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SunLit Interviews

Jennifer Kincheloe built her stories around a relatively little-known venue for women’s rights

In the early 1900s, women in police custody were at the mercy of an entirely male system. Police matrons addressed that problem, and provided rich characters for her novels.

Jennifer is a research scientist and writer of historical mysteries. Her novels take place in 1900s Los Angeles among the police matrons of the LAPD and combine mystery, history, humor, and romance. In addition to two Colorado Author’s League Writing Award nominations, her novels have been nominated for three prestigious Lefty Awards, the Macavity Award, and have won a Mystery & Mayhem Award and the Colorado Gold.

Jennifer grew up in Southern California, but has traveled to such places as Greenland, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and Papua New Guinea. She’s been a block layer, a nurse’s aid, a fragrance model, and on the research faculty at UCLA, where she spent 11 years conducting studies to inform health policy. Jennifer currently lives in Denver, Colorado, with her two teenagers, three dogs, and a cat. There she conducts research on the jails.

The following is an interview with the author.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


What inspired you to write this book? 

The incredibly brave women who worked to reform police departments and local jails in the late 19th and early 20th century. The movement began with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) whose members would go into the jails to visit incarcerated women, most of whom had been arrested for drunkenness. 

Picture it, drunk women behind bars, guarded only by men. They were raped. Their labor was exploited. Children, too. Horrified by the conditions that these women suffered, the WCTU and other women’s clubs across the country lobbied to get matrons into the police stations and jails to protect vulnerable women and children. 

The idea was a hard sell. The male establishment fought it. In the words of one police chief, “A woman would be spying out and publishing things that should not go outside to the public.”

I’ll say.

The police also claimed there was no budget to pay police matrons’ salaries and that no decent woman would apply. The women’s lobbying organizations identified highly qualified, willing candidates. Often, they worked for free. In some instances, women’s clubs and organizations stepped up and paid the salaries for police matrons out of their own pockets. Their efforts paid off. In the late 19th century, police stations and jails began to hire police matrons, and in some states, they became mandated by law. The first police matron in Los Angeles was Lucy Gray in 1888 — 27 years before my fictional character, Anna Blanc, was hired as a police matron by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?

Let me introduce my protagonist, Anna Blanc. Any police matron would be a fish out of water simply because she’s a woman. But to make it interesting, I asked myself, what would it be like for a sheltered, 20-year-old, rich girl, hired for her beauty, to work in Los Angeles’s Central Station in the rough world of cops? And what if she’s brilliant? How did her upbringing prepare her, or not? How did sexism shape and cripple her? She knows little of the world and has no credibility. She presents like a debutante but has the best mind on the force. She swims upstream against a powerful current of prejudice, but she’s an excellent detective. 

Much of the humor comes from the conflict between what society tells her she’s supposed to do, and what she does. RT Book Reviews described it as “an I-Love-Lucy meets Agatha Christie adventure.”

This excerpt is from the third book, “The Body in Griffith Park.” Anna Blanc and her secret beau, Detective Joe Singer, are investigating the death of a blackmailer. She’s not supposed to be investigating, but someone she cares about is under suspicion. She wants to clear his name. She’s also trying to trap a second criminal — the rapist of a 15 year-old-girl. The girl, Matilde, has had a psychotic break, and describes her attacker as “a man from Mars.”

Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?

When I started writing this series, I knew nothing about the Progressive Era, but had a vague notion that they washed their hair with egg yolks and drank Coca Cola laced with cocaine. So I immersed myself in Anna Blanc’s culture. I read novels written during the era — books my characters would have read — learning speech patterns and social morés. I harvested slang from the novels, but also fromThe Historical Dictionary of American Slang.” It comes in a mammoth two-volume set and has 14 pages for the f-word alone.

I listened to music she would have listened to and watched videos of dances she would have done. I watched silent films and collected tens of thousands of digital photographs from the 1900s. I read text books, diaries, memoirs, eyewitness accounts, court transcripts, legislation, administrative documents, cookbooks, etiquette books, books for housewives, how-to books on marriage, courtship guides, a coroner’s manual, doctoral dissertations, and newspapers from the 1900s. I spoke with experts — professors, and museum curators.

Et cetera, et cetera.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?

Biggest hurdle: Writing while raising kids and working a full-time job.

Biggest surprise: You never know how your books are going to land. It surprised me that this one was nominated for two prestigious awards.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet? 

I wrote this book evenings, weekends, and on my lunch break, in mostly noisy settings full of distractions. I stole time to write this book and wrote anywhere I could. Writers do what they must do. I have an author friend who writes by dictating into a tape recorder on her commute to work. 

What’s your next project?

My fourth Anna Blanc mystery, “The Cries in the Wall,” is coming out next summer. All my books are based on real crimes from the late 1900s. I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say there are a lot of babies in this book.

Buy “The Body in Griffith Park” through BookBar.
Read an excerpt from the book.

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