Ya Like Jazz?: A Review of The Boy in the Red Dress by Kristin Lambert
Hello, Book Nerds! Welcome back to Reading Has Ruined My Life or welcome if you are new. As always, my name is Hannah and I am your captain on this journey into my bookcases.
Happy Pride! I hope all my LGBTQIA+ readers are having a safe and happy second week of Pride.
Now I know I’ve been lacking LGBTQIA+ literature on the here as of late. Outside of last week's review, I don’t think I’ve reviewed any LGBTQIA+ books since January or February. We’re gonna change that today. Please welcome to the stage The Boy in the Red Dress by Kristin Lambert!
If you’re a fan of YA Lit then I think you know this title. It’s a pretty popular book. I mean, it has it all. Drag Queens, 1920’s glamour, a murder mystery, secret lovers.
As always, a spoiler alert is in order; you’ve been warned! Also a quick content and trigger warning. The Boy in the Red Dress is set in New Orleans in 1930. This was a time period steeped in racism and homophobia. Most characters are pretty accepting of others regardless of race and sexual orientation, but just keep the time period in mind. There is one discussion of conversion therapy in this book. There are not a lot of details on the torture that took place, but I know this topic is something that is extremely triggering. I will not be talking about this topic past this point. Finally, there are brief mentions of abusive relationships, they aren’t discussed in great detail, but again, make note that this topic exists within this book’s pages. Anyway, let’s get to the synopsis.
New Year’s Eve, 1929. The setting: Louisiana, New Orleans; the French Quarter to be exact. Specifically in a speakeasy known as the Cloak and Dagger. Our heroine: Millie. Her Aunt Cal owns the Cloak and Dagger, but is off running an important out-of-town errand, thus leaving Millie in charge on one of the most packed nights of the year.
Things are going smoothly at first. The cops have been paid off. The booze is flowing. People are partying it up. The club’s star performer, Marion, is set to perform shortly. But then a group of uptown young adults arrive. Their leader, a platinum blonde known as Arimentha McDonough, begins flashing a photo around of a young man. A man who looks a lot like Marion when he’s out of drag.
Turns out, in his past life, Marion and Arimentha knew each other. They were best friends to be exact. But things ended on sour note to say the least. Now Arimentha wants to reconnect with her former best friend, but before the happy reunion can happen, Arimentha is found dead. A night of revelry quickly dissolves into chaos. The cops arrive and all the initial evidence points towards Marion. Millie knows her best friend is not capable of murder, so she sets out to prove Marion’s innocence. What transpires is a murder mystery that stretches from New Orleans’ seedy underbelly to the upper crust and back again, drunken jazz filled revelry, and high society secrets that can end people’s lives.
If you are an avid reader of RHRML, then you know I love a good murder mystery. I also love a good historical setting. Sadly I do have to say that this Jazz Age/Prohibition Era setting comes across as set dressing and not something that’s fully been researched. Very much more 1920’s stereotypes than anything else. I’m not coming to this book for historical accuracy or anything of that sort though. I’m coming here for a good murder mystery. That's all I have to say on that matter.
So let’s talk about the main character. For me, especially when I read mystery novels, characters can make or break the book. When it comes to Millie, I’m kinda on the fence about her. Millie has moxie, I’ll give her that. She’s a spitfire determined to save her friend’s life, but at the same time, she’s doesn’t think things through. This may sound like a good thing as it, on paper at least, seems like there are pros and cons to Millie’s character. Alas that’s not the case. Every time Millie does something without thinking, the consequences aren’t there. Millie either gets off scot-free or, if something does happen, it doesn’t matter as nothing comes back to haunt her later on.
Things just happen to work out for Millie. She’s not an intelligent character. Very much a brawn over brain type person. But it’s not like she beats information out of people. Again, things just happen for Millie. Every piece of information needed to solve this mystery just happens to fall into her lap. Everything is too easy. It’s partially an issue with the character, but also an issue with the writing itself. I can’t say much more on the matter, overall, things were too easy. No one had to work for anything!
Before I move onto something else, let me give you an example of just how easy and unrealistic things are in this book. At the start of her investigation, Millie is told she needs to speak with a gossip columnist. Not just any gossip columnist though, THE gossip columnist who gets the crème de la crème of high society tea and whose identity remains unknown to everyone in New Orleans. All Millie has to do to meet this elusive gossip columnist is walk into the paper’s office building and demand a meeting with said person.
Yeah, some points of this book can be aggravating. But there are some bright spots in this book as well. Namely Marion. In my eyes, Marion is a little cinnamon roll. In fairness, he doesn’t really do much throughout the story and my soft spot for him is likely because he reminds me of a few of my friends. But he needs protected at all costs! Life has not been kind to him, but he’s managed to put his past behind him and live life as his true self as much as the time period allows. Best character out of them all.
I don’t have any other characters I want to talk about in detail. I will say this though. Character development is minuscule, and the relationships between characters are not fully fleshed out, but there is a diverse cast. As I said in the beginning, this book is set in a time period filled with prejudice, but a lot of that prejudice is not seen within these pages and that’s something so refreshing to see in a historical fiction novel. A lot of main stream historical fiction kinda just ignores that part of the past. Thankfully, The Boy in the Red Dress does not try to erase the issues of the past, it acknowledges marginalized people and in turn offers a safe space; for that I applaud the book.
Overall, I’d say this book is just okay. It’s nothing to write home about. It’s also not the worst thing in the world. The writing could have been far better. The idea is there, but it could have been pushed further. I would have liked to see Millie have to work harder in order to solve Arimentha’s murder. I also would have liked to see more character development. At the end of the day, The Boy in the Red Dress has so much promise but it does not stick the landing.
With that, I must bid you all adieu. Thank you so much for joining me today. Next week, I will be back with another LGBTQIA+ book review.
Until then, stay safe, wash your hands, and read some good books for me.