Janet Dawson has published three books in the California Zephyr historical mystery series featuring Zephyrette Jill McLeod. She has also written twelve books in her Jeri Howard series featuring the Oakland PI, a suspense novel, and many short stories. Learn more about Janet and her books at her website.
The California Zephyr historical mystery series comprises three books—Death Rides the Zephyr, Death Deals a Hand, and the just-released The Ghost in Roomette Four. The first book takes place in December 1952, the others in April and July of 1953.
As Kirkus says in its review of The Ghost in Roomette Four, the book is “a nostalgic, wonderfully detailed look at an era when trains were still a major mode of transportation and life.”
The old California Zephyr ran from 1949 to 1970, a 21-year run. During World War II, the movement of troops and supplies took precedence over civilian travel. The years immediately following the war were a heyday for the streamliners, as the sleek passenger trains were called. Postwar prosperity meant that people could go places. Trains were very popular, giving people the opportunity to travel in comfort and see the country.
The train era didn’t last, though. Passenger rail fell victim to the increase in air travel and rapidly booming automobile ownership. People were seeing the USA in their Chevrolets, not from the Vista-Dome of the California Zephyr.
In Death Rides the Zephyr, readers learn that my protagonist, Jill McLeod, became a Zephyrette after the death of her fiancé, who died in the Korean War, which began in 1950 and ended in the summer of 1953. A number of plot points in all three of the CZ books hark back to the past—Prohibition and the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, and World War II, which dominated the first half of the 1940s. These events are recent history for my characters and find their way into the plots.
What are some of the difficulties of writing about the early Fifties? I must admit, I was alive then, but much younger and I can’t remember that much. This is where the Internet comes in handy. While writing the most recent book, I found myself on Google doing a search to find out when dishwashers first came into common usage. I was surprised to learn it was the Thirties. Jill lives at home with her parents when she’s not riding the rails and I had a scene where she and her sister are cleaning up after dinner. Would the McLeods have a dishwasher? Indeed, they would.
Another way of conveying the times are through fashions, whether hairstyles or clothes. I wound up buying a book titled EverydayFashions of the Fifties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs, which proved invaluable as I wrote about the clothing worn by Jill and the other characters. There are also plenty of websites dedicated to clothing of the era.
As for hairstyles, for the Fifties it was the poodle cut, like the short stylish hairdo worn by Lucille Ball, and the Italian cut—think Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
Speaking of movies, film and music are another way I bring the flavor of the Fifties into the CZ books. The Ghost in Roomette Four takes place in July 1953, when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had just been released. Jill and her friend Mike are making plans to see the movie, which features a memorable scene of Marilyn Monroe performing“Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
And cars! The snazzy red Dodge Coronet convertible driven by Jill’s friend Tidsy in the latest book is another symbol of the era.
Writing about the Fifties has been a lot of fun and I hope readers enjoy the California Zephyr books and their excursions into the not-so-distant past.
The Ghost in Roomette Four
Zephyrette Jill McLeod is returning to her quarters on the California Zephyr. Suddenly she sees a shimmering light outside what she knows to be an empty roomette. When she goes inside to check, she feels a chill and hears strange sounds. Jill tells herself she doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she can’t explain what she saw. Two months earlier, she found a man’s body in this very same roomette. Was the death murder? Jill is starting to wonder if there really is a ghost traveling in roomette four.