Susanna Calkins
Submitted photo
Susanna Calkins Submitted photo

Prohibition ended about 70 years before Susanna Calkins joined the faculty at Northwestern University, but in Chicago she noticed it still had a presence. “I was always struck by how ‘lived’ Prohibition Chicago still is. Everyone seems to have a prohibition story. 'My grandmother was a rumrunner off Lake Michigan.'  'My great-uncle used to cut Al Capone’s hair.' So it was not too hard of a stretch to want to write [a novel] set in this era of flappers, cocktails and gangsters,” said Ms. Calkins. 

After writing four historical mysteries set in 17th-century London, a focus of her studies in graduate school, Ms. Calkins was asked by her publisher to write a new series. She chose to set it during Prohibition. 

“When I was first thinking about writing the book that became “Murder Knocks Twice,” [her first Prohibition book], I had originally set it in Evanston in 1930. Because I teach the History and Philosophy of Higher Education, I was interested in setting the book on a college campus, especially as I learned about women who attended college back then. And even though Evanston was a dry county, I still created a speakeasy for it. Gina was in my book, as the roommate of my original protagonist.”

“However, I started realizing that Gina was a more snappy, scrappy character who became the protagonist. So I actually ended up tossing the Northwestern/Evanston connection and moving the whole book to Chicago’s West Side, and one year earlier [1929] to get the last glittery year of the Roaring 20s. But I did spend a lot of time working in Northwestern’s archives, reading through the Northwestern Daily and the yearbooks, as well as some memorabilia that had been left to the university by Northwestern alumnae. I also did some research at the Evanston History Center. Some of the research is still there, and I think I mention Evanston and Northwestern a few times in my books,” she said.

Ms. Calkins tries to write a few hours on the weekends, in between her kids’ soccer games. Her two sons are 17 and 13 years old. On weekday evenings, she said she might do what she calls “writing-adjacent” work, which includes researching/reading (1929 editions of Chicago Daily Tribune), promotional work (writing short articles for different outlets), and events with libraries, book stores, book clubs. “I often have events on the weekend too. When I get closer to my deadline I usually start writing more in the evenings by necessity too,” she said.

I used the Chicago Daily Tribune – I read every edition from 1929 to weave authentic details into my story. I also read through many editions in the 1910s and 1920s to learn more about period slang, fashion, and just fun everyday stuff about speakeasies, cocktails, and entertainment,” said Ms. Calkins. “For instance, she learned tailors sewed secret pockets in clothes so people could hide flasks of bootlegged booze.”

In “Murder Knocks Twice,” Gina Ricci works as a cigarette girl at a speakeasy, The Third Door. While she is fascinated by the colorful characters, she learns the previous cigarette girl disappeared, and shortly after she starts another employee is murdered. 

 

“I viewed Gina as kind of tough, hard worker, but someone who teaches herself photography. She’s not a pushover and is someone who wants to have a good time. She’s not quite as free as some of the other women, who are more carefree flappers, since she is taking care of her ailing father and has to make ends meet,” said Ms. Calkins. “She’s also taught herself how to fix things, because her father can’t do that kind of work for their neighbors anymore. A tough cookie.”

In July, she published her second Prohibition book, “The Fate of a Flapper, which also features Gina Ricci.

While devising a heroine for a murder mystery set in London during the plague and the Great Fire of London in1665-1666, Ms. Calkins did not want her to be from the upper classes.

Lucy Campion begins as a chambermaid for a magistrate, and despite a lack of education, uses her common sense to solve a murder in ”A Murder at Rosamund's Gate.” She has published three more books featuring Lucy Campion, with another due next year.

“I envisioned Lucy as a hard-working servant, probably because I imagine that’s what I would have been had I been alive in the 17th century,” she said.

“I have Lucy learning to read and write by listening to scholars tutor the magistrate’s daughter. I thought it would be more interesting to have Lucy not overly educated, but having to piece together clues the best she could. All over the world there have been cases of people who push against social restrictions to be able to read and write, and I wanted Lucy to be one of them,” said Ms. Calkins. “She ends up working for a printer in the next books, even writing anonymous penny pieces.”