Over ten years back, a colleague of mine heard that my husband, Michael Holland, was the archivist for the City of Los Angeles and insisted that I needed to write something based on L.A. history. “You don’t know what you have there,” she said. Well, actually I knew darned well what a gift I had (and not just in my wonderful husband). Still, she had a point. What I didn’t have, however, was the right idea.
Several years later, another colleague discovered my husband’s and my passion for wine and winemaking and suggested that I do a mystery featuring a winemaker. I agreed that I needed to do that. I still didn’t have the right idea for the story.
A couple more years passed. Michael was giving a lecture on the Zanja system in Los Angeles. Zanja is Spanish for ditch. The first Angelenos dug a large ditch to take water from the Porciuncula River (now known as the Los Angeles River) and send it to the local farms in the area. This was the Zanja Madre, or Mother Ditch. Nearby farms and ranchos got water from the Zanja Madre through their own zanjas, which were controlled by sluice gates. L.A. being just as arid then as it is now, there wasn’t lots and lots of water, and the most powerful man in the pueblo was the Zanjero, or water overseer, who controlled when those sluice gates were opened. He was so powerful, they paid him more than the mayor.
Anyway, Michael was telling us about how farmers and ranchers went to the Zanjero once a month to pay for their subscription. Then they’d come back the next day to get their receipt, and the day after that, the Zanjero’s men would come out and open the sluice gates and the water would go rushing into the individual zanjas… Now, I write murder mysteries. Of course, I was thinking what a great time for a body to pop up!
That’s when Maddie Wilcox started coming to life. I needed a woman who had some pull but who wasn’t married, which is why Maddie is a widow. She had to know something about dead bodies, which is why she’s a doctor. And she needed to be a winemaker because that was a fairly big industry in Los Angeles up until the 1880s, when the land became more valuable for housing. Oh, and I really needed to do something featuring a winemaker.
Even better, Michael was not only learning more about the Los Angeles wine industry at the time, he had scored a coup. In the patio of the city’s oldest building, the Avila Adobe, there are two grapevines. Michael has done some investigating, and we figure they’ve been there since at least the 1850s and qualify as some of the oldest vines in the state. Michael is also a home winemaker and got the nice people at the Avila Adobe to let him make angelica, a local sherry, from the grapes on those old vines. Surprise, surprise, Maddie also makes angelica.
Now, the series starts in 1870. I felt better setting things after the Americans had taken over (in 1848) and wanted to avoid the Civil War. Plus, 1870 is kind of a fun time in L.A. history. It was still a very rough place, but it was just starting to civilize. So you could have the whole social strata, plus enough murders to make a series of them plausible.
When I first told Michael about my idea, he was a little non-plussed that his lovely lecture had sprouted a dead body. He still pulled out all sorts of materials for me, city council minutes from the time I was interested in. Oh, and one other little goodie – the killing of City Marshal William Warren by his deputy Joseph Dye. Seriously? I had to play with that one. Admittedly, in Death of the City Marshal, I did massage the historical facts a little. Warren is smothered in his bed after being wounded by Dye. I worked really hard to make it plausible that the official record was what others thought had happened. But you can’t really have a whodunit when you know whodunit.
Death of the Chinese Field Hands was the toughest to write for a lot of reasons. It, too, is based on an actual event in Los Angeles history – the lynching of eighteen Chinese men on October 24, 1871. Oddly enough, Death of an Heiress gave me considerable trouble, as well, but for different reasons. I suspect it was mostly due to the Pandemic.
The next book in the series will be Death of the Drunkard. This one is also completely fictional. I’d write more about it, but I still haven’t worked everything out and there’s the possibility that it will change.