|Since some of the Covid issues have waned, I’ve started going back to doing in-person author readings. Friday, October 14th, I had the good fortune to do an event at the Lee Library in Lee, Massachusetts. What a wonderful day! Lee is in the western part of Massachusetts, so my husband and I had an exciting drive through all the gorgeous fall foliage to arrive at our destination. Lee is a neat little town with a main street of equally neat shops, and in an antique store I found a 1940s movie magazine with pictures of favorite stars. The main street has lots of tasty restaurants. We had our lunch at The Starving Artist Cafe, where they craft the yummiest sandwiches and
crêpes. They made a pumpkin latte that was absolutely perfect – not all sugary and fake whipped cream, but good coffee, the flavor of pumpkin spice, and steamed milk. We sat outside at the street seating on a warm October day and enjoyed the small-town scenery, great food, and trees dressed in their autumn flames and oranges.After a stroll amongst the shops and a peek at some of the gorgeous Victorian houses in town, we went to the library for my talk. You can see what a beautiful old building the library is. When visiting the town earlier, I was taken with the building and thought, “I’d like to do a talk here.” Well, I contacted Jodi Magner at the library, and she was tremendously welcoming and enthusiastic at the prospect of my doing an event. She told me that they loved mysteries in that town!
That day, Jodi and her daughter Megan made me so welcome and helped my husband and I set up. I was delighted that my friend, mystery writer, Leslie Wheeler could join us, as well as other women whom I’d never met before. We were a small group, but we had a great time. I got so many intelligent questions, and people seemed interested in my inspiration from film noir and haunting movies of the 1940s like Val Lewton’s films and The Uninvited. They seemed to get a kick out of the excerpts that I read from Bait and Switch, Letter from a Dead Man, and Always Play the Dark Horse to illustrate how the dark, dreamy elements of noir and the smart talking gals of the 1940s influenced my writing! One of the women even said that a friend, sometime earlier, had been suggesting she read the Jessica Minton series. I’m getting a fan base! And now you can read all three Jessica Minton novels through the Lee Library.
Say, how do you like the pin-stripe black suit and the black fedora? I thought the gold blouse was just right to add fall color. Should I have brought along a gat?
I’m hoping to go back in the summer, after the fourth novel comes out: Shadows of a Dark Past. Maybe I’ll see you there!
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.
I suppose I had thought that a person accumulated her experiences over the years and then, when retirement afforded her the leisure to go through her diaries, miscellaneous writings, and correspondence, she would have all that she needed to write her memoirs. I, that is, not she. All those boxes of papers I haven’t organized going back to the year dot, they could all wait until I had the time to go through them. Once I had the time, I had supposed, the floodgates of memory would simply open, and all the flotsam and jetsam of life would more-or-less fall into place. I realize now that I was counting on it. But as it turns out, events are conspiring to present a wholly different picture.
For one thing, my mind seems to have gone completely blank. After all, over twelve-plus years Tell Me Another has accumulated more than…
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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
Part Three: Always Play the Dark Horse
Casting Characters, Part 2: Letter from a Dead Man
Letter from a Dead Man gave me some nifty casting possibilities as well. For the experienced Detective Leo McLaughlan, I chose Fred MacMurray. Not the befuddled, cuddly MacMurray of My Three Sons, but the shrewd, been-around-the-block-a-few times version in Bordertown, Singapore, Calloway Went Thataway, and Double Indemnity (without the murderous leanings). Yup, I found great inspiration for Leo in Calloway when MacMurray’s jaded press agent told a neophyte Western actor, “You’ve got two expressions: hat on and hat off.”
Whom did I select for the sexy, treacherous Alanna Tewkesbury of the novel? None other than that queen of noir femme fatales, Claire Trevor. True, Trevor has played reliable smart-talking gals (Crackup), but her conniving dames luring men to do her selfish, illicit bidding in Murder, My Sweet and Johnny Angel were the ideal inspiration for Dead Man’s “barracuda in Max Factor.” Take a look at Trevor’s seductive first meeting with Philip Marlowe in Murder before you read Alanna’s interview with Leo McLaughlan and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Don’t forget FBI agent Jeff Hooley in the novel, either. For him I went to a more modern source. Who might be a model for an acerbic, black-sheep agent with a touch of the romantic? A chap with a dark secret about betrayal and corruption driving him for justice? How about David Duchovney from The X-Files fitting the bill?
I decided to dip into my preoccupation with Star Trek for casting two supporting players in the cast. Iris’s boyfriend Walter Castle got his start in Walter Koenig, with a pun on the last name. It makes sense if you know German. And the mysterious Kavanaugh that Hooley sought out to clear his family name? Leonard Nimoy. Don’t you think he could do jaded, world-weary, and feelings tightly guarded? Don’t worry, though, there were no point ears in this role to keep his hat from fitting right.
So, whom from the classic era do you think might have inspired the Minton sisters’ friends Iris and Lois.? Or Alanna Tewkesbury’s torpedo Eddie Kubeck? Let me know what you think and I’ll let you know whom I had in mind.
Once again, Dusty is always Dusty.
Photos: No intention to violate copyright law,images used for entertainment and educational uses only. If there are any problems, contact me to remove the image
Readers often compliment me on the believability of the actors in my novels and ask me how I create even supporting characters who seem so human. One explanation I have harks back to my choice of the word “actors,” above. For I love to cast my novels as one might a movie. “Casting” my novels gives me a way to develop a more convincing character by drawing on actual expressions, ways of moving, ways of speaking, and general behavior.
My casting tends to reflect my preference for films of the golden age of Hollywood, especially the 1940s. Sometimes, I even select folks who are more contemporaneous, or more contemporary to when I was in my teens and twenties. I almost feel as if I’m creating exciting roles for some of my favorite performers that the limits of their careers might have denied them.
Many of you have heard me explain how the Minton sisters, Jessica and Liz, are based on the witty, smart, independent parts played by Joan Bennett and Rosalind Russell, respectively. You’ve also heard me mention that the sisters’ traits and relationship is also flavored by the wise cracking, warmth, and wackiness I share with my sister-in-law Pam Healy. But how about some of the supporting characters?
In Bait and Switch, Jessica’s boyfriend is drawn from a young Laurence Olivier. So, we have a chap with enough wit, charm, dependability, and good looks to give James Crawford a run for his money in the romance department. No Ralph Bellamys or Alan Mowbrays being obvious second choices in my books!
When it came to the law, I had some fun in this novel. James Crawford’s partner is gruff and sarcastic, with a bit of the old softie hidden under his prickly exterior. Who better to cast in this brusque-on-the-surface part of “the fire-plug” but Ed Asner of Lou Grant fame. James’s partner also hates spunk. Casting Detective Winston particularly gave me a chuckle. Loving irony, I thought it would be a hoot to have this intelligent, calm, world-weary, patient man be a dead ringer for Moe Howard of the Stooges. Characters in Bait and Switch trying to square his appearance with his capabilities provide some fun moments in the novel-though not so much for Jim Winston.
Who inspired the wise-guy cat, Dusty? None other than my first cat, Dusty. Want to hear more about her wise-cattery? Check out this blog that I did on her. All Hail Dusty!
As part of my Halloween viewing program, I broke out Nick Knight (1989), the made-for-TV movie predecessor of the series Forever Knight. Interestingly, the only actor to make it from this film to the series was John Kapelos as Schanke. Even the setting was replaced, LA with Toronto. So, how do they compare?
The more I think about it, the set up for each best suits its own format. The neo-noir vibe of the movie, its lighting, use of current music, locations, casting, and characterization are appropriate for a one-off movie. Then there’s the clever humor of having a vampire arrive at his home to “I’m Only Human.” Even better, this home is a former movie palace with It’s a Wonderful Life on the marquee, signaling Nick’s haunting by the dream of many past lives, likely not all so wonderful.
On the other hand, Toronto works beautifully for the series, Forever Knight (1992-96), setting the stories in a unique locale that’s a blend of the old world lurking in the new, characteristic of that city. The tone of the series is perfectly attuned to the eerie wryness of the era of The X-Files and the revived Outer Limits, with playful riffs on the cinematic vampire tradition. As a series, Forever Knight draws you into a community of the Gothic dark world and noir mean streets, but still a place where relationships shift and grow rather locating you in a stylized, neon-lit LA. Not to say that the aerial shots of LA’s blue glow, to capture a vampire’s-eye view of the city, aren’t pretty darn nifty.
I find the characterizations and casting more compelling in the series, but of course a series gives more time for development. Rick Springfield is good as a slick, cynically ironic, tough-as-nails but really decent detective/vampire, perfect for 1980s neo-noir. Still Geraint Wyn Davies’ Byronic Nick has an emotional depth, an ability to reflect and regret and care, seasoned with a mischievous wit, that deepens his character. Changes in the rest of the cast also prove more interesting in Forever Knight. The supportive male coroner from Nick Knight is now played by the feisty Catherine Disher, and the romantic tension that bubbles up from time to time in Nick and Natalie’s friendship makes for an interesting evolution of the relationship that only the longer duration of a series better facilitates. The movie’s Jeanette is a poseur at Continental finesse, whereas the series version of the character is an actual woman of the Old World (like Medieval France!), who is clever, witty, and definitely menacing. Schanke is still kind of a jerk, but in the movie he’s just a jerk. In the series he’s smarter and less self-impressed. He actually becomes Nick’s friend. LaCroix is maybe the most interesting change, after Nick. Nigel Bennett’s LaCroix in the series carries a wit and menace that leaves Michael Damon’s rather wooden interpretation in the dust. Where Damon’s LaCroix is Nick’s age-contemporary, Bennett’s greater age and expertise lend an Oedipal twist to the relationship between master/mentor vampire and apprentice growing into independence.
So, glad as I am that James D. Parriot did get his vampire tale made in 1989, I’m even gladder that he recast and relocated the project to give us a series with more depth and a greater Gothic feel.
For more info on the series and movie, check out: