Author Nancy Bilyeau has taken a few journeys into the past. Her debut series — the acclaimed Joanna Stafford trilogy — guided readers through the tumultuous Tudor era. With The Blue and The Fugitive Colors, we were transported to 18th-century London. Dreamland is set in 1911.
With her latest historical mystery, The Orchid Hour, Bilyeau takes us back to Prohibition — 1923 New York, to be exact. There we are introduced to Zia Deluca, a recent widow who strikes up a friendship with a man who is murdered outside the library where she works. She didn’t do it, of course, but Zia becomes the prime suspect. While trying to clear her name, Zia is drawn into a secret underworld where the liquor flows and an exotic breed of orchid produces an ominous smell only at midnight.
Below, Bilyeau shares the inspiration behind her latest release, the key piece of research that stitched the story together, and what cocktail you may want to sip on as you turn the pages.
What fascinated you about the Prohibition era enough to inspire The Orchid Hour?
It was how New York City, in particular, went through Prohibition. At first, there was mass denial. The city refused to believe that America would outlaw drinking, and this gave the temperance leaders a clear field to lobby politicians and get it passed across the US. Then, when New York had to go dry, the big restaurants that had catered to the Astors and Morgans of the city ended up closing. Nightlife struggled. People bought booze from bootleggers and stayed home for a while, but they got sick of that, and the speakeasy was born. There was this tension between wanting to create nightclubs with good music, a lot of alcohol and a little food, and staying under the radar so the police wouldn’t raid you. How do you become a “hot” nightclub when you need to be a secret?
By nature historical novels require tremendous amounts of research, and you’ve included so many great details, particularly about the orchids (which I love but can’t keep alive). What were some of the most fascinating things you learned?
I’ve always struggled with growing orchids, too. What’s important to know is they are possibly the hardest flower to grow. We are not alone! It does take a certain sensitivity and a real obsessiveness to succeed.
But I didn’t know the truly incredible history of the orchid — for instance, that scientists think the orchid could be 100 million years old. I knew that orchids were prized by the Victorians. But it became a race among the collectors to send their orchid hunters all over the world. It was shocking what happened in these countries. Collectors would seize the rare orchids and then burn down the jungle on their way out so no competitor could get one. And there was even a story of a collector shipping his find to England and they pulled out of the box an orchid growing out of a skull. The orchid hunter had dug it out of a graveyard in the Philippines.
I had the name — The Orchid Hour — when I began writing and I knew I wanted orchids in it, but it wasn’t until after I’d started writing that I discovered there was an orchid that was supposed to release its fragrance at a certain hour of the night. I just had to make that a part of my novel.
You know I’m a fan of cocktails — and of course there’s a speakeasy featured in this book, so it seems fitting to pair the novel with a beverage. What cocktail would you suggest?
I can never say no to champagne, and I think a lot of people who made their way to the Orchid Hour speakeasy felt the same way.
But when it comes to cocktails, there is one that first popped up in a bartender’s book in 1923 and I’ve always felt an affinity for it. It’s the gimlet. In the beginning, the gimlet was made of “gin, a spot of lime and soda” and you can find it in “Harry of Ciro’s ABC of Mixing” in the 1920s as half lime cordial and dry gin. So a good bartender at a speakeasy could handle it. I like gimlets for two other reasons. You will find the drink in the Raymond Chandler books — Philip Marlowe drinks gimlets — and I have a little bit of hard-boiled noir in my novel. And the gimlet is — sexy. And that works well for my novel too. I went on a bit of a gimlet tour/bar crawl with my husband as part of the “research” for my novel. It was such a fun night. There are a lot of fantastic bars in New York but I’d have to give this one to The Gin Parlour in the Intercontinental Hotel on East 48th Street.