She Wore Red Shoes by the Newsstand: An Interview with The Gold Pawn Author L.A. Chandlar

New York-based writer L.A. Chandlar is the author of The Silver Gun and the just-published The Gold Pawn, the first two books in her Art Deco Mystery series. I spoke with her by instant message, where we discussed her work, characters, Chicago, architecture, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the most powerful, politically progressive cartoon character who ever lived, New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. Chandlar will appear at City Lit Books (2523 N. Kedzie Blvd.) at 6:30pm, this Thursday, September 27.

DK: For starters: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your work.

LC: I grew up in Metro Detroit, went to University of Michigan, worked at GM in PR, quit my job and toured/managed my husband’s rock band for five years. Then moved to NYC two weeks after 9/11 and was inspired with the resiliency of the city at a time of tremendous adversity. I picked up a biography on Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and felt that his time period of the thirties was much like my own in 9/11. Where the art, architecture, compassion, and humor (and cocktails!) was often overlooked because of the adversity of the Depression. I wanted to tell that part of the story. So I began writing the Art Deco Mystery series.

DK: Have you been a long-time fan of the time period? Any elements of the era in particular that stand out for you?

LC: Yes, those two decades sandwiched between the two iron bookends of the World Wars have always intrigued me.

Despite coming off the war, [and] heading into the second one, the jazz, the literature, heck, some of our favorite buildings in NYC (Empire State, Chrysler, Rockefeller, Radio City Music Hall) all went up DURING that time, after the Crash. So cool. And the women in the workforce were beginning to be a force to be reckoned with.

DK: I’m afraid I haven’t read The Silver Gun, and I’ve only just started The Gold Pawn. What can I expect, and do I need to go back and read the first installment to enjoy the new book?

LC: No, you can read Gold Pawn on its own. Of course the readers of Silver Gun are more informed on certain events. But that’s fun, too. Also, there is a piece of art in the background of each novel. It comes alongside the main character—and sometimes a villain—and helps them navigate the mystery or their own issues.

In SG it’s a famous artist who is a household name today, but wasn’t then. In GP it’s a classic chilling novel that everyone knows about but hardly anyone has read. And in book three—The Pearl Dagger (published in 2019), it’s the BEST. Orson Welles develops—as part of the Federal Works Project—the first all-black theater cast! They performed Macbeth set in Haiti instead of Scotland—and it was WILDLY successful.

DK: I see you came from the Detroit burbs and ended up in New York City; likewise Lane Sanders. Any other author/character parallels, or is that an irritating and predictable question?

LC: (Laughs) Not irritating. Let’s see, I’m of course in all the characters to some extent. Lane is especially part of me because I tell the story first person. But I have a lot of traits that end up in Aunt Evelyn, Valerie (best friend), and even some villains. (Laughs)

Every mystery is based in NYC, but as you saw in GP I take them to Detroit. In Pearl Dagger, they go to London. In book five I’m hoping to take the crew to Chicago, by the way.

DK: Greatest city on earth!

LC: Yeah! I do love Chicago. It really has its own special vibe—and being on Lake Michigan… I mean, come on!

DK: You touched on this a bit already, but regionally, what’s the appeal of 1930s Detroit and New York for you, general and specific?

LC: You know… I think the beauty and spirit of both in the ’30s is overshadowed by the Depression. And the idea of beauty in the midst of adversity is something so poignant. I grew up in Detroit and it’s had a rough time over the decades. I guess I wanted to show the gritty industrious spirit of it that was so lively.

Detroit always had a special place with me because my family was a big Motor City crew. And NYC has been very special to me. When I moved I had no idea if I’d love it or hate it. But when I got here I had this sensation that I’d been looking for this place my whole life and just hadn’t known it.

Cities in general are fascinating. I love the energy people bring. And that spontaneity can just happen. Cool things, art, experiences happen on a daily basis without planning an event. I love that.

DK: Any inspiration for Lane Sanders vis a vis 1930s/40s film and fictional noir, or did you try to entirely break away from the classic gun moll/brassy dame/fast-talking journo/etc. archetypes?

LC: I actually fashioned her on Kate Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor. There’s only a little classic gun moll, especially (in) slang, in Lane. I personally can’t handle too much slang. A little brings a historical element. A lot takes me out of the story and I’m wondering what all those words mean. (Laughs) So it’s  a departure. She loves her job as aide to the mayor, loves making a difference, loves the excitement and the fact that Fiorello always fights for the little guy. I think it has a lot to say for us today. That a political figurehead could actually fight for the everyday person.

DK: Fiorello La Guardia’s an interesting real-life figure to resurrect as a character. You mentioned reading a bio about him, but what drew you to writing him into your series?

LC: He was hilarious! I have pretty much every biography on him. I have always read hist-fic, and when I read about him, I just loved his spunk! I put a lot of real history concerning him into the books.

DK: I remembered that he read comics to kids on the radio.

LC: Everyone remembers the radio comics! Isn’t that funny?

DK: I found a YouTube video of him doing so. If I didn’t know who he was and if you described him to me, I’d imagine he was made up.

LC: He had a truly screechy, bellowing kind of voice. So I think he stood out, right?

On every panel I’m on, interview, etc… I say read my author notes! I always put in what is fictitious and what is fact. One reviewer didn’t like a scene in Silver Gun because “It could not have happened that way.” He didn’t read my notes. It was a scene that did in fact happen in real life.

DK: My wife and I are Lincoln buffs and have visited sites where he was born, lived, served, etc. Have you done the same with La Guardia?

LC: I love Lincoln! (On a quick side note, my friend Colleen Gleason just began a murder mystery series with Lincoln in the White House! You two should check it out)

Yes, regarding La Guardia [visits]. I’ve been to City Hall, and there are little statues and all sorts of places where he had an impact. I’m hoping to bring his story to life again. Even La Guardia airport—he’d been a WWI fighter pilot and knew that NYC needed its own airport. He’s the one that helped us get one.

DK: I hope this doesn’t provoke any spoilers: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is actually one of my favorite books, and I recognized some of the quotations that head several chapters of The Gold Pawn. What’s your history with the work and why tie it in with The Gold Pawn?

LC: Yay! I had a feeling YOU might recognize it.

DK: Robert Louis Stevenson is in my top 10 authors list. I want to start babbling about Jekyll/Hyde, but this is your interview.

LC: I do too! Man, I can’t wait for you to get to the end of Gold Pawn because of that! You have to text me when you’re done so we can talk about it. Well, that book has been SO “cartoonized.” When I read it for myself it was so deep, and I kept coming back to it in my mind for ages. In Gold Pawn, Lane has to face the ghosts of her past. In Silver Gun at the end, her love interest even takes note that she’s very level-headed, smart…yet he knew she hadn’t completely embraced the loss of her parents. And in this book Lane sees a side to herself—a darker side—and needs to wrestle through it like we all do. Later in the book, Jekyll/Hyde comes alongside another character! I won’t spoil it for you, but I hope you’ll see the fun levels and wrestling. It’s delicious.

DK: It seems like you’re an architecture fan. You mention a few Detroit and New York buildings in your book. Any others you don’t mention? Have any favorite buildings in Chicago? Planning to visit any or have you before?

LC: I love Chicago’s unique architecture and setting with the river. And I think architecture is the only art form [where] you get to actually walk through art. And buildings become not only landmarks, but the way you navigate the city. When we lost the two towers, honestly, not only was it heartbreaking to just not see them in the sky…I literally got lost on many occasions because I couldn’t see them. It was a weirdly profound loss in that way. And it highlighted one of the many reasons why it’s still such a bitter loss for us New Yorkers.

I will visit Chicago for a good art deco tour when I’m writing that book, for sure. And I’ve been to Chicago many times. I don’t have a particular building in mind at the moment, but I am in love with all the bridges and the river. Even the scent! It smells so different and wonderful than other cities because of the lake.

DK: And occasionally like chocolate because of Blommer’s.

LC: Nice! I mean, what can be better?

DK: But it doesn’t always smell so pretty, especially in the dog days. But on behalf of all Chicagoans, we appreciate your sentiment.

LC: Yeah, NYC too.

DK: You touched on this, but what’s coming after The Gold Pawn? Have anything in the works that you’d like to share, or do you keep things close to your chest?

LC: The Pearl Dagger will release next fall and in that one Finn, Lane’s love interest, will get a turn to face the ghosts of his past. They take a trip to London (on the Queen Mary and return on the Normandie) where they find the answers to questions about Lane’s parents and Finn’s story as it all ties together with a current cop-killer on the loose in NYC.

After that, I’m currently writing book four. I can tell you jazz will be the art form behind the story, and we might go back to Detroit for a bit to figure out how Detroit got its moniker “Whisky Town” during Prohibition… In book five, I’m looking at Coney Island and Chicago for a mystery surrounding a con artist fortune teller. Fiorello in real life hated fortune tellers and to this day palm readers and whatnot cannot have their place of business on the sidewalk level. His first wife went to one who foretold that she’d die young. Their little daughter died at one year old and his wife followed shortly after.

DK: What can folks expect at your City Lit appearance?

LC: I will have a little reading, a fun author talk, cake from Nothing Bundt Cake, giveaways (Sanders hot fudge) and I am bringing some vintage cocktails just like Lane loves. Anyone who wears red shoes to the event (like Lane) will also receive a special thank-you prize.

DK: What are you reading these days (authors and titles)?

LC: I read a lot. Edwin Hill’s Little Comfort. Anna Huber Lee’s Verity novels. R.J. Koreto’s Alice Roosevelt series. Kellye Garrett’s Hollywood Homicide novels…Rachel McMillan’s Murder at the Flamingo…And Colleen Gleason’s Murder at the Lincoln White House series.

DK: Throughout your life, what book have you most recommended others read? I think I phrased that correctly… Has there been a personal, eternally favorite book for you, I mean?

LC: The Count of Monte Cristo I’ve universally recommended. And personally, Rosamunde Pilcher’s Coming Home is somehow incredibly important to me. The end of Les Miserables was the first adult book to make me cry tears of joy and sorrow all mixed together. And Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody series was immensely inspiring.

DK: Finally, is there anything you wish I had asked?

LC: Actually, no! We covered all my favorite stuff: Fiorello, art, and the time period’s unique beauty and humor in the midst of adversity. Spot. On.

L.A. Chandlar’s books are published by Kensington Publishing; buy The Gold Pawn for $16 from Kensington or from bookseller links on this page

Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.