Print Friendly, PDF & Email

City of Ghosts by Kelli StanleyBy Sandra Parshall

Kelli Stanley is easy to spot in any gathering, with her friendly smile and one of her trademark fedoras perched atop blond hair. She’s a thoroughly modern woman—but she has made her name as a novelist by living in the past.

Kelli arrived on the mystery scene with NOX DORMIENDA (“a long night of sleeping”), set in Roman Britain and featuring Arcturus, a half-British, half-Roman doctor who ferreted out killers as a sort of Philip Marlowe in ancient times. This “Roman noir” debut won the Bruce Alexander Award for Best Historical Novel and earned Kelli a Certificate of Honor for literary achievement from her hometown of San Francisco. Following THE CURSE-MAKER, the sequel to NOX DORMIENDA, she fast-forwarded in time to 1940 and created Miranda Corbie, the San Francisco-based protagonist Library Journal has called “one of crime’s most arresting heroines.”

With her beauty, her stylish suits and hats and impeccable grooming, she might be the femme fatale who shows up at Marlowe’s door in search of help, but in Kelli Stanley’s noir world Miranda is the one with the gun and the private eye license. She’s a woman with a troubled past that is far from dead, but she knows how to protect her vulnerable core and she doesn’t hesitate to stand up for those who can’t defend themselves.

In CITY OF GHOSTS, the third series entry (after CITY OF DRAGONS and CITY OF SECRETS), the time is June of 1940, France has fallen to the Nazis, and U.S. involvement in the war seems inevitable. The State Department official who helped Miranda get her P.I. license arrives in her office to collect on the debt: he wants her to track a San Francisco chemistry professor who may be spying for the Nazis. This assignment, which coincides with the murder of her latest client, could get Miranda killed, but she accepts because the payoff would be passage to bomb-ravaged England, where she believes she will find her long-missing mother. Her desire to find her mother, and learn the truth about her disappearance, drives Miranda on as she investigates her client’s death and Nazi activities on U.S. soil and eventually finds herself framed for murder.

Recently Kelli talked about her memorable heroine and the challenges of writing historical fiction set in her own hometown.

Miranda Corbie, on the surface, is a woman many people might find intimidating—beautiful but tough, often coming across outwardly as hard and cold. What kind of person is she at heart, and what are the traits, strengths, and flaws that make you want to write about her?

First, thank you for the interview and the insightful questions, Sandy!

Initially, Miranda’s genesis involved two concepts: one, the demonization of strong (and sexual) women found in everything from archaic Greek poetry to the Bible to classic film and literary noir; and two, the very real counterpoint to this mythological misogyny, which is that women—particularly attractive women—often find themselves the target of unwanted (and sometimes dangerous) attention.

So… I created a woman with all the tropes of the femme fatale and put her in heroic shamus shoes, thus turning noir convention in its ear. I also wanted to address the fact that women are constantly objectified, and that such objectification is not always a compliment. We are trained to treat it as such, but what if we don’t want the attention or pursuit? What if we want to be treated as a human being first? Obviously this issue is more engrained in 1940 culture than the modern era, but in talking with women’s groups, I’ve had women from 18 to 80 resonate with what I’m trying to do.

Once Miranda became more than idea, of course, her personality took shape. Toughness is a requirement for the job and for survival. It’s also a by-product of a childhood that was all too common in big cities during the early part of the century. She suffers from what we now call PTSD and has always felt rootless, valued only for her sexual desirability. I don’t think of her as hard; I think of her as trying to shut off a very real vulnerability that manifests itself through her deeds.

Words—in particular, profanity—help keep people, particularly men, at a distance. They are warning salvos, intended to put people off. A careful reading of any Miranda novel or short story reveals that how and when she uses profanity is a key to her respect for and feelings of fear about any given situation.

And if you look at her actions, which are, after all, the bulk of every plot, what does she do? She resonates with the victims, men and women who have also been targeted for crime or exclusion or hatred or pain because of race or class level. In other words, the powerless. Miranda is one of them, and she risks her life to help find them justice.

She is far from a 1950’s version of Donna Reed and has even been termed “unlikeable”—a quality, incidentally, which is rarely expected of her male counterparts, especially in noir or hardboiled fiction. Using such terminology to describe her only proves—to me, at any rate—how far we have yet to go in gender parity. Any intimidation factor obviously masks a great vulnerability, which may be one reason, as you noted, why Library Journal called her “one of crime’s most arresting heroines.” She is also changing with every book, groping toward more self-awareness and more positive self-assessment, though—of course—the Miranda series is and will always be literary noir.

A lot is going on in CITY OF GHOSTS—a murdered client, dangerous undercover intrigue involving the federal government—but Miranda is driven most strongly by her desire to find her long-missing mother and learn the truth about her mother’s disappearance. Why does she want to reconnect with the woman who abandoned her to be brought up by a despicable father?

Why wouldn’t she? Any decent memory of her early childhood is connected to her mother, as evidenced by the recurring theme of the Irish lullaby in both CITY OF SECRETS and CITY OF GHOSTS. We largely define ourselves by who are parents are—they are the starting points of our identity before we reshape ourselves into independent adults. Her father is not someone in whom she wants to see any familial connection. What she does want is to believe that her mother did not abandon her, but was somehow forced away. She’s also driven by the desire to believe her mother is alive and that she, Miranda, can rescue her, whether from an individual circumstance or from German bombs dropping on England. Finding her mother is finding herself, which is the ultimate Hero’s Journey narrative.

What drew you to writing about San Francisco in the 1930s and 1940s? Why that place and that time in U.S. history?

I’ve always been drawn to the time frame of U.S. and world history between the 1920s and the 1950s. Maybe it’s because my parents were born in ’39—and that it was simultaneously the greatest year in Hollywood cinema, the year of two very different but equally fascinating World’s Fairs on opposite coasts, and, in the fall, the start of World War II and thus the end of pre-nuclear innocence—that drew me to the period. It is both modern and archaic at the same time, perfectly expressing the Jekyll and Hyde of the past (and life in general), the dance between beauty and romance and ugliness and brutality. I ultimately chose to begin CITY OF DRAGONS in 1940, but I’ve written short story prequels for Miranda that take place in ’39 and will continue to do so. As for San Francisco, it’s always been a home to unique and creative individuals, a city with a storied past, deep noir roots (Hammett) and certainly a lush physical beauty, especially then. I write about it partly for the same reasons so many films are set here.

You live in 21st century San Francisco while writing about the city as it was almost 100 years ago. Are you always conscious of the past city buried beneath the present one, or do you see them as two distinct places? Does living there make your historical research easier?

The older San Francisco is getting more and more difficult to find, unfortunately, even for those of us who live here. We are now in the middle of a class struggle, one that has echoes of the Gilded Age. Tech workers have replaced railroad barons and working and middle-class people have simply moved out rather than into tenements, but the disparity is making San Francisco a plutocracy. The heart of the City—from the Gold Rush to Haight-Ashbury—is still beating, but I don’t know for how much longer. These developments actually make my historical research harder, because I have such emotional investment in my home … so, I’m not only trying to recapture history as an author, but trying to preserve, as a resident, the unique diversity and special environment that San Francisco has always represented.

Miranda is drawn into a covert operation for the federal government in CITY OF GHOSTS. What inspired this storyline, and how did you research the activities of the Nazis within the U.S. during that time?

Actual people, spies and cases are mentioned in CITY OF GHOSTS—all part of the historical record. Fritz Wiedemann was truly the most powerful Nazi in North America, and he was the San Francisco German Consul. Fifth column activities were a huge concern to the government and there was a great fear of sabotage—what we would now describe as domestic terrorism (a theme addressed in CITY OF SECRETS in regards to American pro-fascist and anti-Semitic organizations). This fear became hysteria, and ultimately led to the shameful incarceration of Japanese-Americans as well as Italian and German-Americans in much, much fewer numbers.

There was some genuine reason for concern over the activities of domestic pro-fascists (like extreme right-wing militias today) and Nazi infiltration in Mexico and Central America. Books from the time period were invaluable in my research—SECRET ARMIES by John Spivak, FIFTH COLUMN IN AMERICA by Harold Lavine—as well as newspaper articles and Life magazine. There were many points along the way to an allied victory where the scales could have tipped to the other side, and trying to uncover what espionage dangers actually existed was one motive behind CITY OF GHOSTS. Plus, I wanted to try a spy story for Miranda … an experience that may come back to haunt her in a subsequent book.

You make good use of lyrics from period music in this book. Do you have a collection of recordings from the 1930s? Do you play the music while you write?

Lyrics are tricky because of fair use law, so I have to check and double check how much I’m using, but they are crucial to Miranda’s environment. 1940 was a much more aural era—no television, with radio as the only mass media. Music was everywhere; if a song was successful, it was common for more than one recording star to cover it. I have an extensive collection of music from the Big Band era—I’m a huge jazz and standards fan—and I listen to every song I mention in order to make sure that it works within the narrative framework. I don’t play anything continuously while I write, because a piece of music has its own strong rhythm. I also check to make sure that the song was available and popular before the date the novel is set, and make use of Billboard charts in my research.

How many fedoras do you own? How do you decide which one to wear on a particular day? How many do you take with you when you travel?

Too many! They’re all stored in hat boxes. I wear them when I’m signing or on tour or at a conference, and try to coordinate them with what I am wearing for that day in terms of color and with the season (straw vs. felt). Some are more formal than others, some are great for travel (I have a black Stetson wide-brimmed fedora that is perfect for planes). I’ve got most colors covered, from all shades of gray to black, tan, red, purple and orange! I tend to travel with my newer fedoras—I own a number of vintage ones—but I don the old head gear when I’m closer to home. For ThrillerFest recently, I took three with me—one on the head, two in the hat box! I love fedoras, and they became an accidental trademark when I attended my first Bouchercon in 2007.

Do you plan to return to your Roman Noir series? Have fans of those books crossed over to read Miranda, or do the two series appeal to different readers?

I’d love to write more Arcturus stories, I just haven’t had the time. Without a new contract for the series, it’s difficult to justify earmarking six months or a year of your life to write a new novel, but I’d certainly like to get to it eventually, maybe next year. Arcturus fans are very devoted and I treasure them. Some wind up also enjoying Miranda, some stick with one or the other. The Roman Noir series is lighter in tone psychologically—an intentional tactic, since ancient Roman culture is so alien in many ways—but still hardboiled, and the combination makes it a joy to write.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing CITY OF SHARKS, the next Miranda Corbie novel and the final one of this particular contract. I’m hoping to write Miranda forever; I’d also like to write other books as well, so my aim is to increase my productivity! CITY OF SHARKS will feature Alcatraz prison and will be published in 2015. Thank you, Sandy, for the great interview!


kelliKelli Stanley lives in Hammett’s San Francisco, where she writes the Miranda Corbie series, the first of which, CITY OF DRAGONS, won the Macavity for best historical mystery of the year and was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Award and a Shamus Award. CITY OF SECRETS won the Golden Nugget Award at Left Coast Crime in Sacramento, and City of Ghosts launches in August, 2014. NOX DORMIENDA, her debut novel, won the Bruce Alexander Award. Kelli has also published numerous short stories and essays, holds a Master’s Degree in Classics, and prefers her bourbon neat.

To learn more about Kelli, please visit her website.


Sandra Parshall
Latest posts by Sandra Parshall (see all)