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Fiction Historical

Harlem Sunset

by (author) Nekesa Afia

Penguin Publishing Group
Initial publish date
Jun 2022
Historical, Mystery & Detective, Women Sleuths
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2022
    List Price

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Named a 2022 People Magazine best book of the summer!
A riveting Harlem Renaissance Mystery featuring Louise Lloyd, a young Black woman working in a hot new speakeasy when she gets caught up in a murder that hits too close to home...

Harlem, 1927. Twenty-seven-year-old Louise Lloyd has found the perfect job! She is the new manager of the Dove, a club owned by her close friend Rafael Moreno. There Louise meets Nora Davies, one of the girls she was kidnapped with a decade ago. The two women—along with Rafael and his sister, Louise’s girlfriend, Rosa Maria—spend the night at the Dove, drinking and talking. The next morning, Rosa Maria wakes up covered in blood, with no memory of the previous night. Nora is lying dead in the middle of the dance floor. 
Louise knows Rosa Maria couldn’t have killed Nora, but the police have a hard time believing that no one can remember anything at all about what happened. When Louise and Rosa Maria return to their apartment after being questioned by the police, they find the word GUILTY written across the living room wall in paint that looks a lot like blood. Someone has gone to great lengths to frame and terrify Rosa Maria, and Louise will stop at nothing to clear the woman she loves.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Twenty-four-year-old Nekesa Afia recently finished her undergrad degree (bachelor’s in journalism, with a minor in English) and is a publishing student. When she isn't writing, she’s dancing, sewing, and trying to pet every dog she sees. She’s been writing since she was a child and this is her second novel.

Excerpt: Harlem Sunset (by (author) Nekesa Afia)


Summer 1926

The ocean spray hits her in the face. She closes her eyes against it.

She’s been on this boat, this glorified dinghy, for the better part of a week. They were approaching the sunny island of Manhattan.

In the distance Lady Liberty stands, her torch held high, beckoning all toward her.

She has been constantly seasick on the passage but staring at Lady Liberty makes her feel much better.

The first thing she is going to do when she reaches New York is get something to eat.

She leans on the railing. Around her little girls and boys throw their hats and try to evade their chaperones. They yell and jostle one another. She grits her teeth against the noise. She can’t stand children.

Still, there’s something to be envied about them. They’re carefree; the world is at their feet.

And they have no idea.

There’re five of them. The oldest is a boy, about eight. He’s clearly the ringleader. He wants all of the other kids to do exactly what he wants. She just barely remembers her brother like that, fearless and domineering.

She can relate to that. He has no idea how lucky he is, to have been born a man in this world. It’s easier to be a man. He’ll learn that soon. The boy pushes one of the girls, a true cherub with red cheeks and big brown eyes, to the wood of the deck. The girl automatically bursts into tears, her anguished wails ringing through the air. People turn to look, and one of the chaperones, a harried woman, comes and scoops her up, admonishing the girl quietly.

She turns her focus back to the statue and the task ahead of her. Soon enough she’ll be back down in her cabin. Even the gentle swaying of the boat is enough to make her sick. She’s barely eaten more than soup during this boat ride.

It’s the first time she’s felt the sun since boarding. She’s trying to make the most of it. Every breath she takes shudders through her. She’s not made for ocean travel. She’s had nightmares of drowning in the cold, murky water. She hasn’t been able to sleep very well.

But she won’t let this distract her. Ocean travel is the smallest of the hurdles she’s going to have to jump. She’ll need to remain focused.

The children are still squalling, fighting. It’s to the point now that other people have started to remark on the behavior of these children.

She’s ignoring the kids around her as she leans her chin on the cool metal railing. She turns her face to the unblemished blue sky. She has missed this so much.

She’s so close to all of her goals. But something still feels wrong.

And she can’t put her finger on it.

Hopefully New York City is more welcoming.

It’s so easy to find her. Louise Lloyd is wearing a bright red dress, a headband against her forehead.

This place truly is a dive, nothing like what she’s accustomed to. It’s a hole in the wall. It took a solid fifteen minutes of wandering around to find it, even though the taxi dropped her off at the right spot. New York City nightlife is different, louder. The entire culture is meant to be a secret, but the noise from various clubs is deafening.

The table is covered in alcohol, sticky. She’s careful not to touch it. She’s intently watching this Louise. Louise doesn’t match up to anything she’s heard. The woman is tiny, her skin a luminous shade of red-­brown and her eyes a bright hazel; she’s practically glowing under the lights. The dress is cheap but doesn’t look it, and layers of chiffon are beaded and move as she does, dancing in the light. Her lips are dripping in red.

She’s just not who she expected.

But somehow she’s not surprised.

The music is deep and longing. Louise smiles as she’s wrapped up in the arms of an unfamiliar woman. They’re dancing an intricate dance, one that requires the woman to put all her trust in the one leading.

Louise is good. She considers this as she watches from the shadows. The tango is a strong, romantic dance, and the women make it look easy. Every dance step is deliberate, and while her tango is technically good, Louise manages to look at the woman leading her around as if she has loved her for her entire life.

It’s almost wrong, watching this dance. It’s not overly sexual, not really, but it’s still perverse in a way.

And yet she cannot stop watching.

She’s sizing Louise up, the way she’s moving, deftly following her partner around the floor. She’s heard that this woman makes a wonderful opponent.

The women here, the majority of whom are white, are watching too. Miss Lloyd and her partner stick out. The band is crying out behind them and Louise is making all of this look easy. It’s a warm summer night, even warmer in the club, and it doesn’t look as if she’s broken a sweat. Almost simple, effortless.

She leans back against her chair. She swears that she saw a cockroach scuttle across the floor near her shoe and she regrets coming to this place.

But it is a necessary trip. She has to see what she is dealing with. She has to make sure she will have the upper hand. She sips from her glass; it’s just water. She’s going to need a clear head if she’s going to do what she came to do.

Louise’s head turns, and she swears those strange hazel eyes fall right on her. They go right through her. Despite the heat, she shivers. Eye contact is held for a moment when the world fades away and it’s only them.

Then, as if it never happened, Louise turns away.

Game on, Miss Lloyd.


They met at a small café. Louise Lloyd sat across from Officer Andrew Martin. The summer sun drifted in from the window next to them. Louise concentrated on lighting a cigarette. She was exhausted. She crossed her arms over her chest and refused to look the officer in the eye.

“Miss Lloyd.”

“Officer Martin.”

His smile wasn’t cold, but wasn’t friendly either. The fact was that neither of them really knew what to say to the other. Louise kept herself still and straight in her seat.

“What is there to talk about?”

He had been her only true ally. It wasn’t so long ago she was suspecting him of murder.

But that, and a little bit of blackmail, she hoped, was water under the bridge. Their working relationship had started with a violent punch from Louise outside a nightclub. Then, after Gilbert put her on the Girl Killer case, they had had no choice but to coexist.

Then they had had to work together when it became clear to both of them that Gilbert was the Girl Killer.

Gilbert had kidnapped her, had made her Harlem’s Hero.

She would never be rid of him.

The officer’s eyebrows knitted together in deep concentration. “You could have been killed.”

“I’m the luckiest girl in the city.”

They were having this conversation away from prying ears. She wondered what he would tell his superiors about the death of Detective Theodore Gilbert.

“You are lucky, make no mistake.”

She knew Martin knew how close she had come to losing her life. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw the former detective lunge at her. Her heart constricted every time she blinked and relived that moment over and over.

“I know.” It was supposed to be a joke—she tried to get out of too many things by joking—but the weight of the past few weeks hadn’t been lost on her.

Martin looked around them, trying to see whether there was anyone nearby who might overhear their conversation. It was a habit of his and one that she had picked up. She could never be too careful. She never knew who was listening in.

Louise figured that she had a couple days of freedom while the impatient men at the precinct put the story of Gilbert’s death together. Then she’d be back in the precinct jail.

She was going to make these couple days count. If she had learned anything over the past few weeks, it was that time was short, death was upon her. She should have as much fun as possible before she did die.

Maybe that wasn’t the intended lesson, but it was the one she had learned.

Martin didn’t say anything. They had had their differences and she wouldn’t have imagined that they would be in cahoots now. He lit a cigarette. Every move he made was confident and assured, even in private company. He never let himself slip in any way. It was so annoying.

The daylight shone from the window into her eyes. Not for the first time, Louise wondered what she would do.

“You believe me, right?” Louise asked.

Andrew Martin was the only person Louise had told about the entire night in the Zodiac. She had had to; he had found her at the scene, her gun still in her shaking hand.

“Of course I do.”

“What’s going to happen next?”

There were so many things she prided herself on. The ability to spend all night in heels and never take them off. Her special skill of downing a bottle of gin and barely feeling it. She used to be able to add not being scared to that list, but that had changed so quickly.

“You are going to go home and sleep,” he said with confidence. “You are going to go live your life until I decide otherwise.”

She thought it was supposed to be a joke, but she didn’t laugh.

“Do as you’re told, Miss Lloyd. It’ll only make things easier.”

She couldn’t just leave, could she?

It turned out that she could. She could step away from the building and head back to her home in the morning light. It was a brilliant summer day but she wasn’t sure if she was sweating from the sun or from panic.

After the day—­the summer—­she’d had, all she wanted to do was dance. The Gold Room in Harlem was nearly full, and much dirtier than where they usually went. But it was special. The Gold Room was for women like her: women who liked other women.

She was escorted by Rosa Maria Moreno, and they were on a mission.

A mission to spend every moment possible on the dance floor.

The band was playing and Louise felt more herself than she had in weeks. After everything, she wanted to be herself again.

This was step one.

The band was playing a waltz, and they had a plan. She and Rosa Maria ran to the bar, they drank two drinks, and by the time the tempo had changed, they were ready to get on the floor.

“This place is nice,” Louise said.

Rosa Maria considered it. “Not as nice as the Dove will be.”

It was a moot point, considering the Dove wasn’t open yet. Louise allowed her girlfriend to pull her onto the dance floor.

The music was tense and desperate. Louise let Rosa Maria hold her close. They were the only people on the dance floor. Everyone else was seated around tables, talking over the band, drinking.

It was any other ordinary night and they were going to make it good.

They began a tight tango. Her tango wasn’t very good, but she trusted Rosa Maria to lead her across the floor. She trusted herself to listen to the music and react accordingly.

They could never go to a club and not dance.

She could feel eyes on them as they moved across the floor. At once, everything she had been thinking of, fearing, melted away. She concentrated on not falling over her feet. She concentrated on going where Rosa Maria led her.

But every time she closed her eyes, all she saw was the body of her dead sister lying on the cold concrete. She tried not to blink anymore. She tried not to sleep anymore.

Spending almost all night every night with Rosa Maria was a welcome distraction. Being on the dance floor was the only way she knew how to deal with this.

She was in uncharted territory, a pioneer of this grief.

How would she even begin to deal with it?

“You all right, Lou?” Rosa Maria asked. She could always tell if something was wrong. She said it was the way Louise held herself, stiff and tense.

Louise relaxed. “This place really isn’t as good as the Dove.”

Rosa Maria laughed. Louise always liked her laugh.

“People’ll actually dance at the Dove.”

It was hard to keep up a conversation, whispered in partial sentences between twists and turns and pauses. They managed it, though.

Rosa Maria, always able to do multiple things at once, was scanning the crowd. “I like the look of the singer.”

Louise was staring into a pair of light blue eyes, a pair that seemed so familiar and yet so far away.

The world around her stopped functioning. The air was drained from her body and she nearly stumbled.

It was impossible for Theodore Gilbert to be in this club on this night. She knew that. She knew that because she had shot and killed him.

She blinked, and she realized the pair of eyes that seemed so distinctive belonged to a woman who was sitting alone at a table. As fast as it had come, her panic dissipated.

“Copacetic, babe?”

“Sure am.” Louise looked around, trying to find the woman again. But she had lost her.

Maybe she had made the other woman up.

Rosa Maria righted Louise. It wasn’t always easy to put all of her trust in someone else. But it was Rosa Maria.

Could she trust anyone anymore?

Her mind was playing tricks on her. She was exhausted. She was seeing things that weren’t there.

She looked into Rosa Maria’s eyes. Under the lights, the corners of her eyes crinkled. The music cried behind them, and when it finished, the crowd around them rather politely applauded.

Rosa Maria immediately left her to talk to the singer, a willowy woman with bronze skin who was standing next to the band.

And Louise tried to find that very familiar pair of eyes again. When she scanned the crowd, the band switching songs with the swell of a frenzied Charleston, she couldn’t find them.

But she couldn’t let herself believe she had made everything up.

She wasn’t sure how she was going to survive.

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