I fell in love with Maia Chance’s lovely heroines, Lola (a widowed society matron who has fallen on difficult financial times after her husband’s death) and Berta, her former cook, who becomes her business partner in a detective agency known as The Discreet Retrieval Agency. The series is set in 1920s New York and is filled with highballs, cake, and intrigue.
As I read, I realized that one of my favorite things about the series was the fact that both of these women were single, and that their characters were nuanced and interesting. They are strong and vulnerable in different ways, and they rely on each other, forming a friendship of equals, even as they entertain dating relationships with men along the way.
I caught up with Maia to talk about her inspiration for the series, and see what kind of dating advice Lola and Berta might give.
Tell me a little bit about the series?
It’s a series set in the 1920s. They are two women— a former society matron who has come up on hard times; she partners with her former Swedish cook, Berta, and they open up a sort of tiny detective agency. They mean to only retrieve things—they call themselves The Discreet Retrieval Agency—but things always happen and they usually get embroiled in a murder mystery instead.
It’s rare to find a series with two single female leads. What made you choose these two to head up the Discreet Retrieval Agency?
Well, the personal background—I think those two characters, Lola and Berta, are sort of inspired by the years when I was in my late 20s and I lived with my best friend. We were both single, and it was hard, we were both financially strapped and working really hard and both dating—you know, going through the frog-like men—but in retrospect it was one of the most fun periods of my life. So there’s something definitely of our friendship in there—a little bit wild, slightly boozy, times and being poor and scrappy.
From a more bookish standpoint, I just thought it would be really fun to have two people who sort of can walk through different social strata. They have these different social networks. Berta, the former cook, knows all the servants everywhere—she always knows somebody who knows somebody, and Lola has her high society background. Between the two of them they have a lot of different social skill sets and contacts. I thought it would be fun to have them sort of thrown together—with the dog of course.
What are some of the differences that you’ve found writing characters in a different time and what hasn’t changed?
Well, I have written also in the Victorian era, with a different series, and comparing those two: the 1920s feels much more fresh and modern; the women were sexually liberated and had a lot more freedom and you could be sort of a career woman and not be thought of as a complete spinster. In the Victorian era, things were much more difficult for single women, so it’s fun to write the 1920s—to have people actually go on dates and go out dancing or to the movies whereas in the Victorian series I do the courtship is very constrained and kind of uncomfortable.
I’m trying to think of how the twenties would differ from nowadays and I think it’s just more and more freedom for women and fewer stigmas attached to your various projects and habits.
What advice do you think Lola and Berta would give about love, dating, and being single?
I think Berta would have more practical advice, because she definitely has a love life through the series, but she doesn’t want her love life to impede her freedom. She has even turned down proposals from various men through the series, even if she likes them, because she really is focused on making the agency click. So, I think she would probably say put your career first although she does have a caveat when she speaks about this to Lola—because she’s older. Berta says she’s past the age of wanting to have a family and so why would she have any of her freedom taken away?
Lola has some desire to have kids, on some level, but she’s also really conflicted by the sort of voice of her mother ringing in her head who wants her to marry and settle down and also to marry for money. I don’t know if she’s in any position to give advice, she’s just sort of finding her way and making a lot of mistakes— but she is a brave person, so maybe it would be something about try your hardest and be brave and figure it out even if it’s not what your mom or the culture has set out for you.
From your time as a single woman, what are some of the things that you wish that you had known or things that you wish you could have told your single self from the vantage that you’re at now?
There’s so many things, although I feel like sometimes you just have to live through it, especially in your twenties when you’re still figuring people out.
I feel like I didn’t realize, or I didn’t notice, or I was too accepting of dating men who weren’t really that nice and weren’t respectful to me. Now I’m just like ‘why did I do that?’ I just wish I hadn’t. I wish I had somehow focused more in my mind that that was what was going on and terminated earlier instead of struggling through it.
I don’t want to say that people don’t change, because I think people do change, but I don’t think that a person can make another person change. You can’t just be like ‘oh, I love you so much, why can’t you change for me?’ People don’t just start acting nicer for no reason, that sounds so cynical, but I just think you really cannot make somebody change. I’ve seen my female friends do that, too—they sort of sacrifice themselves like ‘Oh, if I just love him enough it’ll make everything better.’ Love doesn’t really work like that. I think our pop culture makes us feel like it’s this sort of Disney idea of a magical force that can transform like in Beauty and the Beast or something but it’s not really like that. I finally found a person who was already a good person, but obviously, you can probably tell, the subtext is that I really was in some longer relationships with some real jerks.
Do you think that your experiences as a single person played into your writing this series?
I definitely think so. My characters in this series are really brave and they are doing something, they’ve got their agency and they do a lot of kind of risky stuff to solve their cases, but there’s still this sense of a little bit of precariousness in their lives; everything is sort of hanging by a thread in various ways, either financially, or risking themselves socially, or risking their business, or not being able to pay their rent. When you’re a single woman, there are lots of exceptions to this, but my experience was it’s just more expensive to be single because you’re not splitting all of the costs, so it was definitely that feeling of being out there and being brave and doing it but at the same time feeling like the culture is sort of telling you that if you don’t have a man it’s not really for real, like it’s just pretend—they’ve got a lot of people acting like their agency is just kind of little game because it doesn’t have a male detective.
Your characters are fiercely independent but still vulnerable; sassy as well as sweet; and very human. What are you hoping your readers will take away from their time with them?
I definitely want readers to relate to the characters. I want them to root for them even when they are making mistakes. When I’m reading a book, I don’t really like the characters who totally have it together. My characters, especially Lola, she has sort of wardrobe malfunctions which I guess is something that kind of happens to me. I want people to feel connected to the characters—I think we read these stories to watch somebody getting through a tough situation and we want to watch people trying hard and sometimes failing, but ultimately winning, I think that’s why we read novels like this, besides just entertainment, we want to see regular people be scrappy and succeed.
Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook.