The 1920’s and Today

Why write about the 1920’s? Look at all the hot fiction topics today and you find the paranormal, horror, ghosts, vampires, zombies, aliens and fantasy among the standard fare, and even among the bestsellers. I’ve even been told that I’m limiting my potential audience by writing about the New York City of ninety years ago. But, hell, as a writer, you often do what intrigues you and go to a place where you feel comfortable. Because I’ve always loved history there is much from the past that I find extremely interesting and educational. But the twenties has always been kind of special because it marked the beginnings of a number of my current and continuing interests – jazz, the movies, Broadway shows and the Great American Songbook. It was also called the Golden Age of Sports, another of my longtime interests. And then, of course, there was Prohibition and a proliferation of organized crime. That’s plenty to keep a hard-boiled, veteran detective busy. Thus I created Mike Fargo.

It’s also fun combining real and fictional characters, touching on events and places of the time, and working your story into this backdrop. Thus in my first Mike Fargo novel, Murder on Murderer’s Row, I have scenes set at such diverse places as the Cotton Club and original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. To do this accurately, it takes careful research, but if you are fascinated by the period that becomes a pleasurable part of the process. Among the real characters, the legendary Babe Ruth plays a major role. To portray him accurately, you have to know more about him than the home runs he hit. The same with dapper Mayor Jimmy Walker and the actress, Mae West.

In addition, the language of the time was very different. Something that was good was “jake.” Women were dames, gals, dolls, dishes and tomatoes. A rich person was a “swell.” Money could be cabbage, clams, jack, a fin, a sawbuck, among other slang terms. Bootleg liquor was “rotgut,” and a heavily built man was a “grand piano.” And that’s just scratching the surface. You also want to avoid the dreaded anachronism. When I put Mike Fargo into a squad car, a Model T Ford, known then as a “Tin Lizzie,” I wondered if the police cars of the day had two-way radios. Research showed they weren’t equipped with radios until 1932. You also have to know the popular songs of the day, as well as the top actors and actresses. The great Duke Ellington got a huge career boost by beginning a long run at the Cotton Club in 1927. My characters went there during the summer. Research showed that Ellington didn’t begin his run until November. Thus he couldn’t be there with Fargo and Lola. Wouldn’t be accurate.

Mike Fargo was also a big fan of heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey. When Dempsey tried to regain his title from Gene Tunney in September of 1927, the famous “Long Count” fight, I had Fargo listening on the radio. Research showed the sportscaster was one of the early greats, Graham McNamee. That’s who Fargo listened to that night. So as a writer of period fiction you try to be painstakingly accurate from start to finish. You check prices, products, inventions, clothing, events . . . everything.

You also have to be sure that those reading your book and who are unfamiliar with the period, will still enjoy the story as a story. If someone doesn’t know there really was a Mayor named Jimmy Walker, who once wrote a hit song, Will You Love Me In December As You Do In May, and who loved baseball and celebrities, and ran around with a showgirl named Betty Compton, they can still enjoy the character thinking he’s fictional. It’s just a bit more fun if you have some knowledge of the period, the people and the events that appear in the story.

Am I limiting my audience by writing about the 1920’s? Only time will tell. Murder on Murderer’s Row will soon be joined by a Mike Fargo novella, Death of a Flapper, and will continue from there. Hopefully, I can bring this very lively period back to life for a whole generation of readers. People shouldn’t become so caught up in the present and in projecting the future that they forget the past. There’s an awful lot that can be learned by looking back, and a whole lot to enjoy, as well.

Bill Gutman