The Case for the Roaring Twenties

View More: Miley is an Army brat who has lived in Virginia most of her adult life. She received her BA and MA in history from the College of William and Mary and taught American history and museum studies at Virginia Commonwealth University for thirteen years. She is the author of almost 200 magazine articles, most on history, travel, and business topics, and of nine nonfiction books. The Impersonator is her first mystery.

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Mary Miley’s Roaring Twenties

The Impersonator debuted last month. It is my first novel and the first in my Roaring Twenties mystery series. Why did I choose that time period for my setting? Because it is the most intriguing decade in American history.

I’m not alone in that opinion—a resurgence of interest in this fascinating era is evident everywhere you look. Recall recent movies (“The Great Gatsby”, “Midnight in Paris”), best-selling books (The Paris Wife, The Other Typist, The Chaperone, Last Call) and popular television series (“Boardwalk Empire”, “Downton Abbey”, Ken Burns’s “Prohibition”) that have caught public attention, and remember that a silent movie, “The Artist”, won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year. Even the fashion world is on board, as evidenced by the racks of flapper-style dresses that dominate the department stores and the eye-catching line of Brooks Brothers Gatsby-style menswear.

For a mystery writer, the decade offers infinite possibilities for murder and mayhem, plus access to some of the weirdest people and events in American history. Prohibition provides the underlying theme for my series because it turned most Americans into lawbreakers. Corruption and violence leached into every level of society as cops, judges, and politicians were bought off with cash, booze, and women, and adulterated liquor poisoned thousands. No decade has been as violent: this era saw the rise of organized crime as well as the high point of the Ku Klux Klan. Consider the dilemma facing Jessie, my sleuth in The Impersonator, when she finally ties murder to bootleggers—where can she turn? Law enforcement is in cahoots with the crooks!

But mysteries are more than mere crime, just as the Roaring Twenties was more than Prohibition. Using a vaudeville backdrop allowed me to sidestep a major problem writers of historical novels face when writing about women. We all know that, until very recently, a woman’s place in society was highly circumscribed. Yet it is common to find historical novels with feisty female characters who seem to have stepped right out of the 21st century. Historically, few people, male or female, admired a woman for taking an active role in anything—but readers today want their heroines independent and action oriented. Helpless, passive, uneducated female characters may be historically accurate, but they do not sell books. What’s a writer to do?

Choose the Twenties, the real beginning of the women’s liberation movement, when job opportunities outside the home allowed widows and “spinsters” to earn a living instead of becoming a burden on their closest male relative, and women could for the first time vote. As the male establishment watched in horror, women like Jessie cast off their corsets and ankle-length dresses in favor of short hems and comfortable, straight-waist styles, bobbed their hair, put on makeup, and went unchaperoned to illegal speakeasies where they could smoke cigarettes, slurp bathtub gin, and dance the Charleston to that sensuous new music called jazz.

The ImpersonatorBefore the Twenties, American women rarely travelled alone and unmarried women did not go anywhere with a man unchaperoned, let alone run about questioning people about crimes. Not a very promising formula for a female sleuth, is it? I made Jessie a vaudeville performer to give her credible familiarity with travel and the ability to take care of herself. She relies on skills honed during her years on the stage to solve the murders she encounters. Vaudeville was the ideal setting because Jessie could realistically have developed attitudes that were unusual among her contemporaries but common among the diverse mix of people in the theater world, where talent trumped race, religion, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. Vaudeville was disproportionately made up of Jews, African-Americans, Asians, Irish, gays, and immigrants from all over the world. My choice of setting allows Jessie to be a self-reliant, unprejudiced young woman without breaking any historical molds.

I love this decade of radio, vaudeville, silent movies, gangsters, Model Ts, votes for women, and, yes, innovations like sliced bread, washing machines, and miniature golf. The lives of average Americans–especially women–changed more in the 1920s than at any other time in history. It’s fun to escape into this unique era while I research and write my Roaring Twenties mysteries.

The as yet untitled second in my Roaring Twenties series will be published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in the fall of 2014, and I’m putting the finishing touches on the third.