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 (4)  
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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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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. 


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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I’ve gone to Jail

Yes, it’s true. I’ve gone to jail. My first time . . . and it took a bit of doing to find it!

I’ve started volunteering at the Richmond City jail (properly known as the Justice Center) where I am teaching writing to 13 male inmates. My first class was this week. 


The list of rules for visitors was a bit of a surprise. Not the part about not bringing in any weapons, drugs, or food–that was rather obvious. But I was surprised that there was a rule against wearing see-through blouses (Darn! Just what I’d planned to wear!) and sandals (Explain that one to me, please.) No dangly jewelry, like earrings or necklaces, no spiral notebooks (wire), no hardcover books (heavy and hard). The only thing a visitor can bring inside is a picture ID, which is left at the desk, and car keys. 

I was pleased to see that my students are at a level roughly akin to what I saw in my U.S. History survey classes at VCU (largely freshman). No one needs the really basic stuff, thank goodness. Of course, these men were carefully selected and are probably not typical of the general prison population. Still, it’s a luxury to have eager students who are well positioned to take advantage of whatever help I can give them. My only goal, as I told them, is that their writing improves. We aren’t fussing with grades or tests. This is all about getting better at expressing themselves.

Will this volunteer work help my writing about murder mysteries in the Roaring Twenties? Probably not, although it can’t hurt being exposed to an incarcerated population that is not that different from the general population. Stay tuned . . . 


Published in: on May 25, 2015 at 3:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Star of Bombay provides a secondary plot line


Back in 2010 I visited the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum where I went to the gems and minerals hall to see the Hope diamond. I was surprised to see in a nearby exhibit the Star of Bombay, an enormous blue star sapphire that was given to Mary Pickford by her husband, Douglas Fairbanks. It came to the Smithsonian in 1981 after Miss Pickford’s death. (She died in 1979 at the age of 87.) The gem was discovered in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), which made me wonder why it isn’t called the Star of Ceylon . . . but never mind. It consists of 182 carats. Unbelievably, when Mary Pickford owned it, the stone was set in a ring. I cannot imagine how tiny Miss Pickford could have worn such a thing and still lifted her hand. 

I was remembering this last weekend while ruminating over possible plots for the fifth in my Roaring Twenties series. I needed a subplot to work alongside the main story and was thinking about jewel theft, something I haven’t touched on in previous books. All at once, I remembered the Star of Bombay at the Smithsonian and decided this would work beautifully. The story takes place in New York while Douglas and Mary are visiting on business, and I think I’ll have someone steal Mary’s huge ring. I am not 100% positive she owned it in 1926–nothing I could find tells me when Douglas gave her the jewel–but I’m going to assume she had it by 1926. After all, by 1930 their fairytale romance had lost its magic and they divorced a few years later. 


Published in: on September 28, 2014 at 4:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

How Much $$ Can Fit in a Suitcase in 1926?

20-dollar-bill-061My fourth mystery, MURDER IN DISGUISE (due out in 2016), involves a suitcase full of cash from illegal bootlegging and drug sales. I found myself at a loss when trying to estimate how much money would be in that suitcase. How much money would fit into an average suitcase? Of course, it depends on the size of the suitcase and the denomination of the bills, but even then, I had no earthly idea. Would it be tens of thousands of dollars? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? 

To find out, I took a trip to my local bank and, after carefully explaining that I was neither crazy nor a bank robber, I asked the manager how many bills to an inch were in a stack? I explained why I needed to know, and after she stopped laughing, she got a teller to bring out several packets of cash. I whipped out my ruler and measured–turns out there are about 200 bills per inch when the bills are used. Crisp new bills lie flatter and would measure more per inch, but I figured the money in my fictitious suitcase was used bills, coming from bootleggers and drug dealers, not from banks. 

Back home, I measured the length and width of a dollar bill, then plotted how many could fit in a suitcase of approximately 30″ x 20″ x 8.” There would be 1,600 bills in each 8″ stack and 35 stacks arranged 5 rows by 7 rows. Now, depending upon the denominations inside the suitcase, it would hold about 5 1/2 million dollars if they were all hundreds. But my story takes place in 1925, and hundred dollar bills would be rare and difficult to spend (and would be worth about $1,365 in today’s money), so I figure most are twenties and some are tens, still large bills in those days but easier to use. With a hypothetical mixture of mostly twenties (see illustration) and some hundreds and some tens, I came out with about $1.68 million. That sounded reasonable. So that’s what I’m going with. 

Then I learned that bills from that era were slightly larger than our today. I could either redo my calculations or imagine a slightly larger suitcase. Lazy me.




Published in: on August 30, 2014 at 2:46 pm  Comments (1)  

Book Review: Bobbed Haired Bandit by Duncombe & Mattson

UnknownIn 1924 New York, a young woman and her husband went on a short robbery spree, holding up grocery stores and drug stores in Brooklyn. The woman, Celia Cooney, had dark bobbed hair. She was pregnant, and she and her husband Ed wanted more of the good life for themselves and for their baby. The robbed ten stores before fleeing to Florida, where they were caught and returned to face a trial. The pled guilty, avoiding a sensationalized trial, and were sentenced to 10-20 years. They served seven, and went straight afterwards. 

Not a very gripping story, and certainly not an unusual one. Yet this 2-month crime spree gripped New York and the rest of the country as the “yellow press” spun the story into a year’s worth of frenzied newspaper accounts that made Celia the biggest celebrity of her day–with crowds of tens of thousands of people trying to catch a glimpse of the Bobbed Haired Bandit wherever she appeared in public after her arrest. Poor Ed got no coverage at all, except to suggest he must be a “cake eater” or a “nancy-boy.” After all, no “real man” would be bossed by a woman. 

In 1924, a woman bandit was unthinkable. Women simply didn’t commit violent crimes unless they were insane, and sassy, self-confident Celia was definitely not insane. She enjoyed her crimes and the power the gun gave her over a group of cowering men. She enjoyed what the money bought her. Widespread opinion equated bobbed hair with sin and mental illness–fathers and husbands forbade their women from cutting their long tresses, lest they be driven to a life of crime. 

The newspaper’s reaction to the crime spree, such as it was, mightily embarrassed the New York police. Tough cops couldn’t catch a tiny young woman? How humiliating! Jobs were at stake; the newspapers screamed insults at the police, but the Cooneys remained at large and active. The police, said the newspapers, were either incompetent or on the take–either way they deserved firing. Then Celia and Ed were caught, and the pitiful story of her childhood emerged, turning her into a poster child for society’s failure to care for the most vulnerable. 

All in all, The Bobbed Haired Bandit is a great book if you are interested in a comment on the times, which of course I am. Since my mysteries take place in 1924 and 1925–although not in New York–I found the authors’ use of primary sources helpful because they revealed the language of the day, words I can work into my own stories. Words like nifty and simp (simple or stupid). Mentally impaired people were known (politely) as morons or feeble-minded. I can also use descriptions of what people were wearing at the time. This book was a hit for me!

Published in: on March 9, 2014 at 8:59 am  Comments (4)  
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Instant Death in the Twenties

imagesWhat brought near instant death in the Roaring Twenties? Methyl alcohol, better known as wood alcohol. Not a new invention, it had been used back in the days of ancient Egypt to embalm the deceased–the wealthy deceased, that is. Anyone can make it with wood and a heat source, and the result is clear as water. But with the advent of Prohibition and the difficulty in getting hold of decent spirits, wood alcohol began to make its way into the lower-class speakeasies. 

images-1According to Deborah Blum in Poisoner’s Handbook, two tablespoons could kill a child, a quarter cup could kill a man, or at the very least, blind him. So why, or why, would anyone drink this? Either because they didn’t know it was wood alcohol (it took a couple of hours to act) or because they were so drunk already, they didn’t care. The gallows humor of the day was that, after a night in a New York speakeasy, you called your friends to see if they were still alive. 

Wood alcohol became more of a problem later in the Twenties, especially in New York, the “wettest” city in America. And what was the second wettest city? My guess would have been Detroit or maybe Chicago. Nope. It’s that bastion of political hypocrisy, Washington D.C. 

I’m half-way through writing the 4th in the Roaring Twenties series–no title yet, although I’m keeping track of ideas–and have just killed off a minor character with wood alcohol. In this case, it’s murder. She was forced to drink it. In real life, while murder and suicide were not unusual, accidental death by wood alcohol was far more likely. 

Published in: on February 15, 2014 at 8:17 am  Comments (3)  
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Solving murders in the 1920s

article-2134408-12BD1863000005DC-61_964x734Solving murders in the 1920s must have been very hard. Obviously there was no such thing as DNA, but even fingerprinting was relatively useless because there was no national database of criminal fingerprints to match with. Unless you had a suspect in prison and some fingerprints on a murder weapon to match his, there was not much that fingerprints could do to prove guilt. Ballistics was in its infancy. Crime labs were nonexistent: Los Angeles opened the first American police crime lab in 1923 with a few part-time employees. Other major cities like New York didn’t set up such places until the mid 1930s. Tracing a fleeing suspect was next to impossible. Of course, there were no social security numbers or credit cards to help, and virtually no communication between police departments within a particular state, let alone between different states across the country. A murderer who left the area was gone forever, unlikely ever to be found, even if he didn’t bother to change his name. How would anyone know where to look? (“Gee, I think we should check the phone book in Duluth.”) It’s not surprising that 2/3 to 3/4 of all murders in the Twenties were unsolved.

Published in: on January 4, 2014 at 9:06 am  Comments (1)