My California Zephyr series, which includes Death Rides the Zephyr and the upcoming Death Deals a Hand, takes place on a train.
And what a train it was.
The old California Zephyr (not the current Amtrak version) was a streamliner, a luxurious train that traveled between the San Francisco Bay Area to Chicago. It began in 1949 and ended in 1970.
The train was jointly operated by three railroads. From Chicago to Denver, it was the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. Over the Rocky Mountains from Denver to Salt Lake City, the Silver Lady was operated by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. In Salt Lake City, the Western Pacific Railroad took the train all the way to the rail terminus in Oakland, California, where ferries then took passengers to San Francisco.
The train’s shining stainless steel cars earned it the name The Silver Lady. The cars on the old CZ also had “silver” in their names. Several were Vista-Domes, cars with upper-level observation seats and windows that provided passengers with a 360-degree view of the scenery.
The scenery was indeed spectacular. The train went through beautiful Feather River Canyon in the Sierra Nevada. In the Rocky Mountains, the tracks ran along the Colorado River for over 200 miles, through some amazing canyons. For that reason, the CZ’s departure times were planned so the train went through the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains during the day, all the better to view the sights.
The train was also known for its amenities. The dining car tables had white tablecloths, china, silver cutlery and serving pieces. Each table had a bud vase with a Colorado carnation. And the diner had a reputation for excellent food. The CZ was also known for the level of service provided to passengers. In addition to the male crew members – engineer, brakemen, conductor, stewards, porters and the like – each run of the California Zephyr had a woman hostess known as a Zephyrette.
I had to write a mystery with a Zephyrette as my protagonist. After all, who would be better placed to solve a mystery aboard a train? She was the crew member responsible for seeing to the passengers’ comfort and every need, the person with powers of observation and skill with people. In short, a perfect detective.
That’s how Jill McLeod came about. As I created the character, I interviewed two retired Zephyrettes, one who had worked during the era I am writing about, the early 1950s. Dwight Eisenhower has just been elected president, the Korean War is still raging, and it hasn’t been that long since the end of World War II. Technology was a lot different back then.
Writing about a location that moves has its own set of problems. I must be aware of my plot’s timing and how it follows the train’s schedule. After all, it wouldn’t do for a murder to occur just before the CZ arrived at a station. It would be too easy for the conductor, as the head of the onboard crew, to turn the matter over to the local authorities. And if I want certain things to take place after dark, I have to figure out when the sun went down in a certain Colorado location in December 1952.
As I write the California Zephyr books, my space is decorated with diagrams of railroad cars, timetables, old menus, and Zephyrette trip reports located in the libraries of the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento and the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.
I did research of a different kind at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, California. I drove a locomotive!
I wish I had a time machine, to go back and ride the old CZ, traveling in a Pullman sleeper and having my meals in the dining car.
Mystery fans can find out what it was like by reading Death Rides the Zephyr and Death Deals a Hand.
Janet Dawson has written two novels featuring Zephyrette Jill McLeod and eleven novels with Oakland private investigator Jeri Howard. Her first Jeri Howard book, Kindred Crimes, won the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America contest for best first private eye novel. It was nominated in the best first category for three mystery awards, the Shamus, the Macavity and the Anthony.
The California Zephyr series, a historical mystery series with Zephyrette Jill McLeod, includes Death Rides the Zephyr and the latest, Death Deals a Hand.
The twelfth book in the Jeri Howard series, Water Signs, will be published by Perseverance Press in spring 2017. Other Jeri Howard books include Till The Old Men Die, Take A Number, Don’t Turn Your Back On The Ocean, Nobody’s Child, A Credible Threat, Witness to Evil, Where The Bodies Are Buried, A Killing at the Track, Bit Player, and Cold Trail. She has written twelve short stories, including Macavity winner “Voice Mail.”
Janet has also written a stand-alone suspense novel, What You Wish For.
In the past, Dawson was a newspaper reporter in Colorado, and her stint as a U.S. Navy journalist took her to Guam and Florida. As an officer in the Navy, she was stationed in the San Francisco Bay Area. After leaving the Navy, Dawson worked in the legal field and at the University of California.