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
Casting Characters, Part 2: Letter from a Dead Man
Letter from a Dead Man gave me some nifty casting possibilities as well. 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 novel? 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.
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
Readers often compliment me on the believability of the actors in my novels and ask me how I create even supporting characters who seem so human. One explanation I have harks back to my choice of the word “actors,” above. For I love to cast my novels as one might a movie. “Casting” my novels gives me a way to develop a more convincing character by drawing on actual expressions, ways of moving, ways of speaking, and general behavior.
My casting tends to reflect my preference for films of the golden age of Hollywood, especially the 1940s. Sometimes, I even select folks who are more contemporaneous, or more contemporary to when I was in my teens and twenties. I almost feel as if I’m creating exciting roles for some of my favorite performers that the limits of their careers might have denied them.
Many of you have heard me explain how the Minton sisters, Jessica and Liz, are based on the witty, smart, independent parts played by Joan Bennett and Rosalind Russell, respectively. You’ve also heard me mention that the sisters’ traits and relationship is also flavored by the wise cracking, warmth, and wackiness I share with my sister-in-law Pam Healy. But how about some of the supporting characters?
In Bait and Switch, Jessica’s boyfriend is drawn from a young Laurence Olivier. So, we have a chap with enough wit, charm, dependability, and good looks to give James Crawford a run for his money in the romance department. No Ralph Bellamys or Alan Mowbrays being obvious second choices in my books!
When it came to the law, I had some fun in this novel. James Crawford’s partner is gruff and sarcastic, with a bit of the old softie hidden under his prickly exterior. Who better to cast in this brusque-on-the-surface part of “the fire-plug” but Ed Asner of Lou Grant fame. James’s partner also hates spunk. Casting Detective Winston particularly gave me a chuckle. Loving irony, I thought it would be a hoot to have this intelligent, calm, world-weary, patient man be a dead ringer for Moe Howard of the Stooges. Characters in Bait and Switch trying to square his appearance with his capabilities provide some fun moments in the novel-though not so much for Jim Winston.
Who inspired the wise-guy cat, Dusty? None other than my first cat, Dusty. Want to hear more about her wise-cattery? Check out this blog that I did on her. All Hail Dusty!
Once school was out- permanently for me now! – I had more time for readings/talks/signings. One of my first events was the Local Author Book Fair in Worcester at the Wesley United Methodist Church. This was a signing and chatting rather than a reading. I had a wonderful time. I met lots of new readers and also got to talk with many other local writers. Jean Grant and I did a book trade, so I’m looking forward to reading her A Hundred Breaths this summer. I also saw some old friends. Kate Zebrowski, whom I know from my time at Worcester State, had the table next to mine where she was promoting her time-slip fantasy Sleepwalking Backwards as well as her poetry. Tom and Barbara Ingrassia were at the other end of the auditorium with tables for their work as well – Barbara on copyright law and Tom with his “supreme” books on the Supremes (Reflections of a Love Supreme) and self-help (One Door Closes). By the Bye, Tom’s One Door Closes is being turned into a film that is nearing conclusion. Stay tuned for more on that!
In June, I returned to my alma mater where I earned my BA, then ULowell- now UMass-Lowell, to give a talk on becoming a published author through the school’s LIRA (Learning in Retirement Association) Program. To my delight, the talk was at the South Campus (originally Lowell State), where I did all my course work. We were in Allen House, a beautiful old building on a rise overlooking the Merrimack River. There are some wonderful views, as you can see from this photo that my cameraman and husband, Yang, took.
I can remember going to some receptions here back in the mid to late ’70s when I was an undergraduate- a child undergraduate, that is. The place was entirely redone after having been abandoned for a long time after I had graduated – no connection. The room I presented in was done beautifully in dark wood paneling with floor-to-ceiling doors looking out on a green and then down to the river.
The presentation was loads of fun, with a packed house and an audience who had great questions for me on my personal experiences as a writer and on the travails of finding a publisher and promoting my work. I especially loved sharing with the audience the powerful influence of filmed and written mysteries of the golden age and film noir on creating Bait and Switch and Letter from a Dead Man. Of course, I made sure to give a tip of my mightily feathered hat to my favorite smart-talking gal Joan Bennett and her influence on the creation of my heroine Jessica Minton. I also got some nice comments on my hat and suit! The nylons with the seam up the back (from the WWII Museum in New Orleans) were a big hit, too!
Look here. I CAN walk and talk at the same time! Thank God no one asked me to chew gum! One bridge too far.
Interestingly enough, I also met some people who knew folk I with whom went to grammar school and high school! And people laughed at my jokes, too! So, the summer has started off nicely in terms of doing readings and such. Now, it’s on to Pettee Memorial Library in Wilmington, Vt. on Saturday, 6/22. Hmm, which hat and suit should I wear. Any suggestions?
In between the raging blizzards of this spring, I was fortunate enough to be able to join some wonderful fellow mystery writers to promote our books and make connections with readers and neophyte writers. The first such adventure took Yang and I to the far north (of New York, anyway) to Ithaca and Buffalo Street Books. Here, my friend Lisa Lieberman and I presented “An Evening of Noir,” where we not only talked about our books but about the noir films that inspired us! Lisa’s husband Tim created this gorgeous poster for our adventure. Note that it features my favorite femme fatale and/or smart-talking gal, Joan Bennett! Didn’t he do a superb job?!
Lisa and I had a fun program. I had prepared a cd of background music to help create the mood of dark, mean streets; tough detectives; mysterious dames; and haunted pasts. Our playlist contained multiple versions of “Laura,” “Harlem Nocturne,” “Penny Blues,” “Drink Dirty Water,” “Peter Gunn,” and even Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” to name a few. And, of course, we dressed the parts, with Lisa’s swanky mink stole and slinky mystery-lady dress and my Claire Trevor femme fatale black suit with swag, complimented by red velvet and black feathered cap. Watch out Phil Marlow and Sam Spade!
We had loads of fun talking with our audience about the trademarks of film noir and how they influenced our novels, especially in terms of specific films. Lisa detailed how her experiences in Hungary and the film The Third Man inspired the tense and dark atmosphere and tight plot twists of her Burning Cold. I shared how the wit, surprising reversals, and slippery characters in films like The Scar; Murder, My Sweet; and Double Indemnity shaped the latest adventures of Jessica Minton in Letter from a Dead Man. And both us ladies of noir had a great time sharing trivia and background about the filmmakers and writers of our favorite noir films with our audience. We had such a wonderful time, we’re thinking of adding film clips and “taking our act on the road”!
My other recent appearance was on a delightful panel, with an equally delightful name: “Stealing from the Dead.” This Sisters-in-Crime Panel took place at Atria Bay in Barrington, RI. I was pleased to join Frances MCNamara and Steve Liskow for a fun presentation at the community. Both writers have fascinating books, with Frances’s latest series set in early 20th century Chicago and Steve’s in Connecticut and New York concerning the brutal reality of human trafficking. Do click on each of their names to check out their work in greater detail. You won’t be sorry! You can see from the picture on the left that I had a wonderful time. If you ever want to book a Sisters-In-Crime panel for your library, school, or other such group, you can contact Leslie Wheeler at the Speakers Bureau.
I also want to extend my thanks to Margaret Shand of Atria Bay for setting up the panel. the audience had intriguing questions and great comments for us. My thanks to Margaret for the photo at the top of the paragraph.
Yang took what is probably the best shot of me, below.
Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to participate with two other mystery writers in a Sisters in Crime New England panel, “We’re Not Making This Up” at the Plainfield Library in New Hampshire. Nancy Norwalk is the wonderful lady at the library who set up our panel, and advertised and arranged for event. I was the newbie and the two veterans were Kevin Symmons, who does romantic thrillers, sometimes with a gothic twist, and Ellen Perry Berkeley, who does gritty mysteries with a historical basis – as well as some interesting nonfiction, Maverick Cats and At Grandmother’s Table: Women Write about Food. Kevin’s latest is Chrysalis and Ellen’s is Keith’s People.
The Library is a beautiful little brick buidling that, like the Tardis, is much bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside. Just to make sure we knew where we were going, Nancy’s signs pointed out our way into the charming, old New England building. Once there, I shared a table for displaying my books with Kevin Symmons, and the three of us got started talking about our writing and answering questions from a nice turn out of about 15 people. Kevin was our adept moderator.
We had some interesting discussion of the merits of small, independent publishers over the big-ticket conglomerates. You may not get huge advances or get as much promotion (though the latter advantage is not always available), but you also aren’t under pressure to sell 10 to 100s of thousands of books – and you don’t have to pay back an advance that low sales don’t erase. Just as good, your books tend to stay in print longer – and you tend to have more control over content. We also had some fun and funny discussions over sex vs. romance (in the novels), how do we carve out the time to write, and do the characters spring direct from the unconscious or do we base them on people we know. I ended up talking about how I like to cast my novels like a movie full of classic actors, with a few more modern folk sprinkled in. But we all agreed that characters have a way of taking the reins and telling us what they intend to do, no matter what our original intention was – and we love it!
It was also fun to discover how we all did our research through talking to people in different fields, drawing on our own personal and professional experiences, reading and immersing ourselves in the environments that would become our characters’ worlds: whether it was WWII New York, show- horse farms, or post Viet Nam America.
I did “shock” my two panel members by admitting that I have to write my first draft with pen (no pencil- too soft!) and paper. Otherwise, the muse just won’t flow. She needs to travel from my mind to the paper via that sharp pen point. Computers are for editing as far as she is concerned. What can I say!
We writers made some nice connections with one another and with our audience – and I hope that we inspired some of them to keep on with their own writing and perhaps be published, themselves! And, of course, it’s always nice to sell some books! We writers even ended up getting some reading material from each other.
The Book Lover’s Gourmet is a little gem of a bookstore and cafe in Webster, MA. I was fortunate to do a reading and signing there on March 19th! There’s a lovely selection of books of all kinds, with an especially nice section of children’s books and another of local authors (including me!). Ah, the excitement of seeing your name and book title, well, not in lights – but at least in magic marker on the white board! There I am in turquoise, one of my favorite colors, third from the bottom.
So, let’s get started, in the cozy little room where people usually sit and enjoy scrumptious pastries – or quiche if they’re more in the mood for savory. And don’t forget the coffee, chai, lattes, and cappuccino – mine’s right behind me in this picture. I must have said something profound, because Bill Graves (one of my sharpest students) is smiling and pondering, while another sharp cookie, Joanne Evans, is exchanging deep thoughts on the writing and publishing processes with me. You can tell it’s a profound conversation by the way we’re raising our mitts to make our points. I just wonder what brings that cat-that-ate-the-canary smile to Kathy Healey’s face. She’s probably thinking about finally being finished editing the Gothic Landscapes book – well almost finally.
The conversation continues. Elizabeth Gaumond listens with rapt attention. I look reflective. So does Joanne – or has my reading put her to sleep? No, not the adventures of Jessica, Elizabeth, James, and Dusty!
Meanwhile, across the room, Pam Graves, Barbara Ingrassia, and Kate Zebrowski seem to be enjoying the reading of Jessica Minton’s encounter with a mysterious stranger, his mysterious package, and a threatening chap who’s built along the “graceful” lines of a fireplug. Note the display case of goodies behind them.
My husband Yang seems to be having a humorous time for himself with them and Cookie Gaumond (Elizabeth’s Mom). Maybe it was the line about Jessica fearing she might have to slug a G.I. for his Hershey bar. That’s not very patriotic of her! Barbara’s husband Tom gallantly rose to give up his seat for Cookie, so you don’t see him here.
Something that was particularly fun and informative about this session was that we had two other authors present. Joanne has authored and illustrated a marvelously beautiful, creative, informative and fun children’s book Seashells, Treasures from the Northeast Coast and graciously gifted me with a copy. I want to buy copies for the little kids in my life, now. Tom Ingrassia has written two books, himself. One, Reflections of a Love Supreme, is a wonderful book on the Motown story “through the eyes of the fans,” as the subheading explains. It’s filled with unique pictures from the fans and fascinating, fun background stories of fans and artists that don’t bog you down in all the depressing scandals but still give you an intriguing insight into the bonds between the people on both sides of the stage. One Door Closes is an enjoyable and helpful collection of essays by people who have dealt with disappointment and misfortune by redefining their lives creatively and joyously. Then, there were also some neophyte writers with questions about writing, publishing, promoting – as well as legal aspects – so, we could talk about our experiences to help them with their questions on how to get their writing off their computers and into the hands of the public. Barbara had great advice on legal concerns.
So, why am I excitedly on my feet here? I was delighted to find my friend and colleague, Jim Foley had come with his wife Lois and his son James. Yay! Fellow MST3K and Shakespeare and music fans! How can things go wrong?!
The day draws to a close, and I get to sign books for my delighted fans – and, no, students attending did not have to buy a book to pass my classes.
Well, I don’t know what cracked me up, but it must have been pretty good. Someone must have quoted a quip from those Smart-Talking Gals Jessica Minton and her sister Elizabeth Hennessey. Or maybe someone asked me if I was going to pick up the coffee and pastry tab for the whole crew? Anyway, this was a lovely gathering: old friends, new ones, all mixing together and either renewing old ties or forging new ones. That might be what I love best about these signings. They’re like parties where you catch up with people, meet new ones, and share dreams and ideas – and, of course, people buy my book.
And here’s one last look at that luscious array of comestibles that Debra Horan serves up with nifty book chasers in cozy surroundings. The Book Lover’s Gourmet is a great reason to pass up Amazon so you can enjoy the warmth of a beautifully decorated store with real people. And Bait and Switch is definitely on sale there, so hurry down, buy a copy, and sit down with something tasty and refreshing in a sunlit room to read! Save a spot in the sun for Dusty!
So, to keep you entertained while you breathlessly await the forthcoming blogs on my appearance at The Book Lover’s Gourmet and my adventures at the Shakespeare of America Convention in New Orleans, here’s a link to an audio interview with me by Pat Driscoll for The New Worcester Spy. It contains more details on my interests in film noir and horror, on film and on the page, and even a little more on my background. Just click here. It’s what Dusty would want!
Well, after all my announcements and commotion, here, at last, is the report on my reading and signing at Annie’s Bookstop in Worcester. I HAD A BALL! What a wonderful experience. So, I will commemorate it in words and pictures for you.
Ah, a long shot of Annie’s as viewed by the author and her entourage – aka her husband. Hey, he’s one guy but he’s worth a battalion. We all know that about Yang!
Wait, here’s the heart-stopping moment where I see myself and my work celebrated in an honest-to-goodness advertisement! I’m a star! For the day. Sort of. That’s good enough for me!
One of my loyal fans, Barbara Werblin greets me with gifts celebrating my great victory in actually getting the darned thing published! We’re buddies from the “Y,” so she’s seen me in my sweats and really knows me! Barb’s a great friend who has given me tons of encouragement – and she loves the book, too! As the Mom of a wonderful poet, she understands the writer’s burden. Sigh!
You can see my pal and colleague MaryLynn just behind me in the shot above. In these two pictures, you can see my friend and former student, Erin Bassler, having a good time while she reports on the event for The New Worcester Spy. (Read the article here!) Ultimately, we had about 12 or 13 people attend, all told. I had loads of support from my friends: students, colleagues, folks I know who enjoyed Bait and Switch and like seeing me be a wise guy. So take a gander at some of the shots from the reading, question answering, and signing. Also, note how I got myself all gussied up in my smart-talking, forties gal, film noir look: white blouse, black skirt, black and white spectator pumps, technicolor red lipstick. Agent Carter, eat out your heart!
Someone said something shocking! How about those gorgeous flowers that Barbara got me for the occasion? And chocolate. She got me chocolate, too. A brilliant woman!
Here are some nice shots of other folks coming up with questions, pondering the noir-style mysteries engendered by James Crawford leaving Jessica Minton that mysterious package in Bait and Switch.
Erin Fragola follows along intently while I ham up my reading in the background.
Everyone gets intense with Pam McKay concentrating to express her thoughts on one of the many exciting and intriguing questions people posed to me on the characters, plot, historical background, cinematic style of the novel, and the true identity of Dusty. Both Erin Bassler and I look perplexed. Must have been a humdinger of a query! Something to do with Nazis?
While I’m signing books for my loyal fans, Pam and her friend Gaylene are perusing Bait and Switch to throw more thought-provoking questions my way.
Ah, the end of an exhilarating day! Here the author poses with her masterpiece. I could use a nice cuppa about now.Bait and Switch is the first in the series of Jessica Minton’s adventures in the 1940s. I’m not telling who else will be along for the ride in subsequent novels. You’ll have to buy the books to find out!
I’m lucky to have so many friends to support me and to enjoy what I write. My only regret is that I didn’t get to include pictures of two people who made this wonderful day possible, but I do extend my heartfelt thanks. Patty at Annie’s and my husband, who always believes in me – and is lots of fun to be with – yes, I know I dangled a preposition. So there!