Tara Moss’s new protagonist, Billie Walker, is fresh addition to crime-novel genre
In the new crime novel The War Widow Victoria-born author Tara Moss introduces us to Sydney, Australia-based private investigator Billie Walker.
Back in her hometown, after being a war correspondent in Europe, Walker gets a missing-person’s job. At first she thinks the 17-year-old boy has just runaway, but soon the situation gets a lot more complicated.
Set in 1946, Moss’s fictional story is a fun read drenched in wonderful postwar feminism. Walker is a character you will cheer for.
Moss and her family have homes in Vancouver and Australia. We tracked down the writer as she was working on her 14th book in rural Australia where she’s sheltering in place in her family home with her husband, writer/photographer Berndt Sellheim, and their nine-year-old daughter, Sapphira.
Q: What is it about the early postwar years that made you want to set your story in 1946?
A: I have been fascinated by the 1940s since I was very young, growing up on stories about the war from my oma and opa, who survived Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and immigrated to Canada after the war. My opa was forced into a Nazi work camp in Berlin, as one of the many forced into slave labour by the Germans. My oma — with whom he had young children at the time — used to bravely cycle across Holland to Berlin to visit him, smuggling flour and sugar in the hollows of her bicycle. He used those ingredients to bake bread in the munitions ovens to bribe the foreman, who eventually gave him a day pass, which he used to escape. He got back to their home by foot, under cover of darkness. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. They taught me about the terrible impacts of war on average citizens, and also taught me about the strength of the human spirit. The War Widow is dedicated to them.
As I grew older I ate up classic film noir, hard-boiled novels and real-life stories from the period. In time I came to wear a lot of 1940s clothing as well, and became an advocate for the sustainability of vintage and the “make-due-and-mend” ethos of the war, which was due to rationing at the time, but resonates with today’s environmental emergency.
In addition to my 11 novels, I have written two non-fiction books focused on women’s rights, and the postwar period was particularly tumultuous for women. The war was terrible, awash with atrocities, but at the same time women were asked to work in fields previously closed off to them and many women experienced new-found freedoms and the independence of a wage.
When the war ended that was turned on its head, and they were asked to, ‘Get back in the kitchen,’ to put it bluntly. This makes it a particularly rich historical period to explore in terms of women’s experiences, and I don’t think enough has been written about that aspect of the postwar moment.
Q: At that time was being a war reporter in Europe the ultimate job for a feminist?
A: Perhaps so, particularly when you consider that women’s rights are human rights, and the Second World War was so entangled with issues of human rights. All wars heavily impact human rights, but the Second World War especially so, due to the terrible violations of the Holocaust.
And like many women during the era, Billie found considerable freedom in employment at the time, albeit in dangerous and difficult work as a reporter, but she was in many ways her own boss, and that suits her. It makes sense for her to then reopen her late father’s private investigation agency after the war, to continue to challenge herself and satisfy her curiosity for puzzles, for cases and complex human stories. She is a woman of action.
Author Tara Moss is riding out the COVID-19 crisis in rural Australia with her husband and young daughter. Photo: Blair Hansen Blair Hansen / jpg
Q: Billie returns from the war and takes over her father’s PI business. What about her time in Europe do you think helps her do her job in Sydney?
A: Investigative journalism and private investigation have much in common, and I know this as someone who earned my PI credentials (Cert. 3) and has done some work as a journalist in the past. That investigative nature is natural to Billie, and she would have picked up a lot from her father when she was younger as well. It requires a curiosity about human nature, and a certain fearless, searching nature. Billie is not satisfied with the unknown.
Q: You give a thank you to Special Sgt. Lillian Armfield, a pioneering female police officer. What is it about Armfield that made you want to include a version of her in your book?
A: Special Sgt. Lillian Armfield was a pioneer in policing and I wanted to take the opportunity to illuminate her contributions in my fiction, as she was working in Sydney at the time of the events in the novel. As I point out in the book: “The female recruits hadn’t even uniforms and weren’t paid overtime like the men; nor were they entitled to either superannuation or a pension. They had to sign contracts stating that they wouldn’t be compensated for any injuries suffered in the line of duty, couldn’t join the police association and had to resign if they married — one of the reasons Lillian never had. With all that, it was a wonder so many women were keen to sign up, but the applications always far outnumbered the spaces allotted.
Lillian achieved amazing things in her time in policing, even though the system did not support women like her. She was the first female detective in Sydney, and first policewoman in the state to carry a revolver. The real-life realities of policing are worth the mention … and give us further background into the context of the time.
Q: One of the things I like about War Widow is it’s a great book for young girls without being, you know, a young-girl’s book. Billie’s modern, interesting and very capable of taking care of herself and she has cool jobs. Can you talk a little bit about creating her and deciding on who she would be?
A: The War Widow marks 21 years of my personal project to centre women’s voices and experiences in non-fiction and my beloved genre-fiction. I want to write the sort of books I wish were already out there, and particularly that I wish were around when I was younger. It’s about changing perspective and looking at stories a different way, which I believe only makes the work better. We need new perspectives.
With Billie Walker, I am creating someone I admire. She is flawed, yes, but admirable and compelling nonetheless, and she rides out incredible challenges and hardships in a way we know ordinary citizens and women did at the time. I don’t think we’ve heard enough about those people.
Q: What about Billie do you like the most?
A: I’d like to be part of her girl gang, frankly. She is capable, witty, adventurous, passionate for justice and she knows a good champagne cocktail. What’s not to like? Oh, and her car. I want a spin in her Willys Roadster.
Q: Will Billie Walker be back?
A: Yes. I am writing her second adventure now.
Q: How do you discuss or outline feminism for your young daughter?
A: From a young age she has been given the opportunity to hear from accomplished women and to read the books of women, and to see the adventures of female characters, and that has given her a sense of possibility and the knowledge that she can decide who she wants to be. We love male characters in our household, but female characters equally, and that sometimes means having to go a touch further to find those stories. She’s rather taken with feminist analysis of children’s films, which is often funny, and pretty spot on for a nine-year-old. No film with a damsel in distress locked in a tower can go without critique by her!
Q: You have a resume that also includes documentary and TV work, speaking engagements and human rights work. You must be a fantastic multitasker and time manager. That said, what keeps you wanting to stay this busy?
A: I often say that life is too short to live the same day twice. I believe that’s true. Perhaps that is why I have written in four genres over the past two decades as well. I am always wanting new challenges.
Q: If you had a magic wand and could change one thing about the world today, COVID-19 aside, what would it be?
A: To rid the world of pain. An impossible goal, I know, but as someone with chronic pain I often think about a pain-free world and what that would be like. ‘Pain makes us stronger’ sometimes just doesn’t cut it.