The Other Typist
By Suzanne Rindell
Rose Baker is an orphaned young woman working for her bread as a typist in a police precinct on the lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precinct. While she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid.
But when the captivating Odalie begins work at the precinct Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell. As do her bosses, the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. As the two girls’ friendship blossoms and they flit between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the precinct by day, it is not long before Rose’s fascination for her new colleague turns to obsession.
But just who is the real Odalie, and how far will Rose go to find out?
Rose works as a typist at a police precinct in Prohibition era New York City. She transcribes the interviews and confessions obtained by the detectives and types them up for use in the courtroom. She marvels at how her typed words become more reliable, more truthful to jurors than mere spoken words.
There are two other typists and the workload demands another. Enter Odalie. She is a mystery and a chameleon who can adapt to her audience in a split second. She charms men and women alike. Rose initially feels unease around Odalie, even as she is compelled to want to be Odalie’s friend.
We learn early on about Rose’s past. She was given up by her mother to punish her father. She grew up in a convent and was sent for additional schooling and refinement since she showed potential. Currently she resides in a boardinghouse, sharing a room with Helen, a haughty girl who treats everyone as inferiors and gossips with the landlady about Rose. Rose overhears them discussing a letter of hers that Helen opened. A friend from the convent, Adele, wrote asking Rose to stop her letters. The implication is that Rose had an unnatural fixation on Adele. Rose tells us they were friends with dreams to travel and live wonderful lives. Rose wrote to remind Adele of their plans. Adele was too scared to take part.
Rose’s fixation on Odalie (she keeps a list of interesting details she observes about Odalie) eventually becomes a friendship. It quickly escalates to Odalie inviting Rose to her apartment, luxurious and paid for by her father. Soon after, she convinces Rose to move into the spare room. Rose knows how quickly this is happening and how fast her life is changing – she’s going to speakeasies with Odalie and showing up to work hung over – but she says yes. All she wants is a best friend and she believes this will be Odalie.
Chapter Six introduces Rose as an unreliable first-person narrator. She confesses that the doctor she is seeing wants her to concentrate on telling things in the proper order. It is difficult for Rose not to impose her current perspective on her retelling of events but she plans to persist.
I’m all for an unreliable narrator but it feels contrived when the narrator announces her own unreliability. Maybe not overtly – crazy people don’t know they’re crazy, as the saying goes – but knowing the Rose is seeing a doctor and writing down past events that lead to her being with this doctors (and it must be the events that lead directly to the doctor; otherwise, why tell the story?) and trying to be truthful took me out of the story.
I wonder what the book would have been like without this foreknowledge. Knowing Rose makes it out the other sides to be dealt with by a doctor colors every word that follows. I know the author intended that but the premise is strong enough to not need this knowledge. Following a naïve Rose as she befriends worldly Odalie and everything that comes after is interesting in its own right.
Chapter Eight brings more knowledge of what is to come.
“Of course, even since the incident, the newspapers have painted Odalie as the victim. According to them, I am the one who has corrupted, who has lied, and who has committed the ultimate unspeakable act. Having forfeited my claim to having always followed the rules, I have unwittingly rendered myself plainly vulnerable to this attack. They may say whatever they want about me and they do. They refuse to believe she might have bewitched me, but I can think of no more fitting word by which to describe the effect Odalie has had on me. Simply put, I have met no one more magnetic than Odalie, and I doubt I ever will.”
Rose believes she knew Odalie, all the more because she lived with her. The implication is obvious – she didn’t know Odalie at all. Odalie was a charmer, a seducer, a mystery to all. Yet Rose does not condone her.
Rose recounts the “little lapse” in her job that is under scrutiny (in the current time she is recounting this story). Edgar Vitalli was known to marry rich women and then kill them in the same manner every time. The police knew it was him but couldn’t pin him. With a little nudge from Odalie, Rose types up a confession and presents it to the Sergeant. She repeats several times that she has what they need and with an understanding look, the Sergeant accepts. The Lieutenant Detective, superior to both, is pleased they got the confession while he had stepped out. Those typed words, accepted as gospel by the jury, sentence Vitalli to the chair. Rose doesn’t feel bad about this decision – it is just because she is convinced he is guilty. And the fact that the Sergeant – whom she respects greatly – goes along with it reinforces how right that decision was.
It is interesting to note that Rose only references her male bosses by their titles. It creates a distance that Rose sees as proper. Other men she meets through Odalie get first names. Also, Rose daydreams about being the Sergeant’s wife, who she despairs of for not taking better care of him, not like she would. I don’t think the assessment that Rose only fixates on women because she is gay is accurate. She fixates on men as well.
“Before you think me dreadfully Sapphic, perhaps it would do to remind you there’s a great history of friendship between women – bonds that are pure and true and do not take on the more unfortunate shades of impropriety. Our mothers’ generation understood it. Why, isn’t the cornerstone of Victorian girlhood founded on such wonderful intimacies? I believe, with all my heart, the generations before us knew a type of loyalty in love that our modern society does not understand at all . . . I only want the giggles, the held hands, the whispered confidences, all the cool kisses on my cheek that had evaded me throughout my childhood. And in answering for the rest of my actions . . . well, it is natural for us to feel some measure of possessive zeal for the things we love. We cannot help the fact we humans are territorial creatures, after all.”
I am inclined to accept that Rose believes this is what she wants, that it may very well be truly what she wants. She wants love and friendship and loyalty, all the things she never had as an abandoned child.
Rose and Odalie’s friendship crescendos when a man from Odalie’s past arrives and threatens her current position in life. Needless to say, Odalie betrays Rose, pins everything on her and even takes Rose’s history as her own to induce more pity and sympathy. It works. Odalie is gone and Rose is locked up, forced to talk to the doctor.
Despite all I’ve been able to mind from The Other Typist, overall it felt lackluster. The commentary from Rose about the story she is recounting, with obvious tidbits presented for intrigue but then withheld because she must go chronologically, became grating. Perhaps a straightforward account by an unreliable narrator would have made the disastrous ending more momentous. The impact felt small because I knew Odalie would hurt Rose. The mystery was gone with the first mention of the doctor.