Janet Dawson has written two novels featuring Zephyrette Jill McLeod – Death Rides the Zephyr and the latest, Death Deals a Hand. She is also the author of twelve novels with Oakland PI Jeri Howard, most recently Cold Trail, a standalone suspense novel, What You Wish For, and numerous short stories. Learn more about Janet and her books at her website.
Meet the Zephyrette
I’ve written two books in my historical mystery series featuring Jill McLeod, who is a Zephyrette.
I can see the puzzled look on your face. What’s a Zephyrette?
A Zephyrette is a train hostess, something like an airline stewardess, or flight attendant, as we call them now.
Many of the luxurious streamliner trains of the post-World War II era had such attendants, but only aboard the train called the California Zephyr were these young women called Zephyrettes.
The California Zephyr was jointly operated by three railroads, from 1949 to 1970. The trains ran daily between San Francisco and Chicago, through spectacular scenery in the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. The journey took two and a half days, and the Zephyrette was onboard for the whole trip.
My books are set in December 1952 and April 1953. Dwight Eisenhower had just been elected president. The Korean War was still raging. It had been less than eight years since the end of World War II. Rock ’n roll was in its early days. It’s the heyday of train travel, before everyone had one or two cars and the interstate highway system was built. Air travel wasn’t as common.
Jill, the protagonist of Death Rides the Zephyr and Death Deals a Hand, is the only female member of the crew. Her job is to keep an eye on things during the journey, make announcements, and cater to the passengers’ needs, keeping them comfortable and happy. She walks through the train every few hours and observes what’s going on aboard the train, alert to any potential problems, ready to provide solutions.
Who would be better placed to do some amateur sleuthing? In the course of two books, Jill has done her share, wielding those problem-solving skills.
Want to send a telegram from the Western Union office at the next station? The Zephyrette would take care of that. Reservations in the dining car? Check. Apply first aid to that scrape on your kid’s knee after he takes a tumble off his seat? Check.
Want to find out who killed the passenger, and why? Jill does that, too.
How did someone like Jill become a Zephyrette? She was required to have a college degree or nurse’s training, have a good character and be unmarried. Jill is all of these. She’s a graduate of the University of California. She was planning to get married but those plans were derailed. She didn’t want to teach or work in her father’s office. Riding the rails on the California Zephyr looked like a good plan for Jill, until she decides what to do with the rest of her life.
Writing the books was great fun and involved roaming around on historic trains as well as taking the Amtrak version of the California Zephyr, which has a different route through California but the same route between Winnemucca, Nevada on to Chicago.
I can read about Ruby Canyon in Western Colorado, but there’s no substitute for seeing it from the train, with the setting sun turning the cliffs red. It’s wonderful to wind through Gore Canyon deep in the Colorado Rockies, with the nearly frozen Colorado River just below the tracks.
There’s also no substitute for primary sources, in this case two former Zephyrettes living in my vicinity. One of these ladies worked on the trains in the late sixties, the other in the early 1950s, the time period I was writing about. One evening I met these two ladies and sat with them as they talked over old times and memories of their travels aboard the California Zephyr. The material I got was invaluable, and I hope it rings true in the books.
So meet Jill McLeod, the Zephyrette. All aboard for adventure!
Death Deals a Hand
Zephyrette Jill McLeod is back on the rails, aboard the fabled train called the California Zephyr. Heading west from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area, Jill looks forward to reuniting with family members and the new man in her life. She’s learned to expect and deal with just about anything on the train, from troublesome passengers to long-lost relatives to high-stakes poker games. But the stakes just got even higher: Death has a seat at the table.