If you're looking for stories with plenty of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, you can't go wrong reading novels set in the 1920s. The Roaring Twenties were a gilded age of dance and debauchery, sandwiched between the First World War and the Great Depression.
Perhaps the strangest thing about this anomalous period in U.S. history and literature is that the country's most famous writers of the period — including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway — weren't living there at the time. Instead, the Lost Generation were traipsing around Europe, spending money on wine and writing romans à clef.
While many white authors expatriated to Europe, black authors, musicians, and artists sparked a cultural explosion in Harlem. Between 1920 and 1930, central Harlem's black population more than doubled, skyrocketing from 32.43 percent to 70.18 percent. Thanks in no small part to the Harlem Renaissance, the Manhattan neighborhood became synonymous with blackness, and with pro-black politics and art.
In choosing the 12 novels on this list, every effort has been made to incorporate books that show what life was like around the globe in the 1920s. With such a wealth of subject matter to pull from, however, this list is not at all exhaustive. Please be sure to share your favorite novels set in the 1920s with me on Twitter.
1. Harlem Redux by Persia Walker
This murder mystery follows Harlem attorney David McKay as he investigates the suspicious death of his sister, Lilian, whose favorite haunts paint a different character than the conservative woman he once knew.
2. Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai
Set in Sri Lanka, Cinnamon Gardens focuses on the conflicts of an unmarried schoolteacher who wants both independence and companionship and a married, closeted gay man whose sexuality might cause an uproar.
3. Z by Therese Anne Fowler
In Therese Anne Fowler's novelization of her life, Zelda Fitzgerald shines as a conflicted young woman caught between supporting the whims of her demanding husband and asserting her own identity to climb out of his shadow.
4. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Similar to Z, The Paris Wife tells the story of another literary wife who found herself whisked away to Europe: Hadley Richardson, the first Mrs. Ernest Hemingway.
5. The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
A transcriptionist working in a New York City police precinct finds herself falling hard when another woman comes into the office. But her friendship soon turns obsessive, and she finds herself wondering who, exactly, the other typist really is.
6. Yellow Rose by Yoshiya Nobuko
Yoshiya Nobuko's short stories are often credited with the launch of shōjo literature in Japan. In 2015, Expanded Editions published "Yellow Rose" for the first time in English, complete with a recommended reading list and a translator's introduction.
7. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
In 1922 London, circumstances force the formerly wealthy Mrs. Wray and her daughter, Frances, to take on boarders. When a young couple around Frances' age moves in, the spinster begins a scandalous love affair that might have fatal consequences.
8. The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
A German WWI veteran marries his late best friend's pregnant widow, packs up meats and knives, and sails for the U.S. After resettling in North Dakota, he sets up a successful business, forms a local choir, and soon finds himself involved in several relationship triangles.
9. The Diviners by Libba Bray
Shipped off to live with her occult-obsessed uncle in booming New York City, Evie worries he'll discover her secret gift. When a local murder overlaps with her uncle's interests, however, Evie wonders if her gift might be of some assistance in cracking the case.
10. Jazz by Toni Morrison
After her husband shoots and kills his young lover, a woman attempts to sort out her grief by befriending the dead girl's aunt in this gorgeous novel set in Harlem.
11. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
To escape the dreadful English weather, dreadful husbands, and dreadful futures, four unrelated women rent out an Italian villa for a month. Although they're all different in circumstance and personality, each of them will find her life changed in some way by the April abroad.
12. Home to Harlem by Claude McKay
Home to Harlem follows Jake, a WWI deserter who returns to New York in the wake of a London riot. What follows is a glorious, carousing ride through Harlem and the surrounding area, as Claude McKay digs into the seedier fares that the 1920s had to offer young men.