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The Sign of the Ram (Margaret Ferguson), The Undying Monster (Jessie Douglas Kerriush), and Redeeming Time (me, unpublished – yet!).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.
The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA is celebrating the 125th birthday of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Providence’s own native son, with a week-long film festival. They kicked things off last night with two wonderful independent productions by HPLHS (the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society), adaptations of “The Whisperer in the Darkness” and “The Call of C’Thullu.” Both are done in vintage form, the first as a 1930s Universal horror film––complete with zeppelin rather than bi-plane circling the globe for the opening card/production logo, though the zeppelin moves with far more stateliness across the screen than that buzzing aeroplane (as our boy Lovecraft would spell it). The adaptation of Whisperer was superb, with the 1930s chiaroscuro black and white cinematography creating as much eerie, unsettling mystery as the films of the earlier era, also drawing on their use of canted camera angles and under lighting to evoke a strange blend of nightmare and melancholy that was highly effective for putting the strangeness of Lovecraft on the screen. The shots of Mt. Holyoke College for Miskatonic University were delightfully Gothic. Just one thing, why do college professors in films always have offices three times what I have––or what any one I know has?The adaptation of to film was faithful to Lovecraft’s actual writing, adding on only what rounded out his tale in the proper vein of horror. I was a little confused at the ending, but I can’t say too much without giving anything away. I do not want to spoil this film for Lovecraft, old movie, or horror devotes. Also worth noting is that the concessions to modern film making only improved on the old style, with the acting untroubled by the early thirties, “I’ve just come from Broadway and I am ACTING!” that undermines so many performances until the mid and late 1930s. The use of stop motion animation and CGI together creates delightfully creepy creatures! It is such a wonderful film. Find it and watch it –– the perfect treat for Halloween. It’s available in dvd and Blu Ray at the HPLHS web site, C’thullu Lives!
And your second feature should be none other than the same one we saw, The Call of C’thullu. Done as a silent film, this movie, uses the lighting and shadows, camera angles, sets, music, and such of silent era masterpieces like Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligeri, The Cat and the Canary, and Vampyr (actually partially sound) to convey the suspense, eeriness, and ambiguity of the era. Again, the acting is sound, like that of the good silent films––not over the top as people tend to stereotype all silent features. The visit to C’thullu’s island of R’lyeh was a tense and delightfully disquieting descent into horror. I vociferously applaud the HPLHS’s film making efforts and hope they keep at it. If you visit their site, you’ll also find great updates on all things (so to speak) Lovecraft, as well as Miskatonic paraphernalia and even sea shanties from Innsmouth on dvd. I’m inspired to go back and revise my own Lovecraft/film noir pastiche now!
Image of Lovecraft from Google Public Domain Images
One of my friends was asking me about my inspiration for Jessica Minton and Elizabeth Hennessey in my novel Bait and Switch, and I explained that I love creating characters in the vein of those smart-talking gals from films of the 1940s (sometimes ‘50s and 30s, too)––especially film noir. Lots of ink has been devoted to the femme fatale/innocent girl split-personae of women in noir, but not enough has been devoted to the women whom writers and actresses created who could not be easily relegated to either the “whore” or the “Madonna” category. Sheri Chinen Biesen moves us in that direction, though, with her article “Manufacturing Heroines: Gothic Victims and Working Women in Classic Noir Fiction,” where she discusses “multi-faceted, working career women” as part of the film noir cast of characters. I can see definite overlapping between her working girls and my smart-talking gals. What I’d like to do is focus on several actresses who made careers out of playing the smart talking gal––and you can feel free to suggest and write about such actresses, yourself, in this page’s comments.
First, though, what is a smart-talking gal? She’s too sharp witted, independent, and experienced to be the virginal, innocent. Still, she has too much wit and class to be anyone’s moll. Further, she’s definitely not a femme fatale. She doesn’t so much use wiles as wit; and her strength, smarts, and experience serve to get at the truth, solve conflicts, and protect herself and those she just might let herself care about––if they prove they’re worth it. She has a heart, but hard knocks have taught her to armor it. She may be sexually experienced, she may not be; she’s definitely not an innocent. This type redefines what it means to be a “good girl.” Some actresses who best personify the smart-talking gal include Joan Bennett, Claire Trevor, Ella Raines, Ida Lupino, Veronica Lake, Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, Rosalind Russell, and Lizabeth Scott. How about we look at a few of them at a time?
Joan Bennett: Joan has to be my favorite, and in many ways, she inspired the wit and independence of Jessica Minton in Bait and Switch. Now, Joan could play the evil femme fatale with the best of them. Think of Kitty March in Scarlet Street. Still, even some of her “hydrochloric dames” (as a NY Times critic put it) revealed genuine humanity behind caustic smart talk and ostensible manipulativeness. In The Woman in the Window, The Macomber Affair, and The Woman on the Beach, her characters act in defense against the bullying of men, and their seeming femme fatale status is a projection of a man’s fears and darker nature. However, in other films she’s a lot more fun––or at least clearly not the villainess. This is definitely more like Bait and Switch’s Jessica. In House Across the Bay, Joan’s a show girl not about to let anyone reduce her to a kept woman “dressed up in furs” who “takes a Pekinese for a walk around the block.” She’s also no pushover for a tough broad, either. When a jealous dame calls her, “Cheap, cheap, cheap,” she laughs back, “Where’s the bird seed?” And when that same dame pushes her luck further, Joan’s Brenda Bentley nails her with the rejoinder that she has a voice like “four panes of cracked glass.” The Man I Married finds Joan getting away with kicking Nazis in the shins and telling a German-born husband who has let German imperialism go to his head, “Heil, Heel!” In Confirm or Deny, she forestalls Don Ameche’s passes with dry humor and upholds national security with determination as the London blitz rages on. While in The Secret Beyond the Door, when faced with almost the same problems as the second Mrs. deWinter, rather than turning to whimpering mush, she uses common sense, humor, honesty, self-confidence, and a healthy dose of Jungian analysis to set everyone, including herself, straight. The Scar shows Bennett at her most incisive and tart, deflating Paul Henreid’s attempt to charmingly snow her with, “First comes you, second comes you, third comes you . . . . and then comes you.” When he later calls her “a bitter little lady,” she shoots back a cool, “It’s a bitter little world.” And yet Joan’s Evelyn Hahn has the heart to trust him when he finally does try to be on the square with her, only to have that heart smashed when fate, not his duplicity, makes it seem he has deserted her. In my film noir class, all the students, upon seeing her shadowed expression of resignation at the end of the movie, call for a rewrite.
Claire Trevor: Here’s another actress who can also hand you a dangerous femme fatale, but with NO redeeming traits. Her sexy villainesses in Johnny Angel; Murder, My Sweet; and Born to Kill all epitomize the characterization made by Anne Shirley’s character in Murder, My Sweet as “‘big league blondes.’ Beautiful, expensive babes who know what they’ve got . . . all bubble bath, and dewy morning, and moonlight. And inside: blue steel, cold––cold like that . . . only not that clean.” Nevertheless, Claire could deftly play the smart-talking gal with wit and warmth, as evidenced by her art critic in Crack-Up, Brian Donlevy’s seen-it-all secretary in The Lucky Stiff, the girlfriend who helps Dennis O’Keefe escape prison in Raw Deal (and gets one, herself when he dumps her for Marsha Hunt), and her government agent in Borderline. She’s particularly fun to watch in Crack-Up and Borderline. In the first, she helps a former “Monuments Man,” played by Pat O’Brien, evade the police when he’s framed for art theft and murder, while juggling Herbert Marshall’s British Intelligence agent and the police. Driving up and rescuing O’Brian’s fugitive art expert from being picked up by the police, she responds to his suspicion and lack of gratitude by pulling the car over and remarking with a neat blend of sharpness and warmth: “You can wait here. They’re going to put in a streetcar soon. Unless . . . unless you have some dim idea of what you’re doing and want me to help you.” Borderline finds Trevor as an undercover police woman trying to crack a narcotics ring by pretending to be part of a couple whom a drug trafficker will use to smuggle drugs. What she doesn’t realize is that her “husband” is also an undercover agent with a different agency, who is just as ignorant about her. The two have some wonderful exchanges, and their attempting to get each other to “cooperate” and go straight with each other’s agencies at the border is worth a chuckle or two.
Ella Raines: Ella Raines of the pert page-boy bob; the mischievous, knowing half-smile; and the clear green eyes that hint of something devilish up her sleeve is always a joy to watch. In The Phantom Lady, she’s Kansas, the faithful secretary who’ll move heaven and earth to clear the boss she unrequitedly loves of a murder frame-up. She’s tough enough to stalk a bartender to break his lying testimony (only to overplay her hand when she frightens him into running in front of bus rather than into telling the truth). She’s intrepid enough to doll herself up like a tart to try and pump a hyped up (or is it hopped up?) drummer for exculpatory info. Yet she’s compassionate enough to tread gently when she finally finds the fragile woman who holds her boss’s (and beloved’s) alibi in her broken mind. The Runaround finds Raines outsmarting two P.I.s hunting her down to bring her back to a father who doesn’t want his daughter marrying the man he believes a bounder, all with a knowing twinkle in her eyes. In The Web, she plays Noel Faraday, efficient and almost all-knowing secretary to shady Vincent Price––she doesn’t realize quite how shady Vincent is. All this while, initially parrying the come-ons of a brash lawyer played by Edmond O’Brien, replying to his claim that when he has “forty million” he’ll have a secretary that looks like her with: “Oh, my tastes are fairly simple. Twenty million would be quite enough.” Also check her out The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, Impact, and White Tie and Tails. A neat web site on Raines can be found at: http://ellarainesfilms.blogspot.com/2013/01/ella-raines-in-web.html
Quotations from Claire Trevor’s movies can be found at “Claire Trevor,” on the IMDB, under quotations for the film. Quotation from Ella Raines’s film can be found at “Ella Raines,” on the IMDB, under quotations for the film. Quotations from the Joan Bennett films can be found in the films noted. I remember them. What can I say; I’m a movie geek––but I don’t live in my parents’ basement. So there! Photos of Joan Bennett from the author’s collection (mostly bought from Jay Perino’s The Mint); photos of Claire Trevor from unknown sources; and photos of Ella Raines from the ellarainesfilms.blogspot (second image) and unknown sources.