Snow Removal in the Twenties

The mystery I’m working on is set in Chicago during the winter of 1924. I had to do some serious thinking and a bit of research to figure out how people got around during those times, when snow was thick and constant. There was snow removal on the main streets of the city, using machines like the one above.

This is from Canada in 1920, but still, it shows the sort of removal that would have been available in Chicago during those years. They had to clear the main streets for the streetcars and buses, but side streets and residential areas would have to wait. Sidewalks in commercial blocks were cleared by shovel and spread with ashes from the fireplace or sand.

Here is New York in 1899, but this is what they did in Chicago too–dumped the snow in the river.

Published in: on January 10, 2021 at 11:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Favorite Games during the 1920s

While researching popular board games during the 1920s so I could mention something other than chess, bridge, and poker in the novel I’m currently writing, I found this marvelous photo of a Wizard of Oz game. Wish I had the real thing! I hope you can read some of the names and places that Dorothy passes through on her way to the Emerald City. Remember, this game precedes the famous 1939 movie that deals only with Munchkinland. It’s based on the series of Frank Baum’s books which, in their day, were as wildly popular (and vilified by far right wing Christians) as the Harry Potter series. The similarities between the two are astonishing: wizards, witches, odd creatures, magic wands, boarding schools for kids, etc. I recently re-read several of my very old Oz books, inherited from my grandparents (The Lost Princess of Oz and Tik-Tok of Oz) to see how they stood up to time. In a word, terribly. The prose is heavy and boring, and they would be a huge turnoff to kids today. Someone needs to re-work and re-publish them. (No thanks.)

Published in: on December 29, 2020 at 2:36 pm  Comments (1)  

Cover Art for Next Book

Cover art.

There’s a story here. When a publisher’s art department designs the cover for a new book, they read a summary of the book and do their best to create an imaginative, appealing cover that will draw the eye and give a clue as to the nature of the book. With my newest book (publication date spring 2021), the first attempt was as follows:

I loved it. BUT . . . and this is a big BUT . . . it was inaccurate. An important character in the story is a mystic, a spiritualist who connects people to deceased loved ones. This is very different from fortune telling, so the Tarot cards and crystal ball are not correct. In fact, at one point in the book, the mystic says dismissively that she’s no fortune teller. So, I told the publisher that the cover was terrific from an artistic standpoint but that it would be more accurate if they could replace the Tarot cards with something else, like an image of hands touching on a table, or a spooky ghost figure, or candles. And they listened.

Much better, yea! But . . . the words 1920s Mystery need to be centered a bit and the S in 1920s needs to be smaller so it doesn’t read like 192 OS. Final version:

I’m really happy with the final version.

The book is scheduled for release in March-April 2021 in England and Australia, then 2-3 months later, in the U.S. When I have more definite information, I’ll share it.

Published in: on December 7, 2020 at 6:28 pm  Comments (3)  

Bootlegger’s Stash Discovered!

A New York couple found dozens of bottles of illegal Prohibition-era whiskey stashed inside the walls of their old house. The house, built in 1915, was once owned by a German-American who was rumored to have been a bootlegger. Seems the rumors were true and here’s the proof!

Check out the whole story at

You can buy a bottle and taste it yourself, but the asking price is $1,000. I’m afraid I’ll pass. But I wouldn’t mind having an empty bottle–I’m more interested in the label than the contents.

Published in: on November 29, 2020 at 7:42 am  Leave a Comment  

Chicago Morgue

Most murder mysteries involve dead bodies, and most dead bodies end up in the morgue, so I needed to know something about the Chicago morgue in 1924, mostly: Where was it? Did it have refrigeration (or use ice)? I found this helpful postcard (sorry it’s so small). Can you see the small #8 building behind the famous City Hospital? That’s the morgue. I also learned it was colloquially called the Deadhouse. So that’s what my characters call it. And yes, they had refrigeration in the 1920s. It wasn’t even new.

Published in: on October 29, 2020 at 3:33 pm  Comments (1)  

Book Titles 101

Some people don’t realize that a book’s author doesn’t necessarily choose his/her book’s title. I’ve been fortunate thus far in that the titles I suggested for my first 4 books (The Impersonator, Silent Murders, Renting Silence, and Murder in Disguise) were accepted by my publishers. My luck ran out with my upcoming book, which is the first in a new series set in the Roaring Twenties.

The background of the new series is Chicago; the year is 1924. The main character is a young mother whose husband has just been killed in turf war between Al Capone’s Outfit and Dean O’Banion’s North Side Gang. The only way she finds to support herself is as a shill for a fraudulent medium, sitting a the seance table pretending to connect with her late husband so as to convince others that the mystic is genuine. The other part of her job involves researching the backgrounds of the mystic’s customers through wills, newspapers, gravestones, and gossip, finding out those little no-one-could-have-known-that details the mystic can use.

So . . . I thought a good title for this first-in-the-series would be THE SHILL.

My publisher disagreed. In their view, the word is not sufficiently familiar to readers. I’ve conducted an informal survey at every chance I get and I’m afraid the publisher is right. More than half of the people I ask recognize the word, but that isn’t really enough. How about you? Did you know it?

Imagine my surprise when yesterday’s Word of the Day from the Webster Dictionary folks was my word–SHILL. They list it as a verb, not as a noun, but acknowledge its use as a noun. Here’s their definition:

1 : to act as a decoy especially for a gambler or pitchman

2 : to act as a spokesperson or promoter

Someone who shills today may very well be employed to simply extol the wonders of legitimate products. But in the early 1900s, when the first uses of the verb shill were documented, it was more likely that anyone hired to shill was trying to con you into parting with some cash. Practitioners called shills did everything from faking big wins at casinos (to promote gambling) to pretending to buy tickets (to encourage people to see certain shows). Shill is thought to be a shortened form of shillaber, but etymologists have found no definitive evidence of where that longer term originated.

See the full website here:

So . . . we dropped THE SHILL and replaced it with THE MYSTIC’S ACCOMPLICE. What do you think?

I’ve finished working with the editor to make some minor changes, changes that make the story much better, I might add. Next comes the cover art, my favorite part of the publication process.

Published in: on October 12, 2020 at 10:05 am  Comments (4)  

New Roaring Twenties Series!

Last month I signed a contract with my publisher, Severn House, for the first two books of a new Roaring Twenties series. The first should appear in the spring. I’m working on the second right now.

I’m setting this series in Chicago. As always, I’m enjoying the research, learning details about the 1920s that I can incorporate into my story. When I was wondering about snow removal in the city during those years, I discovered a photo of a snowplow. And then I learned what happened to the snow–where did it go? Into trucks that dumped it into the Chicago River. Thus my short snapshot of life during the Twenties, where I write:

Yesterday’s fierce wind had died down but the morning temperature was surely below freezing. One of Chicago’s new snow loaders chugged its way along our street. . . “Where do you suppose they take all that snow?” I asked idly, not really expecting a reply. But Freddy, wise to life in the street, replied, “To the river. They dump it in there.”


Published in: on September 14, 2020 at 2:06 pm  Comments (4)  

Secret Flask Hidden in Plain Sight

Here’s something every Prohibition-era drinker needed: a hidden flask. The “book” title, L’Antique Soif de Lire” translates roughly to Antique (or Ancient) Thirst of Reading. Hide your liquor in plain sight among your books and look like an intellectual at the same time! One thing confuses me, though–if this flask was actually made in France, what’s the need for subterfuge when France never had any prohibition laws? If it was made in the USA, then why make a French title? Maybe so the joke wouldn’t be obvious to the majority of Americans who wouldn’t have been able to read French?

Published in: on June 13, 2020 at 7:46 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Happy Prohibition Day!

One hundred years ago today, January 17, nation-wide prohibition went into effect in the United States. In some places, nothing changed, because state-wide prohibition was already in effect in some states, but for most states and cities, it was a HUGE cultural shift that resulted in a crime wave like nothing anyone had ever seen.

          Barrels of beer emptied into the sewer by authorities

People had a whole year’s notice to stock up before the big day. Many private clubs and wealthy people bought as much liquor, beer, and wine as they could afford or had room to store. The mother of Mary Pickford, silent film’s greatest star and one of the richest people in America, simplified matters when she just bought an entire liquor store and had the contents sent to her house. But most people couldn’t afford to do that. They were the ones who had to deal with the bootleggers, gangsters, international smugglers, and bathtub gin makers. Others looked for loopholes in the Volstead act that would let them get hold of liquor legally. What loopholes? Like the one for medicinal alcohol–all you needed was a compliant doctor to write you a prescription for whiskey.

So in honor of this day in history, I’m having a glass of red wine from our own winery, Valley Road Vineyards, in Afton, VA., thankful that I’m not breaking the law. Cheers!


Published in: on January 16, 2020 at 5:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

The 1920s vs the 2020s

When I give presentations about the Roaring Twenties, I can’t help but compare that decade to the present. There are so many, many similarities, it’s almost as if we are re-living that era. Now comes an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch saying much the same thing. It’s not too long. have a look:

The 1920s are remembered as the Roaring Twenties. How will our ’20s be remembered? Guess we have to live through them first, but it’s worth looking back at the last decade with this name. Those ’20s turned out to be consequential years that still shape our lives today.

The 1920s began, as our own will, with a presidential campaign. The winning candidate that year promised a “return to normalcy” — a word that earned Warren Harding jeers from grammarians but a landslide victory from voters. We’ll see in November what version of “normalcy” today’s voters prefer.

That election was also the first in which women were allowed to vote; the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified just in time. In this year’s centennial of women’s suffrage, we now have a woman presiding as U.S. House Speaker — for the second time — and a woman four years ago received more votes for the presidency than her rival (just not enough electoral votes). When the General Assembly convenes Wednesday, we’ll see a record number of women in the state legislature —11 out of 40 in the state Senate and 30 out of 100 in the House of Delegates. Moreover, Virginia will see its first women (all Democrats) as House speaker (Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax), House majority leader (Charniele Herring of Alexandria) and chair of the Senate Finance Committee (Janet Howell of Fairfax).

Published in: on January 6, 2020 at 7:58 am  Leave a Comment