SYNOPSIS: During Prohibition, Galveston Island was called the “Free State of Galveston” due to its lax laws and laissez-faire attitude toward gambling, gals and bootlegging. Young society reporter Jasmine (Jazz) Cross longs to cover hard news, but she’s stuck between two clashing cultures: the world of gossip and glamour vs. gangsters and gamblers.
After Downtown Gang leader Johnny Jack Nounes is released from jail, all hell breaks loose: Prohibition Agent James Burton’s life is threatened and he must go into hiding for his own safety. But when he’s framed for murder, he and Jazz work together to prove his innocence. Johnny Jack blames her half-brother Sammy Cook, owner of the Oasis speakeasy, for his arrest and forces him to work overtime in a variety of dangerous mob jobs as punishment.
When a bookie is murdered, Jazz looks for clues linking the two murders and delves deeper into the underworld of gambling: poker games, slot machines and horse-racing. Meanwhile, Jazz tries to keep both Burton and her brother safe, and alive, while they face off against each other, as well as a common enemy. A soft-boiled mystery inspired by actual events.
MW: Welcome to Cicero's Children, Ellen, and congratulations on the release of GOLD-DIGGERS, GAMBLERS AND GUNS, the third book in your Jazz Age mystery series. We all know that attractive book covers can influence readers’ decisions to sample the work of an author previously unknown to them. I personally love your Art Deco covers. They’re extremely attractive while also being highly suggestive of the era in which you set your stories. Did you design the covers yourself, or hire someone to do them? If you hired someone, please tell us a little about the process of conveying your ideas for the cover to the artist. And please tell us about the switch from the original cover of your first book to the cover now in use.
EMC: Thanks for the nice compliment! I’ve always admired George Barbier’s artwork and I was delighted to find two illustrations that fit the novels’ storyline, the FLAPPERS and GOLD DIGGERS covers. The BATHING BEAUTIES cover is by an unknown Deco artist, but they are all 1920s period art and, luckily, in the public domain. I picked out the fonts for the last two books and my brother, Jeff J. Mansoor, who’s a graphic artist, combined all the elements for me. For FLAPPERS, he found a photograph of a body by a bar that’s perfect—if you look closely, you can see a dead man in the “O.” Some people think I also drew my cover art—I only wish I was that talented!
I found the period photograph of Jasmine and wanted to use it for my print version of FLAPPERS—the old black and white photo was so perfect with her fancy dress, typewriter, candlestick phone and bobbed hair. When I first saw it, I immediately thought, “That’s Jasmine!” Also I searched for vintage postcards of Galveston that Jeff incorporated for the background. Sadly, most of those buildings are no longer standing, but I tried to use as many existing landmarks as possible in my novels.
MW: Your heroine, Jasmine (“Jazz”) Cross, is an ambitious 21-year-old society reporter for the Galveston Gazette. The 19th Amendment granting the vote to women was only ratified in 1920. How did that fact influence your portrayal of Jazz as a woman fighting hard to be taken seriously by her male counterparts at the newspaper?
In my novels, Jazz aspires to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Nellie Bly, who was a fearless female reporter, remarkable for her time. I can relate to Jazz’s character in many ways, especially when I first started working in journalism jobs in my early 20s. Sadly, women still face many of the same prejudices and uphill battles in the workplace today.
MW: Family loyalty ranks high in your portrayal of the relationship between Jazz and her half-brother Sammy Cook. Why did you decide to make them half siblings, and how different are they in their goals and values?
EMC: I wanted to show the contrast between Jazz’s respectable yet sheltered upbringing and Sammy’s hardscrabble and less fortunate background as her father’s illegitimate son, partly to explain why he owned a speakeasy. Like today, a lot of poor immigrants, orphans and the disenfranchised are often attracted to crime and illegal activities because they don’t have the same opportunities as the privileged middle and upper classes. Jazz is fascinated by and in awe of her big brother, who keeps mum about his mysterious past. As a society reporter, Jazz is well aware of the double standards and hypocrisy prevalent in high society yet still wants to guard her reputation and keep her job.
MW: During Prohibition, real life Galveston mobsters “Johnny” Jack Nounes and George Musey ran the Downtown Gang, while Salvatore “Big Sam” Maceo and his brother Rosario “Papa Rose” Maceo were associated with the Beach Gang. You feature both gangs and their leaders in your series, with Nounes playing a prime role in GOLD-DIGGERS, GAMBLERS AND GUNS. How true to the real “Johnny” Jack Nounes is your fictional Nounes character? What about your fictional Maceo brothers?
EMC: I’ve reads bits and pieces about Johnny Jack Nounes, but little was known of his personality and shenanigans other than he was a flamboyant, reckless con man. In GOLD DIGGERS, I mentioned that he once partnered with Al Capone’s right-hand henchman, Frank Nitti, to showcase his criminal background. So I played up that fact, creating a larger-than-life persona for the brazen gang leader.
The Maceo brothers are legends in Galveston, with two distinct personalities: Sam was the smooth, debonair “PR man” while Rose provided the muscle for the Beach Gang, and actually tried to keep the peace in Galveston. Their relatives are still active in the area so I have to be careful not to offend or incriminate anyone.
MW: Of the two gangs – Nounes’s and Maceo’s – which was the more vicious in real life when it came to rubbing out the competition? Considering that your books are designated as soft boiled historical mysteries, how do you deal with the grittier side of gang warfare in your writing?
EMC: I believe both gangs could be dangerous and deadly when necessary but ultimately they wanted to make money, not start gang wars. Fact is, a lot of these gangland crimes were covered up or unresolved in Galveston so it was hard to point fingers at anyone and God help the people who tried to blame any of these powerful mobsters. Many politicians and bigwigs actually protected the gangs (especially the Maceos) to some extent because their clubs and casinos brought tourists and business to the Island.
I personally don’t like reading about violence or murder in gory detail, so I tend to keep my mysteries more on the cozy side, though they’re not traditional cozies (though Golliwog, a stray cat, plays a small part).
I live in a big city where there’s a lot of murder and crime and don’t need to be constantly reminded of the sordid side of life. I like the puzzle aspect and setting of mysteries, not the blood and guts. When I read or watch TV late at night, I want to relax, not be scared to death!
MW: Prohibition Agent James Burton is an interesting character. How did you research his background?
EMC: I tried to make him a bit like Elliot Ness in that he’s sincere and determined to do his job, but Burton is also street-smart and realistic. Not only is he outnumbered by a corrupt police force, he knows that he’s largely a figurehead in Galveston. Yet he still wants to make a difference in stopping or at least slowing down the flow of alcohol, especially home-brewed hooch, for both personal and professional reasons.
MW: Who are your favorite secondary characters in your series and why?
EMC: Amanda, Sammy and Nathan are fun to write since there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. I like writing about characters who surprise and entertain you. Nathan often cracks corny jokes and Amanda is an over-the-top drama queen, and I enjoy showing their personalities via dialogue and slang.
MW: How has your background in non-fiction writing and editing helped you as a fiction writer?
EMC: As a journalist, I actually enjoy doing research since you never know what fun fact you might dig up. I prefer reality-based stories because I feel like I’m learning something new while I’m reading and researching. My background helps me to keep digging until I find the information I need. Still, the freedom of fiction is that you can imply or fabricate events and characters as needed to describe the essence of the story.
MW: What’s the greatest challenge you’ve encountered when it comes to writing historically correct mysteries?
EMC: I hate not being able to verify facts or rumors or being able to ask someone a question about a person or an incident, especially a sensitive subject like real-life gangsters and crimes. Since many gangland killings and crimes were kept hush-hush, I’ve invented my own plots and characters, some inspired by newspaper articles and past events, such as the Bathing Beauty Revue that became the Miss Universe pageant.
At first, I used to go overboard doing research, like a typical journalist: At the Rosenberg library, I pored over endless copies of The Galveston Daily News, reading old stories and looking for headlines to fit each chapter.
I pulled out original lay-outs of trolley car lines to make sure the trolley stops and routes were accurate. Sadly, many of the landmarks mentioned in my novels are gone so I spent hours looking for old photographs, including ones of mob-owned speakeasies like the Turf Club and the Hollywood Dinner Club. Finally, after much time and frustration, I realized that readers mainly want a sense of the time and place—they don’t need a blow-by-blow description or blueprint of actual places or events.
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