How’s this for a private eye’s character profile? Ex-battlefield nurse. Former escort-service employee. Now a dazzling but decidedly no-nonsense, blasphemous San Francisco sleuth in her early 30s, who—when she isn’t providing security for the girls at Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, one of the more stimulating attractions at her hometown’s 1939-40 world’s fair—takes on cases that nobody else wants to touch.
Miranda Corbie is trouble in heels. And she likes it that way.
Did you read the last Rap Sheet about forgotten crime writer Talmage Powell?
After debuting in Bay Area author Kelli Stanley’s 2009 historical mystery, City of Dragons, this P.I. returns in the equally propulsive and atmospheric new City of Secrets. As before, Corbie proves congenitally incapable of making nice with the local cops, but has no difficulty whatsoever making enemies among the city’s elite and seeking justice where it seems most scarce. Only this time, her investigation finds Corbie in the uncomfortable position of defending an old foe, while she pursues the murderer of two young women whose ingenuousness left them prey to powerful men.
Outside of being a gumshoe, who is Miranda Corbie?
I call Miranda a broken idealist. She’s a very strong, intelligent and sensitive woman, who grew up unwanted and for the most part abandoned, with the sprawling, gaudy sin-sational San Francisco of the 1910s her only real parent. She identifies with the underdog and the forgotten.
Born in the aftermath—and really as a result of—the Great Earthquake in ’06, she mirrors the tenacity for survival and talent for rebirth that San Francisco itself became famous for.
Miranda works the same streets where Sam Spade walked not long before. Were there really female gumshoes in San Francisco during the early 20th century?
My 1940 Pacific Telegraph and Telephone Yellow Pages lists more than 25 private detective agencies in San Francisco. Most of these agencies—including Prather, Detective Service Bureau and National—advertised undercover work and shadowing detail. Given the sheer amount of detective work going on in the city, and the kinds of services advertised, from an era in which divorce wasn’t so easy to get, I think it’s very safe to conclude that there were female operatives in San Francisco, particularly for divorce cases brought by disenchanted heiresses.
City of Secrets focuses primarily on the murders of two young women, whose bodies were defiled with anti-Semitic slurs. Yet it ties those crimes in with the “racial hygiene” and eugenics movements. We now associate those movements with the Nazis, yet you make clear that domestic hate groups advocated the same practices. How serious was the American eugenics movement of the 1930s and ’40s?
By 1940, the eugenics movement was hard-wired into our legal system. After the Supreme Court case of Buck vs. Bell, which I quote in the book, states could legally sterilize anyone declared “unfit” by the “proper authority.”
Terrifying, isn’t it? And the situation remained unchanged in many places all the way up through the mid-1960s. The problem is that the whole idea of “better living through science” had been wedded to population control and eugenics, thus making strange bedfellows of people like Margaret Sanger and Charles Lindbergh. The eugenics movement was tied in with anti-immigration policy and anti-miscegenation laws, and was basically the “scientific” rationale for racism and every other kind of evil.
The state of California was at the forefront of the eugenics movement, and a published report on its sterilization policies became—according to Nuremberg documents—a particular source of inspiration to the Nazis. In San Francisco, there was the rather infamous case of Ann Cooper Hewitt—a young heiress who was sterilized against her knowledge or consent by her mother, apparently in order for her mother to keep control of the trust fund. Ann sued…and lost.
In this new novel, Miranda is contacted by the mother she never knew who’s living in Britain but wants to see her after so many years. How will that relationship change your protagonist?
Honestly, I’m not sure! I haven’t finished writing book three yet. The Miranda novels are all built on a five-act structure, and I know the basic outlines of the mystery at the center, but much of the personal stuff happens as I’m writing it. For me, that’s the thrill of writing—the satisfaction and surprise of discovery and the flexibility to be able to use the unexpected, the serendipitous circumstance.
Your Corbie novels are chock-a-block with period consumer-product names, song titles and other details. How do you strike a balance between using these details to set a necessary scene and merely showing off your research?
Details are important. They are true to the way we experience life, and at the same time convey the richness of setting and place. They also reinforce a quality necessary for a good detective: observation. The level of sensory detail I try to convey in everything from package design to weather is how I am able to transport myself to 1940—and, hopefully, my readers, too. And, I confess, it’s fun.
Why did you make Miranda movie-star beautiful?
I’ve often referred to Miranda as a “femme fatale in gumshoes.” And in fact, one of my goals in creating her was to subvert the traditional and misogynistic noir paradigm of the beautiful-but-deadly woman, an ancient trope ... think Eve, Delilah, Jezebel, Pandora, etc.
Miranda’s physical beauty is a both a curse and a blessing, a source of power—the power that fatales are usually shown wielding over the noir protagonist—and a source of pain. I was determined to show elements of what life would have been like for a real woman…who was beautiful, sexualized, strong and smart, all qualities of the noir femme fatale.
Miranda is aware of her power and uses it on her own terms, because it’s one of the tools she has. But she wants to be treated and respected as a human being first…a goal attractive women rarely achieve.
What can we expect from the third Miranda Corbie novel?
Miranda is immersed in trying to find out about her mother…is she really alive? How can she get to war-torn England, or relocate her mother to safety in California?
Then someone from the government knocks on her door with an offer she can’t refuse, because it relates to her search for Catherine Corbie. She takes on a job shadowing a scientist, art connoisseur and possible spy, only to encounter murder…and it looks like she’s the fall guy. The working title is City of Ghosts.