What’s a Zephyrette? by Janet Dawson

The Ghost in Roomette Four, which will be published April 2018, is the third in my California Zephyr historical mystery series. The books feature protagonist Jill McLeod, who works as a Zephyrette, on the historical streamliner that rode the rails between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

What’s a Zephyrette? Think train hostess, like an airline stewardess in the early days of air travel. Jill’s job involves keeping an eye on passengers and being attentive to their needs. She’s a perfect amateur sleuth.

 

The first two books in the series, Death Rides the Zephyr and Death Deals a Hand, take place mostly on the train, during the two-and-a-half day journey. The third book is different. In The Ghost in Roomette Four, Jill does spend time on the train, where she sees something supernatural that tests her statement that she doesn’t believe in ghosts. We also see Jill at home between trips, spending time with her family and friends.

 

The books take place in 1953, more than sixty years ago, so that makes it historical. I want to make the novels as accurate as possible, and I’ve had fun doing the research and writing the books.

 

For The Ghost in Roomette Four, the music of the 1950s plays a role. The early ’Fifties were a time when pop music, the smooth sounds purveyed by singers like Jo Stafford and Frank Sinatra, was colliding with that new music called rock ’n’ roll, which in turn owed a great deal to what was in an earlier time called “race” music—the blues, and rhythm and blues.

 

Jill’s younger brother Drew has a passion for the blues. At home he plays records by Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton and derisively describes a hit pop recording as “that doggie-in-the-window” song (a #1 hit recorded by Patti Page and released in January 1953). Drew also plays guitar in a band that performs at a small club near Seventh Street in West Oakland, an area once called the Harlem of the West.

 

That neighborhood was the terminus of the transcontinental railroad and a lively, thriving area populated by many African Americans who worked for the railroads. Seventh Street, and its side streets, were lined with nightclubs and restaurants, including the famous Slim Jenkins’ Supper Club. The clubs were patronized by customers of all races who were joined by a love of the music. The upcoming novel includes a scene where Jill and her boyfriend go to Oakland to hear Drew’s band play.

My own brother, who plays a mean bass guitar, also loves the blues. He often plays a song called “Mercury Blues.” The fictional Drew would like it too, so I researched the date the song was written, to make sure it was around in 1953. Sure enough, it was.

 

“Mercury Blues,” originally “Mercury Boogie,” was written by bluesman K.C. Douglas and Robert Geddins, musician and record producer. Both men came to Oakland, California during World War II, Douglas from Mississippi and Geddins from Texas. Douglas first recorded the song in 1948 and in the past 60-plus years it has been covered by many musicians. Geddins had a recording studio on Seventh Street in Oakland.

 

Do a search on “Mercury Blues” and you’ll find all sorts of YouTube videos of musicians performing the song. It has been covered by lots of them.

 

Here’s a link to K.C. Douglas’s 1952 recording of the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsTfCITzISM

 

And here are a couple of links to more information on Seventh Street in Oakland: https://localwiki.org/oakland/Harlem_of_the_West; http://7thstreet.org/category/sources/other/;

 

http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/jenkins-harold-slim-1890-1967

 

Janet Dawson has written twelve novels featuring Oakland private investigator Jeri Howard, beginning with Kindred Crimes, winner of the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First PI Novel Contest. The book was nominated for Shamus and Anthony awards as well. Water Signs is the most recent book in the series.

Her California Zephyr historical mysteries feature protagonist Jill McLeod, a Zephyrette, or train hostess, and take place in the early 1950s. The books are Death Rides the Zephyr and Death Deals a Hand and forthcoming in April 2018, The Ghost in Roomette Four.

Janet has also written a suspense novel, What You Wish For. Her short stories include Macavity winner “Voice Mail” and Shamus nominee “Slayer Statute.” Her website is at www.janetdawson.com.

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One thought on “What’s a Zephyrette? by Janet Dawson

  1. radine says:

    This is fascinating. What wonderful subjects for novels. And, what devotion to research. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy reading your books–most especially me. Thank you!

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