Category Archives: Always Play the Dark Horse

Return of the Native: My Author Event at Lala Books in Lowell

I had a wonderful experience going back to my hometown of Lowell, Mass. to do an author event at Lala Books.  This is a lovely bookstore on Market Street (189  Market,  to be exact), filled with an extensive catalogue of fiction and nonfiction – with a large local author section, where I fit in.  Well, we know I also fit in as a mystery writer.  The store is roomy and pleasant, and I had a cozy corner to do my event.
The event went great!  I got to talk about how I’ve always been a story teller, even scaring the other little kids on the block with ghost stories when I, myself, was but a nipper.  I also got to talk about the influence of black and white  film noir mysteries and films of hauntings and the supernatural.  It was fun to connect Bait and Switch, Letter from a Dead Man, and Always Play the Dark Horse to specific films that influenced their creation.  As always, I had fun talking answering questions about the writing process and publishing. I especially appreciated when one listener told me that reading Bait and Switch reminded him of watching old films with his Dad. I was so happy that everyone seemed to get a kick out of the excerpt I read from Dark Horse – I kept them in suspense!
The audience was, indeed,  wonderful! I saw many old friends, including one gal I hadn’t seen since we were little kids and my parent moved our family to another neighborhood.  I deeply appreciate all the friends who came out to support me, and tell me how much they love my mysteries – especially my descriptive style.  It’s also great to make new friends and bring in new readers. And I did sell some books, too!  By the way, do you like the dress?  Yang made it based on a 1940s Simplicity pattern.  The hat is one of my favorites!
Lauren and her daughter Thea did an admirable job setting up the event and supporting me when I was there.  Thanks, so much to you!  If you live in the Lowell area, be sure to drop in and do some book shopping. Christmas is coming!  All three of my novels are available at Lala Books.  Don’t forget, they have some neat events as well.

“Back in the Saddle Again!”

In June, I was finally  able to get back in the saddle concerning appearances.  After one fun reading in May at TidePool books in Worcester, I first did a joint author event with my friend and colleague, Leslie Wheeler, on Saturday, June 4th at the Booklovers’ Gourmet.  We had a responsive audience and a lot of fun.  Leslie suggested that we, ourselves, be more interactive.  So, instead of just reading and talking separately, after each  short reading, we asked each other questions about our methods of writing, our particular joys and pains in writing, future writing plans, etc.  Our questions and responses, in turn, drew questions and observations from the audience.  Totally interactive! I think we even made some new friends and readers, as well.  I’m especially excited because we talked about Leslie’s new book, Wolf Bog, which will be released July 6th, this year!
Next, I joined an even bigger group of writers from Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America at a corner of the Natick Farmers’ Market called Beach Reads, organized by Tilia Jacobs.  I shared my table with Janet Raye Stevens, who also writes mysteries set in the 1940s.  It was a gorgeous day, where we enjoyed chatting with people -and each other- of course, also selling some books.  Here’s a tip for writers:  have a QR code on your bookmarks, postcards, or advertising poster so that if people don’t have cash, they can use their smartphones to connect to a site where they can buy the book (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, your web site) there or later.  Anyway, it’s great to see people and enjoy a beautiful afternoon.

I already have some plans for August. On August 24th, from 7:00-7:30 p.m., I’ll be interviewed by Barry Eva on A Book and a Chat. I’ll provide more details when I have them. Next  is Lala Books in Lowell, MA on August 26th from 7:00-8:00 p.m., so come and hear all about the latest 1940s mystery adventures for Jessica Minton, James Crawford, and Dusty – as well as talk about writing and publishing! I may be able to give you a sneak peek at book #4, Shadows of a Dark Past.

 

How to Outfit the Well Dressed 1940s Mystery Heroine

Last December (2021) I did a ZOOM with fellow mystery writers Lisa Lieberman and Janet Raye Stevens on “Writing the War Years” – as in WWII.  One aspect of doing research to give our tales verisimilitude was looking into the kinds of clothes that people wore.  That topic and the fact that many of my readers and reviewers seem to get a kick out of my descriptions of the wardrobes of Jessica Minton and her fellow players set me thinking.   It would be fun for me and interesting for you, my readers, if I revealed the inspirations for the clothes that helped create a sense of “being there” in my novels.

To be honest, I can’t take credit for “designing” those 1940s outfits, not all of them, anyway.  True, some do come out a familiarity with fashion developed from perusing films, magazines, and Sears catalogues.  However, a large number of my creations are inspired by films that helped spark my tales.  The trigger for Bait and Switch might be traced to this image of Joan Bennett from The Woman on the Beach.    Studying this picture, I wondered, “If you just look at this out of context, what tale does it tell?  What is this woman’s conflict with the man she faces?  What could be in the package?”  The answers that I spun out from those questions led me to create Jessica’s exciting adventures with James Crawford and Nazi fifth columnists.  What I perceived of her garb in the picture inspired an outfit that not only re-appeared in at least one other novel in the series, but a fashion reflecting a major shift in women’s empowerment.

When I first looked at the picture, in a smaller version, I perceived the woman in question as wearing a light coat over a white blouse and dark slacks.  That white blouse with the flowing sleeves and dark slacks became a staple for women who were independent, free-moving, and downright comfortable.  Think of Barbara Stanwyck pounding away on her typewriter, casual but still determined, in her first scene in Christmas in Connecticut.  However, as she becomes imprisoned in playing the domestic roles imposed by men, we see her cinched up and confined in skirts and suits. So, Jessica’s taking off on an adventure that might save her country, while rejecting her boyfriend’s protective attempts to curb her independent agency, is best served by that same outfit.  Here you see her, from the cover of the novel, comfortably outfitted and ready for action, though a bit trepidatious of what the future holds.

The eponymous blouse and slacks prove the importance of ease of movement when Jessica dons them in Always Play the Dark Horse to explore a wrecked ship that reveals dangerous secrets, to ride out on a mysterious black horse to rescue a friend, and later to face off against a murderer and spy.

Of course, a smart talkin’ gal of the forties like a Joan Bennett, Lynn Bari, or Rosalind Russell could still assert herself and delve into danger even when back in a dress and heels, as Jessica proves with this number:  “this light dress, with its pale raspberry swirls on white” and “her white turban.”  Thusly garbed, in Bait and Switch, Jess finds herself confronted at the racetrack by her mystery man and spirited away from the crowd; however, a fitted dress in no way prevents her from letting him have it on the jaw when he oversteps bounds.

In Letter from a Dead Man, Jessica is back in this silky number of “raspberry swirls on creamy silk” on another  hot summer afternoon while helping her sister search the secret room of a murdered friend, then dive into a closet when their nemesis unexpectedly shows up with two torpedoes. The inspiration for this frock?  Joan Bennett’s white and color swirled dress in Trade Winds.  Now an interesting thing about describing this and some of the other outfits Jess wears is that I got to see the originals in black and white, either on the screen or in publicity shots.  So, it’s up to me to imagine what colors swirl through the white with this, and other outfits.  I saw a soft raspberry pink: perfect for a summer afternoon.  What color do you see?

In Dark Horse, I had to use my imagination when having Jessica model two of her dress-designing sister’s creations.  This is the outfit I adapted for Jessica’s visit to the tea sponsored by the college where her husband is teaching and where murder and espionage lurk in the shadows.  It’s a tea where Jess has to look great while trying to maintain her cool amongst dangerous suspects and startlingly unexpected revelations.

“Jessica sprang up, undoing her robe to reveal a gorgeous white silk dress, fitted in the bodice, with a graceful A-line skirt that swirled as she moved and flatteringly shaped itself to her when she stood still. The square neckline revealed its wearer’s collarbones without dipping too low. What Jess thought really gave it elegant flair was a pattern on the bodice of abstract shapes, almost like an archangel by Picasso, in unexpectedly complementary soft liquid blue, green, and pink, bordered by silver.”

I will tell you, it was not easy to try to give you an image that would evoke the patterns on this dress.  What do you think?

In Dead Man, Jessica’s fitted black linen dress with the white linen collar is inspired by this outfit from She Knew All the Answers.  As you can see from the picture, I didn’t have to use much imagination to come up with black and white for this one.  The colors do play an important role in the narrative, though.  For when Jessica tries to hide behind the refuge of one of the NYPL lions, she lives in terror that a flash of white from her collar will give her away to her deadly pursuers.

 

In Dark Horse, it’s the cut not the color of the dress that adds to the story.  Jess finds herself caught in an awkward position when the dress’s sweetheart neckline and flattering fit causes an old boyfriend’s wife to see red rather than the black of the dress, though that wasn’t Jessica’s intention. And that woman may have permanently eliminated a real rival for her husband.

 

Finally, as you may have noticed, I repeated several outfits from one book to another.  Why?  Well, part of it has to do with the images inspiring what I write.  However, another, and especially important, point is that most women throughout  decades past hung on to outfits over a period of years.  We find something we like and we keep wearing it .  I am writing in the era before fast fashion took hold, not that Jessica would ever be such a frivolous shopper.  So, it creates verisimilitude to show my characters wearing the same outfit more than once over a few years.  However, I’m not looking forward to hitting 1948/9 when the hemlines drop drastically.  Will Jessica have to get a whole new wardrobe?!  Well, I can at least promise you that our Jess will not be chopping off her hair, as was that late forties and early fifties fashion!

How about you?  Are there any outfits from the series that you’d like to ask me about?  I’m ready and waiting to answer.

 

The Dark Horses Inspiring Always Play the Dark Horse

I’ve been a horse-racing aficionado since 1966, when I started watching the Triple Crown races on TV.  My pick was Amberoid, who finished eleventh in the Derby, moved on up to third in the Preakness, then blasted home first by 2 1/2 lengths in the Belmont Stakes. ­ Sorry Kaui King on crimping your Triple Crown bid.  So it’s been lots of fun for me to bring my favorite sport into play in Always Play the Dark Horse.  For verisimilitude, I drew on some real race horses’ interesting quirks when creating the equine players of my story.

Equipoise, a handicap star of the 1930s, was known as “The Chocolate Soldier” for his dark brown coat and his warrior-like determination to win. A tough horse, he ran for five seasons and won an impressive 29 of 52 starts.  If he couldn’t outrun his competition, he wasn’t above taking a little chunk out of a horse who challenged him in a stretch drive – ­ hence his disqualification in the 1934 Metropolitan Handicap.  That loss actually was used for the final twist in the play and movie Three Men and a Horse. He brought such disqualifications on himself two other times as well, but he was also known as “the best assistant starter” for keeping fractious horses in line when he was set on the business of getting the race started clean.  An honest, hard-working, hard-knocking horse (literally), Equipoise was a leading stakes and money winner.

Another champion handicap horse, equally determined but far less free with his chompers, was Kelso.  For 4 years (1961-65) Kelso dominated handicap racing, knocking heads with such stars as Gun Bow, Mongo, Beau Purple, and Roman Brother.  He was horse of the year four consecutive years and won one handicap triple crown as well four consecutive Jockey Club Gold Cups, eventually became leading money winner, just missing being the first horse to win two million dollars.  Kelly may have been a tough nut to crack on the track, but he was a tenderhearted guy when it came to kids, letting them feed him ice cream sundaes.  After he retired, his owner, Mrs. Allaire Dupont even turned him into a saddle horse, but Kelso was not one to poke along trails. She noticed he had an affinity for jumping natural obstacles on their rides, so to keep her equine friend from getting bored, she successfully trained him as a jumper.  I can remember one of his exhibitions at a New York track where the old guy showed himself a master in yet another equine endeavor.  The racehorse to jumper story almost made it into Dark Horse; but, alas, necessary cuts sheared it from the story.  Maybe a sequel where this equine character makes a return engagement?

Devil His Due was a racer of the 1990s who looked as if he could have played the title role in Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series.  Unusual for a champion stallion, he was not retired early but ran into his sixth year. Also unusual, he was sound enough to never have run on Lasix.  I was even lucky enough to have seen him at Belmont Park when he ran in the 1994 Woodward Stakes.  Unfortunately, it was Holy Bull’s day of glory not Devil’s.   This black stallion still won more than his share of stakes: Pimlico Special, Brooklyn Handicap, Gulfstream Park Handicap, and back-to-back victories in the Suburban Handicap (with 1994 victories in the Brooklyn and Suburban, he copped two legs of the Handicap Triple Crown).  He was especially admired for his determined stretch battle with Lured in the Wood Memorial, finishing in a dead heat for first with the other horse.

Our black stallion was also famous for a little escapade with the IRS, a version of which makes it into Dark Horse.  Apparently, the IRS didn’t believe that the horse actually belonged to Edith Libutti, but thought the ownership was a tax dodge for her father.  They had a court order to take possession of him.  When trainer Allen Jerkins warned the IRS reps that race horses were temperamental and dangerous if not handled properly, the head agent snapped back that the government had a lien on Devil, could do whatever they wanted with him, going into the stall to seize him.  Devil was having none of this: laying back his ears and barring his teeth, he chased the agents out.  Apparently Devil was too tough even for the IRS.  He was back on the track and winning that same racing season.  Blackie in Dark Horse puts on a similar show, demonstrating that we should all use our horse sense – if not our flashing teeth and hooves.

 

Sources for information and Images on each of the thoroughbreds.  If you believe the posting of an image here violates your copyright, please contact me and I will remove it.  No violation of copyright intended.

Amberoid photo:  Turf and Sport Digest Cover, September 1966

Equipoise
1. History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, William H.P. Robertson
2. https://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/214268/bh-100-equipoise
3. https://www.champsofthetrack.com/post/10-facts-about-equipoise
4.https://www.equibase.com/profiles/Results.cfm?type=Horse&refno=146348&registry=T&rbt=TB

Kelso
1. History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, William H.P. Robertson
2. A Horse Named Kelso, Pat Johnson and Walter D. Osborne
3. Richard Stone Reeves Paintings also from A Horse Named Kelso

Devil His Due
1. SuperPickle, Registered User Join Date: Nov 2014 Posts: 1,121 Rep Power: 7 SuperPickle is on a distinguished roadhttp://www.paceadvantage.com/forum/showthread.php?t=138591
2.https://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/221713/grade-1-winner-sire-devil-his-due-dies-at-28
3. https://www.thoroughbreddailynews.com/devil-his-due-dies-at-28/
4.Post Parade Image: Author’s collection
5.  https://twitter.com/drflivingston/status/578934814767751168
6.Confirmation Portrait: Thoroughbred Times 1997 Stallion Directory

The Dark Side of the Screen, the Dark Pages of my Novels

Growing up watching films from the ’30s, 40’s, and 50s, often in the dark hours of Seventhbthe night, I was deliciously haunted by the noir-inflected, melancholy, shadowy worlds of Val Lewton films, the eerie displacement of Universal and Columbia horror, and the mind-twisting mysteries exploring the dark side of society and the human heart.  Those were perhaps the major impetus for my desire to recreate shadowy even eerie realms with my own writing. For the chiaroscuro worlds of the mystery and horror delightfully lingered in my imagination.
Specific films influence each of my novels.  With Bait and Switch, I was inspired by those exercises in noir that voiced homefront fears of Nazi fifth columnists infecting our security from within.  So, when Jessica Minton finds herself caught in the middle of a espionage plot that is either a gambit to flush out a fifth columnists or a fifth columnist’s plot to trick her into saving his skin, such films as They Live by Night, The Fallen Sparrow, and Confessions of a Nazi Spy inspired my creation of slippery deceptions, unclear loyalties, and sudden death in a world of slick, dark mean streets; fog rolling off the Hudson, through the New York waterfront and the Brooklyn Bridge; crumbling, sinister rows of buildings lowering on the wrong side of town; and deserted theatres.
Of course, I was not inspired merely by the dreamy darkness of these films but by the quick wit and humor peppering many of them.  Perhaps the most influential in that department was All through the Night, a fast-moving tale of Nazi infiltrators inhabiting the stylish but shadowed upper echelons of New York Society – as well as the dark recesses of obscure warehouses and secret panels leading to command centers.  Cutting through that sinister atmosphere is the sharp wit of Humphrey Bogart’s semi-gangster, Gloves Donohue, and his sidekicks played by the fast-talking likes of William Demarest and Frank McHugh.  Of course, there is romance, as well, with a damsel in distress.  I love to spice Bait and Switch with the same sort of irreverent, sardonic humor.  And, though Jessica Minton may find herself caught in distress, she’s hardly a damsel. She holds her own when in danger, though a little help from her vis à vis does come in handy – that and a banana cream pie.
Letter from a Dead Man is more straight noir.  No Nazis, but plenty of intrigue and unexpected conflicts stemming from hidden identities fatally revealed; stolen jade; romantic intrigue; a femme fatale who’s in the chips now (socially and financially) but will do anything to prevent the exposure of her sordid past; a frame job for murder; two tough cops, just this side of jaded; and an F.B.I. agent from Jessica Minton’s past who has his own agenda.  Images and even passages from specific films noirs imbue Dead Man.  The seductive manipulations of Helen Grayle fromMurder, My Sweet inspire the deadly web that Alanna Tewkesbury weaves around the Minton sisters, and those they love, to keep her secrets intact and to get her hands on stolen treasure.  Imagery from The Seventh Victim, Woman in the Window, The Fallen Sparrow, Scarlet Street, and Manhunt live on in the darkened, deserted offices; lonely, rain-slicked streets; deadly lurkers in late-night subways; and even behind the hulking, cold stone of the New York Public Library Lions!
Dead Man is not all darkness.  It’s lightened with the sharp reparté you’d expect from the mouth of a Rosalind Russell, a Joan Bennett, or an Eve Arden.  Plus, there are some truly Lucy-and-Ethel-worthy moments of slapstick, with Jessica and Liz forced to hide in a closet from Alanna and her tough-talking torpedoes, friend Iris leading a room full of party-goers in a madcap conga to cover up an argument between Liz and her boyfriend that will put him at the center of a murder investigation, and Jess donning disguises as a maid to recover a stolen gun and as a shady lady in need of reform to snare a vital witness.
This leads to the third, soon to be released, novel in the Jessica Minton mystery series: Always Play the Dark Horse.  Though this book shares much with its predecessors, there’s a different take on the noir world of mystery, fifth columnists, darkness, and doubt.  Dark Horse is more inspired by the dreamy nature of Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach, Lewis Milstone’s Guest in the House, or Orson Welles’s The Stranger.  Scenes on the Connecticut beach at night; in the foggy advent of a storm; the presence of a mysterious rider on a magnificent black horse along the shore; the battered ghost of a beached ship where forbidden lovers once met; the twisting corridors, warren of offices, dark-paneled rooms, and hidden stone staircase of a college building, all capture the dreamy world of those films, especially Woman on the Beach.  As in Renoir’s film, I found myself caught up in creating a world formed in tune to the haunting mood of Debussey’s music.  The story of dark love, vicious personal conflicts, uncertain loyalties, cruel memories of war’s horrors, and the threat of a Nazi resurgence, however, edge that dream uncomfortably into the realm of nightmare so effectively created in The Stranger and Guest in the House/

That’s not to say you’ll need uppers to get through Dark Horse!  The quick wit and strong sense of camaraderie that I portray in the other novels percolates here as well.  I really enjoyed developing the married relationship between Jessica and James, showing their support and love for each other seasoned with their playful humor.  They may not always get along or be perfectly happy with each other; but, as grown ups, they work things out.  That partnership and humor are what help them resolve their case.  I also enjoyed Jessica’s bond with her friend Rose.  An educated and intelligent working woman (professor) and mother, Rose is a loyal, funny friend who helps Jessica stay ahead of the game.  I always like to show the power of girlfriends in my books!  Last, but never least, where the dog – e.g. Asta – has traditionally been the animal sidekick in mysteries, I once again return Dusty to her feline glory!  She plays a major role in all three novels:  a pal but not a drippy one.  And there ends up being nary a mouse in the cottage by the beach where Jessica and James must do their part against murder, betrayal, and Nazis.

Screen shots from The Woman on the Beach and The Seventh Victim are from the author’s collection.  RKO videos
Still photos from Scarlet Street  and The Woman on the Beach are from the author’s collection
Image of Dusty and images from book covers from the author’s collection
Image from Murder, My Sweet from unknown source
Image of New York City from New York in the Forties, Andreas Feininger (Dover Publications, 1978)
Banana cream pie image courtesy of  https://www.pngkey.com/detail/u2w7u2e6q8e6t4r5_pies-clipart-slice-pie-lemon-meringue-pie-drawing/