“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
Recently, I had the fun experience of being involved in the Sisters in Crime panel Mystery Making at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in Vermont. The authors with whom I participated were Sadie Hartwell and Max Folsom. Lisa Lieberman was our MC. This panel is quite unique, challenging our creativity and drawing in the audience to craft a mystery with us. How does it all work?
The audience members are all given index cards and asked to write on a separate card: a character name, a motive for murder, a method for murder, and a location. Each of the three members of the panel circulates with a bags for each category, and the audience puts the appropriate card in the designated bag. Then, under the direction of our MC, the fun begins. Starting with names, each of the panelists selects a card from the bag, and we have to come up with a character whom we think goes with that name, including a back story and how the character fits into the story. Sleuth? Suspect? Victim? Sidekick?. Then we go through each of the other bags and create a story around the locations, murder methods, and motives, working with each other and the audience to resolve conflicts and develop the intricacies of a mystery plot. Lisa kept track of the projections on a white board in the front of the theatre. I was so impressed when my husband Yang jumped in from the audience to explain how you could have a poisoning by tofu!
Initially, I had a little trepidation about whether I would be up to the task, ad libbing a story, but I had a ball! We ended up with an intriguing tale about a vengeful love child, a shady importer, a socialite with a stripper’s past, a militant health food maven, a deceptive scuba expert, the Nobel Prize, and, of course, poisonous tofu.
The Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro was quite the venue! An art deco theatre, likely from the 1920s, this building had gorgeous statues, mosiacs, carvings, and Spider Man. How did Spidey get in there? Listen, bud, he’s got radioactive blood. He can do whatever he wants.
Mystery Making is a session that is available for libraries, schools, festivals, etc. through the Sisters in Crime New England Speakers Bureau. Usually, there is a fee, but under certain circumstances, there may not be. Check out the web site for details at Sisters in Crime New England.
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.
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!
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
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.
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!
I recently posted a blog on the Touchpoint Publishing Web Site discussing how real life settings inspire my writing as well as how ideas for my novel inspire me to seek out real life settings. Click here to read “Location! Location! Location!”
So, Christmas noir? The opening of a lively chorus caroling and holiday cheering over Christmas cards displaying the credits evokes holiday spirit, except there’s always just the slightest manic edge to their liveliness creating a noir frisson. Then the chorus ends in a startled drop as the last card slips away to reveal a gun. Click here for a Silver/Ursini commentary on the opening.