Sugarland is the third novel and second mystery by award-winning author Martha Conway. Set in the Jazz Age, Sugarland is rich with period detail and a deep appreciation for jazz. Eva Riser, the focus of the story is a jazz pianist on tour with a band when she witnesses a shooting. When a black man shoots a white man, there is no pleading self defense. Not in those days and no black woman witness will be held harmless either.

Gavin, her on-the-road beau sends her back to Chicago to keep her out of trouble. But the letter and money he asks her to deliver gets her into deep trouble when the man she who she is supposed to give it is shot dead right in front of her and worse, she is injured, grazed by a bullet. When she regains consciousness days later, the letter and money are missing and she is being nursed by the dead man’s sister.

She connected with her sister Chickie when she arrived in Chicago, getting a job playing piano in the same speakeasy where her sister sings. There she meets Henry, the band leader as well as Nathan Cobb, the club owner who aspires to be more, much more.

While she is more interested in extricating Chickie and herself from the danger they may be in because of the lost money, the lost letter and whatever tangential connection they may have to whatever the murder was about, Lena is determined to find out who killed her brother. The women are smart, resourceful and effective at maneuvering through the barriers of sexism, racism, de facto if not de jure segregation as well as ins and outs of the Chicago underworld.

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I enjoyed Sugarland very much. It is a fair-play mystery. There are no secrets from the reader to prevent them from solving the mystery. We learn the facts as the characters learn them and when one character holds something back from another, it is held back from us. The mystery is satisfying, it hangs together and makes sense, but it is not what makes Sugarland stand out. That was in the way Conway wrote about race, about female friendship, and about music.

The writer dealt well with race and racism. There was no pretense that Chicago was a racial utopia. While segregation was not the law and lynching was not frequent, this story takes place just four years after the East St. Louis Massacre when angry white men marched into East St. Louis, Illinois and rioted. They burned the homes of black people, leaving 6000 homeless and lynched somewhere between between 100 and 200 people, though the true number will never be known.  I appreciate the effort made to be true to the open acceptable white supremacy operating in Jazz Age Chicago.

I very much enjoyed the friendship that developed among the women. More importantly, so often when a white character helps a black character, they become the “white savior” in the story and take agency away from the black women. That does not happen in the relationship with Eva and Lena. They help each other and in one way, in encouraging Lena to be true to herself, Eva saves Lena in the most profound sense of the word. Neither woman loses agency to the other, they are both active participants in finding solutions.

What I liked best, though, was how Conway wrote about jazz and expressed the power and passion of the music. Her descriptions of Eva composing feel so real and that gives the story so much more raw honesty and power than anything else.

I received an electronic galley of Sugarland from the publisher through NetGalley

MC photo True BW med.jpgI am participating in a “Blog Tour” promoting Sugarland. Other blogs have written their reviews, author interviews and other features. I encourage you to check them out. I also encourage you to check out Martha Conway’s web site which, in addition to the usual promotional information on her books, includes her flogs (fictional blogging) and some articles on the craft of writing with helpful insight into character creation, how to be creative and much more that aspiring writers might enjoy.

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