Television Finds Kitty Pangborn’s Era. What’s That Gonna Mean?

We got into watching Boardwalk Empire. It wasn’t actually much of a reach. After all, the storyline deals with a period of time about which I’ve done an enormous amount of research. Though the series takes place a decade before the adventure in the Kitty Pangborn books happens, Prohibition is a huge factor. As a result, we’re seeing events put in motion that will ultimately lead to the reason things look much as they do in Kitty’s 1931 LA. And as much as I’ve been able to research for the Pangborn books, a lot of that ultimately ends up being black and white: though for good reason. In Boardwalk Empire, Scorsese has brought it all to vivid life in amazing, HBO-quality color. That’s been a real treat for me: like seeing my dreams walk right off the page. And then, of course, it’s Scorsese. Was there even a chance we would not watch? There was not.

So we’re watching, David and I, and I see a scene that seemed to me to have dropped right out of Death Was the Other Woman. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that it did. It’s actually one of those scenes that make the era so terrific to write about, in terms of crime fiction. I mean, things like this happened to people. As they always will when you mix organized crime and a lot of money with illegal substances. It’s a deadly cocktail.

So the scene. Dex an Kitty are in a speak in San Francisco with a lot of Kitty’s old school friends. Kitty leaves the table to do some sleuthing and when she comes back, she finds all of her friends looking at Dex, “and each face held a look of sheer horror.”
“ONCE A WEEK like clockwork this guy went to his barber for a haircut and a shave. One day he goes in to get his ears lowered and his chin scraped and notices there’s a different barber. Doesn’t think anything of it. Sits down in the chair, starts talking baseball, the weather, the price of biscuits, who knows? Next thing you know, fffft.” Dex sliced his index finger across his own throat. “Straight razor. They left him in the chair in front of the big picture window as a sign.”

“What kind of sign?” Gladys asked shakily. Our other friends were just as mesmerized, their faces never leaving Dex’s. And he does so love an audience.

“The kind of sign that says: This man messed with the wrong people.” Dex shrugged his shoulders, as though acknowledging another element of the universe’s great inevitable. “There you are, kid,” he said, noticing me. “I was startin’ to get worried.”
Lately, watching television has offered me many moments like that, though that’s a pretty new sensation. When I first started writing books set in the 1930s, I sometimes had a tough time convincing people it was historical fiction. (It was. It is. But don’t get me started.) The funny thing is, I’ve been so focused on writing contemporary fiction of late, Kitty is far from my mind (though never, of course, entirely from my heart). So its fun, in television shows like Boardwalk Empire and the beautifully detailed Kate Winslet miniseries Mildred Pierce, to see the era so skillfully depicted. And, who knows? The sudden interest in the era might even pull Miss Kitty off the bench.


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