August 10, 2020

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Code-breaker's dirty little secrets sizzle

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/6/2017 (1150 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Award-winning Vancouver-based journalist and author Alisa Smith, best known for her 2007 hit The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Eating Local, tries her hand at fiction with her new release. Her debut novel Speakeasy tells the fascinating story of Lena Stillman, an elite code-breaker who tries to keep a shady past hidden from co-workers at the Esquimalt base on Canada’s West Coast during the Second World War.

Inspired by a great aunt who worked as a code-breaker during the war, and drawn to stories about notorious real-life bank robber Bill Bagley, Smith’s Speakeasy jumps between Lena’s escapades with Bagley’s "Clockwork Gang" in the 1930s and her work in the military’s examination unit in the 1940s.

Sucked in by Bill’s charm and penchant for adventure, Lena leaves her boring bank job in Vancouver to join an unruly crew of crooks chasing fame and fortune. At first, the robberies are exhilarating, and the spoils sweet. Doted on by Bill and adored by Byron, another member of the gang, Lena is treated like a queen and has the jewels and clothing to prove it. The gang lives luxuriously between jobs, renting out mansions and partying at Seattle’s best speakeasies.

But as the robberies get riskier and Bill gets more dangerous, Lena begins to feel uneasy. When a heist takes a bad turn and an unhinged Bill takes his anger out on her, she dreams of making her escape.

Years later, Lena has managed to keep her past under lock and key, and has worked her way up the ranks to become one of the best code-breakers on the West Coast. Excellent at keeping secrets and solving complex puzzles, she impresses her superiors.

But her carefully composed life is threatened when Bill is captured and sentenced to hang. Worried that her past will be revealed, she becomes more cautious in her work. But when a spy emerges at the base, she’s hand-picked to source the mole. Even friends come under suspicion, and Lena must decide where her loyalties truly lie.

With two captivating storylines (and each era just as exciting as the other), it’s like a tale of two Lenas: one is young, reckless, and fearless; the other is cunning, wise, and no-nonsense.

Lena is a refreshing narrator, one whose perspective is often missing in history — that of a strong, independent woman. Smith has a knack for storytelling and it’s a good thing, too — her protagonist’s story is expected to continue in Smith’s second novel, Doublespeak.

Speakeasy is an entrancing tale of Prohibition-era gangsters, Gatsby-esque living, and wartime intrigue. Mixing real people and events with unforgettable characters and unbelievable exploits, the novel is a true West Coast caper and a winning debut.

Katrina Sklepowich is a lover of all things literary, and creator of the Literally, Katrina podcast and blog at LiterallyKatrina.com.

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