The Hips of the Eel – Slang in the 1920s

One of the most fun things about writing Stella Hart is her dialogue. She’s a classic, F. Scott Fitzgerald-style New York flapper working in Hollywood as a silent movie actress and running around the globe solving murders with her hunky love interest, George Barrington, 13th Baronet of Kingsley-on-Pike. And she talks like a party girl of that era–if she were alive today, her TikTok would be amazing. The 1920s were a period of huge upheaval and cultural growth, and the slang reflects that. What amazed me when I started researching it was 1)how funny and snarky it was in a very contemporary way, and 2)how many of these expressions still sound modern right now. I mean, check this stuff out:

Bunny: Someone sweet but not very smart, usually female, though Stella has been known to apply it equally to men. ‘Dumb bunny’ is one step more clueless. ‘Poor dumb bunny’ is just pitiful.

Bushwa: One of Stella’s favorites, something that isn’t true, a less coarse word for bullshit. See also: Applesauce, baloney, banana oil, horsefeathers, hokum

Carry a torch: I still use this one today but apparently it originated in the 1920s. To have a crush on someone, particularly someone who doesn’t crush you back.

Crush: Also from the 1920s – a romantic infatuation

Eel’s hips, the: Something that’s awesome and amazing. See also: The cat’s meow, the bee’s knees. Stella usually takes this one a step further and says ‘the hips of the eel.’

Giggle water: alcoholic beverages. Stella’s favorite is champagne, but George prefers a good gin and tonic.

Jalopy: An old, junker car, though Stella uses it ironically to refer to George’s very expensive, state-of-the-art roadsters.

Kid/kiddo: A familiar form of address. Stella tends to call any woman she likes ‘kid.’

Nerts: A wholesome expletive to express disgust, dislike, or disbelief. Stella saying, “Nerts to that noise!” never fails to make George laugh.

Ossified: Intoxicated. See also: Spifflicated.

Screwy: Insane, bizarre, crazy. Bugs Bunny uses this one a lot, too–I think Bugs must have learned to talk in the 1920s.

Sex appeal/sexy: The 1920s is when this expression first became common, and it was still considered rather risque.

Valentino: A handsome, sexy man, obviously inspired by the movie star Rudolph Valentino. Stella applies it to George; George rolls his eyes.

There’s lots more, obviously, but these are some of ones Stella uses a lot. Check out her latest adventure, The Baronet Unleashed, on July 29.

Available July 29 – pre-order now!

The Passion of Miss Cuthbert

Stella 2 Passion of Miss CuthbertI have a new book out. It’s called The Passion of Miss Cuthbert, and it’s the second in my series of romantic mysteries starring amateur detective Stella Hart. Stella is a silent movie actress in the 1920s whose stepfather owns an English manor house. Her fiancé and partner in crime-solving is George Barrington, Thirteenth Baronet of Kingsley-on-Pike. Stella is white. George is white. Stella’s mom and stepfather are white. Stella and George spend this installment on an ocean liner where the passengers we meet are all white, including the corpse, the killer, and Miss Cuthbert, the frumpy chaperone whose passion ignites the plot.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past couple of weeks, you begin to see my problem.

The book was actually released as scheduled on June 4, 2020, a/k/a Day 10 of the protests following the murder of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department. That morning, my publishers and I talked it over and agreed that yeah, any kind of big promo push for my book that day would be disrespectful, tone deaf, and just generally gross. We all had friends on the front lines of the protests. More importantly, we had friends and colleagues whose lives were in danger every time they left the house.

I won’t pretend it made me happy to ignore my book release. I worked really hard on that story, and I’m proud of it. Plus it’s the first book I’ve ever written specifically and completely for Falstaff Crush, the Falstaff Books romance line, and I think that’s kind of cool. And trust me, I’m as arrogant and self-involved as any writer alive, and I really, really want to sell books. But not even I could stomach doing commercials for an easy-breezy story of a white girl on a cruise ship last Thursday.

John, Melissa, and I decided to wait to do any major promo until tomorrow, June 9, and as you can see, I’m blogging about it today. Is that any better? Is it still too soon? Honestly, I don’t have a clue.

Diversity has been on my mind with these books since the beginning. My original inspirations for this kind of story were  two of the most overtly racist popular writers of the twentieth century, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse. (If you don’t know what I’m on about, Google it. I don’t have the heart to tell you.) I knew going in I had to fix that, that my main characters were going to be sensitive to the world view of people not like them and aware of their privilege. And I think I’ve stayed true to that; I hope I have. But in these first two books at least, everybody is still #sowhite. I actually toyed with the idea of making Stella’s lady’s maid, the wise and fearless Sophie, a Black woman. I even floated the idea to my alpha reader, my sister, Alexandra Christian. Together we agreed it was a bad idea for two reasons: one, I’d only be doing it to have a Black character in the story, and two, if my story was only going to have one Black character, she did NOT need to be a lady’s maid.

So in Book One: Guinevere’s Revenge, which is set at that English manor house, everybody’s white. The second book I actually wrote for the series was The Baronet Unleashed. It takes place in Hollywood and has multiple Black characters, at least two of whom are scheduled to turn up in future installments. But when I started writing the Miss Cuthbert story, I realized it needed to happen before George saw Hollywood, so The Passion of Miss Cuthbert became Book 2, and The Baronet Unleashed became Book 3. If we’re all still around and books are still a thing, it should be coming out sometime this fall.

I wrote The Passion of Miss Cuthbert in January, February, and March of 2020 as the dumpster fire that my own personal life had become exploded outward into the dumpster fire that has engulfed everybody else. Writing it was my comfort, my escape, and I make no apologies for it. It’s a damned good book. Do I wish that for the week of its release, half of America was not at war with the other half? That we weren’t all in danger of getting sick and/or making one another sick, that some of us weren’t threatening violence for the right to make our neighbors sick? That Black Americans could live their lives as safely and fearlessly as I do mine, that we as a country could collectively agree to that as their inalienable right instead of brutalizing them in the public streets for even asking? I do, of course I do. I wish that every day whether I have a new book out or not. I’ve written lots of words that speak to that wish both in fiction and not, and I’ll keep doing that because writing words is the thing I do best.

But this week, I’ve got Stella, and she’s good. She’s fun. She means well. If that seems wrong to you, I get it; ignore me. My feelings won’t be hurt. But if you could use what my editor calls “All goodness and light with just a little touch of murder,” let me hook you up.

WIP: Chapter 1 of Vamp

I’ve gotten to that point in writing  my new vampire novel where I could really use a nudge.  Anybody want to peek at Chapter 1?

Chapter 1

Rosalie left work at midnight.  Rain was blowing in gusts down the sidewalk.  Within a block, her umbrella was broken, and her flimsy excuse for a raincoat was useless.  By the time she ducked down the steps into the subway tunnel, she was soaked and shivering all over.  You can’t get sick, she told herself, hurrying through the deserted station toward her train from Manhattan to the Bronx.  If you get sick, Gladys will kill you.

For a few heady moments, she thought her luck had changed.  Her train wasn’t in yet, but the platform was deserted. But just as she heard the train approaching, there he was, the Masher, reeling out from behind a column like a killer gorilla in a nickelodeon short.  “Evening, girly,” he said, tipping his hat and giving her the leer she saw in her nightmares.  “Nice weather, ain’t it?”

“Hello.”  She had learned months ago that refusing to speak to him just made it worse, less than a week after she’d started this rotten job.  The train stopped, and she stepped aboard, catching hold of one of the handles just inside the door.  The car was empty, but he caught the handle just behind her, giggling like a schoolgirl.  Sitting down made it worse, too.  One night he had gotten her cornered; she had ridden all the way to the Bronx with his fat, smelly bulk pressed against her.  She thought about the dry fountain pen tucked in her purse.  One night I’ll have to do it, she thought.  One night I’ll have to stab him to get away, and it better be in the eye because the arm won’t even slow him down.

Just as the train was pulling out of the station, a second man came in from the next car.  No one could have been less like the Masher.  He was young and handsome with dark wavy hair and an impeccable black tuxedo.  His tie was undone and his overcoat and vest were both open as if he’d just come from someplace wonderful.  He was carrying a folded black umbrella like it was a dancer’s cane and a folded newspaper under his arm.  He was as graceful as a danger, too, moving down the rocking subway car with barely a sway.  He smiled and nodded to Rosalie in a gentlemanly way, and she saw he had perfectly even white teeth with slightly pointed canines, a touch of the cruel male animal behind a mouth as sensuous as any woman’s.  He sat down in a seat opposite her and the Masher, set down his umbrella, opened his paper, and began to read.

“Say, girly, tell me again,” the Masher said.  “What are you doing out so late, anyway?”

“I have a job as a telephone operator,” she said, turning away from both men to stare out the window dim, streaming light of the tunnel.  “I work at night.”

“Now that’s a shame.”  He swayed closer with the motion of the train, and she smelled his beer-rancid breath.  “That is a goddamned shame.  Pretty girl like you working nights.  What is that husband of yours thinking, anyhow?”

“I . . .”  For the hundredth time, she had to stop herself from telling him she didn’t have a husband.  Lies came hard to her.  “I’d rather not discuss it.”

“Oh, you’d rather not?” he said, mocking her inflection.  “You’d rather not?  You get that smart mouth with your boyfriend, girly?”  They were approaching a tunnel with no lights, and she began to tremble with more than the cold.  She had hoped the presence of the other man in the car might keep him in line a bit, but it seemed to have made him bolder and angrier, as if he enjoyed having an audience.  “Maybe he ought to smak you around and teach you better manners.”  The pitch black darkness was almost on them.  She turned and saw him wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Excuse me.”  With no warning, the man from across the car was suddenly beside them.  His pale face and white teeth almost glowed in the sudden gloom.  Both the Masher and Rosalie gasped, and Rosalie staggered, letting go of the handle.  The stranger caught her easily, one arm around her waist for barely a moment as he lowered her into a seat.  The car emerged into gloomy light again, and she saw he was smiling.  “Are you all right?” he asked her.  He had beautiful brown eyes.

“She’s fine,” the Masher blustered.  “What’s the matter with you?”

A look of disgust came over the stranger’s face.  “Don’t speak,” he said, turning to the Masher.  “Don’t look at her.”  He was backing the fat man away from her, back toward the door at the end of the car.  “Don’t breathe your foul stink on her or look at her or even think about her.”  Their gazes were locked, and even though the Masher was just as tall as the stranger and outweighed him by half as much again, he looked deathly sick with fear.  “You think she doesn’et know what you think about  her, pig?”  She couldn’t see the stranger’s face any more, just his back.  The Masher’s piggy little eyes had gone flat, and his mouth worked like a baby’s working up to a scream.  “You think I don’t know?”  He thumped the Masher in the chest, and he fell back with a shriek.

“I’m sorry,” he said, almost weeping.  “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t look at her ever again.” The Masher was nodding.  “Don’t think about her.”  The stranger had stopped moving, but the Masher continued to back away, stumbling, tripping over his own feet.  “If your filthy little brain dares to touch her again, your piggy little heart will explode.”

The Masher shot one final desperate look at Rosalie, then screamed, clutching his chest.  Rosalie reached into her purse as the Masher turned and staggered through the door out of the car.  She could hear him still screaming as he passed out of sight.

Her hands were shaking so badly she could barely take hold of the fountain pen.  Then the stranger turned around . . . and looked like the same perfectly pleasant young man who had first come into the car.  “Are you all right?” he asked her again.

“Yes.”  The train was slowing, pulling into her station.  “Yes, I’m fine.”

“Very good.”  With a nod, he retrieved his newspaper and his umbrella.  “I don’t think he’ll be giving you any more trouble.”

“No.”  She could see nothing about him that the Masher should have found so frightening.  When he’d been threatening him, there had been something terrible about his voice that had frightened her, too.  But now, facing his smile, she couldn’t remember why.  “Thank you.”

“Not at all.”  He tucked his newspaper under his arm as the train pulled to a stop.  “Will you be all right now?” She thought she detected a slight Irish lilt in his smart Park Avenue accent.  “May I walk you home?”

“No, thank you.  I’m sure I’ll be fine.”  She thought about taking him home to Gladys’ kitchen and didn’t know if she should laugh or cry.  “I have to stop off at the drugstore.”

“If you’re sure.”  He put a hand on the subway door to hold it open as she passed.  “Good night.”

She smiled, ducking her head.  “Good  night.”

———————————————————————————–

            Mike watched the pretty girl hurry toward the stairs to the street.  Poor kitten . . . how did the sweet ones like her ever manage to survive long enough to lose their looks?  He watched until her shapely little calves in their ugly brown stockings disappeared up the stairs.

He took the dirty handkerchief he’d stolen from the brute out of his pocket and sniffed it.  A cloying little whiff of verbena under the general stench.  Betcha he lived with his ma.  With a last rueful look at the stairs where the girl had disappeared, he stepped back onto the train.

The brute had made it through three cars before he had collapsed.  He was lolled back in a corner seat, his collar undone, an open silver flask clutched in his fist.  “Hiya, Piggy,” Mike said.  “Got a match?”

The mortal’s eyes snapped open.  “No.”  His face contorted with terror as he tried to scramble to his feet.  “You let me go.  I ain’t thought about that little bitch, not once!”

Mike smiled, letting his fangs extend to full.  “Little bitch?”

“I’m sorry!  Jesus Christ, I didn’t mean it!”  He was like a turtle trapped on its back, arms and legs flailing in vain.

“Don’t blaspheme to me, you worthless sack of filth.”  He grabbeed the brute by his lapels and yanked him to his feet.  “You meant to rape that innocent girl.”

“No—“

“If she’d fought you, you might even have killed her.”

“I wouldn’t!”

“Don’t lie to me!”  He had seen into this creature’s piggy little mind as soon as he’d stepped onto the subway train, seen his plans writhing like maggots in his head.  “But it’s going to be okay, Walter,” he said, picking the name from the creature’s thoughts.  “I’m going to save you from yourself.”  He clamped his fangs on the brute’s thick neck like biting down into an apple.  His brain was rotten, but his blood was sweet, and the vampire took every drop.

End of Chapter 1