Wednesday, January 4, 2017

An Interview with Mary Miley by E. B. Davis

We all had secrets we didn’t want broadcast to the world—I myself
was a swindler and a bastard and had spent some time in jail for theft—so
I appreciated the virtues of a closed mouth.
Mary Miley, Renting Silence (Loc 1166)

Can 1920's script girl Jessie do Mary Pickford's bidding and uncover a real killer?

When Jessie is asked by her idol, the famous actress Mary Pickford, if she can do some private investigating for her, Jessie reluctantly accepts. A girl was found stabbed in her bedroom with another woman lying unconscious on the floor next to her, a bloody knife in her hand. With no police investigation into the murder, it’s up to Jessie to hone her amateur detective skills and prove the girl[’]s innocence before she hangs for murder.

For older readers or historical enthusiasts, Mary Miley’s 1920s Hollywood series teases memories. Stars from our grandparents’ era come to life and test our knowledge. We know of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolph Valentino, but who is Leslie Hope? The names in Renting Silence begged research. Perhaps I had known that American comedian and icon Bob Hope started his career as Leslie and was born in England. But I didn’t know that the studio formed by Pickford and Fairbanks became United Artists in later years. In an era when most women couldn’t obtain a mortgage without having a husband, Pickford, America’s Sweetheart, takes on a much greater role than movie star.

I usually start reading a series at its beginning. For this interview I did not, but I wish I had. There are aspects of main character, Jessie Beckett’s life that were alluded to in Renting Silence, the third book in this series, that I wanted to explore and assume were contained in previous books. What I didn’t expect? Murder motives change with the mores of the times. For a mystery reader, that’s refreshing. I enjoyed reading this book, which took me away from the 21st century and plunked me down into the roaring twenties.

Please welcome Mary Miley to WWK.                                                                          E. B. Davis

Your research for this series must have been extensive. Did you use all secondary sources, or did you have an opportunity to interview any of the stars’ younger associates or relations of this era?

I love doing research! No surprise there—I’m a historian—but because of that, I understand the limits of secondary sources, which is why I rely so heavily on primary sources. I’m particularly fond of autobiographies by people who lived during this era and photographs of places, people, and events. I make it a point to track down novels written during the Twenties—and not just famous ones like The Great Gatsby—so I can get a feel for the language and vocabulary of the time. Especially helpful are the Beatrice Burton novels (chick lit, we’d call ‘em today) that provided a treasure trove of detail on fashion, food, cars, train travel, and other features of daily life you’d never find in history books.

But one of my most valuable primary sources is silent movies. I started ordering them through Netflix and quickly learned a lot about the mundane details of daily life and film production that don’t appear anywhere else. What sort of things? What offices, stores, and hospitals looked like, how to make a telephone call from a hotel, what a typical telephone operator wore to work, and whether a policeman’s badge in those years included his name (It did not).

Another primary source is the material culture of the era. Stuff. I collect antique vaudeville programs and magazine advertisements, which have been singularly helpful in portraying life in the Twenties. So are doctors’ prescriptions for medicinal alcohol, which I also collect. And how did I know how Jessie’s flapper dress was so very heavy? I have two beaded flapper dresses that date from 1925—they belonged to my grandmother—and boy, do they weigh a ton!

How do you know what research to include and what to discard?

When you immerse yourself in a certain period as thoroughly as I have and for as many years as I have, you get a feel for what’s dodgy and what’s accurate. For instance, I find online lists of slang terms (secondary sources) that were supposedly used in the Roaring Twenties . . . fine, but used by whom? Gangsters or office girls? Black or white? Rich or poor? I’ve never seen some of these slang words used in the books I read that were written in those years (primary sources). So I don’t trust the lists. I always opt for primary sources over secondary, and that keeps me pretty accurate.

Does research give you ideas for plots?

Sure! For example, the general plot for Silent Murders is based on the unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor, a powerful Hollywood director, in 1922. The chaos and botched investigation surrounding his death provided inspiration for my own story. In Renting Silence, Jessie’s interaction with the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana was inspired by the true story of Madge Oberholtzer who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in 1925 by the head of the Klan in Indiana.

Silent film stars like Mary Pickford served as 1920s fashion icons.
Prior to the 1920s, women’s attire restricted their self-defense, which we find Jessie needs. After women attained the right to vote, Mary Pickford led the way in changing women’s fashion. There were other female stars during this era—Clara Bow, Dolores del Rio, Greta Garbo. Why did you choose Pickford as Jessie’s mentor?   

I chose Mary Pickford because she had some important characteristics in common with my fictional protagonist, Jessie—both had been raised on the stage, never attended school, and lived hard, gypsy lifestyles where they were often hungry, poor, and lonely. This commonality gives them a reason to bond. In addition, Mary Pickford was such a remarkable person—she virtually invented film acting (as opposed to stage acting), was the first mega-star and the richest woman in the world, and was much, much more than a great actor. She had a brain for business that astounded her male counterparts. She and three men started United Artists and made it a success when the film world scoffed that actors didn’t have the intelligence for that sort of thing. And besides, Pickford was a good, kind person who never forgot her origins and treated others with respect. She’s been largely forgotten, which is too bad because she would make a good role model for Hollywood actors today.

Like today, technology drove social media. Did the advent of the railroad provide the circuit for vaudeville?

It’s no coincidence that vaudeville started up in the 1880s, a time when railroads were being built like crazy throughout the country, especially in the West. Before that time, a traveling show, like a circus or minstrel show, would have moved from town to town by horse and wagon. Railroads allowed vaudeville performers to “jump” to the next city (that was the word they used) within a few hours.

After Jessie inventories the victim’s effects, she finds an old vaudeville program listing acts for a show. After exhausting other clues, she travels in the vaudeville circuit, thinking it has a connection to the murder, to track down the acts listed on the program. How does Jessie have personal knowledge of vaudeville?

You need to read the first book, The Impersonator! That’s where you’ll learn that Jessie grew up in vaudeville. Jessie was the illegitimate child of a vaudeville singer. Orphaned at 12 when her mother died, Jessie had to make her own way from an early age. Vaudeville became her family. But at 25, she aged out of her kiddie roles and failed to find a new act, so she accepted a dicey offer from a con man to impersonate a missing heiress for a cut of her fortune. After that fiasco, she needed to get out of town, so to speak, so she took a lowly job at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios as an assistant script girl and settled down in one place for the first time in her life. That’s in book #2, Silent Murders.  

In vaudeville, talent and the popularity of acts were more important than sex, race, or class. Was vaudeville a mixing bowl?

Totally. Vaudeville performers were disproportionately made up of Jews, gays, African Americans, women, Asians, Irish, and immigrants. It was probably the only place in America where talent trumped race, gender, or ethnicity. That’s why Jessie can be unprejudiced at a time when society at large was extremely bigoted. She grew up in an environment where people were judged on their abilities, so that is her worldview.

David Carr, Jessie’s boyfriend, earns money through bootlegging. We find Jessie has a few character blemishes, too, but now that she has a steady job, she admonishes David for illegal activity. Isn’t this hypocritical?

David certainly thinks so, doesn’t he? Yes, and she recognizes her own hypocrisy, but she’s gone straight, and she wants him to follow the same path. He sort of does . . . and sort of doesn’t. It remains to be seen whether these two will get together. I can’t decide.

I didn’t know that there were several means for people to obtain booze legally during Prohibition. Would you enlighten our readers?

Oh, my, I sometimes give a 45-minute lecture on the weird-but-true things you never knew about Prohibition, and it focuses on all the ways people could legally obtain alcohol. I’ll just share one here: medicinal alcohol. Like medical marijuana today, there was medicinal whiskey. A doctor could write a prescription for it. It usually cost $5 to pay the doctor, then you went to a pharmacy to buy the legal booze. Drug stores sprang up on every street corner to fill the prescriptions. It was big business.

I incorporate many of these into my stories—both legal and illegal ways people obtained alcohol. What astounds me is the level of hypocrisy during this era, when you have politicians voting dry (against alcohol) and then sneaking booze into the Senate and House chambers of Congress; or when a judge sentences an old woman to prison for bootlegging and then walks to the nearest speakeasy for a drink; or when farmers as a group supported Prohibition but lobbied for (and won) an exemption for themselves to continue to make hard cider. 

Based on 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, Jessie figures wrong that the Ku Klux Klan is a decent, patriotic organization. But her association with Negros on a train labels her a “nigger lover” with the Klan members who accost the travelers. Jessie is not naïve. Was the Klan viewed in such a virtuous way then?

Many viewed the Klan as virtuous. The KKK was officially anti-alcohol, pro-American, anti-immigrant, and made up of church-going men who enjoyed family picnics and upheld the honor of women. They believed Catholics were dangerous to the country’s independence, Jews were involved in international plots to rule the world, and blacks were inherently inferior. Sometimes all the men in town belonged to the Klan, respectable men: policemen, firemen, teachers, the mayor. 

Jessie knew the Klan was dangerous from her association with Jewish, Catholic, black, and immigrant vaudeville performers. She merely remarked that when she was younger and saw The Birth Of A Nation (1915), she originally thought the Klan was a decent organization because it is depicted that way in the movie. Fellow performers told her otherwise, and her experience in Indiana showed her first-hand how very dangerous the Klan could be.

You’ve dedicated the book to Madge Oberholtzer. Who was she, and why did you dedicate the book to her?

Madge Oberholtzer was a young teacher in Indiana during the 1920s. The Grand Dragon (leader) of the huge Indiana KKK met her at a reception and developed what we would today call an obsession with her, asking her to dinner numerous times. She refused, he persisted, she gave in, and they saw each other several times before she ended the relationship. Unable to accept rejection and convinced his powerful position in the Klan put him above the law, he kidnapped her, raped, and tortured her. She drank poison to kill herself. His men dumped her, barely alive, on her parent’s porch, thinking she was as good as dead. Courageously, she managed to cling to life long enough to give testimony that convicted him of rape and 2nd-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. The people of Indiana were outraged and horrified—entire KKK lodges resigned in disgust. Membership in the Indiana KKK declined to almost zero.

Jessie and David concoct a plan to get the suspect to confess using “new” technology, the Vitaphone, which used wax discs to record the confession. Recording sound wasn’t a problem even in the early twenties, but films were silent. What was the problem and what technology solved it?

Sound recording was invented in the 1880s, so by 1925, when my story takes place, it was nothing new. The problem with developing talking pictures was synchronizing the sound with the film. You know how irritating it is to watch people talking when their mouths don’t move in time to their words, right? That was what film studios were struggling with during the Roaring Twenties. They finally developed a workable system in the late 1920s. The Jazz Singer of 1927 is considered the first true talkie.

Why did “talkies” eliminate many silent film stars?

Acting without your voice requires different skills than acting with speech. The genius of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford was their ability to connect with audiences through their facial expressions and body language alone. When “talkies” came in, few actors made the transition. One problem was that many were foreign-born. The audiences didn’t realize they couldn’t speak English or spoke with heavy accents. And few had had stage experience, which meant they never learned how to project their voices. Some had unsuitable or unpleasant sounding voices. But not all silent film stars failed in talkies—Greta Garbo was a huge success in both media.

You have many writing credits, but many are of nonfiction articles. What drew you to mystery, and do you have any advice for unpublished mystery writers?

I am a historian and spent the first 30 years of my career writing magazine articles and nonfiction books, most on history, travel, and business topics. In my 50s, I was seized with the urge to try something different. Because I enjoyed reading mysteries (the first chapter books I read as a child were the Nancy Drew books), I thought I’d try writing one. The Impersonator won the 2012 award for Best First Crime Novel and was published the next year, however, that wasn’t really my first attempt. I’d written at least 7 other complete novels before I managed to produce one that was good enough for publication. Writing nonfiction is very different from writing fiction, and it took me years to teach myself. Not everyone takes as long as I did!!

My advice for yet-to-be-published mystery writers is to be realistic. Your first completed manuscript is not likely to be good enough for publication. Neither is your second. The best way to get honest feedback is to join a critique group. One that includes at least a few successful published writers is optimal. How to find such a thing? Most writers groups can help. I’m a member of Sisters in Crime (national and local chapter), Mystery Writers of America (national and local chapter), and James River Writers (a central Virginia group). I meet other writers through those groups and have formed two critique groups that help me immensely.

What’s next for Jessie Beckett?

The fourth in the series comes out next year. I’m working with the editor on it now. The title is probably going to be Murder In Disguise, and it features Jessie and some other familiar characters, plus a new one that fascinated me so much I had to rein her in to make sure she didn’t take over the plot! I’ve started on the fifth book and am thinking it might be the last for that series. I’ve begun another series set in Chicago with different characters.

Are you a beach or a mountain fan, Mary?

Gee . . . that’s a toughie. I’m afraid I’m pulled between the two! We’re definitely beach lovers—we have a house at Virginia Beach that we enjoy during warm weather months. But we also love hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and we are owners of a winery in that part of Virginia. Valley Road Vineyards ( has an old 1850s farmhouse on the property where we can stay (it's kind of like camping) when we want to hike the mountain trails in the area. So, the answer is, both.                      


Jim Jackson said...

It’s a fascinating period you have chosen: in many ways, very similar to today. Do you find those similarities shape your stories?

~ Jim

Kait said...

Amazing story. The period is fascinating. Full of yeast, possibilities, and devastation. What more could a writer want? Mary Pickford was an amazing woman, but it is unfair to style her as ahead of her time. She was very much in a position to epitomize her time, her visibility and celebrity gave her a platform to demonstrate a lot of what the era was about for many women. When Pickford teamed with Fairbanks... well, it was a match made in heaven.

Looking forward to reading Renting Silence.

KM Rockwood said...

Thanks for sharing your comments with us. The intensive research you've done will bring a authenticity to your work that makes for a great story.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Great concept and fascinating characters. Thanks for visiting at WWK.

Gloria Alden said...

Welcome to WWK, I loved your maple syrup series and look forward to reading this next one.

Shari Randall said...

Hi Mary! I just watched Singing in the Rain, which deals so humorously with the switch to talkies. I can't wait to pick up your books - the time period fascinates me - as does Mary Pickford and those other early screen actresses. Best wishes with this series and with your new one.

Anonymous said...

You're right, Jim, the 1920s are very similar to today and the similarities have definitely changed my thinking on several subjects. The issue of prohibition of alcohol is the same as prohibition of drugs. The arguments they used back then are the same as we use today--just substitute the word marijuana for alcohol. There was medical liquor, like medical marijuana. There was the involvement of gangsters and smuggling; both liquor and alcohol are/were easy to get; politicians in both eras showed no backbone in dealing with the issue and were in fact hypocritically voting one way and indulging the other way. My own view about legalizing marijuana has changed. I now support legalization because I've learned from history that regulation is better than prohibition.

Anonymous said...

Gloria . . . wait, what? My maple syrup series? I did write a nonfiction magazine article about the history of maple syrup in 2012 (you can read it at but I never wrote a series. Are you confusing me with another author?

Gloria Alden said...

Well wrong person, sorry. But I have read your The Impersonator and loved it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! It was fun to write.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Fascinating time period with relevance to current times, compelling characters, all stitched together with comprehensive research. Can't wait to start reading!

Grace Topping said...

Welcome back to WWK, Mary. Your first two books were delightful and I look forward to reading your new release.

E. B. Davis said...

Thanks for the interview, Mary. I learned so much about the 1920s, movie technology, the KKK, and Mary Pickford. As a historian, you made this series shine. Come back and see us again.