It’s the spring of 1898 and Dawson, Yukon Territory, is the most exciting town in North America. The great Klondike Gold Rush is in full swing and Fiona MacGillivray has crawled over the Chilkoot Pass determined to make her fortune as the owner of the Savoy dance hall. Provided, that is, if her 12-year-old son, growing up much too fast for her liking; the former Glasgow street fighter who’s now her business partner; a stern, handsome NWMP constable; an ageing, love-struck, ex-boxing champion; a wild assortment of headstrong dancers, croupiers, gamblers, madams without hearts of gold, bar hangers-on, cheechakos and sourdoughs; and Fiona’s own nimble-fingered past, don’t get in her way. And then there’s a dead body on centre stage.
Susanne Alleyn: How do you do, ma’am? What year is it now for you, where are you located, and why?
SA: What do you love most about the time and place in which you live, and what particular aspect of your world would you change, if you could?
Fiona: I can think of nowhere else on earth at this time that I, a woman on her own, can make as much money—and legally too. And that is what I would change. Why should a woman be faced with two choices in life: to marry or to prostitute herself?
SA: It looks as if everyone present at the Klondike Gold Rush came from somewhere else, all over the world. Where were you born, Fiona?
Fiona: I was born in Western Skye, Scotland, in 1865. My father was a gamekeeper on a great estate. I was sent to the big house to be educated alongside the earl’s only daughter, a weak-willed whiny thing named Euila. Thus, I speak with a cut-glass English accent, although but a crofter’s daughter. My parents were murdered when I was eleven by the Earl’s second son, and I have lived by my wits ever since.
SA: Is that why you began solving mysteries?
Fiona: I do not solve mysteries—I happen to be unfortunate enough to occasionally be caught up in events beyond my control.
SA: Well then, how is law and order maintained in your part of the world?
Fiona: Law and order is firmly maintained in the Yukon Territory by the North-West Mounted Police. Sometimes too firmly maintained. As the owner of a dance hall and saloon I have to constantly ensure that everything we do is completely aboveboard. Or we run the risk of being shut down. We close on Sunday for the Lord’s Day and dare not utter a profanity. I complain, sometimes, but it’s a lot better than things are in Skagway, where I briefly considered setting up business. There the town is run by a gangster by the name of Soapy Smith, and instead of the law telling him what to do, he tells them.
SA: And you investigate—
Fiona: Pardon me, but I am hardly a police officer. Although if they would allow women among their ranks I suspect I could teach them a thing or two. Sometimes I might come to a conclusion slightly before the police do—because I can go places they can not (the ladies’ dressing room comes to mind) and because I pay attention to people. A woman on her own in this world has to be constantly aware of everything going on around her, don’t you agree? As for Inspector McKnight and Corporal Sterling of the NWMP—they enforce the law and crime is almost nonexistent. But when something does happen, they are on their own—they don’t even have a telegraph and news travels no faster than by horse or boat.
SA: How and why did you become an amateur sleuth?
Fiona: Why do you keep implying I am a sleuth? Hardly. I have a business to run—this gold rush isn’t going to last forever, and I intend to make as much money as I can, as fast as I can. However, there was that time when the odious Mr. Ireland was killed on the stage of the Savoy, and I had to do what I could to save my business. And the time Mary, an Indian girl my son Angus befriended, was accused of murder, and I had to do something to keep Angus’s faith in me, didn’t I.
SA: Tell me about your most recent investigation, then.
Fiona: Sadly, my most recent ‘investigation,’ as you insist on calling it, involved me quite directly. When I was briefly in Skagway, Alaska, one of Soapy Smith’s henchmen, an unpleasant fellow by the name of Paul Sheridan, became overly-enamoured of me. A year later, Mr. Sheridan became obsessed with finding the legendary Gold Mountain—a valley as warm as California and a mountain of pure gold—and decided I wanted to accompany him. I did not, and it was up to the handsome Corporal Richard Sterling, my son Angus, and an assorted collection of dancers and musicians, croupiers and bartenders, prostitutes and madams without hearts of gold, miners and shopkeepers, gentleman and layabouts to head off into the wilderness to rescue me. How I came to find myself in such a preposterous situation, and my subsequent adventures, are outlined in Gold Mountain, coming in April from Dundurn Press.
SA: What’s going on in the world around you?
Fiona: Right now, I am at the centre of the world. Really. The Klondike Gold Rush has totally captured the attention of the world. They call it Klondikeitus: People are streaming into the territory from the four corners of the earth. Most of them with absolutely no idea of where they are going, what they are going to encounter when they get there, and what they hope to accomplish. Dreamers most of them, desperate to escape from the great recession in the south. I suppose considering that none of us would be here, in what was nothing but wilderness a year ago, everything we do is connected with this great historical event.
SA: What aspects of Victorian frontier life do you think would seem most alien to those of us who live in the 21st century?
Fiona: I think your women would faint if they had to wear my clothes for more than a day. They’d also be quite shocked if told they weren’t permitted in the bars or to join the police or most other professions. Or even to vote. I’d love to vote some day. I’d also love to wear trousers in public.
SA: So what would you say to 21st-century people who complain that, with economic and political dysfunction, natural disasters, and so on, the world is in such a bad state that surely “this is the worst time ever to be alive”?
Fiona: If anyone in your world wants to complain, I’d tell them to try climbing the Chilkoot trail dressed in a full length gown with hat and petticoat, over-corset, corset, stockings and undergarments. Try climbing it thirty or forty times with fifty to seventy-five pounds of goods on your back as many of the men did (I myself hired porters to take our possessions over the Pass). In winter! And then make a boat out of a virgin forest at the bottom. Try living in the sub-arctic with nothing but a wood stove in a log cabin for heat and nothing to eat but what you carried in six months ago.
SA: What was your most fascinating or horrifying case over the course of your career so far, and why?
Fiona: In Gold Fever, my son Angus, who is twelve years old, saved the life of an Indian woman sold into prostitution. Her name was Mary and her uncle sold her to a trapper for payment of a debt and the trapper then sold her on to a prostitution ring. I’d say the trafficking of women, and children, into prostitution is one of the most horrifying situations I know of. You can be sure it’s happening in your world and your country. Maybe even your community. Today.
SA: In the course of your investigations, have you encountered important historical figures who played supporting roles in your cases? What about fascinating real “footnote” people that most 21st-century readers have never heard of?
Fiona: As I am one of the most prominent citizens of Dawson City, Yukon, I naturally have come into contact with other prominent citizens. Big Alex McDonald, whom they call King of the Klondike, has come to my aid on occasion. I consider Belinda Mulrooney, a businesswoman far ahead of our time, to be a friend. Inspector Cortlandt Starnes, temporary head of the NWMP in Dawson, was kind enough to pay his respects after that unfortunate hostage-taking and shooting at the Savoy. In England I briefly moved in the same circles as the Prince of Wales—odious man—but a lady mustn’t gossip. And then, of course, there was Soapy Smith. Enough said of Soapy the better.
SA: In the 21st century, we have either abolished the death penalty or have developed methods of execution that provide a quick and (we hope) painless death. Is capital punishment more prevalent in the Yukon? Does the thought of assisting the authorities to send a guilty person to execution affect your personal feelings about investigating a crime?
Fiona: In real life (not that my life isn’t real!) there wasn’t a single murder in Dawson City in 1898. Not one. A result, largely, of the presence and authority of the NWMP and the fact that they banned firearms in town. Hanging was the preferred method of dispatching such miscreants as did get convicted of murder. In Tagish, four quite young Indian boys were convicted of murdering a man (and attempting to kill another) who left a tin of baking power that actually contained arsenic in their camp, and when it was innocently used in baking, two men died. Two of the boys died in jail over the winter and two were hanged in the summer of 1899. A sad story; the ending leaving no chance of forgiveness or redemption. As someone who has lived on the edge of the law myself, I will not rush to judge anyone. I hear Canada has abolished the death penalty in your time, and I am pleased to hear it. Barbarous custom.
SA: And with that, we’ll have to conclude. Many thanks!
Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most prolific and varied crime writers. She writes everything from standalone novels of gothic suspense to the Constable Molly Smith books, a traditional village/police procedural series set in the British Columbia Interior, to the light-hearted Klondike Gold Rush Series, the first of which were Gold Digger and Gold Fever. Vicki lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario. Visit her at her author website, www.vickidelany.com.
Historical Sleuth Interviews will appear around the middle and end of each month. Authors, if you’d like your historical sleuth to be interviewed here, please send Susanne a note with a little information about your books.
Susanne Alleyn is the author of the Aristide Ravel French Revolution Mysteries and of A Far Better Rest, the reimagining of A Tale of Two Cities, all available in eBook form and in hardcover and/or trade paperback via Amazon.com and other major retailers.