Category Archives: mystery

Christmas Noir three: Cover Up

Set in December, with all the holiday trimmings in view, Cover Up is definitely a Christmas movie.  Yet, its title clearly implies a noir universe where ulcerous secrets are smoothly skinned over by patterns of social respectability.  In the film, Dennis O’Keefe plays an insurance investigator sent to a small town at Christmas time to investigate whether the death of a policy holder was truly suicide. O’Keefe’s his repertoire of skeptical, somewhat hard bitten, though sometimes sympathetic noir protagonists (The Leopard Man, Raw Deal,T-Men, Walk a Crooked Mile), sets us up for a symbolic stripping away holiday cheer hiding dark secrets.

On the surface, the holiday season seems to characterize this small town as an embodiment the idyllic. Right off the bat, we’re immersed in Christmas cheer and fellowship, as the investigator helps a young woman, Anita Weatherby, returning to her family, so packed with presents that they burst from her arms and off the train.  His Christmas good will in helping her is rewarded by her friendly, joking family inviting this helpful stranger to their house.  He accepts their invitation to visit and share in the brightness, warmth, and humor of their home, filled with cheery Christmas decorations.  Still, the family is not cloyingly saccharine, instead, kidding him and one another pointedly but good naturedly. In the same mood, Doro Merandes plays their housekeeper, Hilda, in Margaret-Hamilton-style – not as a Wicked Witch of the West but with salty comments delivered in perfect dead pan.  That Mr. Weatherby, the pater familias, carries the authority of bank president seems to indicate that his warmth, tempered by dry humor, is the characteristic mode of the town.

Investigator Sam sees this family as not just a haven of goodwill but a magnet drawing out the generosity and friendliness he keeps hidden beneath a protective layer of sharp cracks and skepticism.  He shows up on the Weatherby doorstep, not merely planning to kibbitz and take out Anita on a date.  He is thoughtful enough to bring a compact as an early Christmas present for the younger sister so she won’t feel slighted. He even impresses skeptical Hilda as an acceptable addition to the family circle.  His attraction to the Christmas warmth of companionship is decisively conveyed as he approaches the house in the dark shadows of late December cold, bowed against the wind, then straightens up and smiles on seeing Anita reading in the window, the lit Christmas tree in the background. In fact their friendly banter marks them as embarking on romantic adventure typical of 1940s comedy/romance.

The imagery of the town itself abounds with Christmas warmth.  As the bus carrying Anita and Sam into town from the train station arrives, a Santa Claus is merrily ringing a bell over a pot where he collects donations of holiday charity.  The Weatherby house is bright with daytime sunshine; at night electric lights, Christmas tree bulbs, and flickering hearth light create a comforting contrast to the dark December night.  The rich, warming coats of fur and wool, as well as scarves and gloves, evoke a barrier against winter freezing. There’s even a lovely Christmas tradition of the whole town coming together in celebration when old Dr. Gerrow will light the enormous town Christmas tree and hand out presents to the children.  Light against darkness.

In this moment, though, we can see the corruption skinned over by good fellowship seeping through.  The doctor, at first, is mysteriously absent, then is revealed to be dead, discovered in his out-of-town home by the sheriff.  Significantly, this scene of camaraderie in solstice celebration ends with the faces of disappointed children and the pine tree’s lights flickering against almost enveloping darkness.  Furthermore, as light and warming as are the interiors of the Weatherby home, the night outside where Sam and Anita walk and romance is surrounded by dark shadows and implied cold.  The mansion where Philips died also encompasses Anita and Sam, later Sam, Sheriff Best, and Mr. Weatherby, in shadows that distort, conceal, isolate, and threaten.  In a telling scene, flickers of light in the darkness come to imply perfidy and corruption as the “lovable” maid Hilda resolutely undercuts Sam’s quest for the truth and order by burning a beaver coat that implicates Mr. Weatherby in Phillips’s murder.  Interestingly, the coat no longer suggests protection from hostile nature but implicates the “upright” in crime.  Now suicide is revealed to be murder, while the victim is, himself, revealed to be “a malignant growth strangling the town.”  So, where does justice rest concerning this death?

All the characters Sam faces in his investigation become almost impossible to pin down. The family that had seemed to offer him the warmth and stability he’d never had, he finds cannot be trusted, their dependability, at times even their morality, twisted and tangled by loyalties, fears, or ignorance.  Mr. Weatherby, supposedly a paragon of the town and representative of its order, becomes a major suspect in the murder of Phillips.

Anita, the smart young woman whose wit and warmth had led Sam to see her as a beacon of hope for belonging, betrays his trust in order to protect her father. In fact, the reflection of her in a mirror as she hides from Sam after obstructing justice to protect her father reverses the earlier image of her as the beacon guiding him to human relations.  Here, rather than being before him, she lurks behind him as he stands uneasily sensing something is wrong, threatening.  Though both images were linked to glass, where previously the clear panes revealed her as at peace and content, now she is both more distant, existing as only a reflection, and one step removed, hidden from him, the heavy door and the lines of the mise en scène reinforcing their isolation.

The salty but lovable maid, who had seemed to welcome Sam into the family in her own reserved way, also lurks unobserved and one step removed in the mirror where she hears of Sam’s threat to her family.  She also thwarts his search for truth to protect her clan when she  unabashedly destroys evidence that would lead him to the truth and lies to his challenge, looking him dead in the eye.

Maybe the most interesting of all is William Bendix’s Sheriff Best.  Is the name ironic?  The “best” at what, one wonders, watching him: Deception? Double-dealing? Murder, itself?  How should an audience read the town’s master of law and order when with affable obduracy he insists on his suicide verdict despite all the evidence that Sam demonstrates add up to murder? Casting Bendix keeps audiences guessing by playing on the concept of the availability heuristic. For Bendix is as well-known in the noir universe as much for his lovable tough guys (The Web, Race Street, Detective Story) as for his vicious thugs (The Dark Corner, The Glass Key, The Big Steal).

These two medium closeups of Sheriff Best  capture both incarnations of the Bendix noir personae.

 

 

 

 

Finally, Sheriff Best’s setting up subtle roadblocks to the investigator’s attempts to uncover the truth, as well as his tone of laid-back affability, just suggesting steely threat, then back to easy charm, heightens uncertainty over which noir Bendix holds the power of law controlling the town.

This image from the first meeting of sheriff and investigator, where they sit down to parry verdicts back and forth brings this point home.  They are seated on opposite sides of a desk, like opponents in a chess match.  The Christmas presents  between the two in the shot do not bond them in seasonal amity, but form a barrier between opposing forces – visually emphasizing a subversion of “Christmas fellowship” as much as the men’s amiable sounding but antagonistic verbal sparring and both refusing to face the other. A wreath above and between them, just out of shop, reinforces this point. Even more sinister, in the denouement, a tone of easy good will coats but does not hide the two men’s opposition.  When Sam pleasantly checks Best by pointing out that neither has ascendancy because both carry concealed guns, Best chillingly checkmates him with the easy and reasonable delivery of his assertion that if Sam shoots him it’s killing “a law man,” but “If I [the sheriff] get you with my gun . . .it’s just a lot of votes in the next election.”

Dennis O’Keefe’s place in the noir universe as hard-bitten outsider trying to belong without sacrificing integrity makes him an apt proxy for the audience looking for order and stability in an uncertain and corrupt world. His character’s confrontation with Bendix’s sheriff in the shadows of the murder mansion where he’d planned to lure the murderer into a trap creates a disconcerting, even haunting embodiment of the danger of noir uncertainty. All on Christmas Eve. Interestingly, when the sheriff first enters, the visuals throw us off balance by placing Best more in the light and shadowing Sam, the seeker of truth, in a threatening, sneaky pose in the shadows. Which of the two antagonists can we trust?  Is Sam literally and figuratively in the dark? Is he bringing darkness into the Christmas world or revealing what was there all along? This use of shadows enveloping the men as the scene progresses creates a space of confusion and doubt that mirrors the uncertainty of reality as Sam raises suspicions and presses for honest answers, and the sheriff seeks to control that truth for unclear ends, gradually unveiling indirectly what may or not be honest.

How does the film end?  Well, that would be telling.  I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.  Let’s just say that things are not always as they seem, that the film looks for wiggle room in what the law demands and what is fair, in what you can expect of human beings.  “Merry Christmas” was never such an ironic closing to a movie – I think!

 

 

Lee Library Author Event: A Walk on the Noir Side in Shades of Autumn

Since some of the Covid issues have waned, I’ve started going back to doing in-person author readings.  Friday, October 14th, I had the good fortune to do an event at the Lee Library in Lee, Massachusetts.  What a wonderful day!  Lee is in the western part of Massachusetts, so my husband and I had an exciting drive through all the gorgeous fall foliage to arrive at our destination.  Lee is a neat little town with a main street of equally neat shops, and in an antique store I found a 1940s movie magazine with pictures of favorite stars.  The main street has lots of  tasty restaurants.  We had our lunch at The Starving Artist Cafe, where they craft the yummiest sandwiches and
crêpes. They made a pumpkin latte that was absolutely perfect – not all sugary and fake whipped cream, but good coffee, the flavor of pumpkin spice, and steamed milk.  We sat outside at the street seating on a warm October day and enjoyed the small-town scenery, great food, and trees dressed in their autumn flames and oranges.After a stroll amongst the shops and a peek at some of  the gorgeous Victorian houses in town, we went to the library for my talk.  You can see what a beautiful old building the library is.  When visiting the town earlier, I was taken with the building and thought, “I’d like to do a talk here.”  Well, I contacted Jodi Magner at the library, and she was tremendously welcoming and enthusiastic at the prospect of my doing an event.  She told me that they loved mysteries in that town!

That day, Jodi and her daughter Megan made me so welcome and helped my husband and I set up.  I was delighted that my friend, mystery writer, Leslie Wheeler could join us, as well as other women whom I’d never met before.  We were a small group, but we had a great time.  I got so many intelligent questions, and people seemed interested in my inspiration from film noir and haunting movies of the 1940s like Val Lewton’s films and The Uninvited.  They seemed to get a kick out of the excerpts that I read from Bait and Switch, Letter from a Dead Man, and Always Play the Dark Horse to illustrate how the dark, dreamy elements of noir and the smart talking gals of the 1940s influenced my writing!  One of the women even said that a friend, sometime earlier,  had been suggesting she read the Jessica Minton series.  I’m getting a fan base! And now you can read all three Jessica Minton novels through the Lee Library.

Say, how do you like the pin-stripe black suit and the black fedora?  I thought the gold blouse was just right to add fall color. Should I have brought along a gat?

I’m hoping to go back in the summer, after the fourth novel comes out:  Shadows of a Dark Past.  Maybe I’ll see you there!

Return of the Native: My Author Event at Lala Books in Lowell

I had a wonderful experience going back to my hometown of Lowell, Mass. to do an author event at Lala Books.  This is a lovely bookstore on Market Street (189  Market,  to be exact), filled with an extensive catalogue of fiction and nonfiction – with a large local author section, where I fit in.  Well, we know I also fit in as a mystery writer.  The store is roomy and pleasant, and I had a cozy corner to do my event.
The event went great!  I got to talk about how I’ve always been a story teller, even scaring the other little kids on the block with ghost stories when I, myself, was but a nipper.  I also got to talk about the influence of black and white  film noir mysteries and films of hauntings and the supernatural.  It was fun to connect Bait and Switch, Letter from a Dead Man, and Always Play the Dark Horse to specific films that influenced their creation.  As always, I had fun talking answering questions about the writing process and publishing. I especially appreciated when one listener told me that reading Bait and Switch reminded him of watching old films with his Dad. I was so happy that everyone seemed to get a kick out of the excerpt I read from Dark Horse – I kept them in suspense!
The audience was, indeed,  wonderful! I saw many old friends, including one gal I hadn’t seen since we were little kids and my parent moved our family to another neighborhood.  I deeply appreciate all the friends who came out to support me, and tell me how much they love my mysteries – especially my descriptive style.  It’s also great to make new friends and bring in new readers. And I did sell some books, too!  By the way, do you like the dress?  Yang made it based on a 1940s Simplicity pattern.  The hat is one of my favorites!
Lauren and her daughter Thea did an admirable job setting up the event and supporting me when I was there.  Thanks, so much to you!  If you live in the Lowell area, be sure to drop in and do some book shopping. Christmas is coming!  All three of my novels are available at Lala Books.  Don’t forget, they have some neat events as well.

“Back in the Saddle Again!”

In June, I was finally  able to get back in the saddle concerning appearances.  After one fun reading in May at TidePool books in Worcester, I first did a joint author event with my friend and colleague, Leslie Wheeler, on Saturday, June 4th at the Booklovers’ Gourmet.  We had a responsive audience and a lot of fun.  Leslie suggested that we, ourselves, be more interactive.  So, instead of just reading and talking separately, after each  short reading, we asked each other questions about our methods of writing, our particular joys and pains in writing, future writing plans, etc.  Our questions and responses, in turn, drew questions and observations from the audience.  Totally interactive! I think we even made some new friends and readers, as well.  I’m especially excited because we talked about Leslie’s new book, Wolf Bog, which will be released July 6th, this year!
Next, I joined an even bigger group of writers from Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America at a corner of the Natick Farmers’ Market called Beach Reads, organized by Tilia Jacobs.  I shared my table with Janet Raye Stevens, who also writes mysteries set in the 1940s.  It was a gorgeous day, where we enjoyed chatting with people -and each other- of course, also selling some books.  Here’s a tip for writers:  have a QR code on your bookmarks, postcards, or advertising poster so that if people don’t have cash, they can use their smartphones to connect to a site where they can buy the book (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, your web site) there or later.  Anyway, it’s great to see people and enjoy a beautiful afternoon.

I already have some plans for August. On August 24th, from 7:00-7:30 p.m., I’ll be interviewed by Barry Eva on A Book and a Chat. I’ll provide more details when I have them. Next  is Lala Books in Lowell, MA on August 26th from 7:00-8:00 p.m., so come and hear all about the latest 1940s mystery adventures for Jessica Minton, James Crawford, and Dusty – as well as talk about writing and publishing! I may be able to give you a sneak peek at book #4, Shadows of a Dark Past.

 

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 collar 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 rival 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 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

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Always Play the Dark Horse

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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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Letter from a Dead Man

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

Christmas Noir II: Beyond Tomorrow

This year, my subject for Christmas noir is Beyond Tomorrow  (1940), an intriguing little dark fairy tale.  Well, aren’t most fairy tales dark somewhere along the line?  Edward Sutherland’s film starts with three “fairy godfathers,” wealthy old gents and business partners.  One Christmas Eve, on a whim ˗˗ and out of loneliness ˗˗ each puts his business card into a separate wallet with ten dollars and tosses it out the window of their mansion onto the snowy Manhattan sidewalk below.  All to see who will return the wallets and perhaps become a new friend to replace the old ones that one partner points out have disappeared into death.
Indeed, fate seems to reward them.  The first wallet is nabbed by a jaded socialite, who keeps it while carelessly tossing the ten bucks  to her chauffeur.  They dodge a bullet missing this brittle babe.  The other wallets are returned by two who promise to fulfill the old men’s wishes for rejuvenating friendship.  The first is Jim Houston, a polite, young, down-on-his-luck cowboy, stranded after a rodeo at Madison Square Garden.   The second is a Jean Lawrence, a sweetly pretty but pert and practical young woman who works and lives at a children’s clinic run by “The Wayne Foundation” (Bruce’s parents?).  Fate scores big for the old guys, as the young people share their lives and open up all kinds of opportunities for fun and giving, especially working with children.  Why the whole set up even earns the approval of the sensitive, spiritual elderly housekeeper (played by who better than Maria Ouspenskaya?)   Of course, the young people brought together by their godfathers fall in love and plan to marry.
A merry Christmas movie, right?  Full of jingle bells, holly wreaths, caroling children, and glittering lights and ornaments.  Um, not exactly.  Characters, plot twists, mise en scène, and lighting combine to create a noir ambience.  Early on, the film does present a cherubic Charles Winniger, as Michael, bursting into a business meeting of his partners at home on Christmas Eve. Laden with presents and releasing overworked secretaries for the holiday, Michael is a kind of redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge.  Yet all this fun and cheer is threaded with dark elements.  There are intimations of something sinister in the past of the crotchety partner George Melton.  The other partner, Chad Chadwick, casts longing glances at photos of a wife and a son long lost to death.  Dear friends scheduled to visit for Christmas Eve have canceled out, leading the men to reflect that those they love are mostly dead and gone.
Even the advent of the fresh, kind, and honest Jean and James is overshadowed, literally, by a noir mood.  Sutherland does use bright filler lighting for the Christmas Eve dinner, but that moment is brief.   When old and new friends and servants Madame Tanya and Josef come to the window to listen to a Christmas band, though inside the window frame  is fairly bright, the area surrounding that square of light, the outside world, is darkly shadowed, even the strolling musicians.  The band is brought inside to play for a comradely sing along, yet shadows encroach on the firelight holding the people.   When James sings a love song, though he and Jean exchange tender looks, the shadows insistently fringe their medium close ups, with soft focus further creating an eerie  effect.  Even the love song, “I Dream of Jeanie” emphasizes longing rather than communion, conveying the effervescence of happiness in a noir world.
Throughout the film, noirish night undermines stability, comfort, and humor.  Jean and Jim’s romantic walk home and funny encounter with a mounted policeman and his sergeant occur in small pools of soft-focus light with darkness shrouding most of the frame.  Jim’s later proposal to Jean, though the two laugh playfully, is not in a sunny Central Park but in a dark, shadowy, late night walk there, only faintly illuminated by narrow key lighting on their mostly shadowed faces and the faint glow of a street lamp.  Such imagery  would not be  out of place in the hauntingly sinister streets of Val Lewton’s eerie New York in The Seventh Victim or The Cat Woman
Later, when the femme fatale lures away Jim as he becomes a successful radio star, they meet in a bright apartment.  Yet through the slits of partially open blinds between them pour in the black  night , with intermittent points of light from skscraper windows piercing in on them like intrusive, glaring eyes. It is the noir world that forms the apex of this triangle, predominating and binding the humans together  beneath in tragedy and corruption.
Elsewhere, Sutherland uses darkness and mise en scène to signal that alienation and tragedy inevitably supplant good fortune.  The reporter getting the story he will spread of Jim’s and Jean’s inheritance from Michael is framed in front of  the two (all three in medium closeup) a black silhouette before and between them, almost blotting them out with his black fedora and his black trench coat.  He looms between them and between them and their future  like Death incarnate.  Even the godfathers and their magical influence are at crucial moments overwhelmed by noir ‘s fateful darkness. 
The afterlife is given the noir treatment as well.  Isolated and alone, like many a noir anti-hero, Melton is drawn into and swallowed  by a photo- negative of inky, roiling clouds after his death, predicated by his dark past. Michael’s call to the beyond, though promising peace and happiness, is portrayed disconcertingly:  bright, thin rays against a black sky striking earth from a mass of black clouds.  The friendliness of the angelic voice calling him is unsettlingly undermined by this nightmare image of the divine- all in the surrounding darkness of Lewtonesque city night.
The plot twists imbue Beyond Tomorrow with the same noir vision as the lighting and setting, sometimes even in conjunction.  Just when the godfathers and the young folk seem happy, hopeful, and excited to live, where many a Christmas movie ends, the business partners are killed in a plane crash.  The signal of their deaths merges this ironic turn with dark imagery to create noir ambience. The lovers’ joy as Jean accepts Jim’s humorously inadvertent marriage proposal is undercut for the audience by unseen newsies’ growing cacophony of “Extra” surging insistently out of the shadowed night surrounding the unwitting lovers, hinting that a dreadful turn is emerging from the darkness. It more clearly emerges as the scen closes with a closeup of a headline proclaiming the three godfathers’ deaths.
Other expectations of “comfort and joy” are obliterated with noir’s relentlessly disconcerting unexpectedness.  The three godfathers return as ghosts and settle in their old study to preside over those they love, comforted by Mme. Tanya’s sense of their presence.  However, just when we and they start to get comfortable with this cozy turn, they are one by one called to leave by a darkening of the screen and a mysterious higher power, two to pain and sacrifice. 
In another noir reversal, Michael’s final godfatherly act in life to leave the young friends some dough to make their lives easier and their dreams come true turns out to be exactly the curse Melton warns him it would be – foreshadowed by the reporter’s ominous depiction darkly splitting the lovers.  The news story on the couple’s luck leads to Jim becoming a radio star who deserts Jean under the spell of Arlene Terry, whose fatale ways with her former husband drive him to shoot Arlene, Jim, and himself.  Just when we become comfortable in our security, happiness, love, and fellowship are all battered by the darkness of the world outside us, and also by the darkness within even the best of us that will reach for that darkness without.
There are happy endings in the film, but not without pain, disillusionment, falls from grace, and even death.  Madame Tanya is proved right in her observation that the power and prestige of being royalty in old Russia is nothing compared with the joy of loving and serving others. Loving sacrifices are rewarded; friendship even redeems Melton’s soul from roiling clouds of bitterness and despair.  And yet, Melton’s sadly cynical recognition of human weakness in the face of the darkness outside and within imbues this Christmas film with a noir outlook:  “To be born innocent is natural.  To die pure is a gift.”  No one dies pure in Sutherland’s film.

 

Nick Knight Forever?

 

As part of my Halloween viewing program, I broke out Nick Knight (1989), the made-for-TV movie predecessor of the series Forever Knight.  Interestingly, the only actor to make it from this film to the series was John Kapelos as Schanke.  Even the setting was replaced, LA with Toronto.  So, how do they compare?
The more I think about it, the set up for each best suits its own format.  The neo-noir vibe of the movie, its  lighting, use of current music, locations, casting, and characterization are appropriate for a one-off movie.   Then there’s the clever humor of having a vampire arrive at his home to  “I’m Only Human.”  Even better, this home is a former movie palace with It’s a Wonderful Life on the marquee, signaling Nick’s haunting by the dream of many past lives, likely not all so wonderful.
On the other hand, Toronto works beautifully for the series, Forever Knight (1992-96), setting the stories in a unique locale that’s a blend of the old world lurking in the new, characteristic of that city.  The tone of the series is perfectly attuned to the eerie wryness of the era of The X-Files and the revived Outer Limits, with playful riffs on the cinematic vampire tradition. As a series, Forever Knight draws you into a community of the Gothic dark world and noir mean streets, but still a place where relationships shift and grow rather locating you in a stylized, neon-lit LA.  Not to say that the aerial shots of LA’s blue glow, to capture a vampire’s-eye view of the city, aren’t pretty darn nifty.
I find the characterizations and casting more compelling in the series, but of course a series gives more time for development.  Rick Springfield is good as a slick, cynically ironic, tough-as-nails but really decent detective/vampire, perfect for 1980s neo-noir.  Still Geraint Wyn Davies’ Byronic Nick has an emotional depth, an ability to reflect and regret and care, seasoned with a mischievous wit, that deepens his character.  Changes in the rest of the cast also prove more interesting in Forever Knight.  The supportive male coroner from Nick Knight is now played by the feisty Catherine Disher, and the romantic tension that bubbles up from time to time in Nick and Natalie’s friendship makes for an interesting evolution of the relationship that only the longer duration of a series better facilitates.  The movie’s Jeanette is a poseur at Continental finesse, whereas the series version of the character is an actual woman of the Old World (like Medieval France!), who is clever, witty, and definitely menacing.  Schanke is still kind of a jerk, but in the movie he’s just a jerk. In the series he’s smarter and less self-impressed. He actually becomes Nick’s friend. LaCroix is maybe the most interesting change, after Nick.  Nigel Bennett’s LaCroix in the series carries a wit and menace that leaves Michael Damon’s rather wooden interpretation in the dust.  Where Damon’s LaCroix is Nick’s age-contemporary, Bennett’s greater age and expertise lend an Oedipal twist to the relationship between master/mentor vampire and apprentice growing into independence. 
So, glad as I am that James D. Parriot did get his vampire tale made in 1989, I’m even gladder that he recast and relocated the project to give us a series with more depth and a greater Gothic feel.
For more info on the series and movie, check out: 
Forever Knight Forever
Lady Vamp’s Forever Knight Site
Nick Knight
Photo Credits:
DVD cover for Nick Knight:  (c)  1989 New World Television; 2003 Anchor Bay Entertainment
Forever Knight Skyline Promo:  Forever Knight Forever:  foeverknight.org
Images of Nick and Natalie; Natalie and Nick:  Lady Vamp’s Forever Knight Site, http://www.foreverknight.org/LadyVampKnight1228/home.html
If any violation of copyright has been inadvertently committed by my re-posting these images, let me know and I will remove them.