Now arriving on platform three, the California Zephyr—historical mystery series, that is. All aboard for adventure! Also mystery, murder and a touch of the supernatural.
The Ghost in Roomette Four, the third book in the series, features strange shimmering lights, an unearthly chill and tapping sounds that may mean someone—or something—is trying to communicate with my protagonist, Jill McLeod.
Jill is a Zephyrette, a train hostess, the only female member of the onboard crew for the streamliner known as the California Zephyr. The train was often called the CZ or the Silver Lady, because of its silvery stainless steel cars. It ran from 1949 until 1970, jointly operated by three railroad companies—the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, the Denver & Rio Grande Western, and the Western Pacific.
The first book in the California Zephyr series is called Death Rides the Zephyr. It takes place in December 1952, while the second, Death Deals a Hand, happens a few months later, in April 1953. By the time The Ghost in Roomette Four leaves the station, summer has rolled around and it’s July 1953.
The series features a specific historic train linked with a female protagonist who is a train crew member rather than a passenger—at time when working for the railroad was primarily a man’s job and a man’s world. That’s what first attracted me. When I found out about Zephyrettes, I knew I had to write a book with a Zephyrette sleuthing on the train and solving crimes.
I am having fun with the early 1950s setting, researching fashions, hair styles, figuring out what movies were showing at the local picture palace, the music my characters enjoyed, and what books and magazines they would read. I’m also looking at the cars my characters would drive and what was in the newspapers of the time, whether news of international and national importance, or something local.
It’s a time when memories of the Korean War, World War II and the Great Depression are still fresh in people’s memories. It’s the era of postwar prosperity in the United States, yet a time when casual racism directed at the mostly African American porters was common. In the 1950s, women married young and it was unusual for young women like Jill to have careers. In fact, in the third book, Jill is feeling the subtle pressure to get married—and she finds she doesn’t like it. She enjoys riding the rails and she’s not yet ready to settle down.
For the mystery reader who enjoys transportation linked with murder, there are lots of train books out there. Certainly we think of Agatha Christie, Jill’s favorite mystery writer. Murder on the Orient Express and The Mystery of the Blue Train both feature Hercule Poirot. And 4:50 from Paddington involves Miss Marple in a murder aboard a train. There’s also Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, the movie version released in 1951.
Here’s a link to a blog post about mysteries set on trains, though it’s several years out of date.
It lists a great many train books. Since the list provided on this blog is several years old, I’m sure readers could add more. My latest discovery is Barbara Nickless, whose series, set in contemporary Denver, features a railroad special agent, Sydney Rose Parnell and a K9 partner named Clyde. The books are Blood on the Tracks and Dead Stop. Her website is at http://www.barbaranickless.com/
Here’s hoping you’ll buy a ticket on the California Zephyr, my fictional version, and enjoy the adventures of my sleuthing Zephyrette.
Marilyn Monroe singing Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which opened in July 195. Jill and her boyfriend are planning to see this movie.
Percy Faith Orchestra playing Where is Your Heart, the popular song from the 1952 move Moulin Rouge. This is the song playing at the restaurant where Jill has lunch with her friend Tidsy.
Fifties fashions and hairdos:
The poodle cut, called the style that defined the 1950s:
Some illustrations of the popular full skirt and pencil skirt:
Good clothing photos here:
Some of the clothes that Jill might have worn:
profile of Zephyrette Nellie O’Grady from the Saturday Evening Post in 1955 has some good photos of a working Zephyrette:
This is part of the website called the Virtual California Zephyr Museum, which has lots of photos and advertising brochures.