Michelle Cox suspects she may have once lived in the 1930s. Perhaps that is why she writes about the period so adeptly. Chicago is the setting for her award-winning Henrietta and Inspector Howard series, engaging plots that charm us with modern-minded characters enmeshed in a world full of social expectations, for both the women and men. The characters intrigue us as they push those expectations in every positive way they can. Cox is currently outlining book six in the series, and is shopping a stand-alone novel she wrote last year, The Love You Take, also set in 1930s Chicago and based partially on a true story about a “backward” girl who gets pregnant and is sent to a home for wayward girls.
Anne Eliot Feldman: Your historical details for this series (furniture, music, clothing, Chicago settings) add so much. How do you go about gathering these setting details?
Michelle Cox: While I spent two years doing intensive research before I even started the series, many of these details just already live in my head. I’ve always had an affinity for the past and collect details the way other people might collect seashells. I adore big band music. A while back, I compiled a playlist of 1930s and 40s music and have been continuously playing this in my car for about three years now. (Can I just say my kids hate me?) But listening to these songs not only transports me, it adds to my understanding of people’s mindsets back then and also gives me hints about dialogue.
As for the furniture, one of the things I like to do on vacations is to tour old mansions or estates, and I try to catalog what I’m seeing as I walk through.
The clothing is the only part I need help with. I can picture what they’re wearing, but I don’t have a fashion vocabulary in my head, so I did buy a giant book about fashion of the era. Living in Chicago, many of the settings are already familiar to me, such as the Green Mill. Some places or streets I did have to research. Lastly, I’m a period drama junkie. Being an anglophile and also married to a Brit, I think I’ve watched every period drama ever made.
You make the characters seem so authentic. Did you base the Henrietta and Clive relationship on people you knew?
I did base Henrietta on a woman I met while I worked in social service in a nursing home on Chicago’s NW side about twenty-five years ago. She used to follow me around and tell me tales of her life—and what a life she had! She used to tell me that “once upon a time, I had a man-stopping body, and a personality to go with it!” Ha! Who says that? Even then, I thought it would make a great novel. So years later when I was starting what would become the first book in the series, A Girl Like You, I “borrowed” many things from this woman’s life: her beauty and virtue (she was constantly being fired for slapping managers and owners after they tried to feel her up); her family history; her long string of strange jobs.
How do you keep each book fresh?
Well, it’s not a typical genre series in which you have the same stock characters solving a new mystery each time. This series is really more about the characters and their story arcs. It definitely has the feel of a saga to it. The mystery is usually just something for Henrietta and Clive to do to advance the story while a hundred other things are going on and unfolding with the other characters.
How did you go about bringing the Chicago underworld characters to life?
Being in Chicago, there’s an awful lot of Al Capone lore going around for the taking. In fact, every building in about a 200-mile radius of Chicago claims that it was a hideout for Al Capone and his gang. So it wasn’t hard to draw on that to create the Neptune villain. I didn’t really want this to be a gangster tale. I was lucky enough to be able to interview a woman whose family was loosely tied to the mob, and she was able to corroborate what I had written about different mobsters being given certain “contracts” in exchange for favors. It was fantastic to be able to talk with her and gain that kind of information.
What is the most challenging part of writing a series?
Keeping all the plot lines running and paced accordingly. Also, it’s difficult to keep some of the subplots from becoming the main plot. I did allow that to happen in the case of Elsie, Henrietta’s younger sister, who, in the beginning of the series, was never supposed to be more than a bit character. Now, by book 4, she’s getting as much air time as Henrietta. In fact, some of my readers say they now enjoy Elsie’s story more than Henrietta’s!
We can imagine each book is like a child and they are all special. But which one stands out for you (don’t worry, we won’t tell the other children)?
I suppose Book 3, A Promise Given, is probably my favorite because it’s all about Henrietta and Clive’s wedding, the long-awaited wedding night, and the honeymoon. Also I love that the whole reception takes place from Stan’s point of view. The second half of the book then takes place in Derbyshire, England, which I’ve personally visited twice and subsequently fell in love with. So having Clive and Henrietta honeymoon there was a way to selfishly get myself back.
Do you have a vision for the less important characters, such as Henrietta and Elsie’s siblings? Any back stories you want to share?
All of the side characters serve as potential fodder for me. They are all usually clamoring for a bigger starring role, but, let’s face it, you can only have so many stars. Elsie got lucky, but now they all want their moment in the spotlight. I do have some vague ideas about some of them that I might at some point pick up and weave into a bigger story line.
Does the current Me Too focus on women’s equality in the workplace come into play for you as you develop the Clive and Henrietta relationship?
Not really, though I suppose I should say yes. Henrietta, remember, is partially based on a real woman who really did have all of these crazy jobs during the Great Depression. And there’s a lot of me, of course, in Henrietta, but there’s me in Clive and Elsie, too, if that makes sense.
As the oldest child in her family and an overachiever, Henrietta wants to fit in and be pleasing—to fit nicely into the social mores of the day, but she just can’t help being a little bit independent because she’s had to be all of her life. So that’s the dilemma within Henrietta, and I think as such, she is a character a lot of women can relate to. I wrote her more from what I thought was a realistic physiological perspective, and not a reaction to what’s happening today.
What detective team or tales inspired you to write your own?
As a kid, I loved Trixie Belden. My best friend was a Nancy Drew fan, so we had lots of arguments about who was the better detective. I also loved watching “Hart to Hart” and “Moonlighting,” which might have influenced me, as well as the film, “American Dreamer,” with Tom Conti and Jobeth Williams. My mom and I have watched that thing about a hundred times. Talk about a fun escape! And of course, there’s Nick and Nora from the Thin Man films; their chemistry is perfect.
A Veil Removed is now available for purchase.
ABOUT MICHELLE COX:
Michelle Cox is the author of the multiple award-winning Henrietta and Inspector Howard series as well as “Novel Notes of Local Lore,” a weekly blog dedicated to Chicago’s forgotten residents. She suspects she may have once lived in the 1930s and, having yet to discover a handy time machine lying around, has resorted to writing about the era as a way of getting herself back there. Coincidentally, her books have been praised by Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist and many others, so she might be on to something. Unbeknownst to most, Michelle hoards board games she doesn’t have time to play and is, not surprisingly, addicted to period dramas and big band music. Also marmalade.