Why a Dame in 1938? by M. Ruth Myers

Posted by on May 11, 2012 in 20th Century US, Featured Book, Historical Research | Comments Off on Why a Dame in 1938? by M. Ruth Myers

Choices Shaping NO GAME FOR A DAME

When people hear my new mystery features a female private eye in 1938 – in a midwestern city that doesn’t usually top the list of glamour spots – some think I’ve lost my mind.  Actually, that usually occurs early in a writer’s career, and this is my tenth novel.  So here are my reasons for choosing those elements:

* The late 1930s and early 40s are a fascinating period of transition and contrast.

* Stories of the women of this era are far too rare.

* Dayton, Ohio, was a city bustling with inventors, police innovation and military aviation.

1930s

The 1930s are a bridge between old ways and new ways.  Old roles and new roles.  An age of relative innocence and a world changed forever by the scope and horror of World War II.  They’re a wedge of history we can almost touch, remembered by our parents or grandparents or as stories they heard from the generation before them.

The 1930s seem simultaneously familiar and exotic.  They’re relatable, yet deliciously distant.  Perhaps it’s those qualities that explain the continuing popularity of black and white movies from the 30s and 40s.

On the one hand, the era includes most of the modern conveniences we enjoy.  Electric lights.  Telephones.  Cars.  Refrigerators.  Even airplanes.

On the other hand, the 1930s were very, very different.  People walked more and rode trolleys.  (The latter fact provides a clue in TOUGH COOKIE, the second Maggie Sullivan mystery, which is due out late this summer.)  People dropped their laundry off instead of dumping it in a machine at home.  Even people of modest means had clothing made to order by hat makers, dressmakers and tailors.  They also took those articles in for repairs.  Middle class women like my detective Maggie had far fewer items in their closets than we do now.

The devastating economic conditions of the Great Depression tore families apart.  Brothers and sisters were separated, never to be reunited.  Parents left and children never saw them again.  One quarter of working age adults had no jobs.  There were no shelters, no social safety nets.

Women

Standing in this murky borderland between old and new was an extraordinary generation of women.  They were starting to move beyond the traditional jobs previously allowed them, even as society still pressured them to marry and raise children.  They walked past groups holding signs that censured them for holding jobs while men with children were unemployed.

These resilient women were leaving farms and small towns to live on their own in rooming houses or – for a fortunate few – college dormitories.  They were self-supporting, making them more independent.  Not only could they drive cars, they could own them.  They could go out together and enjoy a beer or a gin and tonic without being labeled hussies (unless they were in an occupation like teaching that imposed stricter standards).

When war came some of these women, if they were in small communities, found themselves suddenly put in charge of rationing in addition to their regular jobs.  In cities they moved not only onto assembly lines, but into jobs vacated by men as newspaper editors, bandleaders, business managers and more.  I grew up hearing accounts by two of them.

Yet the stories of this era are almost exclusively those of  “the Greatest Generation”, the men who went to fight and win WWII.  If we picture the women at all, it’s the image of Rosie the Riveter or as pretty bits of wallpaper.

Don’t these remarkable women deserve some stories of their own?

Dayton

I fell in love with downtown Dayton when I came to work on the morning paper, in the same (now shuttered) building where one of Maggie’s pals works.  I had the good fortune to move through many of the buildings Maggie frequents, although most have been torn down or sit vacant now.  In addition, I heard stories from the paper’s old-timers about the city’s heyday.

At the time of my novel, Dayton was stuffed to the gills with inventors: John “Cash” Patterson of the National Cash Register Co.; Charles F. Kettering, father of the automobile self-starter, Ethyl gasoline and numerous other engineering wonders; and of course Orville Wright, who with his brother Wilbur invented the airplane.  The city had millionaires, notorious heiresses and privileged haunts like the Engineers Club.

It also had an amazing and innovative police force.  They were the first in the nation to use two-way radios in squad cars (for a visit by FDR).  They had the nation’s longest serving chief of police – plus a special car that could bash its way through brick walls.

The city has a lovely riverfront, too.  Brick streets still exist down in the old market area where Maggie Sullivan has her fictitious office.

Stop by and see Maggie.  She’ll take on tough guys and tough cases for you.  If she thinks you need it, she might even offer you a nip of gin from the bottle in her desk.

M. Ruth Myers, May 7, 2012