History in Mystery (part one)
“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” Mark Twain
When I decided to write The Judge’s Story set in 1939, I intended to highlight the principles and ethics of a real judge by intertwining them in my favorite genre—a fictional mystery. I realized that the real judge lived primarily in the first half of the twentieth century and that his actions and ideals were shaped by the events of the time, including, World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the technological growth of automobiles, telephones, and air travel.
Therefore, to tell his story—even if the mystery is fiction—I had to relate him to what he was experiencing in his life. And what fun that turned out to be!
To begin, I read his memoir, dated 1941. [Louis C. Drapeau, Senior; Autobiography of a Country Lawyer; available at the Museum of Ventura County/Library, 100 E. Main St., Ventura CA 93001). He filled the pages with stories about his early life when he was rejected both by his step-father and his biological father and as a teenager managed to find odd jobs as a cowboy, mule skinner, Borax 20 mule team driver and dockhand. Eventually he met and worked for a Senator, earned a law degree from Georgetown Law School, settled in Ventura, Calif., practiced law (with law partner Erle Stanley Gardner, for you Perry Mason fans), and became a Superior Court Judge by the late 1930s.
His memoir gave me insight into the man himself—what he valued, how he responded to problems, and how he reached decisions. From it, I determined that, as a judge, he focused on juvenile crime and basically supported the concept of rehabilitation over punishment—although he delivered some stiff penalties in some of his cases. He also chastised the bigoted—particularly those in his community who looked down on the Mexican-American population.
Now that I had an idea about the man, I needed to choose the best time in his life to set the story. I have always been a student of history, so I was familiar with the first half of the twentieth century. I considered the 1920s following the passage of the women’s right to vote, the flappers, and the issues of prohibition—but eventually opted for 1939, largely because the backdrop of the Great Depression and the looming potential entry of the U.S. into World War II gave me a more supportive back-story in which to display the Judge and his friends in the telling of the mystery—which did not involve alcohol or women’s rights.
My third line of research concerned the immediate world around the Judge to understand where he fit. Were his principles and ideals about juvenile crime and its punishment with or against the current thinking in the law enforcement world? What kind of life did he live in 1939—were cars plentiful? How would he travel? What kind of cases would he hear? What kind of sentences would he hand down? In what kind of courthouse would he listen to cases?
To answer these questions, I visited the Ventura County Museum / Library. The actual judge lived in Ventura and served as a judge in the Ventura County Courthouse. With help from the librarians, I uncovered sources, such as, the Ventura County Peach Officers’ Training School Ventura 1939-1940—that provided answers. Then I read the daily paper on micro-fiche for the entire year of 1939—I learned that my judge was well respected and his cases were frequently reported. The pages in the second half of the year, by the way, were filled with Hitler’s exploits and the reactions in Europe.
Of course, I ended with far more information than I could possibly use, but I felt like I had entered the Judge’s time period and could better anticipate his reactions to the exploits of the fictional mystery.