HOW A PERFECTLY RESPECTABLE LECTURE TURNED INTO MURDER AND MAYHEM
By Anne Louise Bannon
My poor husband. He knew I wrote mystery novels when he married me. He’d even read a couple of my manuscripts. But I don’t think it really sunk in what that meant in terms of how I think. At least, it didn’t until a couple, three years ago.
Pray walk with me while I set this up. Michael is the archivist for the City of Los Angeles. If you need to find anything out about city records from the 1820s on, look for Michael Holland on
Anyway, so a few years ago, some real estate group was building this big apartment building in what is now L.A.’s Chinatown, which used to be the outskirts of the pueblo back in the day. As they were excavating, they found some really old brickwork, which turned out to be part of the original Zanja Madre. That’s pronounce zahn-ha, and zanja is Spanish for ditch. So, Zanja Madre is the Mother Ditch – and it was the main ditch that had been dug off of what we now call the Los Angeles River that led to the vineyards and farms in the town.
Michael, being the good historian that he is, managed to get some of the brickwork for his collection, then sometime later, lent it to an exhibit some other historical group was putting on. They also asked him to do a lecture on the zanja system and how it worked.
It was a great lecture – Michael is a very good storyteller. And he showed us pictures of the receipts that were given out, ledger entries of how many hours men worked for the Zanjero, or Water Overseer. But mostly he explained how, near the end of every month that water was flowing in the river (which I later learned is fed by an underground spring somewhere in the San Fernando Valley), you would go to the Zanjero’s office, pay for your allotment of water, then go back the next day to get your receipt. The day after that, the Zanjero’s men would come out and open up the sluice gate between the Zanja Madre and your farm and the water would flow through.
As some mystery-writing friends of mine noted not too long ago, it’s our job to look for interesting ways to kill people. Or interesting ways to hide bodies. It’s what we do. So, as my beloved Michael is beautifully telling how the water flowed into the smaller zanjas, what’s the first thing I’m thinking? Yeah. Exactly. What a great place for a body to turn up.
Now, any writer will tell you, ideas are a dime a dozen, which I understand may not seem very comforting to anyone who has ever wanted to write a book but couldn’t think of anything interesting to write. And I don’t know why the image of a body floating up out of the water as it rushed into an irrigation ditch really stayed with me. But the title sounded so cool: Death of the Zanjero.
Michael was more than a little non-plussed when he heard what I’d been thinking during his presentation. That didn’t stop him from pulling out city council minutes and digging up references to the Zanjero and other things for me as my story began to take shape. He listened patiently as Maddie Wilcox grew flesh and a voice and even suggested how that voice might sound. He’s even let me come to a few more of his lectures. But he has stopped joking about how he knows what bodies are buried in the city records.
In the vault, where they’re kept. Which looks a lot like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Which would be a great place to hide a body. Hmmmm.
Anne Louise Bannon is an author and journalist who wrote her first novel at age 15. Her journalistic work has appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Wines and Vines, and in newspapers across the country. She was a TV critic for over 10 years, founded the YourFamilyViewer blog, and created the OddBallGrape.com wine education blog with her husband, Michael Holland. She also writes the romantic fiction serial WhiteHouseRhapsody.com, Book One of which is out now. She is the co-author of Howdunit: Book of Poisons, with Serita Stevens, as well as author of the Freddie and Kathy mystery series, set in the 1920s, and the Operation Quickline series and Tyger, Tyger. She and her husband live in Southern California with an assortment of critters.
You can find out more about her on her website http://annelouisebannon.com. Her latest novel, Death of the Zanjero will be released May 11, and is available for pre-order at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Smashwords.com