Lyndsay Faye tackles both the New York City mafia and Oregon’s infamous racist laws in her outstanding new 1920s thriller. The Paragon Hotel shines a light on a horrifying part of Oregon’s history, whose original constitution outlawed blacks from living or working in the state. When the novel opens in 1921, the Ku Klux Klan is also on the rise in Portland.
The protagonist of the novel is a white human chameleon, Alice “Nobody’’ James, who is adept at blending into the background. The chapters labeled “Then’’ tell Nobody’s back story of how she grows up in a tavern/brothel where her mother works in Harlem. Nobody eventually becomes a ward of a gangster whose goal is to take on the top mob boss of the city.
The book opens with our spunky heroine fleeing Harlem after she is shot. She hops on a train headed to Portland, Ore., where her life will change dramatically. When a kind African American train porter realizes Nobody needs immediate help for her wounds, he takes her to the Paragon, the only hotel in Portland where black travelers can stay. Nobody receives medical help and a room to recover, but her presence draws the suspicions of a racist white police officer. When a beloved orphan living at the Paragon vanishes, Nobody is determined to help her new friends find the boy.
Faye is skilled at capturing the vernacular and flavor of the 1920s. Her diverse, flawed cast of characters are memorable on each coast, from mobster Mauro “The Spider” Salvatici in Harlem to speakeasy singer Blossom Fontaine in Portland. They all have their secrets, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages to discover them. The Paragon Hotel is a superb, well-researched novel that will appeal to fans of both historical fiction and suspense.