Novelist weaves Galveston’s gangster past into murder mysteries
Historical fiction books about Galveston often focus on the 1900 Storm and the rebuilding of the island. Or they concentrate on the city’s early history as an immigration gateway. But author Ellen Mansoor Collier finds the Roaring ‘20s and Prohibition in Galveston far more interesting and fertile ground for her series of five murder mysteries.
Collier, a freelance magazine writer and journalist who grew up in Houston and considered Galveston a home away from home, had heard wild stories about the city’s rival gangs and their high-class speakeasies, including the Turf Athletic Club and the Hollywood Dinner Club, she said.
After a trip to Chicago and a “mobsters” tour of Al Capone’s turf, including sites of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre — the culmination of a gang war between arch rivals Capone and Bugs Moran — and the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, frequented by Capone and his gang, Collier began thinking about the island’s storied past. And she found there was a link between Capone and Galveston’s gangs, she said.
“I had no idea this sleepy beach town had such a colorful history of crime,” she said. “There are lots of books on Victorian Galveston, the 1900 Storm and its heyday as the ‘Wall Street of the South,’ but I wanted to explore a more recent, exciting era of the island’s history that turned their fortunes around, by hook or by crook, literally.”
Her books, featuring society writer Jasmine “Jazz” Cross, a 21-year-old wannabe reporter for the Galveston Gazette, are easy reads and filled with local details and real-life characters. Story lines are fictional, although based loosely on actual events.
“As a journalist, I prefer reality-based stories because I feel like I’m learning something new while I’m reading and researching,” she said. “Truth is, most of the gang activity wasn’t fully reported, so I made up plots based on actual events and tried to create personas that embody the gang leaders’ larger-than-life reputations. What I found interesting is that locals generally not only tolerated the gang leaders, many bigwigs and politicians embraced them since they buoyed the economy and tourist trade. In fact, business was so good on the island that Galveston never really suffered during the Great Depression, largely due to Sam and Rose Maceo’s business savvy.”
Brothers Sam and Rose Maceo were immigrants from Palermo, Italy who arrived in Galveston from New Orleans in 1910. Working initially as barbers, they got into bootlegging in the early years of Prohibition. In 1926, they opened the Hollywood Dinner Club and later the renowned Balinese Room.
Although Galveston had its share of crime and corruption, islanders considered the gang leaders “gentlemen gangsters” because they tried to protect residents and didn’t condone needless violence and murder, according to historians.
The books, with catchy titles such as “Flappers, Flasks and Foul Play,” “Bathing Beauties, Booze and Bullets,” “Gold Diggers, Gamblers and Guns,” “Vamps, Villains and Vaudeville” and “Deco Dames, Demon Rum and Death,” all feature the strong female character Cross; her boyfriend, Prohibition agent James Burton; and Cross’ half-brother, Sammy Cook, who is a bar owner and perpetually in trouble with the law.
Collier pays close attention to details in fashion, dialogue and the cultural climate of the era. In fact, she even includes a glossary of terms to familiarize readers with some of the slang used during that period.
She decided to write novels after constantly chasing changing editors at national publications to publish stories she had written, she said. Now, she frequently writes at night when it’s quiet, because she is restless and easily distracted during the day, she said. Collier “writes” in her head while doing other activities and puts those thoughts to paper, she said.
She doesn’t plot ahead or create intensely organized outlines, she said.
“I think it’s more fun to let the story evolve naturally and try to come up with surprising or fresh plot twists and turns,” she said. “I often like to talk out my plots to my husband, Gary, during walks. Then, when I am bursting with ideas, I sit down and write in a rush. Later, I go back and edit on my laptop, often at an outdoor café and pretend I’m in 1920s Paris. Alas, Houston is a far cry from France.”
Colliers’ books are available in the San Luis Resort, The Bryan Museum, Gaido’s, Galveston Bookshop and From the HeART Gallery in downtown Galveston. They also are available on Amazon.com.
Recently, she met a few relatives of people featured in her books, she said. They were charming and nice “and glad to know their legends still live on in Galveston.”
“I’m not sure if they’ve read my novels, but I hope they realize I am just creating stories and feel I’m doing them justice, at least to their fictionalized characters,” she said. “I wanted to showcase real-life people and landmarks and long-lost places little known outside the region. I admit, I’m living vicariously through my main character, Jazz Cross, an ambitious and rebellious society reporter trying to make her mark in journalism, whose idol is Nellie Bly.”
Bly was an American journalist, industrialist, inventor and charity worker widely known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days.
For Collier, making the transition from journalist to novel writer was more difficult than it sounds, she said.
“I wanted to fact-check every little thing — gang wars, trolley stops — and made endless trips to the Rosenberg Library to look up old articles, photos and maps,” she said. “’Flappers’ actually took me 10 years to write because I kept researching, then putting down the manuscript and picking it up. Finally, I was able to let go when I realized that readers mainly wanted a good story and didn’t care exactly where the trolley stops were or what the interior of the Turf Club looked like. It’s hard to find 1920s photos of local speakeasies and nightclubs. By blending fact and fiction, I hope I created a believable world inspired by actual events, people and places.”