Writing the Season

Suddenly it’s December. Holidays. I celebrate, and so do my characters.

Death Rides the Zephyr, the first in the series featuring Zephyrette Jill McLeod, takes place in late December 1952. Jill is leaving Oakland on December 22. The eastbound run of the sleek train known as the California Zephyr is heading for Chicago, due to arrive Christmas Eve. Jill will have a layover in the Windy City, spending Christmas in a hotel rather than with her family. Before Jill leaves, her parents and siblings give her presents, including the latest Agatha Christie book (a Christie for Christmas!).

Her father tucks money in her new wallet. “So you can have a nice Christmas dinner while you’re in Chicago,” he said. “Go to the Pump Room. Your mother and I ate there once, before the war, and it was a real treat.”

When I researched the book, I learned that the Zephyrettes—train hostesses—would have parties for children traveling on the trains, especially during holidays. In keeping with that real life tradition, my fictional Zephyrette Jill hosts a mid-afternoon Christmas party in the train’s dining car. She’s picked up Christmas stockings and candy at Woolworth’s. Now she enlists the help of passenger Mike Scolari, a WWII veteran, to stuff the stockings.

Mike roots around in the bag of goodies and finds:

“Hey, Hershey’s Kisses. My favorite. Did you know there was a shortage of Hershey’s Kisses during the war?”

“Yes, and I really missed them.” Jill loved Hershey’s Kisses, and the little chocolate candies had been in short supply during and just after the war. Rationing of raw materials during that time meant no aluminum foil for the wrappers.

I discovered that tidbit during my research into what brands of candy were popular in the early 1950s. I had to use it!

It’s a great party, by the way. Even the conductor shows up to lead the kids in a chorus of “Jingle Bells.”

But it’s a mystery. It’s winter, the train is traveling through canyons next to a frozen river and rugged mountains covered with snow. A passenger disappears and then Jill finds a body in a sleeper car. We’re into murder-on-the-train territory. Even though Jill’s favorite Christie sleuth is Miss Marple, she will have to use her little gray cells to catch the killer.

One of my Jeri Howard novels features a different take on the holidays. Jeri is an Oakland private investigator. In Nobody’s Child, she looks into a young woman’s death and a child’s disappearance. Jeri feels grumpy, her holiday spirit missing, though she and family members have tickets to a theatrical version of A Christmas Carol. And she winds up seeing the Oakland Ballet version of The Nutcracker twice, which is one time too many. As she puts it, “I’m Nutcrackered out.”

I particularly like a scene where Jeri is in the lower-level lounge of the Paramount Theater in Oakland, where The Nutcracker performances take place: “There seemed to be a large contingent of little girls in frilly dresses and patent leather shoes, pirouetting over the black carpet. One of them grande jettéed right into my shin.”

Jeri searches for information on the dead woman’s past among the East Bay’s homeless community. When she sees A Christmas Carol, the juxtaposition of the homeless people on the streets outside the theater and Dickens’ words ring true—and close to home.

Then there’s this scene, where Jeri visits a house decorated for Christmas:

In the corner at the other end of the sofa, a small pine tree had been festooned with a couple of strands of lights, a meager collection of glass balls, and some homemade decorations, colorful construction paper loops, and popcorn chains made of popped kernels strung on thread. I saw a gray-and-brown striped tomcat sitting on the sofa arm, a blissed-out expression on his face as he gnawed at the popcorn. He’d already managed to pick clean several strands of the chain.

Toward the end of the book, Jeri tracks down Terry Lampert, looking for information on a homeless man who calls himself Rio. Lampert, who knows Rio from their shared past, says he gave Rio a ride. Why? Jeri asks.

“You ever see White Christmas?” he asked. Then he smiled. “Of course you have. Everybody’s seen White Christmas. You remember that scene early on when Danny Kaye asks Bing Crosby why they’re gonna see the sister act? Ol’ Bing says, ‘Let’s just say we’re doing it for a pal in the Army.’”

“And Danny Kaye says, ‘It’s a reason. It’s not a good one, but it’s a reason.’” I smiled back at Lampert. “Is that the only reason?”

The man opposite me shrugged. “It’s a little bit of, there for the grace of God. If I hadn’t met my wife, that could be me, living on the streets.”

It’s a mystery, right? And Jeri’s going to get to the bottom of things. She finds the people she’s looking for, solves a murder, celebrates Christmas with her father, and spends New Year’s Eve with a new fella.

Whatever holidays you celebrate during this time of year, whether it’s winter solstice, Hannukah or Christmas, may you have companionship, wonderful things to eat, and hopes for the future.

8 thoughts on “Writing the Season

  1. I love all the books about Jill in the Zephyr series. I read them all in a short period of time, and I’m waiting for more to come. I’m not patient at all, please hurry Janet.


  2. Fun post! I enjoy your Jeri Howard mysteries and haven’t made it to that one yet, but I’m going to purchase it today. And I hate to admit, I haven’t started your Zephyr series, but every time you talk about them it reminds me, I need to get that series started, too. Thanks for the reminder and good books!


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