-blanketed street, and rushing into the gutter. I have scaled that unsteady building, and seen the source of that waterfall, which bubbles straight from the peeling black tar roof. It is an impossible wonder. Such things are common here.”
In Akers’s Manhattan, the disappearances of thousands of people on the city’s west side have left Washington Square Park filled with trees towering three hundred feet tall, while Broadway is bisected by a thirteen-mile fence made of iron, steel, and barbed wire. The fence placates those on the east, who fear the strange phenomena and ever-increasing disappearances on the west, yet leaves “fifty or sixty thousand too brave or mad or desperate to flee, who stayed behind the fence, intent on living their lives.”
Among those thousands is the novels’ protagonist, Gilda Carr, a detective who’s spent her career solving what she calls “tiny mysteries”—“little questions . . . the mysteries that spoil marriages, ruin friendships, and curdle joy.” This is what she’s done ever since the disappearance of her father, a police detective turned private eye, years earlier. So when she agrees to find Edith Copeland’s missing glove, she thinks it will be like any other case. After she witnesses the murder of her client’s merchant husband, however, she realizes she’s stumbled upon something much larger.
At times, the book feels very much like a tour of the richly imagined world Akers has created, as Gilda follows leads and flits from subway tunnels to empty docks to abandoned theaters. The Westside, with all its grit and magic and inexplicable ways, is her home, and readers are able to see its strange beauty through her eyes. The book’s strength undoubtedly lies in its worldbuilding, which continues throughout the entire story; a little over halfway through the novel, just when a reader may think they’re getting used to Gilda’s world, they’re thrown for quite a loop.
As you’d expect from any mystery set in 1920s New York, there’s plenty of bootlegging, smuggling, and corruption; as Gilda unravels how it all connects, however, it’s difficult to feel as though it’s not a bit overdone. Nearly every character is involved in something criminal one way or the other, which leads to everyone’s behavior feeling slightly less . . . thrilling. There are only so many times one can read about illegal rotgut whiskey before it loses some of its illicit appeal.
That said, the book features an intriguing and eclectic cast: a woman who makes moonshine in the subway tunnels beneath the city; a man who strives to make the Westside a bourgeois utopia yet does so at great expense; a gangster who lives in a penthouse, loves jazz, and is looking for the name of a tune he’s been whistling for decades. Like any good mystery, there are plenty of possible suspects as well as motives; as the novel progresses and Gilda encounters more characters—many from her father’s past life—it becomes harder and harder to guess who did it, and why.
The big reveal is anything but expected, although it relies equal parts on the world created as it does the characters. And the story is paced relatively well, although it tends to drag in parts; again, because the book oftentimes feels like a tour rather than a classic whodunnit, there are certain stops at which readers may be inclined to spend less time than they would at others. Yet nearly all of its loose ends are wrapped up by the end.
Gilda also has a fantastic voice—sharp, no-nonsense, and clever. I knew I liked her from the moment I encountered this on the very first page: “’Girl!’ he barked. I did not turn my head, for that is not my name.” In the world Akers has created, where streets shift in the night and entire rooms disappear on a whim, a steady protagonist with a good head on her shoulders feels necessary. And if there are parts of the story that drag, then readers at least have Gilda’s wit to get them through.
Westside is a fantastic debut that will appeal to lovers of fantasy more so than mystery, yet fans of both genres will find myriad reasons to immerse themselves in its pages.