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.
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.
|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
Devil His Due
Here we are with only two days left to November, closing out autumn. Though the season doesn’t officially end until December 21 or 22, depending on the year, the last day of November always feels like the turn of the page into winter with December 1st. So, I’d like to present you with a blog or two taking a lingering, pleasing look back at the “season of mellow fruitfulness.”
Last year, Yang and I celebrated Halloween during the day with a hike at Colbrook Reservoir in western Mass. Remember how we were in drought status that year? Well, that’s why we not only were able to have a memorable walk along the waterway on an abandoned two-lane paved road, but also could discern parts of the town that had been submerged by the flooding to create the reservoir. We even caught sight of the phantom bridge! This year we sought to repeat our adventure, with hopes of an even more pleasant outing since the weather was so much warmer than last year. Unfortunately, in 2021 we had so much more of something else than last year: Rain!
Last year there was water, shoreline, road, rocks and trees. This year, there was water, rocks, and trees. We were flooded out in both directions of the road from the parking lot. Yang mentioned that we also rode our bikes here the day after Thanksgiving last year; so, I commented that unless we had paddle boats, we weren’t doing any paddling here this year! Disappointed, I still managed to get some nice shots of foliage and water, as you can see. Yang had another idea, which also had been percolating in my head. We hopped in the car and headed just across the nearby border for Heublein Tower on Talcott Mountain in Connecticut! (If you want to get a look at what we saw at Colbrook last year, click here for my earlier blog .)
A little on Heublein Tower. Heublein was the third tower to stand on Talcott Mountain, built by German-born, American businessman from Hartford, Gilbert Heublein, While hiking the mountain with his fiancee, he promised her “a castle on a mountain,” keeping his promise after their marriage by constructing this tower. The edifice, which contained bedrooms on all but the pinnacle, a spacious ground-floor living room and foyer, dining room; second floor sun room, an elevator, and a ballroom on the glassed-in top floor was completed by 1929. Here, the Heubleins relaxed in their summer home, inviting guests and holding events that drew the cream of Hartford’s social crop. Heublein died in 1937, with his building falling out of use until bought in 1943 by The Hartford Times. Once again, it became the place to be for social events with celebrities of the era in attendance, including Tallulah Bankhead! Eventually, it was let slide by the Times and nearly bought by developers, until saved by the group Save Talcott Mountain. Now the mountain and the Tower are open to the public for hiking and viewing, as the area has become a state park. It’s a wonderful place to enjoy nature and some unique architecture. For more details on the Tower and the park, click here for the web site.
Hiking up the mountain isn’t too bad a hike at all. There are several trails to get to the Tower. The most popular one is a little steep at first, through autumn woods, but there are benches along the way if you’re out of shape and need a rest. We were in good enough shape not to! Then, you come out of the woods and onto a ridge overlooking the valley below. The view along this ridge is wonderful, and you might even see a hawk as we did! Some great overlooks.
The Tower itself is quite a treat! This old photo shows what the foyer and living room originally looked like. My shot lets you see an updated in-color version. The furnishings have been carefully assembled to approximate the style and taste of the original era. Though I’m not sure I would have wanted a big deer head on my wall, I would have loved to relax before that fireplace in a comfy chair or to play card games with friends on a crisp fall evening, with coffee or tea and scones for sustenance. And how about this nook by the window that looks out over a gorgeous mountain landscape, cascading fall colors into the valley below? How’s that for having breakfast or an afternoon tea? I wonder what flavor that cake is on the table?
Or maybe I’d take tea, solo or with companions, on this wonderful sun porch, warm with solar emanations? Could also be a great place to settle down and read or listen to the radio programs back in the day. And the view from up here ain’t bad, either.
How about some of those bedrooms? Not necessarily luxurious, but roomy enough. Plenty of sunlight during the day, should you wish to retire here. Pleasant, if not elaborate, decor. But you’re on a rustic retreat, so who needs frills? Though this set up is far from camping on the cold, hard New England bedrock. And, oh, those views when you get up in the morning! Imagine the rising sun setting aflame these fall colors!
One of the most interesting parts of the Tower is the observation deck. Originally, this area was known as the ballroom, as you can see from this old image of the earlier set up. Wouldn’t it be grand to dance away the evening on these hard wood floors? It could be a real Stardust Ballroom, with the twinkling lights of the darkened heavens glittering through the tall windows of all four sides of the room. Of course, you’d have to move away all that furniture. Great place for a big party!
Yet there’s no need to wait for evening to fall in love with the observation deck. During the day, you get views for miles, across Connecticut and into Massachusetts – an especially fine sight in the autumn, when the hills burst with colors. Feast your eyes!
Finally, returning to the first floor, towards the rear of the building, you find the formal dining room, gorgeous in wood paneling, dark wood furniture, marble fireplace, exquisite Persian rug, elegant china and cutlery, and painted medallion above the fireplace. How about the gorgeous beamed ceilings? It’s fun to notice that the door to the butler’s pantry is hidden in the shape of the paneling on one side of the fireplace, while a closet is similarly hidden on the other. Light pours in the windows.
Now, I ask you, would this not be the perfect setting for a mystery? This is how the UConn campus at Avery Point inspired me for Always Play the Dark Horse. So, how should we work this? Jessica and James are invited for a weekend by the owner, a mysterious sort who seems to know more about them than they about him or her? Or maybe it is someone they know, or think they do. Should guests start dropping like flies over a dinner in that elegant dining room? Should Jessica settle down to a quiet read on the sun porch, only to be interrupted by a figure sailing past to his/her death below? Should Liz also be on hand? What do you think?
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!
“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