Monday, July 22, 2019

Interview with Jennifer Kincheloe, author of The Body in Griffith Park, a mystery of 1900s LA

Anna Blanc, Jennifer Kincheloe's detective heroine, isn't someone you've encountered before in mystery fiction. A former heiress disinherited by her father, she now works as a police matron for the LAPD but hasn't left her high society tastes behind. She's also better at some aspects of her job than others. In her third and latest outing, set in 1909, she and her sweetheart, Detective Joe Singer, stumble upon a man's body during an attempted romantic tryst in Griffith Park. Between her determination to solve the crime and the presence of a mysterious admirer, Anna's life suddenly becomes more complicated. The novel combines witty humor and a rich look at women's roles and social problems in early 20th-century LA.

What got you interested in writing a historical mystery series?

One particular woman. Alice Stebbins Wells. She became the first female cop in Los Angeles in 1910. I thought she had to be an absolute badass. So I wanted to write something in her honor. My character, as it turned out, was nothing like Anna Blanc.

Anna’s a great character, with the wealthy background she had to leave behind and her determination to be a detective in a man’s world. She also loves her food and whiskey. How did you come up with her personality?

She came tumbling onto the page. I truly wanted to write a tribute character, similar to Alice Stebbins Wells, who was middle-aged, middle-class, married, average-looking, a former minister, and a serious political operator. But that’s not who came out when I started typing. I didn’t think about creating her. She created herself.

What made you choose early 20th-century Los Angeles as the setting?

I love Los Angeles and I love women who make history. Alice Stebbins Wells has been celebrated as the first female cop in America (although she wasn’t), so I set the book in her stomping grounds.

The police matrons at LAPD in 1909 have a huge amount of responsibility and stressful jobs, and it’s clear Anna isn’t exactly the best match for the position. How did you imagine this career for her?

When I started writing the book, and Anna came out so green, I didn’t think she was ready to be a cop. Even Detective Wolf wouldn’t hire her for that. Matrons had been around in LA since 1888, and the early women cops all started out as matrons. So Anna starts out as a matron. Putting a rich girl in jail is an interesting juxtaposition. There is nowhere farther away from her sheltered life on Bunker Hill. In this book, I wanted to draw attention to the problems in our jails both then and now, because they haven’t changed—substance use, mental illness, racism, poverty, trauma, overcrowding, sexual abuse of inmates, domestic violence, exploiting women in the sex trade, homelessness.

I was amazed to read about private railcars owned by wealthy families, and how they could be attached to existing trains at the station so they could make their journeys in total luxury. That would be the life! How did you re-create the experience on the page?

You can still do that, you know. I was on the California Zephyr once going from Denver to San Francisco, and we had to wait to attach Dan Aykroyd’s railcar. Kudos to Mr. Aykroyd. It’s much better for the environment than flying.

I wrote the scene using photographs of luxury railcars from the era and made a composite. And the whole lady on the polar bear rug thing was a popular pose in erotic photography of the day. There’s a famous one of 1900s super model Evelyn Nesbit.

The slangy expressions that Anna and other characters use are a lot of fun to read. Do you have any favorites?

author Jennifer Kincheloe
I love all the slang, and I adore putting it into Anna’s mouth. The slang itself is a form of generational rebellion. And Anna loves to rebel. Her father would want her to use words from Webster’s dictionary.

If I had to pick a favorite, I suppose I like “Jupiter” as an interjection.

I think it’s funny how much of the slang hasn’t changed. “Cutting up,” meant goofing off, for instance. “Dead meat” was someone doomed. They used “killer,” for really great, and “tore,” for going really fast. Profanity was also the same.

I complied a huge list of period slang that I constantly refer to. I harvested it from writings contemporary to my novels, like LA newspapers and popular fiction. There’s also this great, fat, two-volume slang dictionary, The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, that I rely upon. The author got tired of writing it, so it only goes up to the letter O, but it has 14 pages just dedicated to the F word.


The Body in Griffith Park is published by Seventh Street this month. Thanks to the author for participating in this Q&A!


  1. Great stuff! Shared in the Historical Mysteries facebook group: