Category Archives: Letter from a Dead Man

How to Outfit the Well Dressed 1940s Mystery Heroine

Last December (2021) I did a ZOOM with fellow mystery writers Lisa Lieberman and Janet Raye Stevens on “Writing the War Years” – as in WWII.  One aspect of doing research to give our tales verisimilitude was looking into the kinds of clothes that people wore.  That topic and the fact that many of my readers and reviewers seem to get a kick out of my descriptions of the wardrobes of Jessica Minton and her fellow players set me thinking.   It would be fun for me and interesting for you, my readers, if I revealed the inspirations for the clothes that helped create a sense of “being there” in my novels.

To be honest, I can’t take credit for “designing” those 1940s outfits, not all of them, anyway.  True, some do come out a familiarity with fashion developed from perusing films, magazines, and Sears catalogues.  However, a large number of my creations are inspired by films that helped spark my tales.  The trigger for Bait and Switch might be traced to this image of Joan Bennett from The Woman on the Beach.    Studying this picture, I wondered, “If you just look at this out of context, what tale does it tell?  What is this woman’s conflict with the man she faces?  What could be in the package?”  The answers that I spun out from those questions led me to create Jessica’s exciting adventures with James Crawford and Nazi fifth columnists.  What I perceived of her garb in the picture inspired an outfit that not only re-appeared in at least one other novel in the series, but a fashion reflecting a major shift in women’s empowerment.

When I first looked at the picture, in a smaller version, I perceived the woman in question as wearing a light coat over a white blouse and dark slacks.  That white blouse with the flowing sleeves and dark slacks became a staple for women who were independent, free-moving, and downright comfortable.  Think of Barbara Stanwyck pounding away on her typewriter, casual but still determined, in her first scene in Christmas in Connecticut.  However, as she becomes imprisoned in playing the domestic roles imposed by men, we see her cinched up and confined in skirts and suits. So, Jessica’s taking off on an adventure that might save her country, while rejecting her boyfriend’s protective attempts to curb her independent agency, is best served by that same outfit.  Here you see her, from the cover of the novel, comfortably outfitted and ready for action, though a bit trepidatious of what the future holds.

The eponymous blouse and slacks prove the importance of ease of movement when Jessica dons them in Always Play the Dark Horse to explore a wrecked ship that reveals dangerous secrets, to ride out on a mysterious black horse to rescue a friend, and later to face off against a murderer and spy.

Of course, a smart talkin’ gal of the forties like a Joan Bennett, Lynn Bari, or Rosalind Russell could still assert herself and delve into danger even when back in a dress and heels, as Jessica proves with this number:  “this light dress, with its pale raspberry swirls on white” and “her white turban.”  Thusly garbed, in Bait and Switch, Jess finds herself confronted at the racetrack by her mystery man and spirited away from the crowd; however, a fitted dress in no way prevents her from letting him have it on the jaw when he oversteps bounds.

In Letter from a Dead Man, Jessica is back in this silky number of “raspberry swirls on creamy silk” on another  hot summer afternoon while helping her sister search the secret room of a murdered friend, then dive into a closet when their nemesis unexpectedly shows up with two torpedoes. The inspiration for this frock?  Joan Bennett’s white and color swirled dress in Trade Winds.  Now an interesting thing about describing this and some of the other outfits Jess wears is that I got to see the originals in black and white, either on the screen or in publicity shots.  So, it’s up to me to imagine what colors swirl through the white with this, and other outfits.  I saw a soft raspberry pink: perfect for a summer afternoon.  What color do you see?

In Dark Horse, I had to use my imagination when having Jessica model two of her dress-designing sister’s creations.  This is the outfit I adapted for Jessica’s visit to the tea sponsored by the college where her husband is teaching and where murder and espionage lurk in the shadows.  It’s a tea where Jess has to look great while trying to maintain her cool amongst dangerous suspects and startlingly unexpected revelations.

“Jessica sprang up, undoing her robe to reveal a gorgeous white silk dress, fitted in the bodice, with a graceful A-line skirt that swirled as she moved and flatteringly shaped itself to her when she stood still. The square neckline revealed its wearer’s collarbones without dipping too low. What Jess thought really gave it elegant flair was a pattern on the bodice of abstract shapes, almost like an archangel by Picasso, in unexpectedly complementary soft liquid blue, green, and pink, bordered by silver.”

I will tell you, it was not easy to try to give you an image that would evoke the patterns on this dress.  What do you think?

In Dead Man, Jessica’s fitted black linen dress with the white linen color is inspired by this outfit from She Knew All the Answers.  As you can see from the picture, I didn’t have to use much imagination to come up with black and white for this one.  The colors do play an important role in the narrative, though.  For when Jessica tries to hide behind the refuge of one of the NYPL lions, she lives in terror that a flash of white from her collar will give her away to her deadly pursuers.

 

In Dark Horse, it’s the cut not the color of the dress that adds to the story.  Jess finds herself caught in an awkward position when the dress’s sweetheart neckline and flattering fit causes an old boyfriend’s wife to see red rather than the black of the dress, though that wasn’t Jessica’s intention. And that woman may have permanently eliminated a real revival for her husband.

 

Finally, as you may have noticed, I repeated several outfits from one book to another.  Why?  Well, part of it has to do with the images inspiring what I write.  However, another, and especially important, point is that most women throughout  decades past hung on to outfits over a period of years.  We find something we like and we keep wearing it .  I am writing in the era before fast fashion took hold, not that Jessica would ever be such a frivolous shopper.  So, it creates verisimilitude to show my characters wearing the same outfit more than once over a few years.  However, I’m not looking forward to hitting 1948/9 when the hemlines drop drastically.  Will Jessica have to get a whole new wardrobe?!  Well, I can at least promise you that our Jess will not be chopping off her hair, as was that late forties and early fifties fashion!

How about you?  Are there any outfits from the series that you’d like to ask me about?  I’m ready and waiting to answer.

 

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 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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“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!

            

A New England Mini-Vacation: Bookstock and the Bridge of Flowers

Last weekend, we had a mini-vacation in Vermont, connected to my day at Bookstock.  What a great time!  We’re so fortunate to be living in New England.  Friday afternoon, we took a leisurely drive up to Brattleboro to have an early supper at our favorite bakery on Main Street.  In a space overlooking the river and mountain, we watched a thunderstorm roll in while we enjoyed a scrumptious olive tapenade/goat cheese/walnut salad and a cappuccino.  The storm passed; we rolled out for Springfield, Vermont and the Toonerville Rail Trail.  It’s not a long trail, only seven miles round trip, but it runs along the Black River and through some gorgeous Vermont mountain and woodsy scenery.  I even managed to spot some Phoebes and Thrushes!  The river ran fast and muddy.  I’m not sure if that was just from the recent rainfall.  Whatever the case, there were some notable rapids.  This should be a nice ride in the colorful New England fall.

The next day was my stint at the Sisters In Crime-New England Table on Woodstock Green at Bookstock.  I had a wonderful time with two of my favorite writers, and pals, Leslie Wheeler and Connie Johnson Hambley.  Leslie has a new book out in Rattlesnake Hill and Connie has completed her Jessica trilogy.  If you’re looking for some exciting and enjoyable summer reading, these are great choices – as are Letter from a Dead Man and Bait and Switch!  We have the best conversations on writing, the great stuff to do in New England, our families, etc.  We also had a lot of fun talking to and getting to know readers and writers visiting our table.  I can’t say enough about the great opportunities Sisters in Crime offers both readers and writers (published or not).  And one of the best benefits is meeting the other members of the group.  I’ve made some swell (as Anne Sheridan would have put it in a movie) friends here.  At our booth, the three of us couldn’t help telling interested readers how enjoyable we found each other’s writing!

 

Last day of our vacation, Yang and I went to Shelburne Falls and visited the Bridge of Flowers.  If you’ve never been there, this is an old foot bridge that has been planted on either side of a central path with all kinds of different, beautiful flowers and shrubs.

There are zinnias, roses, red hot poker, delphinium with bachelor buttons, Rose of Sharon, bee balm – you name it. Here are some lovely lilies.

 

 

 

Isn’t this rose a treat?

These dahlias and the sunflower are all set for the Fall !

 

 

Here I am, delighted to be with a shrub with which I share a name!

 

 

 

 

 

God knows what the heck this thing is!  I hope aliens didn’t leave it!

 

 

You can see from the pictures how gorgeous the flowers are.  Several years back, a terrible flood wiped out the bridge garden; but, as you can see, it has been restored with resounding success.  Some of the flowers will last several seasons of the year, while some are more seasonal and will be replaced with flowers and plants appropriate to the autumn, later.

So many people enjoy the garden!  However, as I will show you, humans aren’t the only ones who delight in the Bridge of Flowers.  Yang got several wonderful pictures of one of the many Tiger Swallowtails taking a sunny Sunday brunch on the Bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was also a  Hummingbird Hawk Moth, which people frequently mistake for a Hummingbird.  Gorgeous and otherworldly, isn’t it?

Then, we got some shots of the real deal:  this female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.  She adored the Bee Balm and the Red Hot Poker!  She was also fairly undaunted by most of the humans at her restaurant.  Yang got some superb shots, didn’t he?    I’m happy to say that we also saw another such bird on our stroll through town and that the hummingbird who usually visits us each year at home has made several appearances already!  All in all, a delightful weekend!

 

Wood Thrush Image:  https://www.freeclipartnow.com/animals/birds/Wood-Thrush.jpg.html
All other images, author’s collection

 

On the Road Again – In a Noir Frame of Mind

 

 

In between the raging blizzards of this spring, I was fortunate enough to be able to join some wonderful fellow mystery writers to promote our books and make connections with readers and neophyte writers.  The first such adventure took Yang and I to the far north (of New York, anyway) to Ithaca and Buffalo Street Books.  Here, my friend Lisa Lieberman and I presented “An Evening of Noir,” where we not only talked about our books but about the noir films that inspired us!  Lisa’s husband Tim created this gorgeous poster for our adventure.  Note that it features my favorite femme fatale and/or smart-talking gal, Joan Bennett!  Didn’t he do a superb job?!

 

 

Lisa and I had a fun program.  I had prepared a cd of background music to help create the mood of dark, mean streets; tough detectives; mysterious dames; and haunted pasts.  Our playlist contained  multiple versions of “Laura,” “Harlem Nocturne,” “Penny Blues,” “Drink Dirty Water,” “Peter Gunn,” and even Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” to name a few.  And, of course, we dressed the parts, with Lisa’s swanky mink stole and slinky mystery-lady dress and my Claire Trevor femme fatale black suit with  swag, complimented by  red velvet and black feathered cap.  Watch out Phil Marlow and Sam Spade!

 

We had loads of fun talking with our audience about the trademarks of film noir  and how they influenced our novels, especially in terms of specific films.  Lisa detailed how  her experiences in Hungary and the film The Third Man  inspired the tense and dark atmosphere and tight plot twists of her  Burning Cold.  I shared how the wit, surprising reversals, and slippery characters in films like The Scar; Murder, My Sweet; and Double Indemnity shaped the latest adventures of Jessica Minton in Letter from a Dead Man.  And both us ladies of noir had a great time sharing trivia and background about the filmmakers and writers of our favorite noir films with our audience.  We had such a wonderful time, we’re thinking of adding film clips and “taking  our act on the road”!

 

My other recent appearance was on a delightful panel, with an equally delightful name:  “Stealing from the Dead.”  This Sisters-in-Crime Panel took place at Atria Bay in Barrington, RI.  I was pleased to join Frances MCNamara and Steve Liskow for a fun presentation at the community.  Both writers have fascinating books, with Frances’s latest series set in early 20th century Chicago and Steve’s in Connecticut and New York concerning the brutal reality of human trafficking.  Do click on each of their names to check out their work in greater detail.  You won’t be sorry! You can see from the picture on the left that I had a wonderful time.  If you ever want to book a Sisters-In-Crime panel for your library, school, or other such group, you can contact Leslie Wheeler at the Speakers Bureau.

I also want to extend my thanks to Margaret Shand of Atria Bay for setting up the panel.  the audience had intriguing questions and great comments for us.  My thanks to Margaret for the photo at the top of the paragraph.

 

Yang took what is probably the best shot of me, below.

Tea and Mystery at Mrs. Bridge’s Pantry

Monday, March 26th, I had the delightful pleasure of being the guest of honor at the Tea and Book Club held every last Monday (fall through spring) at Mrs. Bridges Pantry in Woodstock, Ct.  It’s an exciting experience, where I join the book club for an evening of tasty comestibles and tea, then get to talk to them and answer questions about my writing – as well as sell some books! For good luck, I wore a beautiful navy and grey two-tone suit that Yang made for me, based on a pattern he created from a vintage outfit.  Of course, I couldn’t talk about my smart-talking gal, Jessica Minton, without wearing a pin that had once belonged to one of the original smart-talking gals, Joan Bennett!

 

 

 

 

Mrs. Bridges is set in beautiful rural Connecticut, just over the border from Massachusetts.  The tea room is in a rustic wooden building.  Every day of the week but Tuesday, you can journey there for lunch, dessert, and/or afternoon tea.  They have a wide selection of black, green, red, and herbal teas.  In fact, they are a major supplier for me!  I highly recommend you visit, as I and my husband or I and my girlfriends frequently do.  The people there are so friendly and fun, you’ll feel as if you are back with chums in no time.  As you can see in the layout for the evening’s tea, there is a homey, lovely dining room.  Further, you can find on the other side of the building all kinds of teas, china, and tea-related items for sale – including Bait and Switch and Letter from a Dead Man, the perfect accompaniment to a nice cuppa!

 

 

I had a wonderful time talking to the regulars in the club about my love of mysteries from the golden age, both on the page and on the screen, and the cinematic inspirations for many of the characters in my novels.  It was also fun to talk about how evocative settings don’t just inspire a writer; they can drive you to use that place creatively.  The folks had stimulating questions about how I found time to work, did I write by the seat-of-my-pants or did I have a fully formed plot at the start,  how long it took me to complete work on a novel, or how I researched locations and events. In answer to that last point, I had fun telling them about going to New York City to test out one of Jessica’s hair-raising escapes, myself.   You’ll have to read Letter from a Dead Man to find out how it works out. Here’s a hint – it involves the lions in front of the New York Public Library.  And speaking of Patience and Fortitude (the lions’ names), it turns out that a brother and sister there that night were descended from the man who ran the business charged with moving them to the library.  Small and intriguing world, isn’t it?
It was fun to renew old acquaintances and make new friends amongst the book club folks that evening.  It was also lovely to work with Hope, who runs the Tea/Book Club, and Amber, who was our waitperson for the evening – constantly and patiently supplying me with Irish Breakfast tea!  I have a picture here of Hope and I together, but I forgot to get one of Amber.  Shame on me!  If you live in the area, check out the Tea/Book Club.  For $15.00 you have a  delicious evening  (homemade soup, tea sandwiches, dessert with homemade jam, and unlimited tea), as well as the chance to meet and talk with interesting authors (like me!).  Or just stop by Mrs. Bridges for lunch or an afternoon snack – and pick up a copy of Bait and Switch or Letter from a Dead Man while you’re there!  Dusty would approve!

 

Launching Letter from a Dead Man

Saturday, 11/18/17, Letter from a Dead Man got its official launch at The Booklovers’ Gourmet in Webster.  What a wonderful experience!  There was a nice turnout of friends, colleagues from school, fellow writers, students from WSU, and even new people I didn’t know yet.  As usual, Deb Horan had the room set up beautifully, and we all had the opportunity to partake of some yummy comestibles and beverages.  I smoothed out my vocal cords with a tasty pumpkin latte – ’tis the season!

 

We all started off by chatting about writing, teaching, and the inspirations for my 1940s-style mysteries, especially how I like to cast my characters as  favorite actors from the era: Joan Bennett and Rosalind Russell as the smart-talking Minton sisters, Lloyd Nolan as the tough-guy henchman, and Claire Trevor as the ultimate femme fatale, for example.   Interspersed with these points, I did some readings, which I’m happy to report, people found tense and intriguing.  I gave them a scene where sisters Jessica and Liz have to face off against the threats of the femme fatale’s menacing torpedo – without giving away what mysterious object he held in his hand that would prove a vital pivot for the plot.  I later read from the scene where Jessica had to flee and seek refuge from deadly pursuers behind one of the lions in front of the New York Public Library. This led to a discussion of Dead Man’s cover and the fun story where I went to New York with Yang to “test” out the scene of Jessica’s flight.

 

I was fortunate that two of my Sisters In Crime, Lisa Lieberman and Leslie Wheeler, joined me.  The three of us bounced questions and comments off one another to give the rest of the audience insights into the sources of our ideas, how we write (outliners or seat-of-our-pantsers), how we overcome writer’s block, and how good editors or writers/readers groups challenge  and inspire us to overcome obstacles in the way of getting the right words on the page and those pages into print.

 

 

Speaking of reading/writing groups, one of the posse who keeps me on my toes, my friend Judy Jeon-Chapman, was able to join us. Not only has she given me great feedback, but  there were days when she’d needle me every night to get her more chapters to calm the suspense I’d enkindled with my writing.  So, as a reward, I worked her into the third story (yet to be published)  as I was editing it!  Several of these pictures even came from her.

You can see how enthusiastic I am about talking writing here.   I also love Leslie’s “Crime Scene” scarf!

 

Maybe the best part of the day was getting to spend time with old friends and colleagues whom I hadn’t seen in a while, like Rini Kilcoyne and Jim Foley from Worcester State.  I so much appreciate how these folks support me and the good friends and coworkers they have been over the years.  I’m a lucky gal!

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a picture of my favorite supporter!

Maybe I shouldn’t be charging him for the books?