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.