“These were women of bravery and adaptability, and we have not heard their stories enough.”
I have lived the life of a crime writer, a true crime host, a feminist activist and human rights advocate, and a fashion model. I’ve shot guns with the LAPD, been set on fire, choked unconscious and spent time in morgues for crime research.
But perhaps no work of mine has so completely rolled together my passions—the history, untold stories and style of the 1940s, hardboiled fiction, strong women of grit and adaptability, and the impacts of conflict on everyday people—as this novel, The War Widow.
The War Widow was born from a mix of real life and fantasy, of family stories of World War II, my fascination with the 1940s and women’s postwar history, my love of the great noir and hardboiled fiction of the period, and my love of action and the great women who made their mark on that time. These were women of bravery and adaptability, and we have not heard their stories enough.
Delving into women’s histories and revisiting hardboiled classics made me want to subvert the genre, and write a 1940s private eye story with a woman who is different to the stereotyped dames so often portrayed in the genre—not a one-dimensional victim, not a femme fatale or ‘fatal woman’, but a woman of action and grit. The center of the story. A woman with agency and resilience. That heroine became my new fictional protagonist, the stylish, champagne swilling, fast-talking, and fast driving Billie Walker.
Women like her existed. And they exist today. Resourceful women. Women who change the world.
Here’s to the brave and adaptable women who lived in this extraordinary time, and to the thousands of rebellions of everyday people, today and always.
I hope you love The War Widow.
The People’s Palace was, suffice to say, not much of a palace. It was a rendered-brick eight-story hotel and lodging house at 400 Pitt Street, boasting very moderate rooms, in capital letters so it had to be true, with hygienically prepared meals and tastefully served foods, clean and comfortable sleeping rooms.
For some years, the Palace had been under Salvation Army management. The Victorian-era building at some time housed a public bath and been a meeting place for swimming teams, thanks to an impressive pool, since filled in and bricked over.
Times had changed. There were certainly no athletes meeting here now, and at nearly 1:30 on a Saturday night it looked quiet inside, though the streets were still inhabited, mostly with men, some in uniform, evidently trying to find trouble to get into. With so many about, you wouldn’t have thought it was already hours after the infamous six-o’clock swill before the public bars closed. In fact, Billie realized she hadn’t spotted another woman since they’d left the theater district. The hotel was a mere walk away, not far from Billie’s Daking House office and the Central Railway and tramlines.
The air was doing her good, even if she didn’t care to advertise to Sam that the champagne had really gone to her head, making her feel queer. The idea of her own employee coddling her wasn’t acceptable. She was made of stronger stuff than that.
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There was a greenish glow to the lighting in the lobby of the Palace, visible through the large front windows as Billie and Sam approached. Billie pushed open one of the main double doors, looked over her shoulder, and caught Sam slipping into the shadows of the street. If she didn’t emerge in half an hour he would come up to room 305 to check on her. That was the plan. She knew it was her plan, but her head was starting to ache fiercely, and, despite herself, she was starting to regret being there.
Stay sharp, Walker.
The lobby was sparsely furnished with some weathered couches and chairs, a lamp that glowed about as brightly as a single candle, and a table pushed against one wall. There was a sound in the office behind the bell desk…perhaps the stirring of a night watchman who was, at this moment, not doing what Billie would class as a top-notch job. That suited her fine. Otherwise, all was quiet.
She looked around one more time with a sweep of her tired eyes, and on realizing that Con Zervos was nowhere in sight, she pulled the stairwell door open and started to climb. Her legs ached sharply, and she reminded herself that she just needed to get through the next hour; then she’d be back in her own bed to sleep things off.
Stepping into the corridor on the third level, she encountered yet more quiet, save for the muted sounds of a radio playing in a room nearby and the muffled noises coming from Pitt Street below. The walls weren’t cardboard here, she mused; they just didn’t soundproof the new places like this. A light glowed from beneath a door three rooms away. That would be 305, she guessed, but as she approached she saw it was 304. No light showed under the door to 305. Good goddess, she felt tired. So tired. Something was most assuredly not right.
Billie put her hand on the knob of room 205 and the door creaked as it moved. It had not been latched.
A chill went up her spine, and she stepped back, her heavy head clearing instantly with the sense of something being very wrong. Instinctively she reached down, hiked up her dark crepe dress, and pulled the little Colt from her garter. She fixed her finger over the trigger, the mother-of-pearl handle warm from the heat of her thigh. Despite the spinning in her head only moments before, her hands were steady. She put one foot forward and eased the door open.
“Mr. Zervos?” she asked the coal black room.
There was no answer.
Billie reasoned she might have missed him as he went down to the lobby to wait for her, he going down one set of stairs as she climbed another, but her instincts tossed the notion away. That wasn’t what this was. The little woman in her tummy, the little woman who knew things, knew that this was something else entirely. A knowledge that came from every bit of this puzzle that didn’t quite fit yet, every observance, every signal. There was a cloying smell in the room that made her feel jumpy, and the heaviness of her head was becoming more distinct, though adrenaline was pushing it back as best it could. She was not safe. What was that smell? It was metallic, like blood or vomit or the sickly sweat of a fever. Someone needed to open a window. She didn’t want to walk through that dark doorway, but she needed light.
Billie reached along the wall to her right, her fingers searching like spiders until they found a protruding light switch. She flicked it down. The light came on with a start, illuminating the small single room as a lightning bolt would have done, revealing a diorama of horrors, then going out, plunging her back into darkness, before flickering on again with a faint and steady hum.
Billie did not scream. She did not flinch. She just looked at him.
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