BEHIND THE BOOK – Fiction in the 1930’s

There are several different ways an author can approach writing a story set in another time period. They can do a lot of research on the time in order to get the historical details accurate. That’s an important part of the process because the same type of reader attracted to historical fiction will most likely know quite a bit about the era in which your story is set and won’t be shy about pointing out inaccuracies in their reviews. 

But data on details and events can only get a writer so far. After all, you’re writing a novel, not a history book. It’s up to the writer to do more than just the details right. Tone is equally important, as is the setting and even the way people spoke. For example, a novel set in the Revolutionary War shouldn’t have George Washington saying, “Seriously?” when he gets a bad report from the front lines. These elements are great ways to subtly add layers to your work without detracting from the flow of the story. 

The best way I have found to accomplish authenticity is to not just read news accounts from the era but to read fiction from the time I’ve chosen. It gives me a feel for how people thought and spoke back then. I have found that literature gives me a much better flavor of a time period than movies do. Even the classic films about 1930s gangsters filmed during the same era aren’t accurate when it comes to dialogue. Many of the details had to be change popular sayings or cut them out entirely to satisfy the censors of the day. For example, the term ‘the bees knees’ was a cleaned up version of a more popular phrase that someone thought they were ‘the cat’s nuts’, meaning they were proud of what they had. It was an expression my grandmother used all the time. 

A more modern example of how movie research can be problematic is The Sting, a wonderful movie set in the 1930s starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman with an iconic theme song. The problem? The theme song was popular more than a decade before the events of the film. It works great on the screen, but it’s not historically accurate. 

That’s why fiction of the era can be a rich source of accuracy. As my latest novel, THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT, is set in 1930s New York, here are some of the novels I read in an attempt to understand the time period better. 

The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain – 1934

By now, it’s a classic tale of a wanderer and a beautiful young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. It’s a novel that peels away some of the refined veneer we have placed on the era and shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Thieves Like Us – Edward Anderson – 1937

This story, set among the turmoil that was the Great Depression, Is about three criminals who escape from jail and embark on a spree of bank-robberies. A manhunt ensues, but not without plenty of twists and turns along the way.

Fast One – Paul Cain – 1933

This one is perhaps my favorite of the bunch. It’s a story about gangsters vying for control of Los Angeles at the end of Prohibition. It’s a great book where the protagonist finds himself pulled in several directions as he decides whether to join the fight or stay out of the way. It’s also a dynamic book that shows more about the era than we have seen in movies or books. The ending is as brutal as it is rewarding.

Red Harvest – Dashiell Hammett – 1929

I know you’ve probably read through this list and wondered why Hammett’s work hadn’t appeared yet. Don’t worry. We got there. While technically not a 1930s novel, it’s close enough for our purposes. This book isn’t a Sam Spade novel, but instead centers on the nameless Continental Op and, for my money, is a better book than The Maltese Falcon. It’s a classic detective story with themes that Hammett uses in his later works portraying the detective as more than a noble knight errant, but a human being with a job to do. 

There are also countless short stories in various collections available for purchase but, to me, these four books are a great place to being one’s quest in obtaining a greater understanding of 1930s crime in fiction.