Feminist Noir: Helen Jacey Smashes Stereotypes with a new Type of Heroine

By Katrina Simpson

Jailbird Detective is the novel that we’ve been waiting for. In 1940s Hollywood Elvira Slade is an ex-con from London with a shady past… We talk to her creator, Helen Jacey.

I’ve always been a huge Forties Noir fan –  the fashion, the style, the movies. But for a long time I’ve been so aware of the stereotypes that were rife in Forties’ films, such as the dumb showgirl, the tragic heroines, the good girlfriends, the femme fatales who are driven by obsession, and all the attitudes women had to live by or fall through the cracks. Still, there were lots of great female characters too, such as those played by Bette Davis, Lena Horne and Kathryn Hepburn.

Whilst at university, I studied women’s writing and loved books with strong female protagonists, and I had a strong-minded mother who raised me with feminist values. From an early age I knew I wanted to be a writer. I’ve always been interested in female characters that are rebellious and have difficult lives trying to pursue their dreams, such as Jean Rhys, Ida Lupino– and many others. I first became a screenwriter writing for radio, film, and TV and also wrote books such as The Woman in the Story: Writing Memorable Female Characters which was very popular in the film and TV industry. I even did a PhD on Writing Female Characters in Screenwriting. I’ve also worked as a script editor, story consultant, lecture and speaker – pretty much everything! Now I write and consult through my company Shedunnit Productions.

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In 2010, I decided it was high time to write my first novel. The inspiration for Elvira Slate Investigations was actually Raymond Chandler. I love his books, with their incredible noir atmosphere and great plots, but they can be so misogynistic with their sexist “male gaze”, and racist – echoing the discriminatory aspects of the Forties. I was inspired to create a female character who goes completely against the grain of what women were supposed to be like; I thought, “how could she be the most unlikely Hollywood detective?” I had great fun creating Elvira Slate and her world. Eight years later, Jailbird Detective, Book One of the Elvira Slate Investigations, was finally finished.

Elvira Slate is a mixture of streetwise toughness, vulnerability and cynicism; she’s risk-taking and fun-loving. The fact that she’s wanted by the British Secret Services, Scotland Yard, and the Mob , really raises the stakes. To survive, she has numerous identities in the story. Elvira adores her clothes, particularly after five years in “the clink”! I had a lot of fun describing the outfits in great detail. I unashamedly created the book series for women and I want vintage lovers to discover her. Readers are already telling me they adore Elvira, which is so fantastic to hear. I follow someone on Instagram who says under her name, “Vintage Style Not Vintage Values,” and I think that phrase epitomises what I’m trying to do.

I also really wanted to create a Forties world that we don’t see; a world which isn’t all glamour or underbelly, (although there’s lots of both!) but where women would just hang out with each other, have each other’s back, be serious about their careers, and do things that Noir cinema doesn’t allow them to do. I wanted to show female support systems that you never see in Noir. You always see women pitted against each other or bringing down men. My aim is for the series to be female- dominated, with many older and diverse female characters as well. Elvira starts young herself, mid- twenties, but with each book she will be roughly a year older. Mother-daughter relationships are big in the series too, as with the character. Beatty Falaise, for instance, who takes Elvira on as an investigator protégé against her better judgment. Beatty is older, bored, seen it all and wants a bit of excitement. She also wants to give Elvira a break and help her out.

I wanted to show female support systems that you never see in Noir. You always see women pitted against each other or bringing down men.

Jailbird Detective is not a conventional mystery novel, because is doesn’t start with a crime that has to be solved. It follows Elvira Slate’s journey to becoming a detective, and it’s a high risk every step of the way. The past is always potentially creeping up, to drag her down and expose her.

I have ten novels mapped out for the Elvira Slate Investigations series and I already know exactly where Elvira’s going to end up. Each book will feature a major case for her to crack, but there will be a long-running evolution of our heroine’s personal story; her identity and her past will be woven into each of the novels, so there will be complications, love affairs and even going back to Blighty. Her demons will also have a habit of popping up here and there.

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Whilst writing the novels, I know the screenwriter in me won’t be able to resist adapting the book series for TV. There are some great vintage detectives around, all women characters created today; Frankie Drake, her series is set in the Thirties, there’s Miss Fisher, from Melbourne in the Twenties;, the Bletchley Circle who operate post-war, early Fifties; and Agent Carter– although it’s superhero story world, it’s set in the Forties. There isn’t a Forties female detective, as far as I’m aware. Elvira Slate needs to exist because there’s no one like her!

I’m now well into the second book, Chipped Pearls, which should be out in 2019. There are lots of surprises in store, with seeds that are sown in Book One starting to take root – not to mention a thrilling case! Elvira now feels good in her own skin, as if she’s found, after a tough start in life, her true calling. She’s a Hollywood sleuth and she’s pretty good at it. Like my heroine, I think my calling was to write this series. I love my world and I’m having great fun!

For more information about the book series, please visit

www.shedunnit.com

https://www.instagram.com/shedunnitproductions/
https://www.facebook.com/shedunnit/


Katrina Simpson is a writer, teacher and vintage lover from England. She is fascinated by the period from the roaring twenties to the swinging sixties, especially the stories of inspirational women from that time. She loves old Hollywood, murder mysteries and travel.

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Marjorie Magazine is a growing new publication celebrating the best of the vintage lifestyle for the modern world.

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