Interview: Sarah R. Shaber, author of Louise’s War

Sarah R. Shaber

I’ve long been a fan of Sarah R. Shaber’s novels, beginning with the first book in her Simon Shaw mystery series, Simon Said, which won the St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Award. Four other books followed, each following the adventures (and misadventures) of a distinguished history professor at a small college in Raleigh, NC: Snipe Hunt, The Fugitive King, The Bug Funeral, and Shell Game. (These books have recently been made available as e-books, for those needing to catch up.) This summer, Shaber debuts a second series with the book Louise’s War. While the new novel still has a tangential connection to the North Carolina that Shaber calls home (the book’s heroine reflects frequently on her past and family in coastal Wilmington, NC), the setting now is the big city: Washington, DC. And here the characters aren’t just looking back on history; they’re living it—with Louise working in the fledgling OSS during the height of World War II.

A launch party for Louise’s War is scheduled for Tuesday, August 9, at 7:30 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh—and Shaber promises cake! In the calm before that first bookstore appearance (and in the final days of wrapping up the second book in the series), Shaber indulged a few questions about Louise Pearlie and the various wars she’s fighting.

Art Taylor: The title of your new novel, Louise’s War, seems to work on a number of levels. In the most straightforward reading, we’re getting the title character’s view of World War II itself, of life on the homefront, and of the budding OSS operations. What drew you toward writing about this era and about the OSS? And where did Louise herself come from, this coastal NC native discovering herself in the big city?

Sarah Shaber: When I decided to write a new historical mystery series, World War II immediately came to mind. I’d done some reading on World War II for Snipe Hunt, the second book in my Simon Shaw series, and I remember thinking that was an era I’d like to write about again. World War II was a true battle between good and evil. It took the combined strength of the United States, the British Empire and the Soviet Union to defeat the Axis. Coming right after the Depression, too, the challenges were enormous.

Washington became a boom town. Thousands upon thousands of people migrated there for jobs. The social set from Paris, London, Rome, and other capitals under siege filled hotels and apartments. Con men, criminals and spies followed. OSS was perhaps the most interesting agency in Washington. The Director, Wild Bill Donovan, didn’t care who you were or what your politics were as long as you could help defeat the Nazis. It would take pages to list all the real characters who worked there; Julia Child, Sterling Hayden, and Moe Berg, the baseball player, are just three!

Louise comes from Wilmington as a sentimental homage to Snipe Hunt. Fans of my earlier series might notice that her last name, Pearlie, a common name on the North Carolina Coast, is also the name of the fictional beach — Pearlie Beach — where Snipe Hunt takes place.

Louise also fights a number of other battles, many of them related simply to being a woman at this time, in this place, and the book certainly captures a time of pivotal change in women’s roles, and explicitly explores those shifting perspectives on gender, the growing conflict between traditional expectations and progressive ideas. For every woman who’s marriage-minded (or at least “khaki-wacky”—what a great phrase!), there’s another who’s exploring other options—whether career-related or more sexually liberated. And when Louise picks up a copy of Home Companion, she comments flatly that “the women in its pages bore no resemblance to anyone I knew.” Were these conflicts part of the draw in writing about the 1940s?

Louise is a government girl, a young woman who went to DC ostensibly to work in the war effort. She doesn’t know this herself at the time, but she was escaping her dreary life as a widow dependent on her parents, too.

Every era has its cultural myths. Most of us know that during this period women were treated as juveniles. Their lives were about getting married, being subservient to a husband, keeping an attractive home, living thriftily on their allowance, and staying pretty while managing it all. Being an old maid was the worst position for a woman to be in. And thirty was old! Of course, a few women became “career girls.” But women couldn’t do both. I’m telling you, it’s an eye opener to read the women’s magazines of the day!

Louise was a penniless young widow who lived with her parents and worked at their fish camp for a few dollars a week. She was expected to marry the first man who asked her. Then the war began. She got a job at the Wilmington Shipbuilding Company, then was recruited to OSS. She was good at her work, she made a real salary and, best of all, made her own decisions. She was among millions catapulted into a new era. African Americans found decent work because of labor shortages. African American soldiers stationed in Great Britain found themselves in an integrated society. And regular GIs had experiences they never dreamed of while they were working on the family farm! This was the beginning of a cultural and political revolution that exploded during the Civil Rights and Feminist eras of the 60s and is still going on.

While some of the cultural and political shifts are bound to the time you’re writing about, it’s hard not to read some current-day commentary in those passages about Socialists and Republicans and about the FBI judging (pre-judging) people by their attitudes and affiliations rather than by their actions. Was such commentary intentional or incidental?

Incidental, and based on historical facts. I hope I’m not making any kind of political statement, certainly none that can be construed as commentary on today’s politics! That wasn’t my intent.

The FBI was what it was—paranoid, powerful, and political. That’s been documented. Most people in Washington at the time were New Dealers. Socialists and Communists were active in politics worldwide because the governments in power seemed unable to improve the economy or to stop Hitler.

An inevitable question here: How did you go about your research into this era, its politics, its personalities, etc.

A historical novel won’t succeed if it’s just about the history. It has to have a great story with good characters first. The historical period is setting, but it’s critical. It gives the book depth, imbues the story with atmosphere, contributes to character and plot development. But it has to feel authentic and immediate. You can’t just dump facts on the reader. When I research I spend most of my time in the period. I read a few book-length sources; important ones for this book are David Brinkley’s Washington Goes to War and Elizabeth McIntosh’s Sisterhood of Spies.

I’ve always loved history, but it’s everyday history that fascinates me. I’m not as interested in Churchill or Roosevelt as I am in their chauffeurs and cooks!

I love reading newspapers—not just the front page, but the ads, advice columns, recipes, classifieds, radio listings and gossip columns. Diaries are good sources. Also, for language and expressions, I read the popular fiction of the day: Mary Roberts Rinehart and Rex Stout. If you plug “July 1942” into ebay all kinds of good material pops up—magazines, maps and guidebooks, most cheap as dirt. I have an invaluable Esso street map of DC from 1942 that shows all the important places in town, even hotels and department stores. Searching Google Images is useful, especially when you want to use a location and don’t know what it looked like! Then there’s the full Sears catalog, all 1200 pages of it, in color, available on If you need to know the name of a particular kind of hat, or what appliances people used, or what their furniture looked like, there it all is! I also listened to the XM 40s station. I’m not crazy about “swing” music, and it turned out that country was actually more popular in the ’40s! So Louise is a “hillbilly” music fan. She especially likes Roy Acuff and the Carter Family.

The historical setting of Louise’s War marks the clearest difference between the new novel and the five books of your Simon Shaw series—though Shaw’s cases often offered glimpses at earlier times. What prompted the move away from that series, and what were the particular challenges in starting this new one?

I felt I had done all I could with the Simon Shaw series. And like most midlist authors in the five years or so before the e-book explosion, I watched my backlist go out of print because publishers didn’t want to bother with paperbacks—not profitable enough. Now authors can keep their backlists available forever thanks to e-books, and the Simon Shaw mysteries are available for Nook and Kindle, but that wasn’t the case when I made my decision to move on. I decided to write a historical series because the other ideas I came up with felt like I was just rewriting the Simon series, and I didn’t want that. I do miss Simon himself. I was fond of him! I’ll still write the occasional short story about him.

While in many ways Louise’s War is structured as a more traditional mystery—a dead body, mysterious circumstances, a series of clues (and red herrings!), and Louise as the amateur detective at the heart of it—one character cautions us to “Remember… this town is crawling with spies.” While the new book might not be classified as a spy thriller, espionage is an important element here. What should fans of spy novels expect here — and did you have that audience in mind when you wrote this?

I’d like to think most mystery and suspense fans can enjoy this book! Truthfully, I thought the OSS connection and the espionage and spy stuff was so much fun and such a deep well of story ideas I couldn’t resist it!

Several scenes take the reader to Europe, closer to the front lines and the immediate threats posed by the Nazis—and certainly the OSS operations along the sidelines of Louise’s work have a potential impact on unfolding strategies. How closely will future books be tied to what’s happening overseas?

The next book in the series, Louise’s Gamble, which I’ve just finished writing, also has a European connection and involves what was happening during the war at the time.

If I get to continue to write these books, I’ll vary the plots. I would love to station Louise overseas for a time, in London say. Then there’s the mystery of Joe, the Czech refugee who lives in Louise’s boarding house and who she’s attracted to. Who is he exactly? Louise might get a new job in a different OSS branch. We’ll just have to wait and see how many of these books I’m able to write!

—Interviewed by Art Taylor