HIP’s JULIA MORTIMER met local author Helen Jacey to talk about Jailbird Detective, the novel which introduces her new female sleuth, Elvira Slate

Constructed by Helen in the 21st century but located in the 1940s, Elvira is a different kind of detective. Although more in the tradition of tough female detectives like Sara Paretksy’s V I Warshawski or P.D. James’ Cordelia Gray than the more familiar and cosy Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher, Elvira is still unlike any detective you’ve met before.

Helen Jacey already has a reputation for writing about women in film. Her hugely successful screenwriting guide, The Woman in the Story: writing memorable female characters continues to provide inspiration and guidance to male and female screenwriters alike as they strive to make their female characters plausible as well as unforgettable. Helen has now created her own memorable character in Jailbird Detective. I asked her why.

Where did the idea for Elvira come from?
She’s the product of many of my loves – literature, 1940s style, strong female characters, women who may stray from the straight and narrow. She might look like the sort of woman Chandler or Hitchcock portrayed in the ‘40s and while I love their style, we never really get under their skin as they are seen through the male characters’ eyes. I wanted to develop a character who is her own woman that women can relate to.

Why a novel?
I really wanted Elvira to be realised – she’s been in development for eight years now as other projects have pushed her to one side professionally. If I’d developed her in a screenplay she could wait for another eight years and become a different character in the hands of producers and directors. In a novel I can keep her as I want her to be; I believe in my character!

What do you want your 1940s heroine to do for women in the 21st century?
I hope she will enable us to look back at female history and add a new perspective to our perception of the ‘40s and the role of women. There were new developments that arose from the war – disadvantaged women benefited from the war as there were opportunities for them to develop skills previously seen as unsuitable for women. Ida Lupino, an Anglo-American woman who directed films in the ‘40s and ‘50s, is mentioned in the novel (so it is fitting that one of her films will be shown at the launch of Jailbird Detective – but more of that later). She gives weight to the idea that women were starting to make inroads into traditionally male domains. Similarly, Beatty Falaise, who runs a detective agency in the novel, acts as a mentor to Elvira and this notion of mentorship between women who genuinely have each other’s back is one that I’m particularly keen to promote.

Will there be more from Elvira in the future – and might her investigations bring her to Hastings?
The second Elvira Slate novel is already well underway and I have eight more planned after that! We know that Elvira learned to shoot in Ashdown Forest so I’m pretty sure she’ll be coming back to our corner of the UK – but I’m not sure if she’ll stay!

Forthcoming attraction:
I had a sneak preview of Jailbird Detective before publication. There will be a St Leonards book launch event at the Kino-Teatr on 15th November and, while determinedly avoiding spoilers, I can at least tell you that as well as being a ripping good read, Jailbird Detective offers us a heroine who is more than a ballsy broad with a gun in her pocket. Wronged by society, friends
and lovers for much of her life, Elvira Slate nevertheless seeks to negotiate that gravel road between right and wrong, looking for her own identity (she has at least five different personae during the course of the novel) she’ll lie to find the truth and walk into danger when you, the reader, are screaming at her to stay in safety. Setting her novel in post-war London and Los Angeles, Helen Jacey brings a 21st century, feminist gaze to the situation of women in the 1940s (although I still imagine Elvira looks like Veronica Lake), allowing Elvira to do her detecting in a new, old-fashioned way. She assembles a fine cast of strong main characters such as Elvira herself as well as the entirely plausible more minor figures such as Sal the female cabbie and fearsome landlady, Mrs. Loeb. Fast-paced and intricately plotted, Jailbird Detective makes you turn the pages. It also makes you think.

Helen Jacey will be holding a book launch for Jailbird Detective at the Kino-Teatr in Norman Road on 15th November. At the event she will give a talk on feminism, crime writing and the 1940s and introduce Not Wanted, a film by Ida Lupino, the pioneering Hollywood actor, director and producer to celebrate Lupino’s centenary.

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