The Pearl Dagger, L.A. Chandlar’s third Art Deco mystery features Lane Sanders, an agent for mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who with an intrepid reporter and Irish cop, who is also her lover, take on corruption, often connected to the Red Scroll Society. A racket with pinball machines leads her to England the Society, Tolkien, and secrets from their past.
L.A. will be at BookPeople, along with Mark Coggins and Heather Harper Ellet, on October 28th at 7PM to discuss her books, but Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery, got to chat for a bit with Chandlar before her event to discuss her series and the setting.
Scott Montgomery: Which came first for the series, the character of Lane or LaGuardia era New York?
L.A. Chandlar: La Guardia himself actually came first to the scene! When I was about to move to New York City, I was flying there to sign a lease on 9/11. So, obviously, the move didn’t happen that fateful day. However, I moved two weeks later. Around that time, I happened to pick up a biography about New York’s 99th mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. I saw some striking similarities of my own time in a broken and hurting New York, with the era of the Thirties. But it was the way the city handled adversity that floored me. I knew a lot about the Depression era, but what I didn’t know was the resilience, the art, and the humor that was the backbone of New York, just like in my own day. When I started to read about Fiorello, I immediately thought that he was so over-the-top adventurous, funny, daring and the ultimate underdog (being 5’2” and a double minority, half-Jewish and half-Italian)…he would be a fantastic character in a historical novel. So he came first to the table and then the era.
That time is often pigeon-holed into being solely about the Depression. But there was so much more going on than the soup lines. The most favored of all Art Deco buildings, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center…all were built after the stock market crash. I love that beauty out of adversity theme. And women were holding much more prominent positions in the work force, way before the Rosie the Riveters hit the scene. That’s where Lane Sanders, my protagonist and aide to the mayor, comes into play. I wanted to show another side to the 1930s story and I tell it first person through Lane’s eyes. I gave it a lot of thought about writing it first or third person. But one of my main objectives in these stories is to help the reader experience the city and the time. There is something immersive when you read first person. Even if you’re not like Lane, a female in her mid-twenties, you can’t help but put yourself in her shoes when you’re reading it.
SM: Was there anything you had to keep in mind when Lane went over to England?
LAC: Well, the biggest thing was that Europe was ramping up to the second World War much faster than we were. Plus, they were still healing from WWI in ways that America never had to. I have intentionally kept my books solidly in the 1930s so that I can tell that story and not suddenly leap into WWII, of which there are many books. So I had to have enough of both wars in the story in England so that it was an honest view of it, but also not delve right into the serious preparations they were already making for WWII. The oddest thing was the cameo of Winston Churchill. I love having cameos because they give you a holistic sense of a time period, of what other things were going on, who the movers and shakers were, and who wasn’t yet a mover and shaker. At the time, Churchill felt he was in a “political wilderness” in his own words. And he most definitely could have been in the circles where Lane operated. As well as the PM and the head of Scotland Yard (who also have really fun roles in The Pearl Dagger).
SM: How did the use of Orson Welles’ Voodoo MacBeth make it into the story?
I always have a piece of art in the background of all my books. It’s a way to highlight the era and the way art is such a powerful force in our own lives. So I’ve done a lot of research into art in the Thirties, and I happened to just come across Voodoo Macbeth. Orson Welles worked with the Federal Works Project then, and they did all kinds of art programs and were the force behind many of our highest esteemed artists such as Jackson Pollock and DeKooning. Welles put together the first all-black theater cast with both professional and amateur actors from the US and a few from England. They wanted to do Macbeth and set the stage in Haiti where they took the three witches and had a single witch doctor for the role. I personally hadn’t known about this play, and the way the articles described it, it was pure magic. It was sold out for weeks and toured the country. It was extremely successful. It’s one of those seminal events that I would do anything to go back in time to witness it. And in the Thirties. Far before any significant race relations and civil rights were tackled well. But this is what art can do. Outside the theater there were race riots. People were brought together. Each community, the black community, the white community, and the Shakespearean purists, all thought it’d be doomed to failure. And all of them were wrong. Each community loved it. This is one of those brilliant experiences that I wanted to bring to today’s readers. To experience it.
SM: You also embrace the attitude and style of pulp fiction of that era. Are there any authors from that period you consider as influences?
LAC: That’s another way I love to help readers really experience an era and a city, to get a feel for what life was like. Lane loves to read, so I have her reading big novels of the day. In my first book, The Silver Gun, she reads Gone with the Wind, which was billed as a romance novel. I read all the books Lane reads, and yes, there are quite a few authors of that time period that influenced me in different ways. For one, Tolkien of course, but she hasn’t read The Hobbit yet, because it comes out fall of 1937, but Tolkien influences Lane and myself. I love his sense of journey, friendship and also of spontaneity and the freak nature and mystery of life (like the intriguing Tom Bombadil). I’m still a little freaked out by Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and the actual back cover description. But one of the authors who influenced me a lot, is Karen Blixen, whom Lane will read in the next book. The movie Out of Africa was such a soaring, beautiful film when I was growing up. And I loved Blixen’s daring personality. The love of beauty, the romance of adventure, and the idea of doing for what others say you can’t do has always struck a chord with me.
SM: Who are some historical figures you’d like to see Lane meet in future books?
I want her to have more interaction with the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she meets in prior novels. Albert Einstein made an appearance earlier, too, and it’d be fun for her to need to chat with him about the scientific side of a mystery. Amelia Earhart for sure – she disappears in July of 1937 which is coming up fast in Lane’s time frame. She and Lane would be interesting together. I’d also like to get James Stewart to come over to Aunt Evelyn’s one day. I always liked him a lot.
SM: What do you hope to convey about LaGuardia through the books?
LAR: La Guardia was known as The People’s Mayor. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to write about a real politician, who had foibles and flaws, yet was full of integrity and tried so hard to do what was right for the little guy. His energy and his zeal for life is actually the backbone of the entire series. Everything is reflective of that. But I have a lot of his real efforts and real life publicity stunts that have a lot of panache because they’re so funny and so enjoyable. His world was just as corrupt or more so than ours today, so I would love readers to know that real people can make a difference. When Fiorello died, President Truman wrote Fio’s wife a telegram. It said, “He was as incorruptible as the sun.” Can you only imagine that today?
Be sure to join us on October 28th at 7PM when Chandlar stops by BookPeople with Mark Coggins and Heather Harper Ellet in tow, for their panel-style discussion with Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery. The Pearl Dagger can be found in-store at BookPeople and is available for purchase online now.