Growing up watching films from the ’30s, 40’s, and 50s, often in the dark hours of the 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
This month has blue moons, two in one month. The first day of October this year was the first full moon of the month. So, we celebrated with a trip to New Hampshire that was a triple header for us. First, we visited the grave of my favorite actor, Claude Rains, in the Red Hill Cemetery. It’s a small, peaceful place, with lots of firefighters R.I.P.ing there. The graves of Mr. Rains and his wife Rosemary are beautiful polished black stone Gothic arches. To pay tribute, we brought one of the pumpkins that we had grown ourselves this year. I liked presenting a little gift that Yang and I had worked hard to cultivate together. The foliage by the cemetery hadn’t quite turned yet, but there were still some pretty trees. When we go a bit later in the season, you often see some magnificent colors. Check this link to a blog with pictures of the foliage in a past visit.
It was still a lovely place for Mr. Rains and his wife Rosemary to take their final rest. I did want to place the pumpkin between the graves to honor them both, but I was a little worried it might roll off or get pushed away if it weren’t resting against the stone. So, Mr. Rains got the pumpkin. Maybe next time, I’ll bring two, especially if we have a bigger pumpkin crop. Click here for news on what we did harvest.
We also did a drive- by of the classic colonial with it’s three pillars where Claude Rains last resided. I wonder what the inside is like? It was nice to see a Jean Shaheen sign out front. You can’t see it in this photo, though you can see a beautiful sugar maple behind and to the left of the house.
Next on the agenda was to hike the Mt. Roberts trail in Moultonborough. It’s on the grounds of the Castle in the Clouds, but it’s free to visit and hike. Usually, we go up Red Hill, but I asked if we could start with something that ascended a bit less steeply, as this was my first major mountain climb of the year-major for me, anyway. It really wasn’t all that easy, but the hike was definitely worth it! We enjoyed the terrain, the changing colors, sighting a Brown Thrasher and a Wood Thrush (thank God for binoculars!). When we got to an overlook, we sat and ate tea eggs that Yang had made, then chunks of the yummy pumpkin bread I’d baked the night before. I was tired when we got back down, but I loved it! There are lots of trails on these grounds, so I’m looking forward to going back.
We thought this little toad was cute, too!
Does anyone know what kind of tree this leaf comes from? It’s actually a little darker in real life. The camera was accidentally set to overcompensate, so I’ve tried to properly adjust the color to match what I actually saw. So, if you know what the tree is, drop me a line in comments of on FB. I’d really like to know!
Last and never least: the first full moon of October! Yang took me to Weir Beach-I hadn’t been there since I was a teenager! It was pretty deserted, after the summer season was done, but there was a nice boardwalk from which to view the moonrise. When the moon first came over the trees, it was ENORMOUS! I thought Kronos was rising. These picture don’t do it justice. Click on them to get a bigger image.
It was a lovely evening to complete an exciting day. Gosh, I love our autumn rambles through the Northeast! I hope you’re having some fun ones as well. And if you can’t get out, please enjoy these.
About three weeks ago, my husband and I paid a visit to the Lake Winnipesaukee area. I was to be one of the reps at the Sisters In Crime booth at NELA in Burlington, Vt., so the day before we went north and visited the resting place of my favorite actor, Claude Rains. It was a beautiful weekend! The fall colors were in full flourish. On the way up, we stopped in Concord for lunch then proceeded to the small, country cemetery that Mr. Rains and his wife Rosemary made their final resting place.
You can see Red Hill in the background, much more of a mountain that a hill than some of the “mountains” that Yang and I have hiked. One of my knees was acting up from climbing one of those smaller mountains – that was still big enough to give me trouble – so we didn’t go up that day. I highly recommend the hike, though. It’s invigorating and beautiful. Anyway, that gave me more time for contemplation.
The stones for Claude Rains and Rosemary are beautiful shiny black Gothic arches. The script on them is also reminiscent of Gothic. I love the sentiment of faith and endurance on both. On Claude’s is: “All Things Once/Are Things Forever,/ Soul Once Living/Lives forever.” Rosemary’s says: “When I Am Gone My Dearest,/ Sing No Sad Songs For Me,” a variation on a poem of Christina Rossetti (one of my favorite poets). I wonder whether they picked their epitaphs or if a loving family member selected them.
It’s nice to see that we aren’t the only admirers of Mr. Rains. Yang and I left the pumpkins in honor of the autumn season of harvest. Someone else had also expressed his/her regard by carefully placing beautiful sunflower stalks, before the stones. In the center, you can also see some artificial flowers that have been set there in respect quite some time ago – we’ve seen them there over the years. Perhaps someone else in our group payed respectful visits?
This cemetery is beautiful. I’m glad Claude and Rosemary picked it. I have to share some lovely shots we got of the gorgeous New Hampshire foliage show.
I especially like the second one, because of the handsome guy in the shot: aka my husband who is always game for adventures in the wilds of the Northeast!
Finally, here are shots of the majestic farmhouse that Mr. Rains called his last home. I wonder what the inside is like? Isn’t the tree next to the house gorgeous?! We took three shots, but one came out too fuzzy. Not supernatural interference, just our not being able to get the best lighting since we wanted to be unobtrusive. Let no one calls those who honor Claude Rains stalkers! I think this one might be the best shot, the crispest, anyway. Below are some interesting links that tell you more about the cemetery and the farm house. Just remember: respect the privacy of others. But I don’t have to tell that to anyone in our illustrious group!
So long for now and happy belated Claude Rains’s birthday to all!
O.T.I.S. – a nice description of the graveyard and the house