“My Smart-Talking Gal Mystery Heroine: A Joan Bennett Birthday Tribute”
It’s only natural to honor Joan Bennett on her birthday by explaining her powerful influence on my writing. A lot of this influence goes back to my earlier years watching old movies. As a kid, I started out hooked on Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and the rest of the stable of Universal and RKO horror films – God Bless Val Lewton! The mystery and otherworldliness of black and white film, the smart dialogue, the clever twists of plot that other forties and thirties film genres shared with horror lured me into a liminal world like a perpetual deep summer night. I was further captured by classic films’ biting wit, challenging plots, and independent women – especially in what I came to know as film noir. And who showed herself the queen of this world? Above them all, Joan Bennett.
I must admit that I first came really to know Joan when she appeared in Dark Shadows. Her Elizabeth Collins Stoddard was formidable, reminding me of my mother when I was in deep trouble. How could vampires, werewolves, and witches withstand her powerful, regal stare? Still, like my Mom, there was deep feeling and love for her daughter and her family. However, only in film did I discover Joan displaying one of the traits I loved best about my Mom: that witty, smart-talking-gal sense of humor. In outright comedy, Joan could drop a clever line with style and intelligence, but even in some of her darkest dramas that wit came through. What a delight to see her wield that humor to put firmly in their places anyone trying to crush or bamboozle her. In The House across the Bay, she undercuts a smart-mouth chorine who harangued her, “Cheep, cheep, cheep” with “Where’s the birdseed?” When the obnoxious woman tries to go after her physically, Joan rakes her over the coals with, “Just a minute, Miss Dimwit. I was silly enough to apologize, but now that you want to make something of it, I’ll give you a good reason. You’re a phony, you’ve got a voice like four panes of cracked glass, and about as much appeal as a can of embalming fluid. I could go on, but that ought to give you a rough idea of how I feel about you.” Eight years later, when Paul Henreid tries to disparage her cynicism towards him in The Scar with a deprecating, “You’re a bitter little lady,” she puts him in his place with a world-weary but tough, “It’s a bitter little world, full of sad surprises, and you don’t go around letting people hurt you.” In The Man I Married, Joan’s not even daunted by Nazis, telling her husband-turned-fascist, “Heil heel” when he promises to dump her and take their son. Her feistiness isn’t limited to verbiage, either. Take a gander at this picture.
Like my Mom, Joan played women of wit, strength, humanity, and confidence – not just what the New York Times dubbed her gallery of “hydrochloric dames.”
So, in my twenties, when I decided to take my writing seriously than developing Victoria Holt knock-offs or spoofs of Dark Shadows, I turned to 1940s style mysteries to inspire my own adventures of romance, danger, suspense, and wit. Interestingly, as a writer influenced by film, I found I could better create distinct, believable characters by casting them as actors with whom I was familiar, blending their traits with some of the people I knew (including myself!). I also knew that I didn’t want my heroine to be wimpy, weepy, and inclined to faint in the final reel or pages, which, unfortunately, did often happen on the page or screen in the ’40s and ’50s. Guess who I saw as perfect for the role of Jessica Minton, a smart, independent, quick-with-a-quip forties gal? Someone who had a sensitive heart and a strong sense of responsibility, but didn’t take guff from anyone – and would smack said guff out of the ballpark with whip smart humor.
I do see a lot of myself in Jessica – and in Joan’s less nasty roles – or maybe an idealized version of myself, anyway. I know that mischievous banter with those I love and pointed barbs for those I don’t is something I share with Jess, which Joan plays to perfection. However, I doubt that like Jessica, I’d have the guts to hold onto a mysterious package left by a mysterious and handsome British stranger at the risk of being liquidated by Nazi fifth columnists – to disguise myself as a maid to get into a criminal’s apartment while he’s still there (!) to retrieve a gun used to frame a friend – to grab a gunsel by the lapels and threaten to turn him into a soprano if he ever threatened my cat again – to show up in a shadow-draped room and wittily bargain with a gun-toting femme fatale and her hired gun to trade stolen jade for my friends’ lives – or to slip into a cove and explore a beached and rotting ship while layers of ocean fog swept in around me. I might dare to weaponize a banana-cream pie, but I can’t guarantee my aim would be as good as Jessica Minton’s. I can guarantee you that any fans of our Joanie could picture her carrying off these adventures with verve and wit, though not without human trepidation.
Those of us who love Joan Bennett and appreciate her talents would also, as Sam Fuller writes, see her as “a sensitive actress” enough to also believe her playing Jessica’s distress at being torn between loyalty to an old boyfriend and to a new man who brings her adventure and love; a sister who gets annoyed with her older sibling’s foibles leading them into danger but sticking by her to the end (though not without a smart quip or two exchanged between them); a sweetheart waiting to hear news of a fiancé lost in the war, then a wife supporting her husband’s struggle with memories from that war. And Jessica loves her cat. I know Joan was a dog person, but heck, there’s still part of me in Jessica Minton. So, she’s a cat person!
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject, but if you’d like to take a peek at some passages from Bait and Switch or Letter from a Dead Man, click on the links on the titles and have fun picturing Joan working her magic as Jessica Minton. Oh, and by the way, I cast her sister Elizabeth as Rosalind Russell (and my sister-on-law). Can you imagine what a grand ride it would have been to catch Joan and Roz trading quips with each other, then marshaling their humor to take on Nazis, criminally corrupt American aristocrats, femme fatales, underworld crooks, and crooked cops? And I’ve got two more books on the way! Viva Jessica Minton and Joan Bennett!
If you love mysteries on the screen or on the page, especially centered on the golden era, click here to go to my web page where you can find lots of interesting stuff – including my Joan Bennett tribute page!
Photos: Author’s collections
In between the raging blizzards of this spring, I was fortunate enough to be able to join some wonderful fellow mystery writers to promote our books and make connections with readers and neophyte writers. The first such adventure took Yang and I to the far north (of New York, anyway) to Ithaca and Buffalo Street Books. Here, my friend Lisa Lieberman and I presented “An Evening of Noir,” where we not only talked about our books but about the noir films that inspired us! Lisa’s husband Tim created this gorgeous poster for our adventure. Note that it features my favorite femme fatale and/or smart-talking gal, Joan Bennett! Didn’t he do a superb job?!
Lisa and I had a fun program. I had prepared a cd of background music to help create the mood of dark, mean streets; tough detectives; mysterious dames; and haunted pasts. Our playlist contained multiple versions of “Laura,” “Harlem Nocturne,” “Penny Blues,” “Drink Dirty Water,” “Peter Gunn,” and even Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” to name a few. And, of course, we dressed the parts, with Lisa’s swanky mink stole and slinky mystery-lady dress and my Claire Trevor femme fatale black suit with swag, complimented by red velvet and black feathered cap. Watch out Phil Marlow and Sam Spade!
We had loads of fun talking with our audience about the trademarks of film noir and how they influenced our novels, especially in terms of specific films. Lisa detailed how her experiences in Hungary and the film The Third Man inspired the tense and dark atmosphere and tight plot twists of her Burning Cold. I shared how the wit, surprising reversals, and slippery characters in films like The Scar; Murder, My Sweet; and Double Indemnity shaped the latest adventures of Jessica Minton in Letter from a Dead Man. And both us ladies of noir had a great time sharing trivia and background about the filmmakers and writers of our favorite noir films with our audience. We had such a wonderful time, we’re thinking of adding film clips and “taking our act on the road”!
My other recent appearance was on a delightful panel, with an equally delightful name: “Stealing from the Dead.” This Sisters-in-Crime Panel took place at Atria Bay in Barrington, RI. I was pleased to join Frances MCNamara and Steve Liskow for a fun presentation at the community. Both writers have fascinating books, with Frances’s latest series set in early 20th century Chicago and Steve’s in Connecticut and New York concerning the brutal reality of human trafficking. Do click on each of their names to check out their work in greater detail. You won’t be sorry! You can see from the picture on the left that I had a wonderful time. If you ever want to book a Sisters-In-Crime panel for your library, school, or other such group, you can contact Leslie Wheeler at the Speakers Bureau.
I also want to extend my thanks to Margaret Shand of Atria Bay for setting up the panel. the audience had intriguing questions and great comments for us. My thanks to Margaret for the photo at the top of the paragraph.
Yang took what is probably the best shot of me, below.
So, Christmas noir? The opening of a lively chorus caroling and holiday cheering over Christmas cards displaying the credits evokes holiday spirit, except there’s always just the slightest manic edge to their liveliness creating a noir frisson. Then the chorus ends in a startled drop as the last card slips away to reveal a gun. Click here for a Silver/Ursini commentary on the opening.
Every October, I like to have some bedtime reading that suits the season. I just finished two new books: Midnight Fires and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The first is a mystery by Nancy Means Wright that features Mary Wollstonecraft as its intrepid detective. Wollstonecraft is a great choice for the role, as anyone who has read her Vindications would agree that she has all the nerve, smarts, and wit to boldly ask the questions and dig the dirt necessary for an investigator. Her being cast in this role makes perfect sense. The novel is set during Wollstonecraft’s tenure as governess to the aristocratic Kingsborough family in Ireland and does a neat job of characterizing “the troubles.” We also get good views of the workings of the Kingsborough family, as well as how contemporary views of women have stunted and warped them – right in line with MW’s own writings. The descriptions of the landscapes are a pleasure to read as well. Not least of all, the mystery has some neat twists and turns.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was a pleasantly amusing visit with the supernatural – a low key, smile-inducing progress of Lucy/Lucia Muir’s liberation from oppressive Edwardian propriety to become a mischievous, independent woman – with a little help from a frank and fiery sea captain’s ghost – though she was already well on her way to freedom before they met at Gull Cottage. There are some significant changes from book to film, but both work equally well. I do think that Gene Tierney gives Lucia Muir a bit more power than the character in the book.
There are four books that I usually return to once I finish any new prizes for the month: The Uninvited (Dorothy Mcardle), The Sign of the Ram (Margaret Ferguson), The Undying Monster (Jessie Douglas Kerriush), and Redeeming Time (me, unpublished – yet!). What I admire in the first three (and try to emulate in the fourth), is the depth of characterization, the creation of a powerful mystical/eerie atmosphere, the vividness of the landscapes, and the intelligence of the storylines. What makes them such a pleasure to read is their authors’ deftness with language: there’s enough detail to savor and shape your imagination but no excess or filler. Right now, I’m working on The Uninvited. I review it and The Sign of the Ram on this web site, under Golden Age Mysteries. The Undying Monster is part of the psychic detective genre, with a woman psychic brought in to help a scientist uncover the nature of the beast that has ravaged an ancient British family for centuries and now threatens to destroy his two close friends. The novel deftly captures the post WWI fascination with psychic phenomenon and leads characters and readers into the dark depths of ancient ruins, crypts, and family history to reach a final, mystical resolution – and it’s a fun ride!
What’s Redeeming Time about? Think H. P. Lovecraft meets film noir meets Indiana Jones meets Val Lewton.
Image of Gene Tierney from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir copyright 1946, 20th-Century Fox (http://classicbeckybrainfood.blogspot.com/2010/08/just-thought.html)
Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to participate with two other mystery writers in a Sisters in Crime New England panel, “We’re Not Making This Up” at the Plainfield Library in New Hampshire. Nancy Norwalk is the wonderful lady at the library who set up our panel, and advertised and arranged for event. I was the newbie and the two veterans were Kevin Symmons, who does romantic thrillers, sometimes with a gothic twist, and Ellen Perry Berkeley, who does gritty mysteries with a historical basis – as well as some interesting nonfiction, Maverick Cats and At Grandmother’s Table: Women Write about Food. Kevin’s latest is Chrysalis and Ellen’s is Keith’s People.
The Library is a beautiful little brick buidling that, like the Tardis, is much bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside. Just to make sure we knew where we were going, Nancy’s signs pointed out our way into the charming, old New England building. Once there, I shared a table for displaying my books with Kevin Symmons, and the three of us got started talking about our writing and answering questions from a nice turn out of about 15 people. Kevin was our adept moderator.
We had some interesting discussion of the merits of small, independent publishers over the big-ticket conglomerates. You may not get huge advances or get as much promotion (though the latter advantage is not always available), but you also aren’t under pressure to sell 10 to 100s of thousands of books – and you don’t have to pay back an advance that low sales don’t erase. Just as good, your books tend to stay in print longer – and you tend to have more control over content. We also had some fun and funny discussions over sex vs. romance (in the novels), how do we carve out the time to write, and do the characters spring direct from the unconscious or do we base them on people we know. I ended up talking about how I like to cast my novels like a movie full of classic actors, with a few more modern folk sprinkled in. But we all agreed that characters have a way of taking the reins and telling us what they intend to do, no matter what our original intention was – and we love it!
It was also fun to discover how we all did our research through talking to people in different fields, drawing on our own personal and professional experiences, reading and immersing ourselves in the environments that would become our characters’ worlds: whether it was WWII New York, show- horse farms, or post Viet Nam America.
I did “shock” my two panel members by admitting that I have to write my first draft with pen (no pencil- too soft!) and paper. Otherwise, the muse just won’t flow. She needs to travel from my mind to the paper via that sharp pen point. Computers are for editing as far as she is concerned. What can I say!
We writers made some nice connections with one another and with our audience – and I hope that we inspired some of them to keep on with their own writing and perhaps be published, themselves! And, of course, it’s always nice to sell some books! We writers even ended up getting some reading material from each other.
So, to keep you entertained while you breathlessly await the forthcoming blogs on my appearance at The Book Lover’s Gourmet and my adventures at the Shakespeare of America Convention in New Orleans, here’s a link to an audio interview with me by Pat Driscoll for The New Worcester Spy. It contains more details on my interests in film noir and horror, on film and on the page, and even a little more on my background. Just click here. It’s what Dusty would want!
Well, after all my announcements and commotion, here, at last, is the report on my reading and signing at Annie’s Bookstop in Worcester. I HAD A BALL! What a wonderful experience. So, I will commemorate it in words and pictures for you.
Ah, a long shot of Annie’s as viewed by the author and her entourage – aka her husband. Hey, he’s one guy but he’s worth a battalion. We all know that about Yang!
Wait, here’s the heart-stopping moment where I see myself and my work celebrated in an honest-to-goodness advertisement! I’m a star! For the day. Sort of. That’s good enough for me!
One of my loyal fans, Barbara Werblin greets me with gifts celebrating my great victory in actually getting the darned thing published! We’re buddies from the “Y,” so she’s seen me in my sweats and really knows me! Barb’s a great friend who has given me tons of encouragement – and she loves the book, too! As the Mom of a wonderful poet, she understands the writer’s burden. Sigh!
You can see my pal and colleague MaryLynn just behind me in the shot above. In these two pictures, you can see my friend and former student, Erin Bassler, having a good time while she reports on the event for The New Worcester Spy. (Read the article here!) Ultimately, we had about 12 or 13 people attend, all told. I had loads of support from my friends: students, colleagues, folks I know who enjoyed Bait and Switch and like seeing me be a wise guy. So take a gander at some of the shots from the reading, question answering, and signing. Also, note how I got myself all gussied up in my smart-talking, forties gal, film noir look: white blouse, black skirt, black and white spectator pumps, technicolor red lipstick. Agent Carter, eat out your heart!
Someone said something shocking! How about those gorgeous flowers that Barbara got me for the occasion? And chocolate. She got me chocolate, too. A brilliant woman!
Here are some nice shots of other folks coming up with questions, pondering the noir-style mysteries engendered by James Crawford leaving Jessica Minton that mysterious package in Bait and Switch.
Erin Fragola follows along intently while I ham up my reading in the background.
Everyone gets intense with Pam McKay concentrating to express her thoughts on one of the many exciting and intriguing questions people posed to me on the characters, plot, historical background, cinematic style of the novel, and the true identity of Dusty. Both Erin Bassler and I look perplexed. Must have been a humdinger of a query! Something to do with Nazis?
While I’m signing books for my loyal fans, Pam and her friend Gaylene are perusing Bait and Switch to throw more thought-provoking questions my way.
Ah, the end of an exhilarating day! Here the author poses with her masterpiece. I could use a nice cuppa about now.Bait and Switch is the first in the series of Jessica Minton’s adventures in the 1940s. I’m not telling who else will be along for the ride in subsequent novels. You’ll have to buy the books to find out!
I’m lucky to have so many friends to support me and to enjoy what I write. My only regret is that I didn’t get to include pictures of two people who made this wonderful day possible, but I do extend my heartfelt thanks. Patty at Annie’s and my husband, who always believes in me – and is lots of fun to be with – yes, I know I dangled a preposition. So there!
I can’t tell everyone how excited I am that Bait and Switch is now going to be available. If you want the Kindle edition, it’s now available for pre-order through Amazon (click here), and the official release for all versions (paperback and electronic is December 15th – next week. As a little preview, I’d like to share the cover art with you here.
My husband Yang and I designed it and executed it. I love that it captures a ’40s noir/pulp-novel ambiance. Would you believe that Yang used me as the model for the figure? Well the body/clothes/ hair. The face is, um, a somewhat younger.
Just for fun, note that the lamp is actually based on the WWII blackout street lamps that directed light downward, keeping submarines or potential bombers from seeing the city. My husband is the tops, working away over the weekend to put my initial design into such an elegant form. I owe him a lot.
I thank my publisher and Jacqueline of all trades Sheri Williams for skillfully transferring our mock up to a finished product, slaving away into the wee hours to get things done – and done right! I appreciate it! I hope the this cover sets a mood that the novel will carry through for your enjoyment. In these times of holiday stress, a little tale of murder, espionage, and wise aleck cats always provides a pleasant distraction. I’ll have additional info for you after I finish grading some more papers! I have a day job, too! If I’ve piques your curiosity about Bait and Switch, click here for a sneak peek.