Category Archives: Jessica Minton

The Dark Horses Inspiring Always Play the Dark Horse

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

Equipoise
1. History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, William H.P. Robertson
2. https://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/214268/bh-100-equipoise
3. https://www.champsofthetrack.com/post/10-facts-about-equipoise
4.https://www.equibase.com/profiles/Results.cfm?type=Horse&refno=146348&registry=T&rbt=TB

Kelso
1. History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, William H.P. Robertson
2. A Horse Named Kelso, Pat Johnson and Walter D. Osborne
3. Richard Stone Reeves Paintings also from A Horse Named Kelso

Devil His Due
1. SuperPickle, Registered User Join Date: Nov 2014 Posts: 1,121 Rep Power: 7 SuperPickle is on a distinguished roadhttp://www.paceadvantage.com/forum/showthread.php?t=138591
2.https://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/221713/grade-1-winner-sire-devil-his-due-dies-at-28
3. https://www.thoroughbreddailynews.com/devil-his-due-dies-at-28/
4.Post Parade Image: Author’s collection
5.  https://twitter.com/drflivingston/status/578934814767751168
6.Confirmation Portrait: Thoroughbred Times 1997 Stallion Directory

Last Glimpses of Autumn

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?

 

The Dark Side of the Screen, the Dark Pages of my Novels

Growing up watching films from the ’30s, 40’s, and 50s, often in the dark hours of Seventhbthe 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
Still photos from Scarlet Street  and The Woman on the Beach are from the author’s collection
Image of Dusty and images from book covers from the author’s collection
Image from Murder, My Sweet from unknown source
Image of New York City from New York in the Forties, Andreas Feininger (Dover Publications, 1978)
Banana cream pie image courtesy of  https://www.pngkey.com/detail/u2w7u2e6q8e6t4r5_pies-clipart-slice-pie-lemon-meringue-pie-drawing/

 

 

Casting Characters, Part 3: Always Play the Dark Horse

Part Three: Always Play the Dark Horse  horse and rider

Now we come to Always Play the Dark Horse, with a cast of characters 106738603_10223680069933821_7022871368887621055_nboth new and familiar.  Rose Nyquist, Jessica’s professor friend, returns from Dead Man, only this time she helps Jessica navigate academic politics at the College at Margaret Point, even joining Jessica and James to face intrigue and murder.  Who better to play this part than the straight-from-the-shoulder, quick-witted Barbara Stanwyck – with a dash of my good friend Kathy Healey, who is also quick-witted and straight-from-the shoulder.
DSCN5749The English Department’s chair is Nigel Cross, a man of powerful character, icy cold control, and a devastating wit to those who try to play cute with him.  With those he respects, though, he seems a square shooter. The perfect inspiration for the character, especially the first part of the description? How about Nigel Bennett, well known as the formidable and cool LaCroix on Forever Knight?
Terry Clarke was Jessica’s college boyfriend many years back, in a relationship that didn’t end well when he opted to look for a gal with the do[ugh]-re-mi to restore his family fortunes.  Now a professor at Margaret Point College, he’s intelligent, capable, witty, and charming enough to balance out his ego, almost.  However, Terry’s also a bit of a ladies’ man, to his wife’s chagrin.  My casting choice was the handsome, young Quentin played by David Selby on Dark Shadows.  That hint of a Southern accent dovetails nicely with Terry’s Virginia horse-country roots. No Quentin-1897 sideburns, though. But those blue eyes, WOW!
Maureen_O'Hara_1950Meanwhile, there’s Carolina Brent Clarke, the wife who resents Terry’s philandering with another teacher who has mysteriously gone missing.  Who should inspire the Virginia belle whom Terry thought he could marry for money, only to discover she had the same misapprehension about him?  Well, I don’t have enough redheads in my stories, so how about the fiery-tressed and -tempered Maureen O’Hara?  I know she usually plays a heroine, but she could go fatale when she wanted.  So I traded in her Irish accent for the faint strains of a Maryland one and let her take the folks at Margaret Point for one hell of a ride!
Then, there’s Sailor, aka Phil Novack, the mysterious man who rides theRyan equally mysterious Dark Horse of the title.  A solitary sort, haunted by war memories and perhaps something more, to whom Jessica is drawn by their mutual love of horses.  This becomes dangerous for them both. My inspiration was the craggy-featured, brooding presence that Robert Ryan so beautifully brought to the screen.  Naturally, I’m thinking more of the decent but tortured and confused types he played in The Woman on the Beach or Act of Violence, not the sly, murdering racist in Criss-Cross.
DSCN4673And what inspired my College at Margaret Point?  Ah, that’s interesting.  Over the years, I’ve made many a visit to the campus of UConn at Avery Point.  It’s located on the Long Island Sound, with wonderful grounds, a gorgeous view of the ocean, and an impressive mini-chateau that was once  a wealthy business person’s Branford House.DSCN4684  Now the House holds administrative offices and hosts conferences or even weddings in its magnificent Great Hall, with its first-floor rooms  boasting gorgeous woodwork and carved mantels.  On the second floor is a  small but nifty art gallery.  Although I embroidered on the campus a bit by including stables,  victory gardens, and cozy faculty-cottage housing in my novel,  the fictional Cameron House neatly captures the elegance of Branford House.
Once again, Dusty remains Dusty!  Mice, murderers, and master spies beware! What’s she nabbing now?!

Dustyg

Stay tuned for more blogs to whet your appetite for Always Play the Dark Horse, coming out on August 24th.

DSCN4680
Barbara Stanwyck Image, unknown source
Nigel Bennett Image:  Screen shot, Forever Knight, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2006
Maureen O’Hara Image:  By J. Fred Henry Publications – page 32, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44624486
Images of David Selby, Robert Ryan, Branford House, and Dusty:  Author’s collection

No copyright infringement intended by use of images.  Only educational and entertainment purposes.  Contact me should you feel your copyright has been infringed

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Casting Characters, Part Two: Letter from a Dead Man

Casting Characters, Part 2:  Letter from a Dead Man

Letter from a Dead Man gave me some nifty casting possibilities as well.Fred  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 evil clairenovel?  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. Dustyac

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
Fred MacMuray Photo from The All Americans (James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke)
Claire Trevor Image unknown source
David Duchovny image: xfilesfandom.com
Dusty image:  author’s collection

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Continue reading Casting Characters, Part Two: Letter from a Dead Man

Casting Characters, Part One: Bait and Switch

2021Bait and Switch_Front_2021Readers 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. 
house101Many of you have heard me explain how the Minton sisters, Jessica and Liz, are based on the witty, smart, Rosalind1independent 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!

Olivier

When it came to the law, I had some fun in this novel.  James Crawford’s Ed_Asner_1977partner 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.
Dusty transWho 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!

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Photos from author’s collection except of Laurencer Olivier and Ed Asner

Images for educational and entertainment purposes only.  Contact me if you feel your copyright has been violated and I will remove the images
Olivier:  By Tower Publications – The New Movie Magazine page 65, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37784453
Asner: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ed_Asner_1977.JPG

Continue reading Casting Characters, Part One: Bait and Switch

Mystery Making and a Book Fair with Sisters in Crime- NE

I recently had a ball  with Sisters in Crime New England appearances.  On February 11, I joined Ursula Wong, Edwin Hill, and Tilia Klebenov Jacobs for a session of Mystery Making at the Warwick Public Library.
We had a wonderful time working with the audience to create a mystery from their suggestions that included a standard-poodle service dog and a black-leather-clad martial arts femme fatale, both named Angelica; a retired detective with a Welsh name living on the Cape with the service dog; a baker of dog treats with a dark hidden life; a busybody who thinks she’s Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher rolled into one; and trafficking in illegal human organs!  I got to be the MC, writing up all the suggestions on a white board and helping audience and panel alike draw their thoughts together – those teaching skills never cease to find an outlet!  How do the authors and audience put this kind of thing together?!  If you think such an adventure would be fun or inspiring for your library, school, book club, etc., click here for details from the Sisters in Crime Speakers Bureau on how to set up something.
I also had fun at the Cumberland Library Book Fair.  The library is located in a former monastery and surrounded by woods full of trails.  Gorgeous!

There were lots of folks from Sisters in Crime there, like Arlene Kay, Dale Phillips, Leslie Wheeler, Nicole Asselin, to name a few.  I made sure to wear by best 1948 ensemble, including the nylons with the seam up the back.  I also have several appearances lined up for March and April.  On Monday, March 16, I’ll be at the North Reading Library, hosting a showing of Walter Wanger’s 1940 warning to Americans about the true danger of Nazism, The Man I Married.  The film raises many telling points about how easy it is for people to be sucked in by Fascism and racism, sadly still relevant.  And it’s worth seeing just to catch Joan Bennett kicking Nazis! On April 4th (11:30), I’ll be doing a reading and signing at the Whitinsville Social Library; on April 16th (7:00), I’m doing another Sisters in Crime Mystery Making session at the Groton Public Library.  Click here for more details on my Appearances and Events Page.  Come see me!

 

“My Smart-Talking Gal Mystery Heroine: A Joan Bennett Birthday Tribute”

“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.
Surprise!
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

Promoting Books, Meeting People, Having Fun

Once school was out- permanently for me now! – I had more time for readings/talks/signings.  One of my first events was the Local Author Book Fair in Worcester at the Wesley United Methodist Church.  This was a signing and chatting rather than a reading.  I had a wonderful time.   I met lots of new readers and also got to talk with many other local writers.  Jean Grant and I did a book trade, so I’m looking forward to reading her A Hundred Breaths this summer.   I also saw some old friends.  Kate Zebrowski, whom I know from my time at Worcester State, had the table next to mine where she was promoting her  time-slip fantasy Sleepwalking Backwards as well as her poetry. Tom and Barbara Ingrassia were at the other end of the auditorium with tables for their work as well – Barbara on copyright law and Tom with his “supreme” books on the Supremes (Reflections of a Love Supreme) and self-help (One Door Closes).  By the Bye, Tom’s One Door Closes is being turned into a film that is nearing conclusion.  Stay tuned for more on that!

 

In June, I returned to my alma mater where I earned my BA, then ULowell- now UMass-Lowell, to give a talk on becoming a published author through the school’s LIRA (Learning in Retirement Association) Program.  To my delight, the talk was at the South Campus (originally Lowell State), where I did all my course work.  We were in  Allen House, a beautiful old building on a rise overlooking the Merrimack River.  There are some wonderful views, as you can see from this photo that my cameraman and husband, Yang, took.
I can remember going to some receptions here back in the mid to late ’70s when I was an undergraduate- a child undergraduate, that is.  The place was entirely redone after having been abandoned for a long time after I had graduated – no connection.  The room I presented in was done beautifully in dark wood paneling with floor-to-ceiling doors looking out on a green and then down to the river.

 

The presentation was loads of fun, with a packed house and an audience who had great questions for me on my personal experiences as a writer and on the travails of finding a publisher and promoting my work. I especially loved sharing with the audience the powerful influence of filmed and written mysteries of the golden age and film noir on creating Bait and Switch and Letter from a Dead Man.  Of course, I made sure to give a tip of my mightily feathered hat to my favorite smart-talking gal Joan Bennett and her influence on the creation of my heroine Jessica Minton.  I also got some nice comments on my hat and suit!  The nylons with the seam up the back (from the WWII Museum in New Orleans) were a big hit, too!

 

What the heck am I thinking about here? It must have been some question  thrown at me?!
Look here.  I CAN walk and talk at the same time!  Thank God no one asked me to chew gum!  One bridge too far.
Interestingly enough, I also met some people who knew folk I with whom went to grammar school and high school!  And people laughed at my jokes, too!  So, the summer has started off nicely in terms of doing readings and such.  Now, it’s on to Pettee Memorial Library in Wilmington, Vt. on Saturday, 6/22.  Hmm, which hat and suit should I wear.  Any suggestions?

 

Passport to Adventure: WSU Writers Workshop

On Friday, April 26th, I had the pleasure of joining Lisa Lieberman in presenting the writing workshop “Passport to Adventure” at Worcester State University.  Like me, Lisa writes historical mysteries.  Hers follow the adventures and intrigues of Cara Walden from 1950s Hollywood to England and Italy (special guest appearance by Cary Grant!) to Hungary during the Revolution and soon to Indochina.  Lisa is also Vice President of Sisters in Crime New England.  In that role she’s been working to bring new blood, so to speak, into our organization.  This fun work shop is one means she is rolling out to do so.  I was happy that she asked me to join her.
To give you an idea of how fun and inspirational this work shop is, here’s Lisa’s description: “The Surrealists used to pool their money and buy a one-way ticket to the furthest destination they could afford. They’d send one person off on an adventure and they’d have to make their way back somehow, and tell the others all about it when they returned.  Along they way, they’d collect talismans that helped them navigate the dark places they encountered. In this workshop, we’ll be sending each of you off on an adventure and when  you get back, you’ll have the outline of a short story.”
Of course, we didn’t literally send anyone off ‑ that would be a really long workshop.  More pragmatically, we had a display of all kinds of intriguing objects from which participants could choose for the “talismans” or souvenirs. For a destination for their journey into the mysterious, we had them select one sealed envelope from an array, each with a different noir image to inspire their journey into creativity.  They had time allotted to get started on who one character in the image was and what his/her concern was.  Then, to spice things even more, I got to do individual tarot reading of past, present, and future of their characters ‑ which would aid them in thinking through where their characters had been, what conflict they were in now, and how that conflict might be resolved.  It was fun for me to give vague interpretations of the cards and then watch our writers run with them, already inspired by their images and selected souvenirs.  Wonderfully, the writers all seemed pretty well pleased with what they had come up with and planned to continue their tales.  One fellow even told me he had finished his short story and had submitted it to the Al Blanchard Short Fiction Contest.  Since he’s one of my students, of course, I’m pulling for him to win!
Our faculty liaison, Cleve Wiese was so excited by our endeavors, that he not only now has a story he wants to finish, but asked us to come back next fall to do the session with the WSU writers’ club INK.  Another faculty member wants us to do the workshop with his course The Writers Life in the spring!  And here’s the good news for everyone else out there!  Lisa and I would be delighted to come to schools or writers’ groups to do the workshop as well!  So let me or Lisa know if you would like us to work with you.  Once again, Sisters in Crime is out there making a difference for writers, published and unpublished!  Joining was one of the best decisions I ever made!