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Friday, September 22, 2017

Turning Book Research into a Slide Show by Sarah Wisseman

Recently I was asked to speak at a local Pecha Kucha, a Japanese-inspired public forum for artists and writers. Each speaker talks about her passion for exactly 6 minutes, 40 seconds, with slides advancing every 20 seconds. You have to plan carefully; once the slides start, there’s no pausing or going back.

My topic is “Toxic Brews in 1920s Illinois,” or a seriously condensed version of the research I did several years ago for my local mystery, The Bootlegger’s Nephew. In this mystery, my physician protagonist can’t figure out whether his friend was poisoned deliberately or just consumed a mixture of bad booze, prescription medicine, and homemade tonics.



His flapper daughter, Anna, helps him investigate, and together they trap a murderer and shut down a local gang of bootleggers. This story was supposed to be about 1920s archaeology, when it was a still a just a gentleman’s hobby. But the fascinating story of Prohibition took over.

The novel has several themes: the dangers of consuming liquor made from toxic substances (industrial-grade alcohol, kerosene, or embalming fluid) or heating corn mash in lead-lined radiators; the difficulties of practicing medicine before the advent of antibiotics; and the enhanced freedoms of young women during Prohibition.

The research was fascinating. Not only were there multiple ways to make and transport illegal booze, there were all kinds of “concealed carry.” Women fashioned deep pockets in their slinky dresses and long coats for flasks of illicit booze.



Our local newspaper, then called the Champaign Daily, reported on a raid in my hometown: “There were bottles of liquor hidden inside boxing gloves and stuffed inside a phonograph. There was wood alcohol, Jamaican ginger, liquor made from kerosene and furniture polish, booze that would make a rabbit expectorate in a bulldog’s face, squirrel whiskey that would make a man climb a tree.”

I stole another tidbit from a true account of Prohibition in Cincinnati: There was an enterprising family who ran a speak-easy in their home. Their under-age son dispensed liquor through tubes from the second floor. When there was a raid, he just threw a rug over the floor tubes and spread out his homework.

Revisiting this fascinating research led me to publish a short story that features the flapper daughter, Anna Junker, and her boyfriend Ben:



The result of all this activity made me appreciate east central Illinois in a whole new way. Now, when I travel around downtown, I notice the older buildings that erected before my stories took place. And I remember that one local establishment, once the store where I purchased my son’s soccer shoes, had a speakeasy on the second floor in the 1920s. It boasted a hidden stairway down to the street so patrons could escape quickly when federal agents showed up. On the same block, there was an underground steam tunnel used to exit a bootlegger’s distillery during raids. I asked around town if I could visit this tunnel—alas, it was closed down years ago.





7 comments:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Sarah,

Both the novel and the short story sound fascinating. I love well-researched mystery fiction. Congrats!

Bonnie Tharp said...

Research can be a whole lot of fun. I have trouble knowing when to stop. (I think I am there now.) Your blog brought back a memory of a photo and story of my grandfather who held an illegal poker game and served bootleg hooch in their house in the 20's. The photo has him in a Fedora and he looks very much like a television gangster. Thanks for sharing!

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