Jailbird Detective by Helen Jacey – Book 1
Review to follow
A female sleuth crime thriller set in the 1940s featuring edgy female protagonist Elvira Slate, a former criminal and gangster’s moll, who trades Holloway Prison to become a Hollywood Private Detective.
Former south London moll, Jemima Day (Elvira’s real identity) flees England as she’s released from Holloway Prison on VE Day. Her plans to make up for lost time are foiled when she confronts a sexual predator. Caught by a corrupt cop, she is given a choice – face the hangman in England or become his personal errand girl with a phony identity.
Jemima becomes Elvira Slate, but she has no intention of being controlled by any man for long. When she discovers foul play leading to the death of innocents and the law turning a blind eye, Elvira risks her life to investigate.
Ex-con and part vigilante, Elvira follows her own moral compass to put things right. Knowing what it’s like to be judged and live by patriarchal double standards, Elvira can read both motives and men like no other.
Jailbird Detective is feminist crime noir and the first in the Elvira Slate Investigations crime detective series. It follows one woman’s odyssey of reinvention and self-determination to become the most unlikely 1940s female detective.
Q) For the readers, can you talk us through your background and the synopsis of your new novel?
A) After studying an MA in Screenwriting in 2001, I’ve written for TV, feature film, advertising, brands and radio drama. When I realised there weren’t any writing guides that discussed female characters and stereotypes, I wrote one myself! The Woman in the Story: Creating Memorable Female Characters 2010 became very popular in the film and TV industry, and I branched out into story consultancy, script editing and training. I run Shedunnit Productions which develops content across media with a female gaze.
My novel Jailbird Detective is what I’m calling vintage feminist crime noir genre, and it’s the first in the Elvira Slate Investigations series.
It follows the life of ex-convict and gangster’s moll Jemima Day who is released on probation from Holloway Prison on VE Day, 1945 and goes on the run to LA. Using a fake identity and determined to make up for lost time, things are looking up in LA until she is arrested. She becomes a corrupt cop’s undercover errand girl under the name of Elvira Slate, but she won’t be controlled by any man again, so she quickly develops a secret life – investigating a crime the law has ignored. Soon she’s immersed in a very female world, the little known side of old Hollywood.
Q) Can you talk us through the journey from idea to writing to publication?
A) In 2010 the PhD was finished, and The Woman in the Story was about to be published. I was sitting in the sunny south of France when the character of Elvira literally walked into my mind and wouldn’t leave! I was reading Raymond Chandler at the time and loving being back in 40s Hollywood, but somewhat put off by the extreme male gaze of Philip Marlowe. So maybe Elvira was my subconscious antidote.
Jailbird Detective was begun in 2010, and by early 2012 I was almost done. The completion of the novel entered a fits and starts phase for eight years! By 2018, I knew it was Jailbird Detective’s time. I had interest in the series from an agent and a publisher, but I eventually decided it should be Shedunnit Productions’ first project, as it is clearly a female gaze story and I want to develop it across media. Editing was complex and laborious – you can’t underestimate the work it takes!
My plan is to write one book a year in the series and the next in the Elvira Slate series will be out in 2019.
Q) What are your favourite authors and recommended reads?
A) I love any kind of underdog and outsider fiction. Jean Rhys 1930s novels, such as Good Morning Midnight.
I love Tony Morrison, Beloved and Jazz are up there with my favourites. For the sheer warmth and humanity in the Tales of the City series, Armistead Maupin is another much-loved author as is Zadie Smith for White Teeth.
I wouldn’t be a crime writer without some favourites. James Ellroy (LA Confidential, Black Dahlia), Walter Moseley (Devil in a Blue Dress). Edward Bunker’s No Beast So Fierce is a gripping exposure of a doomed criminal justice system which is neither restorative or rehabilitative. John Grisham’s Street Lawyer is another top book. On the female author front, I love anything by Lynda La Plante, PD James and Sara Paretsky.
Q) What were your childhood/teenage favourite reads?
When I was very young, I was enthralled by rather strange doll Flora McFlimsey, who got in all sorts of antics. I loved the Worst Witch Series, was hooked on Blyton’s Mallory Towers. So you can see the theme – rebellious females who go on adventures. In my teens I became a Bronte, Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell fan. Francois Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse and Rosamund Lehmann’s Dusty Answer spoke to my teenage self. I discovered the female modernist poets, Gertrude Stein, HD, Marianne Moore and Mina Loy. I loved Dorothy Parker too for her witty cynicism.
Q) What has been your favourite moment of being a published author?
A) I was invited by the Norwegian Film Institute to give a keynote tribute lecture at the inaugural Liv Ullman symposium. Liv Ullman was sitting in the front row and it was quite nerve-wracking dissecting some of her roles. She was really lovely about the one-hour lecture I gave and it was a privilege to meet her.
For Jailbird Detective, I have been touched by very talented author and screenwriter friends reading the book and telling me they can’t put it down. It’s an unbelievable feeling of validation.
Q) Who has been your source of support/encouragement, throughout the writing process?
A) My husband Patrick Altes, who makes every day special. He’s an artist himself, so understands the pain, frustration, sacrifice, dedication and single-mindedness demanded by the creative process. He makes me laugh when I’m stressed, takes over the cooking, reads every draft of Jailbird Detective (and there’s been quite a lot of those over the past 8 years). He’s also very literary-minded, and great at giving notes!