Growing up watching films from the ’30s, 40’s, and 50s, often in the dark hours of the 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
The ground may be covered with snow right now, but it wasn’t so long ago that Yang and I had an autumn day at the beach. Of course, it was kind of a gothic day at the beach because we were visiting one of the famous Five Ruins of Connecticut, The Aquinas Retreat at Charles Island.
We hadn’t planned on starting the grand tour, but our love of ruins has already taken us to two of the locations in the set. I posted our earlier visit to Hearthstone Castle in Danbury, CT. So, that Sunday afternoon, we trekked down to Milford, CT to finally get the chance to travel the tombolo out across the bay to
the island. This trip had been on our agenda for years, but getting to the island is no easy feat – not because of reefs, pirates, or sea monsters, though. The ocean only subsides from the tombolo during low tide and this land path is only dry and clear enough when the moon and sun exert their strongest gravitational pull. On top of that, colonies of egrets and cranes nest on the island from April until September, so the Wildlife Service has deemed Charles Island off limits during that time.
There’s a legend about the island holding Captain Kidd’s hidden treasure, but the treasure we found were beautiful ocean scenes and fun walking and exploring the edges of the island that has a circumference of a bout a mile. The going could be a bit rocky and uneven when you start out counterclockwise, but you get to enjoy the gorgeous ocean bay as much as do the lounging cormorants.
Then there are the ruins of the Aquinas Retreat Center. Not many extensive ruins to find. Built in 1929 by the Dominican Fathers as a lay retreat, it was abandoned by 1938. Perhaps storms or difficult access for supplies undermined its success. At this point, there are barely the scraps of stone and mortar outlines left to some out buildings and small towers.
There was also one lovely archway. I wonder if this structure could be the remains of an entrance to a chapel or shrine.
This space must have been a wonderful location for contemplation and communing with God through nature amidst the calls of wild birds, the surge of waves, and the rush of wind.
We also saw some nice smaller birds on the island. Yang got a great shot of an Eastern Kingbird.
And while I was watching birds, Yang was watching me!
It was such a lovely, warm and sunny fall afternoon. There were families and young and old couples, also making the circuit of the island, but never so many you’d feel crowded – and the cormorants didn’t seem to mind.
Say, what do you think of this place for setting a mystery novel? In the 1860s, there was resort here. Maybe Jessica and James need a vacation, or Liz needs a retreat – Naagh, no shopping!
I’m heading back to school this week. So before work gets too hot and heavy, I want to post a blog on one of the wonderful short trips Yang and I took when we went away for two days. The first day was a visit to NYC to explore Central Park and have a yummy tea at Alice’s Teacup – another blog on that later! The second day, as we made our way back from where we’d stayed in Milford, brought us to Danbury’s Tarrywile Park and the Hearthstone Castle. If you click here, there’s a wonderful history on this link about the castle.
We walked up a fairly short, but decidedly steep, wooded path to be greeted with this sight. What a pity that the castle has been defaced and let go into such disrepair. Still, it was deliciously eerie, with the afternoon sunlight rising in a clearing amidst the trees. Note the turrets with sharp field stones acting as the crenellation. There in front was the portico where the wealthy would arrive in their carriages to be dropped off at the door for a summer weekend in the country or a formal dinner or ball. They must have had a ballroom! And here I am walking quite determinedly up to get a closer view, braving assault from ticks and poison ivy.
We took some neat shots of the ruins, so you could see the sky pouring blue through a window in the back wall out to you from a smashed window or a broken wall in front of you. Unfortunately, the sun was so bright that it washed the blue right out of most of these shots. I love the gorgeous turret here and wonder what kind of round rooms were inside on each floor. The view must have been a delight. A great place to sit with your tea and a good book. Perhaps a Scarlet Tanager or Rosebreasted Grosbeak might fly by, even perch on the ledge? Looking through the smashed windows, where the boards had been pried away, you could also see the brick that lined or insulated the interior where the material covering the interior walls had been stripped away. I couldn’t help recalling the marvelous ruined abbeys I’d seen on my trip to England – sky gleaming blue through soaring arches and graceful architecture. Of course, this ruin is on a much smaller scale – and more jagged than the medieval constructions. Still, doesn’t the setting lend itself to a novel? Hmm, maybe that’s what I’m working out in my mind here.
Here’s a neat farewell shot of the ruin. I’m not sure if Yang or I took it. I would love to go back in the fall, when the leaves turn gorgeous! You should make a visit, too. And remember that the park has lots of inviting hiking trails. Yeah, I think this place has to make it into a novel. It’s just so Thornfield or Manderly!
P.S. A tip of one of my many hats to Robert Johnson for putting me wise to this site.