Stardust and Twinkling Lights – Susan Van Kirk

We’re delighted to welcome Susan Van Kirk, author of the Endurance Mysteries, to the blog today! Take it away, Susan!005-color

I’m thrilled to be able to write on a New England website because I love visiting New England. In truth, however, I am a native Midwesterner, product of Galesburg, Illinois, a town that hosted the fifth Lincoln/Douglas debate and led the abolitionist fight during the pre-Civil War days. Now I’m a resident of a smaller, nearby town called Monmouth (Illinois, not New Jersey.) I mention this because woven throughout my mystery novels is my first love— history.

Currently, I write the Endurance mysteries, cozies named for my small, fictional town in downstate Illinois. Three May Keep a Secret, Marry in Haste (Nov. 2016), and Death Takes No Bribes (spring, 2017) follow Grace Kimball, recently retired high school English teacher, whose friend is TJ Sweeney, her former student and now Endurance police detective. Each of these is a cozy mystery that follows the dictates of the genre.

Recently, however, I decided to write a novella called The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney. Unlike Grace, TJ is biracial, thirty-nine, and has never married. I should mention, too, guys go in and out of her life at the speed of light. It’s been a stretch to live life through Sweeney’s eyes. The Locket is a spinoff of the Endurance series and could be classified as a police procedural that compliments the cozy Endurance mysteries.

Susan's parents
Susan’s parents

The idea for the novella came, once again, from history. Back in the 1940s, my parents used to go dancing at a big band venue called the Roof Garden. It was on the roof of a four-floor office building in downtown Galesburg. Unfortunately, my parents are no longer alive, so I had to go searching for someone in their late 80s or early 90s who could talk with me about the Roof Garden. Enter an 88-year-old lady named Ruth Pecsi. She can still jitterbug. Seriously.

Her interview yielded wonderful information about the Roof Garden in the 1930s and 1940s. “Back then,” she said, “people were just crazy about dancing. My brother was seven years older than me, and he taught me all the latest dance moves.”

The Roof Garden opened officially on July 3, 1929, and closed shortly after World War II. The Roof GardenBut during the 1930s and 1940s, it was “the place to be,” especially on Saturday nights. Ruth grew up during the Depression. Working at a grocery store from the time she was fourteen, she saved her money so she and her friends could go dancing on Saturday nights. At that age the girls danced together, and she had a strict nine o’clock curfew.

On summer nights, the Roof Garden would be crowded with people wanting to dance, no matter how hot the night, and a cool breeze blew across the dance floor. Couples could see all of the town from the rooftop, and, for safety, the owners had put a railing all around the sides. Twinkling lights were strung throughout, and a band shell was over to one side. It was magical. Bands led by Tiny Hill, Lawrence Welk, Tommy Dorsey, and Paul Whiteman all played there.

Ruth Pecsi
Ruth Pecsi

“On dance nights, you had to buy a ticket to get in,” Ruth said, “and it cost about twenty or twenty-five cents. You weren’t supposed to bring alcohol, but most of the guys slipped a pint bottle into their coat pockets. Smooching or other displays of affection were frowned upon, and they had security guys. But never, in all those years, was there a fight or brawl.”

On the north end of Galesburg was an army hospital built in 1943. Casualties were brought in by railroad because the Burlington Northern and the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe both came through the town. A bus would take the more ambulatory patients downtown on Saturday nights so they could go to the Roof Garden. A local school, Knox College, had an air cadet program, so some of those men would also go to the dances. [And here I am rubbing my mystery writer’s hands with glee at this transitory intersection of strangers.]

How did I translate all this interesting history into a murder mystery? In the current day, a

A ticket to Starlight
A ticket to Starlight

construction crew is digging the foundation for a building and finds buried human remains. Investigating the site, TJ Sweeney must try to identify this person and figure out how he or she came to die. Items in the burial site lead her to the Roof Garden. Using modern technology and forensic experts, she can trace the bones back to the 1940s, but that was long before DNA databases. How will she close this cold case?

After speaking with Ruth, I dedicated an entire chapter of the mystery to her information, and I used one of her images directly in the conversation. It seems like a lovely way to end this posting. Sweeney asks an elderly character what people did back then if they couldn’t afford a quarter for the dance at the Roof Garden.

“If you looked over the edge, you could see people dancing in the street and on the sidewalks. The music simply floated down there from the top of the building, and a whole ʼnother dance was going on down below. From above, you could gaze down on the couples and the glowing streetlights. You see, back then, even if you couldn’t afford the dance, you could still have a little of the starlight.”

Thanks for sharing this story, Susan! Readers, leave a comment for Susan below.

23 Thoughts

  1. I want to meet this Ruth, Susan! What a treasure you’ve found. And I love the premise of the novella and the series, too. Welcome to the blog!

    1. Thank you, Edith. Ruth is a wonderful person, and I’m so glad I met her. As is often the case, she told me so many interesting things beyond what went into the novella.

  2. Thank you. History has always been interesting to me, and like many readers, I live right in the middle of some great stories from the past. How about you all? History in your own back yards?

  3. Thanks, Debra. Love to use images in books. It probably goes back to growing up at the drive-in theatre and watching images on the screen. Good luck with your soon-to-be launching of “Should Have Played Poker.”

  4. Sounds like a fascinating series. I love history, too. And the information you shared? I want to go back in time to one of those Saturday night dances myself now.

    1. I am told, Mark, that the Roof Garden was the place to be on Saturday nights. Big band music, twinkling lights, a huge dance floor, and a view of the city. The Depression was over and WWII was just beginning. Thanks for checking it out.

    1. It was, Carolyn. In this cold case, a young woman went missing the night of her first anniversary. She and her husband had been celebrating at the Roof Garden. She’s a mystery because her fingerprints wouldn’t be in a database. So how to identify her? Makes for a lot of twists and turns.

  5. Reading this story made me wish that I had been around at that time, you see I loved to dance when I was younger.

    1. I can sure understand, Mary Jane. Ruth told me that the dance studio in the Roof Garden building sent their instructors to Chicago to learn the latest dances. Then, on Tuesday nights, they’d teach them to the local people. Ruth’s brother taught her the latest moves. As she said, “They were just crazy about dacing!” So this would probably have been a great time for you!

  6. I love this sort of “near history,”–far enough that life is different now, but close enough there are still living links to it. I would love to read the novella.

    Welcome to the Wicked Cozies, Susan.

    1. Thanks, Barbara, and please do read my novella. As I researched, I realized how hard it was to find living people who were able to talk to me about this. It took several weeks to track down Ruth. And while the novella is short- 82 pages of story–it touches on a subject you would never expect! Thanks for giving me an opportunity to post. I read Wicked Cozies all the time.

    1. Hope you enjoy it! It’s a challenge for a modern detective to try to solve a 70-year-old case.

  7. What fun ! We at work were just talking about how our parents went out dancing with their gang of friends. Did they have (Proms) who could have afforded a prom back then? I said I don’t think so.Now that’s a good question for Ruthie!

    1. Hi, Veronica…Doubt that they had proms. In the 30s, especially, both my parents were working in their teenage years just trying to help the family pay the bills. As you could see, Ruth was working at age 14. Wow. When she told me about the deprivations of trying to keep body and soul together during the Depression, I could understand why dancing was such a wonderful experience on the weekend.

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