The Vine That Ate the Starlet by Madeleine Swann
“Dolly examined her ankles for stray seeds and man-eating plants.” – Opening line
New York City in the 1920s—one of the most exciting times and places to be. Alcohol flows freely at the many speakeasies, the unrestrained bacchanalia snubbing its nose at Prohibition. Nightlife and culture flourish from Manhattan to Harlem. One half-expects Dorothy Parker to wander in with a savage remark.
Madeleine Swann paints a vivid picture of this crazy time, but with one major difference: massive “man-eating” vines surround the city, ensnaring anyone who gets too close, while spreading their toxic seeds into the air.
Dolly Preston is a gossip columnist, hobnobbing with high society. After meeting a young actress at a party, Dolly finds her dead, murdered by the Vines. The mysterious Control Bureau chalks it up as a suicide, but Dolly is not so sure and investigates, unraveling the starlet’s secrets, leading her down a rabbit hole of intrigue and bloodshed.
The Vine That Ate the Starlet is a winning mix of mystery and bizarro with a dose of horror, set before a fascinating period backdrop. Swann masterfully executes the trope of a “conspiracy closing in all around you,” ratcheting up tension with each page. I loved the rapport between Dolly and her friend Charlie, genuine and full of heart as they traded nicknames. The book finishes strong, all the way up to the incredible final sentence.
Early on, I found myself less than impressed by the overall plot. It felt like a story I’d read before, the classic noir/mystery formula, albeit repackaged in an exciting bizarro wrapping. As I read on, it shed its banality, becoming a riveting, inventive tale that held me to the page.
While celebrating this amazing decade, Swann does not give us the sugarcoated, Disney version. Rather she shows the racial and gender inequality of the era. At the same time, she takes something as startling as vines the size of skyscrapers and makes them feel prosaic. For what it was, it was a triumph and an enjoyable 107 pages.
You can pre-order The Vine That Ate the Starlet here.