Well, sure! We know the difference! One story is in the past. Duh!
No. Wait a minute! That is not all there is to this comparison! ! I have a cozy mystery series that takes place in the late 1930s, in Boston. Let’s just look at a few things!
Communication: Nowadays, the sleuth can quickly find information. She can look it up on goggle, she can Facebook clues. If worse comes to worse, she can make a phone call, no matter where she is. If she finds a clue, she can call up her friends to come to wherever she is and see the clue, also. (Since such a large proportion of sleuths in cozy mysteries are women, I am using the female pronoun. Sorry, guys!) Not in 1939. Looking for clues was much more time consuming. Listening to radio broadcasts would be exhausting, waiting for the few minutes of news on the hour and half hour. The other option was waiting for the morning or evening newspaper, delivered to almost every home. For public information, the library or the newspaper archive office could help you find an article, assuming the sleuth has that much time. Finding a clue and notifying friends, or help, would involve looking for a bar or a drugstore that had a public phone (in a little booth with glass doors) and, maybe, waiting in line for the next available booth. The other possibility would be to go home and, if lucky, the sleuth has a phone. Can you even describe a phone from the 1930s?
But what about phone numbers? In today’s phones are all the users contact numbers. And, if the user needs an unknown number, they can look it up right on the phone. My sister sleuths have to pull out the oversized Boston phone directory and dial in each digit separately. Of course, the pay phone must be fed its nickel before anything rings through. What places already had dial phones and what places only had four-digit numbers that you had to read out to the operator?
Travel: The one thing that hasn’t changed too much from the 1930s. Cars, planes, buses, taxis. All are available now, and then, too. My sleuths are lucky enough to have their own car. And live within a short walking distance of downtown Boston. Having a cozy mystery in 1930s Texas or Oklahoma would be difficult for no other reason than the roads were awful and the public transportation didn’t exist.
Writing: People, now, can keep notes on their phones. If not that, they can grab their 99-cent ballpoint pen and a piece of paper and write down what they want. Ballpoint pens did not exist until the end of WWII. Everyone used pencils or fountain pens. Cartridges for fountain pens did not come out til the early 50s. And refilling a pen with ink half-way through recording clues was limiting. Did everyone carry a bottle of ink in their purses? There were not any zip lock bags to avoid spills!
Finding places: We all use GPS now to find our way around. And sleuths of cozy mysteries tend to live in small towns where they know where everything is. Boston, where my sleuths live, is the exception. They need maps to find all the streets. Remember those?
Being dressed for sleuthing: People wear anything they want, now. Jeans, sweats, dresses, heels, sneakers …. But, if you are following a perpetrator, even if following by car, you want to be dressed for the chase. Back in the 30s, women dressed for style. And that meant dresses and heels when they went out. That is hardly the outfit for running or climbing over a wall. The “chase” had to be done another way.
Being in a modern-day cozy mystery is much easier for the characters than being in a mystery that has been placed in the past. But writing the historical ones, once you know the limitations, is in some ways more fun.
In the current Hadley Sisters Mystery series, which takes place in the late 1930s, the sisters have run into organized crime in every book. Sometimes it has been subtle and sometimes it has been obvious. Whatever way it is seen, the sisters were not surprised. Why? Because there had been mob crime since before they were born. And the sisters were familiar with the newspaper reporting. The only surprise was that the two became involved. Here is the backstory of Boston mob action up until the late 1930s.
The first appearance of criminal mobs in Boston seems to be in the mid-1910s when brothers Frank and Steve Wallace formed a group calling themselves tailboard thieves. These kids started by looting and hijacking trucks that were stopped at street intersections. Apparently, that worked well enough that they added armed robbery to their collection of crimes soon enough. They renamed themselves the Gustin Gang, after a street in Dorchester, a predominantly Irish section. As they grew, the brothers took on a younger brother, Jim, and a few friends.
Meanwhile, in the Italian North End, Gaspare Messina started a group of men bent on crime in 1916. Not too far away, in Providence, Frank Morelli got a group together the next year. They specialized in bootlegging and gambling. They were soon active in Providence, Maine and Connecticut.
The 1920s and early 30s saw a power struggle in Boston, with rival gangs fighting for their piece of the businesses of loan sharking, illegal gambling, bootlegging. Messina stepped down as Mafia boss and worked with Frank Cucchiara and Paolo Pagnotta throughout New England. Filippo Buccola became the Mob boss and Messina became temporary capo in the first few years of the new decade.
Meanwhile, the Gustin Gang expanded their money-making schemes, adding larceny, trespassing, gaming, assault and battery to the bootlegging that the Prohibition had created. The Wallace brothers bought boats so that they could go out into international waters to get the well-selling alcohol. They even impersonated government officials to confiscate alcohol from other rumrunners and sold that, too. An older brother, Samuel, had a bar which they kept supplied.
A young Russian immigrant, Charles Solomon, was controlling the majority of illegal gambling and narcotics sales by the start of the Prohibition, when he expanded his holdings into bootlegging, himself, with partner Dan Carroll. They owned a number of speakeasies including the famous Cocoanut Grove, by 1927, in downtown Boston. He had extensive contacts in Canada, New York and Chicago. Unfortunately, in 1922, Solomon was tried on narcotics charges, but acquitted. He was defended by the famous Grenville MacFarlane, who was a drug abuse crusader, and probably much richer than before the trial. In 1929, Solomon became one of the “Big Seven”, a precursor to the Murder, Inc. franchise of the 1940s and 50s. He was probably the preeminent gangster of Boston.
On December 22, 1931, Frank Wallace and his lieutenant Bernard Walsh, were invited by Joe Lombardo, Buccola’s underboss, to a meeting to discuss the various mob activities and how they could ease rivalries. The two Gustin Gang members walked into an ambush at the CK Importing Company, 319 Hanover St, in the Italian North End. Their murders ended Irish mob preeminence for over thirty years. The Italians had risen to power.
In the 1930s, Frank Buccola and his underboss, Joseph Lombardo, had battled with rivals in Boston and got the power. In 1932, Frank Morelli, the founder of the Providence mob, merged his business with Boston. Buccola became the underboss of the regional mob and continued to have his competition done away with.
Early in January, 1933, Charles Solomon and several others were indicted on charges of operating a liquor smuggling ring. Solomon was murdered, on orders of Buccola, within weeks, at the Cotton Club in Boston. Buccola was now the most powerful gangster in Boston. Another co-conspirator was killed in his home two months later. Hyman Abrams, Solomon’s lieutenant during the Prohibition, soon left the area. He ended up financing Las Vegas casinos with Meyer Lansky and others during the 1950s and 1960s. Solomon’s brothers and several confederates inherited Solomon’s holdings. His lawyer, Barney Walensky, got the Cocoanut Grove. And here is where the Hadley sisters come in.
As I write the cozy mystery series, The Hadley Sisters Mysteries, I ask myself what would the two sisters be doing if they hadn’t gotten themselves into solving crimes. After all, the lifestyle of a Boston Brahmin in the 1930s is certainly not the same as the lifestyle of a workaholic writer of the 2020s. So, I set out to explore what their other options were.
Homemaking: Any decent Boston Brahmin of that era had a cook, a maid and a butler. Depending on the size of the household, they might have had fewer or more, but certainly some. For years, the Hadley household had two daughters and a widowed father who had an important position as a Harvard professor. This meant he wasn’t going to come home and cook. Thus, a cook was needed. The house was a large, three-story townhouse with a detached garage behind the property. The land was minimal. Cars needed constant maintenance back then. The professor had neither the time nor the inclination to take care of his auto between teaching, correcting essays and running the psychology department. He also had many social engagements to take care of. Hence, the organizer and man of all talents, the butler. The maid appeared later, to help the girls learn enough housecleaning to know how to request it.
Buying clothes: Yes, ready-to-wear clothes were popular. And copying the movie stars’ hair and dress were all the rage. But why buy a dress off the rack, when you can simply go to a dressmaker, pick the style and fabric and have a one-of-a-kind outfit, if you don’t mind waiting two weeks? The sisters always looked well dressed.
Hair dressers: The 1930s were a time of the platinum blonde. Young ladies did it in hair salons and often walked out with violent headaches, swollen eyelids and blisters on their foreheads. At home hair bleaching was more dangerous, since the exact amounts of each chemical was mandatory. Kate and Betty were content with their own hair colors, chestnut brown for Kate and golden blonde for Betty. They kept their hair coiffed in the latest style at the salons, without trying to look like Carole Lombard.
Grocery shopping: Cook planned all the meals and the butler, James, did most of the shopping, since he had access to the car. Amazingly, many people did not drive in the 1930s. In Boston, most people took the T (subway system) or walked. Betty was stretching her wings by learning to drive.
Education: Both Betty and Kate attended a finishing school after high school. It was academically and culturally oriented, but not a college. Despite the fact that their father was a professor at Harvard, he was not sure it was worth the money to send his children to a women’s college when the family money would attract suitable suitors. And marriage was the primary goal of rich Bostonian women.
Working in a shop: No Boston Brahmin would be willing to work in a shop. A young lady’s responsibility was to find a good husband. Most shops catered to middle class shoppers, mostly women. How could a rich woman find a husband there? Besides, with the multiple charitable organizations, which were considered desirable for such young ladies to look attractive, the sisters would not be able to get the time off for all that other, non-paying work. Of course, going into shops and buying items was quite acceptable.
Secretarial work: This was a time where many secretaries were still male. The arguments against working are the same as the arguments against working in a shop.
What the two sisters had left was working for charitable organizations, ie, their auction to raise money to finish paying off the new church organ, doing much reading, which they do, anyhow, or getting very creative. Luckily, their curiosity and native intelligence made the decision for them.
HOW EXPENSIVE WAS IT TO GO OUT TO EAT IN THE 1930S?
1930 A survey by the U.S. federal government determines that 38 cents is the average amount paid for lunch in big city commercial eating places across America.
Here are some examples of prices:
1931 Schrafft’s was a chain of moderately priced restaurants along the East Coast. This menu was for the one on Flatbush Ave., NYC: Special Green Vegetable Dinner, 75¢; Minute Steak, $1.25; Chicken Salad, Home Style, 90¢.
1932Pig ‘n Whistle, Los Angeles: 75¢ businessman’s lunch of Charcoal Broiled French Lamb Chops, New Peas, French Fried Potatoes, Fruit Salad, Hot Biscuits, and Coffee, Tea, Milk, or Tomato Juice.
1934 On its August 15 menu Mary Elizabeth’s, a tea room on Fifth Avenue at 36th Street in New York City, offers a Tropical Chicken special with Orange Sections, Pineapple Hollandaise, and New Green Peas for $1.10. A Cream Cheese and Jelly Sandwich is 30 cents, while Iced Watermelon is 20 cents.
1937 Toffenetti’s Triangle Restaurant in the Chicago Loop: “…lean, savory, juicy Hamburger sandwich, With a white crisp slice of Bermuda onion, With a beautiful slice of tomato, With a dessert, With a beverage … All for only 30¢.”
1939 Lunch at a Woolworth’s counter: “Today’s Feature Luncheon 25c – Cubed Minute Steak, Panned Gravy, Sliced Buttered Beets, French Fried Potatoes, Hot Cloverleaf Roll and Butter.”
As you may notice, most of the foods served in these moderately priced restaurants are fairly standard American fare. French and Mexican cuisine was sparse. But I sure would not go out to a tea room in Manhattan to purchase a cream cheese and jelly sandwich!
So, when my heroines in my WIP go out to a diner for coffee (@ $.05) and a scone (@ $.10) and leave two quarters as payment, they left a big tip! 40%!
Even the high prices at the biggest dance studio/restaurant in Boston, the Cocoanut Grove, was a pittance at fifty cents a drink for a standard Manhattan or martini. Of course, the glasses were a little smaller back then. A steak dinner could be had, there, for just over a dollar. And that included sides.