Little Caesar by William R. Burnett

220px-LittleCaesarPSome people call Little Caesar the first modern crime novel. That may be. I read it for another reason: it was written in 1929 from the point of view of gangsters in Chicago, the site of my next mystery. I learned a lot I can use in my story.

What interested me most was the language. My story is set in 1924 and Little Caesar was written in 1929, but that’s close enough for me to rely on the language. Here are some phrases I’ll try to work into my narrative: 

*What’s the dirt?

*Hand the boy some dough and he’ll spill the news.

*swell people (for rich people)

*gangsters look down on “saps” and “softies”

*dame (I wasn’t sure this term was in use quite that early)

*She’s an up and up girl

*She’s the real thing

*a cup of Java


Edward_g_robinsonI also picked up a few tips on gangster clothing. One of the gangsters, Rico, was described as wearing a striped suit, “dead black with a narrow pink stripe. The color scheme was further complicated by a pale blue shirt and an orange and white striped tie adorned with a ruby pin.” Gives me some idea about how they dressed.

The book was made into a movie of the same name in 1931, starring Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. I watched that too.

Published in: on January 30, 2016 at 8:49 am  Comments (2)  
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Champion Hooch Hunter

Izzy_Einstein_and_Moe_SmithNew York’s prohibition officer Izzy Einstein styled himself the “champion hooch hunter.” He and his partner, Moe Smith, had no background in law enforcement, but who needed that during Prohibition? They developed their own techniques and methods for catching bootleggers–techniques that involved impersonation, such as my character, Jessie, would use in her crime solving. Here are a few:

  1. The impersonator method: Pose as someone who would not be a suspected, such as football players, Texas Rangers, streetcar conductors, gravediggers, fishermen, ice deliverymen, opera singers, and a Yiddish couple. Buy a drink, bust the place. 

    Izzy and Moe disguised as a Yiddish couple.

    Izzy and Moe disguised as a Yiddish couple.

  2. The emergency method: One would jump into icy water, his partner would rush him into a speakeasy and plead for a drink for a freezing man. Bingo.
  3. The straight-forward method: Go into a speakeasy, order a drink, pour some into a small bottle in a pocket, then arrest everyone who served them. 

It worked. Izzy and Moe were perhaps the most successful and notorious prohibition agents in New York City. 

Published in: on January 23, 2016 at 12:05 pm  Comments (2)  
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Arsenic: the Easiest Poison

arsenic-powderArsenic seems to have been the easiest poison for a would-be murderer to use–at least until the scientific work of Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris in the 1920s in New York that took the anonymity out of poisoning. I am planning to use arsenic to kill someone in an upcoming mystery, and so I need to learn all about it. Interesting facts: arsenic was nicknamed “inheritance powder” for its common use as a way to speed up one’s inheritance. That’s the story I’m going to tell, in a nutshell. 

White arsenic seems to be the easiest poison to administer. Stirred into soup, coffee, or an alcoholic beverage, it is almost undetectable. (I plan to use coffee.) People who survived arsenic poisoning almost never reported tasting anything odd about their food or beverages. One scientist who studied arsenic use concluded that, of 820 arsenic deaths between 1752 and 1889, half were homicides. Others were suicides and accidents. In France in the 1800s, arsenic poisonings accounted for an estimated 40% of all murders. So it was common and undetectable . . . meaning the poisoner could almost certainly avoid discovery. 

article-0-19F9352A000005DC-522_634x403Symptoms include headaches, confusion, diarrhea, and drowsiness. But so many illnesses share those symptoms! Vomiting, cramping, stomach pain, and convulsions come next, but those symptoms could also be diagnosed as food poisoning, gastritis, or gastroenteritis. Arsenic wouldn’t normally spring to mind unless you knew your nephew was eager to inherit your fortune.  And then, as in the famous case of George Wythe (Thomas Jefferson’s and John Marshall’s law professor), who was poisoned by his nephew for the inheritance, it is too late. 

Published in: on January 17, 2016 at 5:30 pm  Comments (5)  
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The Prisoner’s Song

texasguinan“Texas” Guinan’s speakeasy, El Fey Club on 54th Street, was a popular spot with NY’s well-to-do drinkers. It opened in 1925. The story goes that whenever a government agent raided the place, the orchestra would play “The Prisoner’s Song” as she was taken away to jail. It was a popular tun that came out in 1925. Listen to it here:



Published in: on January 10, 2016 at 3:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bernice Bobs Her Hair

MV5BMTU0ODM3NDYwNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzQxMzcyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR2,0,214,317_AL_I recently got this short (48 minutes) movie from Netflix, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” filmed in 1976 and starring Shelly Duvall. It is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and, like much of this other work, concerns rich people in the 1920s. Bernice is visiting her cousin Marjorie for the social summer. Bernice is an old-fashioned girl–dull–all she can talk about is the weather. The boys don’t want to dance with her at parties. Marjorie complains to her mother that Bernice is ruining her summer. Bernice overhears and asks Marjorie to help her become popular. 

“I could do it in 2 days,” says Marjorie, and she starts with conversation skills. Primed to be more outgoing, Bernice announces at a party that she is going to bob her hair. This is a shocking idea. No one thinks she’s serious. But when she is goaded into it by Marjorie, who has become jealous of her cousin’s newfound popularity. Everyone troupes down to the barber shop to see if she will do something this daring. 

The barber is shocked at the request, saying he’s never cut a woman’s hair. No surprise there–no one back then has been trained to cut a woman’s hair. Women didn’t cut their hair. But he does it, rather badly. And the consequences backfire on Marjorie. Reminds me of “Mean Girls.” 

Good, short flick. Fitzgerald skewers the manners of the idle rich, feminine competition, and gives us a surprise ending. It was published in 1920, when bobbed hair was really quite scandalous. Long hair, a woman’s “crowning glory,” represented virtue and respectability; bobbed hair was synonymous with sin and immorality. By 1925, enough women had bobbed their hair so that it wasn’t quite as horrifying, but at the time this story takes place, Bernice was doing something few women dared. Interestingly, Fitzgerald seems to disapprove as well, because Bernice turns out much less attractive after she bobs her hair and the boys all lose interest. 

If you’d rather read the short story than watch it, click here.

Published in: on December 20, 2015 at 5:01 pm  Comments (2)  
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What’s This?



Old pictures fascinate me. This one is from the 1920s but I’m not sure of the location. Isn’t it odd to see a street scene with only men in it? I can’t decide whether they are waiting for a streetcar or looking at an accident. There seems to be a policeman in the center, so I’m betting on an accident. Perhaps a collision, although there doesn’t seem to be any damage. 

Published in: on December 12, 2015 at 8:35 pm  Comments (3)  

Lecture at the Downton Abbey Exhibit

 Downtown-image2_medium[1] - size 75

 On Nov. 14, I gave this talk at the Virginia Historical Society as part of their Downton Abbey exhibit, “Dressing Downton.” My presentation was titled Weird-but-True Things Most People Don’t Know about the Roaring Twenties. The VHS always records its speakers, so if you’d like to hear/see it, just click on the title. It’s a light, but serious, lecture that lasts 40 minutes (plus a Q&A). In it, I share some of the surprising things I learned during my research for my Roaring Twenties mystery series, things I have incorporated into my novels. 


Shakespeare a la 1920s

47702_smallI spent this past Friday night in Staunton, VA, at the historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel ( and the Blackfriars Theater (, watching A Midsummer’s Night Dream. What does this have to do with the Roaring  Twenties? Nothing that I was prepared to see. Was I surprised!

The imaginative production of this familiar Shakespeare play included a rip-roaring intermission they called vaudeville–and it was exactly like a vaudeville show of the Twenties, only shorter. There were several acts, including jugglers, a tap dance, and others, with performers dressed in flapper dresses and Twenties male attire. The music, too, was spot on. Absolutely charming! The talent was terrific. And the beautifully restored hotel dates from 1924. 

exterior-pm-62001For a $218 package, a couple can stay in a lovely room in the historic hotel, enjoy a nice buffet breakfast and parking, plus two tickets to the Blackfriars Theater next door. An amazing bargain–top quality accommodations, great food, and some of the most energetic Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. I encourage you to look into this and consider a weekend in Staunton, VA (other outstanding museums include the Woodrow Wilson birthplace, just a block away (remember–Wilson was president in the Twenties), and the Frontier Culture Museum). There are always several plays on the schedule, so we plan to go back this coming winter. 1311324_6_b

Who were the most ardent supporters of Prohibition?









When I examine the spectrum of Prohibition supporters, the only conclusion I can draw is that it was a very odd group.

flo_klan1021_8colThe most ardent supporters of Prohibition included gangsters, the Anti-Saloon League, Methodists, Baptists, the Ku Klux Klan, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Coca Cola, and theater owners. These last hoped that emptying saloons would fill their theaters. It didn’t happen.


Published in: on November 14, 2015 at 8:57 am  Leave a Comment  
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Prohibition in Europe?


Prohibition is seen as a peculiarly American product. After all, no other country outlawed liquor. Or did they?

Interestingly, temperance and prohibition supporters were active in countries other than the United States. Several northern European countries, none of them Catholic, passed laws that restricted consumption of alcohol. Daniel Okrent in Last Call notes, “The new temperance laws included the issuance of individual “drinking licenses” in Sweden, the suspension of liquor sales in German industrial areas, and the suspension of all liquor sales in Iceland. . . . Norway and Finland would both have a form of Prohibition in place before the decade was over, and provincial Prohibition laws would sweep across all of Canada save for Catholic Quebec.”

nicholasromanovBut the most surprising, and amusing to my mind, was the decree issued by the clueless Czar Nicholas II in 1914 banning the sale of vodka throughout the Russian empire. No one paid any attention.



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