Reflecting Different Times

My recently published novel, Death Rides the Zephyr, takes place in December 1952. I’m working on the next in the California Zephyr series, Death Deals a Hand. The action in that book happens in the spring of 1953.

These are historical mysteries. As a writer and a historian, I want to properly reflect the times and the lives of my characters. So I do plenty of research on the popular culture of the early 1950s. I search the Internet to find out what movies my characters were seeing., and find out what singers they were listening to on the radio. And the fashions? Young women wore poodle skirts, and just like my protagonist, Zephyrette Jill McLeod, they had their hair cut in a short, curly style called a poodle cut.

This is the hairstyle called the poodle cut.

This is the hairstyle called the poodle cut.

Jill likes Agatha Christie, so when her sister gives her a book as an early Christmas present in Death Rides the Zephyr, Jill is excited about reading the latest Miss Marple, Murder with Mirrors, which was published in the fall of 1952. In Death Deals a Hand, Jill’s nighttime reading is a recent Hercule Poirot case, Funerals are Fatal.

The reflection of times past is much more than popular culture. There are politics and social issues, too. These are more somber than poodle skirts.

In the first book, Dwight D. Eisenhower had just been elected president of the United States. The Korean War has ended, but Joseph McCarthy’s political “Witch Hunt” was in full swing. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been tried, found guilty of espionage, and sentenced to death.

Along with the Red Scare and the Rosenberg case, racism was woven into the fabric of the early 1950s. Porters, waiters and cooks were members of the onboard crew of the California Zephyr, and in this era they were overwhelmingly African-American. These men weren’t referred to by that term, which is relatively recent. Sixty years ago the term was Negro, or colored – or worse.

California Zephyr policy stipulated that members of the onboard crew addressed each other on a “Mister and Miss basis,” as I wrote in Death Rides the Zephyr. In many case, the passengers weren’t that polite.

Being a porter was considered an excellent, well-paying job, according to Larry Tye, author of Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class. His title certainly describes the gist of his book, which I read and which I recommend. Tye details the racism that porters faced.

An excellent book on Pullman porters

An excellent book on Pullman porters

It was common for people to address the porters as “boy” or “George.” The latter appellation came from George Pullman, who founded the company that owned the sleeper cars used on the CZ and other trains. Depending on the region of the country, the N-word was also used in addressing porter. Passengers on southern routes could be verbally abusive as well as physically abusive, according to Tye.

In the CZ series, I’m writing books that can be described as traditional mysteries, or cozies, rather than noir suspense thrillers. How do I convey the tenor of those times? If I’m writing a novel that is historically accurate, I can’t ignore the racism the porters faced. But it’s not the central issue of the book, either. How much is enough? How much is too much? That’s one of the times when this writer has to trust her instincts.

So Death Rides the Zephyr has several scenes where porters on the train are targets of racism. In some instances it’s the thoughtless, commonly-used term “boy,” and in two particular scenes, it’s more serious.

I hope I found the middle ground that works for my book, reflecting those different times.

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One Response

  1. It’s indeed a dilemma in a historical to deal with significant social issues, yet keep the storytelling moving briskly along. I was alive in the 50s and had no poodle cut (just a Nancy-cut with blunt scissors) but my mother was in a fury about the hateful McCarthy witchhunt–and fearful during the Cold War. And yes, she nurtured all the old prejudices. I don’t like the fifties, looking back, but know I’ll like your book. Excellent blog!

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