Category Archives: Historical mystery

Dear Blog Readers,

Portland, Oregon radio host Ed Goldberg interviewed me about The Bones and the Book for Author! Author! and here’s the link: http://www.allclassical.org/author-author/jane-isenberg/

Ed’s a very skilled interviewer, so it was fun chatting with him.

I’m working hard on a new book now, so I post blogs less frequently, but you’ll see another note to a muse soon.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Historical mystery, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, mystery, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear P.D. James,

Cover Her Face

I’ve recently attended my fiftieth Vassar reunion, an occasion designed to recall memories of 1962 when life waited like an exquisitely wrapped wedding

Reunion!

gift I just knew held something special. At a pre-reunion get-together our hostess got out the obligatory yearbook, and we passed it around, marveling at the fresh-faced girls we’d been. After I relinquished the book, I glanced at my old friends clustered around the coffee table. In that second, I saw us as we’d been five decades ago, our faces yet unmarked by experience, wisdom, or time. Not surprisingly we spent much of the weekend reliving what life was really like for young women in 1962, so it’s no wonder that when I returned home, I sought out my copy of your very first mystery, Cover Her Face, which came out that year.

Wedding Gift

Unwed Mother

You really nailed 1962. In this novel, you dramatize people’s ambivalence about the social changes sweeping England and America. The victim, housemaid Sally Judd, is thought to be an unwed mother and she is not the only woman indulging in premarital sex. Sally’s announcement of her engagement to the son of the landed Maxie family for whom she works heralds class co-mingling of the sort that became more common during the Sixties. Sally herself, described by a former employer as “Pretty, intelligent, ambitious, sly, and insecure” was also something of a drama queen with a penchant for embarrassing the powerful. In the end, it is this leaning that puts her in harm’s way. In fact, it puts her in the path of another woman equally bent on keeping power in the hands of the gentry where it had always been. And so, we end with a young woman dead and an older one going to prison.

The good news for women in Cover Her Face is the realization of loyal and sensible nurse Catherine Bower that she’d rather be single than continue her

Nurse

dubious relationship with the callow Stephen Maxie. For a woman in an English novel to turn away a suitor was still a revolutionary act, more like Brontë’s Jane Eyre than Austen’s Lydia Bennett. But the not very pretty Catherine is a new woman. She has a profession and doesn’t need to tie herself to a loser to live comfortably. And you do reward her with a worthier liaison later on. Cover Her Face is full of well-drawn characters who reflect their time and place very convincingly.

So my post-reunion return to the early 1960s was more than facilitated by revisiting your debut novel. And so was my need to lose myself in a good mystery, a book that would take me far from health concerns, news of our sad world, and my obligations to e-mail and Facebook. In Cover Her Face, you offer a puzzle worthy of Dame Agatha. And to help us solve it, you introduce Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish. He is a “tall, dark, and handsome” man who looks before he speaks, views the body and the crime scene before interviewing the family, and is known for his “ruthless” and “unorthodox” approach to bringing criminals to justice. He proved to be a keeper, and I followed his career and personal life with interest in subsequent books. And I followed your career too as you continued to fill your books with issues and characters emblematic of the changing times.

Time to Be in Earnest

Your socially relevant and carefully crafted novels inspire me as I dream up mysteries of my own. And your life as you recall it in Time to Be in Earnest

Working Mom

inspires me as well. For, like me, you were a working mom who came to writing later in life with a healthy respect for genre fiction. And you are still writing today! Bravo, Baroness and thank you!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under British mystery, feminist fiction, Historical mystery, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Walter Mosley,

Devil in a Blue Dress

Thanks for the memories. Really. Your period PI-based mystery Devil in a Blue Dress always takes me back to the Fifties, back to the Twentieth Century to remind me of how precarious life was for blacks before the Civil Rights Movement. Or, as your hero and narrator, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlings, puts it, “…life was hard back then and you just had to take the bad along with the worse if you wanted to survive.” Easy is my tour guide through the black bars of long ago LA and through that city’s prisons, offices, and neighborhoods. Like you, I’m old enough to remember pre-Civil Rights America, and my memories aren’t pretty. So whenever I hear conservative pundits blame America’s current problems on changes wrought in a utopian US by the Sixties, I want to sit them down with a copy of Devil in a Blue Dress. Your novel inspired me to consider writing my own historical mystery belying the sanitized revision of those “good ol’ days” that many “good ol’ boys” recall so fondly.

Levittown House 1948

The story Easy tells is full of sex and violence, but his voice is well, easy, and his personality cool and, dare I say it, sweet. You leave it to Mouse, Easy’s crazy friend and sidekick, to do most of the dirty work. That way when Mouse shoots a killer aiming for Easy in Easy’s living room, Easy is free to worry about whether the dead man’s blood is staining his sofa. In fact, Easy’s domesticity, his love for his modest home with its little yard where he waters his dahlias, is touching. To earn the bungalow that defines the American Dream, Easy served his country admirably, survived, and then worked in a factory. When a racist manager fires him from his factory job, Easy’s not going to let his mortgage go unpaid and risk losing his house. Instead, he turns his free time, his need for mortgage money, and a highly suspect request into a new career as a private investigator. By the end of the book, Easy’s his own boss, in business for himself. Move over Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade!

Tuskagee Airmen WW II

Easy was raised in Texas and migrated to LA after he returned from military service in a black unit overseas. He and his Texas friends are outsiders in LA and in America too. The devil of the title is also an outsider, a mixed race Texas transplant “passing” as white. As the son of a Jewish woman and an African-American man, you are familiar with issues of American identity that affect us all and reflect our own complex history, a history too often revised by vote-seeking politicians. It’s ironic that it’s left to fiction writers like you to give us facts while many of our candidates for public office spin the past into moralizing myths.

Interracial Couple

One of those myths you use Easy to debunk is that of the African-American male as Willie Horton, a brutish criminal lusting after white women.

Noose

Easy barely has time to lust after any woman before she comes on to him. By the end of Devil in a Blue Dress, he has not only rescued and bedded the damsel in distress, but also saved a child and a friend. And he’s come to terms with those necessary compromises one makes to survive. He’s still an outsider, but he’s shrewd enough to use his considerable resources to stake out, lay claim to, and hold onto his piece of the American Dream. And reading about how he does this always keeps me turning pages far into the night. And then it leaves me wide awake, thinking about how to make up believable characters who are also outsiders trying to hold onto their own homes and to their own piece of that precious American dream. Thank you for Easy and the gripping and gritty stories you tell about him and about those “good ol’ days.”

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Historical mystery, mystery, Uncategorized