Author Helen Jacey writes about Jailbird Detective’s feisty sleuth.
Elvira Slate is not the first 1940s female detective, but I’m pretty sure she is the first feminist 1940s female detective.
In Elvira, I wanted to give readers a very different kind of 1940s female character, one that we definitely don’t see in movies and books of the period. As the author of The Woman in the Story: Writing Memorable Female Characters, there was pressure for the heroine of my debut novel Jailbird Detective to be memorable!
I knew not everyone would find her likable but that was a kind of point. A certain kind of reader will be absolutely revolted by Elvira. She doesn’t need men, and she refuses to play into them and the alpha male system that keeps white men top dog and everyone else subservient and disadvantaged.
On an emotional and practical level, she needs and respects women more.
So if people don’t like her, then to me, Elvira is working. She’s pushing all the right buttons!
What’s more important to me is when readers love her because, as one put it, ‘she is the 1940s heroine I’ve been waiting for!’
In the 1940s, fictional female protagonists have one big thing in common – their stories are all about how far they conform or fall from society’s expectations of women at that time. And those expectations were pretty rigid, and by many women’s standards today, totally toxic.
All are defined by their ability and ‘duty’ to care for others. Their central arc is to learn to love or to be rewarded for loving. Bad girls are cautionary tales – if they fall from the ladder of respectability, they have a virtually impossible time in getting up again.
We know those limited roles all so well – the femme fatale, destructive daughter, the guilty mother, the shrew who needs taming, the tart with a heart, and the good woman. Minor character types are the maids, cooks, secretaries, mothers, flower sellers, and dancing girls.
Even the ‘spunky gals’ of screwball, Katherine Hepburn and Louise Ball spring to mind – yes they are witty, but their stories are still totally relationship-orientated.
We can love them and laugh at them today – most of us grew up immersed in Hollywood movies and we can call out the toxic ‘vintage values’ and pick and choose what we like – the glamour, nostalgia, excitement, fun and romance of a very dramatic era.
I wanted to capture the spirit of the new freedom available to women in a character who was born on the wrong side of the tracks, giving her an outsider view on most aspects of society, and in particular the double-standards that kept women in their place.
I wanted to create a woman who has to rely on her own strengths, because she hasn’t got anyone else to rely on or any sense of entitlement that privilege, social status and elitism bestows.
So for me, Elvira had to challenge and subvert everything that is mandatory for women, and all those original 1940s characters!
Elvira is someone who would be written off as a bad ‘un. Illegitimate. Orphan. Juvie offender. Gangster’s moll. Felon.
She grew up not particularly interested in doing anything for anybody else. Not many people cared for her, so she hasn’t learnt how to do this.
Elvira also carries a sense of worthlessness as well as pride in the fact she survives. This is the complex scar of the abandoned or abused child, and she is both. At the start of the book series, she certainly finds caring for others a burden. According to my own system of Role Choices for Heroines in The Woman in the Story, Elvira is a survivor heroine, a questing heroine, and an outsider heroine.
It doesn’t mean she’s nice! She’s an anti-heroine, with a complex moral compass.
Her arc over the series won’t be so much about getting nicer to others, but more about healing some of those scars – or not – and the evolution of her values and attitudes.
Elvira sees through society’s double standards, particularly when it comes to expectations of women. When men can screw around, she simply doesn’t get why women can’t do the same. I am personally revolted by the concept of ‘the slut’ and I hate it when women even use it ironically about themselves, so no heroine of mine was going to entertain the notion of feeling guilty about having sex when she wants and with who she wants. That’s a non-negotiable for me!
Elvira might have youth and a certain degree of conformity to society’s ideals of glamour and attractiveness, but she’s more than aware it’s surface stuff; she’s damaged goods for most men and she knows that ageing is another double standard inflicted on women.
Elvira likes to look good and dress up. She loves fashion, for her own enjoyment. She doesn’t dress to impress men in the hope one will ‘save’ her. She will dress up and assume different identities if she needs to dupe anyone, male or female. She knows a pretty blonde can get access by acting dumb. She flips the stereotype to her own advantage.
She’s a woman who has strong, complex female role models, women who know how to get ahead in ways available to women and otherwise. Elvira wants to work, be her own boss and boss of her life. These other women characters will show her how to define herself and go for what she wants. She will even get a male secretary. Unthinkable back then!
Elvira chooses cases based on her deep sense of solidarity with women who are deemed undesirable by the rigid expectations of 1940s society. She is one of them after all. She is also a fighter for justice for those who have been forgotten, who are judged not worthy by a toxic system that makes scapegoats of the underdogs and easy targets.
Not that it will always be easy for her to champion underdogs. There will be all kinds of lessons for her in trying to play and out-do the system.
I don’t know if the word ‘feminist’ detective will alienate people from finding about Elvira. But so what? If she has any raison d’etre, that’s it.
For me, Elvira Slate represents all those women who had feminist ideals in the 1940s, but weren’t allowed to express them.
The Golden Age of crime, let’s face it, is talking about crime written during a
backward time when it comes to human rights and equalities.
But choosing to set Elvira Slate Investigations in the 1940s has caused me a few
headaches. I’ve always ‘loved’ the 40s, Old Hollywood, the movies, the jazz, the
fashion and glamour, the times of upheaval.
But I detest the prevailing attitudes lurking in those novels like crocodiles – the
whole time you know they are there and ready to bite. The misogynistic
attitudes, the endemic, racism, ageism (particuluarly against women), and all the
other –isms that result in people being marginalised and getting a crap deal out
of society and life. I’ve done my fair share of adopting a male gaze to enjoy the
ride and celebrate the male hero’s journey as he gets in a few fistfights with bad
guys and cracks the crime.
So choosing to write a historical set crime novel with a feminist character has
been interesting. Should I be revisionist? A complete fantasist and recreate life
as I would have liked it to be? Or slavishly research the period knowing that this
is fiction and who cares? Or take a middle ground, a ‘narrative fudge’, a sweet
mix of truth, revision fantasy.
In creating Elvira, I’ve deliberately gone for the fudge. It’s more creatively
calorific and enjoyable. ‘Historical truth’ depends on what side of the line you are
standing on. As a screenwriter, I’m generally gung-ho in the spirit of creating
Elvira’s white and that gives her privilege in a segregated world denied to others.
But she’s illegitimate, a criminal past, and she would definitely be labelled by
society as a rotten egg and an undesirable. She’s relatively attractive by
conventional standards, but she doesn’t define herself by her ability to get a man.
She sleeps with who she wants when she wants. And she speaks her mind. If she
dupes a man, it’s because he’s a sexual predator or a bad guy, or she knows he’s
She’s therefore an outsider and an outcast, definitely then. And maybe still a little
And that’s why so many Golden Age stories would cast women like Elvira as
Trouble. They are the victims, the femme fatales, the manipulators of dumb men,
the misguided players who get burned, or simply the shrew-like baddies. But
she’s the protagonist. Because outcast women didn’t get a chance to tell their
stories back in the 1940s. And they certainly existed, just like feminists did.
So we’ve got to tell their stories for them.
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