In 1920s Galveston, society reporter Jazz Cross is in for a surprise when she attends a traveling vaudeville show with her beau, Prohibition Agent James Burton, and discovers that an old flame acts in the production. That night, they find a stabbing victim behind the Oasis — her half-brother Sammy’s speakeasy — who’s identified as an actor in the troupe. When the victim disappears and later turns up dead, Jazz must help prove that Sammy wasn’t the killer. After a second vaudeville actor is found murdered, Jazz discovers that the events behind the scenes are much more interesting than the outdated acts onstage. To make matters worse, Sammy’s old nemesis demands that he settles a score and forces him into yet another illegal scheme involving the troupe’s money-making ventures. Can Jazz help solve the murders and prove her brother’s innocence—so he can escape the Downtown Gang for good? Vamps, Villains and Vaudeville is a historical Jazz Age mystery inspired by real-life Galveston gangs and local landmarks.
“Please take your seats. The Villains, Vixens and Varmints Vaudeville Show is about to begin.” The master of ceremonies’ mellifluous voice boomed across Martini Theatre, and lights dimmed as a uniformed usher escorted me and Agent Burton to our front-row seats.
The society editor—my boss, Mrs. Harper—snagged two front-and-center seats to Friday night’s opening performance. No doubt the traveling troupe expected the Galveston Gazette (rather, me) to give them a rave review.
Well, we’d see if this dog-and-pony show lived up to its billing, literally. The MC gave a short introduction and a chubby clown paraded onstage with a spotted pony, a small terrier-mix perched atop its back. When the clown tried to coax the pup to stand on its hind legs, the spunky mutt refused to cooperate, while the audience laughed with glee….
I’d tried to beg off this assignment, but my boss always found a way to make me work until the last minute. “Vaudeville is so old hat,” I protested. “Wouldn’t you rather attend? It’s right up your alley.”
“What do you mean by that, young lady?” Mrs. Harper eyed me under her wide-brimmed floral Edwardian bonnet. “Are you implying that I’m an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, not as modern as you young flappers?”
Yes, that’s exactly what I meant. “Not at all. I thought you’d enjoy the show more since I prefer moving pictures. I can’t wait to see The Jazz Singer!”
“Take your young man and have a good time. Besides, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
My young man? She made Agent Burton sound like a pet Scottie.
Sure, I was sweet on him, despite my mixed feelings: Did I really want to date a Federal officer with such a dangerous occupation? As the lone Prohibition agent in the “Free State of Galveston”—where mobsters mingled with police and politicians—I worried his days might be numbered. The Treasury Department could ship Burton off to a new town on an even riskier assignment. Worse, Galveston gangsters could gun him down any moment, just for doing his job.
During intermission, the MC announced a last-minute replacement for Dan Dastardly in the closing act. After the break, “Milo the Magician” took the stage, elegant in a tux, top hat and white gloves, and performed his requisite card tricks and rabbit in the hat….
The final act highlighted a short scene from The Perils of Pauline, featuring a dastardly villain wearing a black mask and cape trying to kidnap helpless, hapless Pauline. Twirling his handlebar moustache, the evil masked man tied poor Pauline to a tree while the Tom Mix character managed to chase off the villain, and rescue his beloved damsel-in-distress. Yes, the act was so corny and hammy that it was comical, but I enjoyed the melodrama of it all.
After the show, the performers gathered on stage, and as each act stepped forward to take their separate bows, the applause grew louder. When the Perils of Pauline actors appeared, the audience stood up, clapping wildly and cheering as the performers grinned and waved. Seems I was wrong about vaudeville: The appreciative audience gave all the actors a standing ovation.
Strange, I noticed the villain smiling at me from his vantage point onstage—or was he? Surely I imagined it…until he took off his hat and held it out to me like a rose, or a bribe. Then he gave me a bold wink—right in front of Agent Burton. Blushing, I did a double-take: Was the villain flirting with me? Or did he know I worked for the Gazette?
“Looks like the mystery man has his eye on you,” Burton teased. “Should I be jealous?”
“Dan Dastardly?” I laughed it off. “He must want a mention in the Gazette. You know actors and their egos.”….
As we left, I glanced at the stage and saw the villain staring after us, his arms crossed, looking puzzled. What did he expect—an interview? A bouquet of flowers? My phone number?
Q: Ellen, thanks for stopping by! Tell us about Jazz Cross.
A: Jazz (Jasmine) Cross is a rebellious society reporter determined to make her mark on 1920s Galveston, Texas. Her black-sheep half-brother, Sammy, owns a speakeasy and she’s dating a Prohibition agent, James Burton, and she feels caught between two clashing cultures: the seedy speakeasy underworld and the snooty social circles she covers in the Galveston Gazette. A lot of historical mystery sleuths are wealthy wives or socialites or related to royalty and I wanted to make Jasmine an independent working gal struggling to make ends meet and forge a career in a chauvinistic world—like her heroine, Victorian journalist Nellie Bly.
Q: How much of you is in Jazz? How would you feel about her if you met her in real life?
A: Sure, we do have somewhat similar personality traits since I’m a magazine writer/editor in real life, but I don’t have the stomach for hard news or crime stories. Of course I’d love to meet my characters! I do have a lot of sympathy for Jasmine since I know how it feels to be held back by higher-ups in the working world. You can’t always wait for a boss or someone to “give you permission” to act on your own or follow a lead or accomplish a goal—you might wait forever!
Q: Do your characters change and evolve throughout consecutive books in the series?
A: Yes, I’m trying to show that Jazz becomes more confident and fearless, willing to stand up to her opponents and face danger without backing down. Also the men in her life, including the newspaper editor and her Prohibition Agent beau, are softening their stance on working women and giving her more room to grow.
Q: Have you ever thought of killing someone that you know in real life–on the pages of a murder mystery, I mean?
A: Tempting—I’m afraid they’d recognize themselves! So far, I’ve used composite characters with their own personalities.
Q: How realistic is your setting? Do you take liberties, or are you true to life?
A: Since 1920s Galveston was a wild and crazy town in real life, I’ve tried to incorporate actual settings and local landmarks, especially ones that are still standing. Sadly, many places mentioned were destroyed by hurricanes or—in the case of the speakeasies—shut down by Federal agents and/or Texas Rangers.
Q: When the movie or TV series is made, who plays the major parts?
A: What a fun question! I’d love Jon Hamm or Matt Bomer to play Sammy, Ryan Gosling to play Agent Burton. For Amanda, maybe Jennifer Lawrence. Jasmine is harder to figure out… she has wavy dark hair and blue eyes—perhaps a cross between a Myrna Loy and Agent Carter type (feisty though not as fearless).
Q: What’s the worst and best advice you’ve heard or received as an author?
A: Best advice? I once heard that it’s a good idea to read dialogue out loud to see if it sounds natural—and it works. Also to wait a few days or weeks to edit your novel so you get a new perspective.
Worst: Glue the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair. You get a lot of back aches that way! I’ve found that if I’m stuck, it helps to engage is some sort of physical exercise or mindless activity to keep your ideas fresh. I’ve gotten lots of ideas while brainstorming with my husband or friends at an outdoor café. I hate to be cooped up and only write when I see a scene or chapter unfold in my head. More fun and less frustrating than staring at a blank computer screen.
Also I tend not to outline my books in advance though I do have a general idea of overall plot. You miss a lot of possibilities if you stick to a rigid plot—I always work a few chapters ahead and jot down brief notes and ideas as I go along. Sometimes I get inspired by a new plot twist and keep writing to see where my characters take me. If I’m surprised by my storyline, I think my readers will be too!
About The Author
Ellen Mansoor Collier is a Houston-based freelance magazine writer and editor whose articles and essays have been published in a variety of national magazines. Several of her short stories have appeared in Woman’s World. During college summers, she worked as a reporter for a Houston community newspaper and as a cocktail waitress, both jobs providing background experience for her Jazz Age mysteries.
A flapper at heart, she’s worked as a magazine editor/writer, and in advertising and public relations (plus endured a hectic semester as a substitute teacher). She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Magazine Journalism and served on UTmost, the college magazine and as president of WICI (Women in Communications).
FLAPPERS, FLASKS AND FOUL PLAY is her first novel, published in 2012, followed by the sequel, BATHING BEAUTIES, BOOZE AND BULLETS, released in May 2013. She lives in Houston with her husband and Chow mutts, and visits Galveston whenever possible.
“When you grow up in Houston, Galveston becomes like a second home. I had no idea this sleepy beach town had such a wild and colorful past until I began doing research, and became fascinated by the legends and stories of the 1920s. Finally I had to stop researching and start writing, trying to imagine a flapper’s life in Galveston during Prohibition.”
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