Gangsters and Prohibition: Lillian in the Doorway and 1920s Lore Part One

lillian with shoes copyBefore and during the writing of the 1924 romance novel Lillian in the Doorway, I did much research and much consideration on how much to include in the story. I knew the focus had to remain on the romance between Lillian and Jens. Still that romance was nurtured and grew within the plot and setting of the book.

The 1920s was a rich period of time, touched by the aftermath of WWI (or the Great War as it was known then), Prohibition, and the Suffragette movement. The evolution of transportation in the automobile, railroad, and electric streetcars revolutionized travel, cities and trade. The advent of telephones and radios delivered another revolution in communication, entertainment, and social mores. Yet within this maelstrom of change, men and women still worked, loved, and sought a balm of peace.

I wanted to share some of this research because it’s really fascinating. I loved looking into WWI shellshock victims. It gave me a new perspective on those who suffer with PTSD now. And it affected at least one of my characters in Lillian. I was surprised to learn about the red line, electric streetcars, that ran not that many blocks from my house. A wonderful way for my four Americanization teachers to travel between their boardinghouse to the orange ranches.

I watched a score of movies filmed in the 20s, immersing myself in language and gestures.

But to the subject at hand … Prohibition gave rise to bootleggers and crime syndicates. Since Lillian fled Chicago after her private detective boss was shot by a politician with ties to the mob, I salted in some details about the syndicate to add some verisimilitude to the narrative. I used Google, Wikipedia, read fiction set in that time period like Mary Castillo’s Lost in the Light, and a wonderful book “Prohibition Madness: Life AND Death in and Around Long Beach, California, 1920-1933” by Claudine Burnett. Hours of reading went into this teeny bit in Lillian in the Doorway:

I’ve heard rumors of Theodore Caldwell and the Chicago Outfit. He’s had breakfast with Hymie Weiss, got his hooch from Torrio before Johnny retired, and Frankie Yale sends him cigars for his birthdays and Christmas.

My hero originally came from Pittsburgh via Heidelberg and Berlin. So I did a spot of research on crime syndicates in Pittsburgh too. I’d done extensive research for the murder of a bootlegger in The Admiral of Signal Hill set in 1922 the previous year, I skimmed those pages to add any local touches I needed for Lillian.

kenbrunsprohibitionI shouldn’t finish my research summary of Gangsters and Prohibition without mentioning Ken Burn’s documentary Prohibition. I discovered there the origins of the bootlegger term, statistics about drinking during that period and earlier, and the mayhem on city streets caused by both Prohibition and gangsters. Check it out!

Last weekend in an Andalusia, Alabama coffeeshop, a man told me that the town created whisky for the Chicago syndicate during the 1920’s. Interesting how we find gems of information, eh? And that lead me to reading 1915 court documents in the Southern Reporter. Can’t stop the signal!

Note: Lillian in the Doorway by Michelle Dutton will be offered for $1 off till August 14, 2016.

Happy reading!

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About mlknowlden

In 2011, I left engineering to write full-time. Between the years 1992 and 2011, I’ve published 14 stories with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that have featured the hypochondriac detective Micky Cardex and two stories that did not. The 1998 story “No, Thank You, John” was nominated for a Shamus award. Many of these stories have been included in anthologies and translated in multiple languages. With Neal Shusterman, I’ve also published a science fiction story for the More Amazing Stories anthology (Tor) published in 1998 and co-authored with Neal Shusterman an X-Files Young Adult novel (DARK MATTER) for HarperCollins in 1999 under the name Easton Royce. For Simon & Schuster in July 2012, we published an e-novella UNSTRUNG in Neal's UNWIND world. I have graduate degrees in English and Electrical Engineering.
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2 Responses to Gangsters and Prohibition: Lillian in the Doorway and 1920s Lore Part One

  1. Kaye Klem says:

    Michelle– Fascinating stuff. The only hotel in the small town I was born in–far from Chicago–was built by moonshine profits by bootleggers. My grandfather was for a time a Prohibition agent who shot it out with bootleggers in the woods in the area where they had distilleries [if that is the right term/or stills?]. The booze was then run up to Chicago to make it a Toddling Town. I’ve sometimes thought of a novel set in Twenties Chicago. Just not enough to do it…

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