PW: Why did you choose Kansas City as the setting for your Dorie Lennox series?
LM: I lived in Kansas City for a couple of years and was always interested in its history. In the 1920s and '30s, it was like Chicago, a wide-open town run by a political boss. People disregarded Prohibition. I thought it had an untapped background for the crime novel.
PW: Why did you set the first mystery in the series, One O'Clock Jump, in 1939?
LM: I can't remember the exact reason, except it was the year that "One O'Clock Jump" by Count Basie came out. I like the music, and it was the year that the political boss, Pendergast, was sent to Leavenworth. Things started to change in Kansas City during the prewar boom.
PW: Did Dorie, a college dropout who'd been to reform school, emerge full-blown, or did she develop gradually?
LM: I didn't really do a lot of conscious development. I had Dorie grow up in Atchison [in Kansas] as a young girl when Amelia Earhart was doing her big flying adventures. Earhart was sort of an unconventional child. I drew also on the background of the Depression and all the problems that families had then, with fathers leaving and mothers being fairly desperate, and children being left pretty much to make their own way. As a private eye, Dorie needs to be self-reliant and not really tough, but toughened by life—enough that she won't be so frightened by situations that she can't act.
PW: How unusual were female PIs back then?
LM: There were female detectives in the Pinkerton Agency back in the '20s and '30s, so I decided that Dorie would be an unusual woman for that period, but not unrealistic.
PW: Fascist activity plays a big role in Sweet and Lowdown. You must have done a lot of research.
LM: There was an article and a picture in Life magazine in 1939 or 1940 of Brown Shirts meeting with some state or national official in Missouri. There was a strong democratic principle at work—that you have freedom of assembly, no matter what your beliefs. That principle of democracy held for quite a while, but as we got into the war, those principles went by the wayside.
PW: What can you tell us about the Silver Shirts?
LM: It was kind of scary, really, doing the research on the Silver Shirts. The man who started that movement, William Dudley Pelley, who was a popular novelist around World War I, had a huge following. He even ran for president. It's fascinating to explore fanatical minds, but you don't want to stay there too long.
PW: What can we expect in the next book?
LM: I've just outlined the next one, and don't want to give too much away, but it will center on December 1941. There are things that people aren't aware of, things that we did to lead up to the war—it wasn't like we suddenly joined the war in 1941. Dorie tries to become involved and do what she can. I haven't decided for sure what she'll do, but I'll keep her in Kansas City, where they built jeeps and tanks. There was a big bomber plant in the middle of what is now the heart of metro Kansas City.
PW: You write about Kansas City with obvious affection.
LM: Any place where you live and work and know people can be made interesting in fiction. It's the way you look at it. If you look at it as teeming with life, then it is.