I enjoy setting my mysteries in the Roaring Twenties, because no other decade offers more chaos and crime than the 1920s. This was the era when Prohibition turned ordinary citizens into criminals and brought about organized crime, skyrocketing violence, and the corruption of police departments, courts, and government throughout America. A perfect backdrop for a murder mystery!
I can’t help packing my stories with details that bring the Twenties to life and highlight the progress society has made in the hundred years since. And no one is more surprised than I to find my own views about certain current controversies changing because of my immersion in this era. For example, a deeper understanding of the disastrous failure of liquor Prohibition has flipped me from anti- to pro-legalization of marijuana.
Prohibition showed the world that no law, no amount of enforcement—not even a constitutional amendment—was going to prevent people who wanted to drink from doing so. The outcome was catastrophic. Local crime (like gambling, robberies, prostitution, and theft) morphed into national cartels. Local hoods became national gangsters, even international, as they organized the intricate supply chains that brought liquor to the public. Because there was so much money in providing liquor, their power grew and violence, once fairly uncommon, escalated. The murder rate doubled. And unregulated liquor meant much of what was sold was poisonous, killing or maiming those who were unlucky enough to swallow it.
Arguments made back in the Twenties for and against legal alcohol are exactly the same arguments being made today about legalizing marijuana. Problems with alcohol (like problems with marijuana) did not go away when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but crime retreated. Oddly enough, it actually became harder to get a drink after Prohibition ended—when alcohol was illegal, there were no laws governing it, so anything goes. You could sell it anywhere, any time, any day, to anyone. When it became legal again, it could be regulated and controlled (no Sunday sales, bars must close at midnight, no children allowed, no bars near schools or churches, etc.) I see this happening today in Colorado and several other states, as officials experiment with regulating marijuana. As other states follow Colorado’s example, the public can watch and learn how best to deal with this, just as it did back in the Prohibition years.