Set in the Pacific Northwest and spanning the years of the Second World War, Speakeasy focuses on Lena Stillman’s connection to Bill Bagley, a notorious criminal. In his heyday, Bill’s risky bank robberies and elaborate getaways led Lena and the rest of his gang through the wilds of Harrison Hot Springs, across the strait to Vancouver Island, and as far south as Seattle – areas seldom associated with Tommy guns and pinstripe fedoras. Now on death row, Bill is little more than a memory for Lena, who has successfully reinvented herself as a high-ranking military codebreaker.
Fiercely ambitious, Lena is clearly not living the life of a 1930s housewife. Author Alisa Smith’s agenda in Speakeasy is abundantly clear: to tell the story of an extraordinary woman in extraordinary times. While Lena’s exploits should create plenty of intrigue on the page, much of Speakeasy’s action unfolds in flashback, which ultimately lowers the stakes. The threat of being unmasked and prosecuted for her role in Bill’s crimes is ever present but, like the man himself, remains distant. As for the scenes of the robberies, how gripping is a getaway if we already know the outcome? Smith compensates by providing lush descriptions of Bill’s elaborate plans – his knowledge of the roads, rivers, and settlements provide details that B.C. history buffs and amateur cartographers will relish.
Lena’s position as a high-ranking military woman in the ’30s offers a unique vantage. Unfortunately, there’s a noticeable tug of war between the military story and Bill’s backstory. It often feels that Lena’s codebreaking is simply something that happens in between reminiscences about Bill. Several chapters begin with a quick précis of what’s going on at the Esquimalt base to which Lena has been assigned, then move directly into flashback. As the looming threat of attacks on the home front increases, Lena’s experiences in the narrative present become more tangible.
Smith is apparently at work on a sequel to Speakeasy, so the door is left open for this narrative to move out of its backstory and take up more direct action. Whether or not readers follow will likely depend on whether Smith’s undeniably well-researched and vivid chronicle of West Coast gangster life has been enough to sustain them to this point.