Category Archives: mystery

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 Selby2relationship that didn’t end well when he opted to look for a gal with the do[ugh]-re-mi to restore his family fortunes.  Now a professor at Margaret Point College, he’s intelligent, capable, witty, and charming enough to balance out his ego, almost.  However, Terry’s also a bit of a ladies’ man, to his wife’s chagrin.  My casting choice was the handsome, young Quentin played by David Selby on Dark Shadows.  That hint of a Southern accent dovetails nicely with Terry’s Virginia horse-country roots. No Quentin-1897 sideburns, though. But those blue eyes, WOW!
Maureen_O'Hara_1950Meanwhile, there’s Carolina Brent Clarke, the wife who resents Terry’s philandering with another teacher who has mysteriously gone missing.  Who should inspire the Virginia belle whom Terry thought he could marry for money, only to discover she had the same misapprehension about him?  Well, I don’t have enough redheads in my stories, so how about the fiery-tressed and -tempered Maureen O’Hara?  I know she usually plays a heroine, but she could go fatale when she wanted.  So I traded in her Irish accent for the faint strains of a Maryland one and let her take the folks at Margaret Point for one hell of a ride!
Then, there’s Sailor, aka Phil Novack, the mysterious man who rides theRyan equally mysterious Dark Horse of the title.  A solitary sort, haunted by war memories and perhaps something more, to whom Jessica is drawn by their mutual love of horses.  This becomes dangerous for them both. My inspiration was the craggy-featured, brooding presence that Robert Ryan so beautifully brought to the screen.  Naturally, I’m thinking more of the decent but tortured and confused types he played in The Woman on the Beach or Act of Violence, not the sly, murdering racist in Criss-Cross.
DSCN4673And what inspired my College at Margaret Point?  Ah, that’s interesting.  Over the years, I’ve made many a visit to the campus of UConn at Avery Point.  It’s located on the Long Island Sound, with wonderful grounds, a gorgeous view of the ocean, and an impressive mini-chateau that was once  a wealthy business person’s Branford House.DSCN4684  Now the House holds administrative offices and hosts conferences or even weddings in its magnificent Great Hall, with its first-floor rooms  boasting gorgeous woodwork and carved mantels.  On the second floor is a  small but nifty art gallery.  Although I embroidered on the campus a bit by including stables,  victory gardens, and cozy faculty-cottage housing in my novel,  the fictional Cameron House neatly captures the elegance of Branford House.
Once again, Dusty remains Dusty!  Mice, murderers, and master spies beware! What’s she nabbing now?!

Dustyg

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

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

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

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 axfilesfandom,com 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.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

It’s only natural to honor Joan Bennett on her birthday by explaining her powerful influence on my writing. A lot of this influence goes back to my earlier years watching old movies. As a kid, I started out hooked on Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and the rest of the stable of Universal and RKO horror films – God Bless Val Lewton! The mystery and otherworldliness of black and white film, the smart dialogue, the clever twists of plot that other forties and thirties film genres shared with horror lured me into a liminal world like a perpetual deep summer night. I was further captured by classic films’ biting wit, challenging plots, and independent women – especially in what I came to know as film noir. And who showed herself the queen of this world? Above them all, Joan Bennett.

I must admit that I first came really to know Joan when she appeared in Dark Shadows. Her Elizabeth Collins Stoddard was formidable, reminding me of my mother when I was in deep trouble. How could vampires, werewolves, and witches withstand her powerful, regal stare? Still, like my Mom, there was deep feeling and love for her daughter and her family. However, only in film did I discover Joan displaying one of the traits I loved best about my Mom: that witty, smart-talking-gal sense of humor. In outright comedy, Joan could drop a clever line with style and intelligence, but even in some of her darkest dramas that wit came through. What a delight to see her wield that humor to put firmly in their places anyone trying to crush or bamboozle her. In The House across the Bay, she undercuts a smart-mouth chorine who harangued her, “Cheep, cheep, cheep” with “Where’s the birdseed?” When the obnoxious woman tries to go after her physically, Joan rakes her over the coals with, “Just a minute, Miss Dimwit.  I was silly enough to apologize, but now that you want to make something of it, I’ll give you a good reason. You’re a phony, you’ve got a voice like four panes of cracked glass, and about as much appeal as a can of embalming fluid. I could go on, but that ought to give you a rough idea of how I feel about you.” Eight years later, when Paul Henreid tries to disparage her cynicism towards him in The Scar with a deprecating, “You’re a bitter little lady,” she puts him in his place with a world-weary but tough, “It’s a bitter little world, full of sad surprises, and you don’t go around letting people hurt you.” In The Man I Married, Joan’s not even daunted by Nazis, telling her husband-turned-fascist, “Heil heel” when he promises to dump her and take their son. Her feistiness isn’t limited to verbiage, either. Take a gander at this picture.
Like my Mom, Joan played women of wit, strength, humanity, and confidence – not just what the New York Times dubbed her gallery of “hydrochloric dames.”
So, in my twenties, when I decided to take my writing seriously than developing Victoria Holt knock-offs or spoofs of Dark Shadows, I turned to 1940s style mysteries to inspire my own adventures of romance, danger, suspense, and wit. Interestingly, as a writer influenced by film, I found I could better create distinct, believable characters by casting them as actors with whom I was familiar, blending their traits with some of the people I knew (including myself!). I also knew that I didn’t want my heroine to be wimpy, weepy, and inclined to faint in the final reel or pages, which, unfortunately, did often happen on the page or screen in the ’40s and ’50s. Guess who I saw as perfect for the role of Jessica Minton, a smart, independent, quick-with-a-quip forties gal? Someone who had a sensitive heart and a strong sense of responsibility, but didn’t take guff from anyone – and would smack said guff out of the ballpark with whip smart humor.
Surprise!
I do see a lot of myself in Jessica – and in Joan’s less nasty roles – or maybe an idealized version of myself, anyway. I know that mischievous banter with those I love and pointed barbs for those I don’t is something I share with Jess, which Joan plays to perfection. However, I doubt that like Jessica, I’d have the guts to hold onto a mysterious package left by a mysterious and handsome British stranger at the risk of being liquidated by Nazi fifth columnists – to disguise myself as a maid to get into a criminal’s apartment while he’s still there (!) to retrieve a gun used to frame a friend – to grab a gunsel by the lapels and threaten to turn him into a soprano if he ever threatened my cat again – to show up in a shadow-draped room and wittily bargain with a gun-toting femme fatale and her hired gun to trade stolen jade for my friends’ lives – or to slip into a cove and explore a beached and rotting ship while layers of ocean fog swept in around me. I might dare to weaponize a banana-cream pie, but I can’t guarantee my aim would be as good as Jessica Minton’s. I can guarantee you that any fans of our Joanie could picture her carrying off these adventures with verve and wit, though not without human trepidation.
Those of us who love Joan Bennett and appreciate her talents would also, as Sam Fuller writes, see her as “a sensitive actress” enough to also believe her playing Jessica’s distress at being torn between loyalty to an old boyfriend and to a new man who brings her adventure and love; a sister who gets annoyed with her older sibling’s foibles leading them into danger but sticking by her to the end (though not without a smart quip or two exchanged between them); a sweetheart waiting to hear news of a fiancé lost in the war, then a wife supporting her husband’s struggle with memories from that war. And Jessica loves her cat. I know Joan was a dog person, but heck, there’s still part of me in Jessica Minton. So, she’s a cat person!
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject, but if you’d like to take a peek at some passages from Bait and Switch or Letter from a Dead Man, click on the links on the titles and have fun picturing Joan working her magic as Jessica Minton. Oh, and by the way, I cast her sister Elizabeth as Rosalind Russell (and my sister-on-law). Can you imagine what a grand ride it would have been to catch Joan and Roz trading quips with each other, then marshaling their humor to take on Nazis, criminally corrupt American aristocrats, femme fatales, underworld crooks, and crooked cops? And I’ve got two more books on the way! Viva Jessica Minton and Joan Bennett!
If you love mysteries on the screen or on the page, especially centered on the golden era, click here to go to my web page where you can find lots of interesting stuff – including my Joan Bennett tribute page!

 

 

Photos: Author’s collections

Mystery Making with Sisters in Crime in Vermont

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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 FolsomLisa 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.

 

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