The Big Idea: Marion Deeds
Whether in the real world or in a world of fantasy, power is a currency that always compels. In this Big Idea for Comeuppance Served Cold, author Marion Deeds essays the persuasiveness of power, and how it informs the alternate Pacific Northwest she’s created.
Magic is a form of power. Who has it? Who gets to use it? These were my thematic questions when it came to writing Comeuppance Served Cold. But there were all kinds of power inequities in Prohibition-era Seattle, and some of my characters are more caught up in the life of illegal booze, corrupt cops, and protection rackets than that of charmed amulets or magical spells.
Dolly White, the main character of the book, lives in a world where magic is an everyday thing. She’s hired by a wealthy upper-class magus, Ambrose Earnshaw, as a companion for his rebellious daughter. Earnshaw is the head of Seattle’s Commission of Magi. Its stated purpose is to protect folks from the misuse of magic. Really, though, the Commission uses a fee system to fill its own coffers at the expense of people who survive by small magics, like protection charms and healing potions. The Earnshaws take the exploitation a step further; the son and heir leads a protection gang, extorting even more money from working magicians and magic-adjacent people.
One cynical campaign the Earnshaws are waging is the intentional demonizing of shape-shifters, which makes problems for two other important characters in the book. On the surface, Philippe and Violet Solomon could not be more different from Dolly. Black Americans, they’ve been pushed into shadowy occupations by discrimination and corruption. Violet, a trained herbalist, runs a speakeasy. Her brother Philippe tends bar for her and delivers hooch for a bootlegger. He loves men. He turns into a cougar.
In the story, anti-shape-shifter prejudice isn’t a stand-in or a metaphor for the actual racism of the day. Violet and Philippe face racism already. In the real world at this time, even wealthy Black entrepreneurs (some folks pronounced that “gangsters”) like E. Russell “Noodles” Smith, were raided and arrested frequently—in fact, more frequently than white club owners. Smith was a successful and legendary club-owner—luminaries like Duke Ellington played in his clubs—but he was routinely shut down, even though he paid off the cops like everyone did. In one case, the raid was so violent, with the police attacking Black bystanders, that even the newspapers turned on the cops. The corrupt Seattle police of the time were comfortable pocketing protection money and breaking the law themselves, including bootlegging.
(By the way, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and other Black musical legends played at white clubs and hotels, too, they just couldn’t stay in those places. They ended up at the Black-owned businesses near Jackson Street.)
Philippe and Violet are not unusual in making illegal hooch a family business. Even the city’s best-known bootlegger made the operation a family affair. Chief Roy Olmstead wasn’t the police chief, in spite of the nickname. He was a police lieutenant, who arrested plenty of other bootleggers, while he was bringing in Canadian hooch big-time. During foggy or rainy nights, the legend goes, Olmstead’s wife, who had a radio show broadcast from Smith Tower (then the tallest building in the city) would encode coordinates into her reading, to guide in the contraband-carrying boats.
The best thing about this story—or worst, depending on your point of view—is that Elise Olmstead’s show consisted of her, in the persona of “Aunt Vivian,” reading children’s book aloud. Nothing quite says “shameless law-breaking” like hiding directions for your illegal enterprise in charming stories for children.
Part of the attraction of writing about Prohibition is this hypocrisy, plus the unintended consequences, and the sheer funhouse-mirror aspect of it. As a writer, it wasn’t much of a leap for me to imagine a power-grabbing group deciding to destroy random magical lives (like those of shape-shifters) for further financial or political gain. And I wanted to look at that from the perspective of those whose lives were being destroyed.
Philippe, a shape-shifter, is a gay black man. The demonizing of shape-shifters puts his high-risk life on the edge of the precipice. Violet, whose true love was murdered by the Earnshaw protection racket, vows to protect her brother, and she will do whatever it takes to keep him safe.
When the story starts, Violet’s business, like many Black-owned businesses of the time, is thriving. By the time Dolly shows up, Violet and Philippe both have a lot to lose. Philippe likes adventure, but Violet isn’t ready to trust a white outsider with no ties to family, the neighborhood or the community. On the other hand, Dolly is facing off against a family Violet would definitely like to bring down. Dolly’s challenge is to find a way to make Violet trust her, while Violet has to weigh all the risks. And those risks are flesh-and-blood real.
Comeuppance Served Cold isn’t all speakeasies, jazz, and forbidden cocktails. I tried to create a world close to the historic one, with real dangers and real opportunities (even if those opportunities weren’t legal). Seattle’s Prohibition history is weird and colorful. The city was the perfect place to set this story. Who has power? Who gets to use it? Sometimes, it’s the everyday people who answer those questions.