Twenty-three-year-old Walter MacGregor (aka Wallie) craves adventure, her desires whetted by Sherlock Holmes tales. Her prayers are answered when her father’s rum-running brother Rory lands on the MacGregors’ doorstep, fleeing from enraged bootleggers. In quiet Gunmetal, Texas, during Prohibition, Rory’s tales of adventure charm Wallie, but appall her father, a respected judge.
When a freak accident horrifies the small town, Wallie believes she sees a crime scene that shows evidence of foul play. In short, it’s murder. Annoyed that no one agrees with her—including the sheriff and her dad—she sets out to prove her theory. Soon she is knee-deep in flappers and floozies, Chicago thugs sent south by Al Capone, and a crime lord in the sinful port city of Galveston. Her prim aunt wants her to pay more attention to her eligible suitors. Can Wallie stay alive long enough to figure out which one is her true love?
The Big Thrill caught up with author Kay Kendall to discuss the latest installment of the Austin Starr mystery series, AFTER YOU’VE GONE:
Which took shape first: plot, character, or setting?
The death that launches the suspense in AFTER YOU’VE GONE is based on a real life automobile accident. The unusual and ghastly demise of my husband’s friend shocked me. No detail so as to avoid spoilers, but the man’s uncharacteristic carelessness caused an avoidable tragedy. After grieving, talking to his widow, and offering condolences, I began to think about the incident in different terms—about how easily that accident could have been a murder scene. From there my plot took shape.
What authors or books have influenced your career as a writer, and why?
I’m drawn to historical crime novels, enjoying the display of extremes in human nature aligned with bygone times. Two authors who write historical fiction have influenced me most. Jacqueline Winspear’s mysteries made a huge impression at the beginning of my fiction writing career. Her Maisie Dobbs books show how the War to End All Wars (now called the First World War) impacted everyone, even those who didn’t fight. Winspear made me realize that I wanted to show how a female protagonist solved murders at home during the Vietnam War. As well, David Morrell’s ability to immerse readers in the world of Victorian crimes provides continual inspiration. His mystery trilogy starring famous opium-eater Thomas De Quincey and his daughter Emily recreates a world that may be long gone but it comes alive in his books. Similarly, in my new book I want you to feel you live in small-town Texas in 1923.
Was there anything new you discovered, or that surprised you, as you wrote this book?
When setting out to write about Texas in the early 20th century, I already knew a fair amount of its history. What I needed to research in more detail, however, was the time when Galveston became known as the sin city on the Gulf of Mexico. I had some dim impressions but what I found was astonishing. The gangsters were every bit as ambitious and vicious —and greedy—as those more famous ones in Chicago. In fact, Galveston was a natural draw to gangsters from large northern cities who used its port to bring in illegal booze, mostly from the Caribbean. The crime family I feature in AFTER YOU’VE GONE still has descendants who live and work in Galveston, but these days their businesses appear to be legal. One member of this Italian-American clan has even become a billionaire who indulges a highly philanthropic bent, underwriting and naming educational facilities all around the city of Houston.
What’s the one question you wish someone would ask you about this book, or your work in general?
Recently, when I described my new book to a friend from Ohio, she responded in shock, saying, “For shenanigans during Prohibition, I only know about Chicago and New York City. Why would you write about Texas?” I laughed and began to tell her about the enormous fortunes made in Galveston during what is euphemistically termed “the open era,” when the citizens of Galveston looked the other way, ignoring the prostitution, rum-running and gambling that brought tourism and riches to the area. Why this is not better known sure beats me. In my book I have my 23-year-old protagonist Wallie MacGregor dip a toe into this criminal environment. Inspired by her readings in the Sherlock Holmes canon and dedicated to proving that a relative’s death was no accident, Wallie throws aside her prim upbringing and barges headlong into Galveston’s world of vice. Thereby hangs a tale.
Before Kay began to write fiction, she was an award-winning international PR exec, working in the US, Canada, Russia, and Europe. Ask her about Moscow during the Cold War—and turning down a CIA job in order to attend Harvard. An avid fan of history, she chooses to set her books in times of turmoil and change—the Vietnam War, second wave feminism, Prohibition. After living in Canada’s frozen clime for some years, she and her Canadian husband have thawed out since 1990 in her ancestral home of Texas. They share their abode with three rescue rabbits and one bemused spaniel.
To learn more about Kay and the Austin Starr series, please visit her website.