“My Smart-Talking Gal Mystery Heroine: A Joan Bennett Birthday Tribute”
It’s only natural to honor Joan Bennett on her birthday by explaining her powerful influence on my writing. A lot of this influence goes back to my earlier years watching old movies. As a kid, I started out hooked on Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and the rest of the stable of Universal and RKO horror films – God Bless Val Lewton! The mystery and otherworldliness of black and white film, the smart dialogue, the clever twists of plot that other forties and thirties film genres shared with horror lured me into a liminal world like a perpetual deep summer night. I was further captured by classic films’ biting wit, challenging plots, and independent women – especially in what I came to know as film noir. And who showed herself the queen of this world? Above them all, Joan Bennett.
I must admit that I first came really to know Joan when she appeared in Dark Shadows. Her Elizabeth Collins Stoddard was formidable, reminding me of my mother when I was in deep trouble. How could vampires, werewolves, and witches withstand her powerful, regal stare? Still, like my Mom, there was deep feeling and love for her daughter and her family. However, only in film did I discover Joan displaying one of the traits I loved best about my Mom: that witty, smart-talking-gal sense of humor. In outright comedy, Joan could drop a clever line with style and intelligence, but even in some of her darkest dramas that wit came through. What a delight to see her wield that humor to put firmly in their places anyone trying to crush or bamboozle her. In The House across the Bay, she undercuts a smart-mouth chorine who harangued her, “Cheep, cheep, cheep” with “Where’s the birdseed?” When the obnoxious woman tries to go after her physically, Joan rakes her over the coals with, “Just a minute, Miss Dimwit. I was silly enough to apologize, but now that you want to make something of it, I’ll give you a good reason. You’re a phony, you’ve got a voice like four panes of cracked glass, and about as much appeal as a can of embalming fluid. I could go on, but that ought to give you a rough idea of how I feel about you.” Eight years later, when Paul Henreid tries to disparage her cynicism towards him in The Scar with a deprecating, “You’re a bitter little lady,” she puts him in his place with a world-weary but tough, “It’s a bitter little world, full of sad surprises, and you don’t go around letting people hurt you.” In The Man I Married, Joan’s not even daunted by Nazis, telling her husband-turned-fascist, “Heil heel” when he promises to dump her and take their son. Her feistiness isn’t limited to verbiage, either. Take a gander at this picture.
Like my Mom, Joan played women of wit, strength, humanity, and confidence – not just what the New York Times dubbed her gallery of “hydrochloric dames.”
So, in my twenties, when I decided to take my writing seriously than developing Victoria Holt knock-offs or spoofs of Dark Shadows, I turned to 1940s style mysteries to inspire my own adventures of romance, danger, suspense, and wit. Interestingly, as a writer influenced by film, I found I could better create distinct, believable characters by casting them as actors with whom I was familiar, blending their traits with some of the people I knew (including myself!). I also knew that I didn’t want my heroine to be wimpy, weepy, and inclined to faint in the final reel or pages, which, unfortunately, did often happen on the page or screen in the ’40s and ’50s. Guess who I saw as perfect for the role of Jessica Minton, a smart, independent, quick-with-a-quip forties gal? Someone who had a sensitive heart and a strong sense of responsibility, but didn’t take guff from anyone – and would smack said guff out of the ballpark with whip smart humor.
I do see a lot of myself in Jessica – and in Joan’s less nasty roles – or maybe an idealized version of myself, anyway. I know that mischievous banter with those I love and pointed barbs for those I don’t is something I share with Jess, which Joan plays to perfection. However, I doubt that like Jessica, I’d have the guts to hold onto a mysterious package left by a mysterious and handsome British stranger at the risk of being liquidated by Nazi fifth columnists – to disguise myself as a maid to get into a criminal’s apartment while he’s still there (!) to retrieve a gun used to frame a friend – to grab a gunsel by the lapels and threaten to turn him into a soprano if he ever threatened my cat again – to show up in a shadow-draped room and wittily bargain with a gun-toting femme fatale and her hired gun to trade stolen jade for my friends’ lives – or to slip into a cove and explore a beached and rotting ship while layers of ocean fog swept in around me. I might dare to weaponize a banana-cream pie, but I can’t guarantee my aim would be as good as Jessica Minton’s. I can guarantee you that any fans of our Joanie could picture her carrying off these adventures with verve and wit, though not without human trepidation.
Those of us who love Joan Bennett and appreciate her talents would also, as Sam Fuller writes, see her as “a sensitive actress” enough to also believe her playing Jessica’s distress at being torn between loyalty to an old boyfriend and to a new man who brings her adventure and love; a sister who gets annoyed with her older sibling’s foibles leading them into danger but sticking by her to the end (though not without a smart quip or two exchanged between them); a sweetheart waiting to hear news of a fiancé lost in the war, then a wife supporting her husband’s struggle with memories from that war. And Jessica loves her cat. I know Joan was a dog person, but heck, there’s still part of me in Jessica Minton. So, she’s a cat person!
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject, but if you’d like to take a peek at some passages from Bait and Switch or Letter from a Dead Man, click on the links on the titles and have fun picturing Joan working her magic as Jessica Minton. Oh, and by the way, I cast her sister Elizabeth as Rosalind Russell (and my sister-on-law). Can you imagine what a grand ride it would have been to catch Joan and Roz trading quips with each other, then marshaling their humor to take on Nazis, criminally corrupt American aristocrats, femme fatales, underworld crooks, and crooked cops? And I’ve got two more books on the way! Viva Jessica Minton and Joan Bennett!
If you love mysteries on the screen or on the page, especially centered on the golden era, click here to go to my web page where you can find lots of interesting stuff – including my Joan Bennett tribute page!
Photos: Author’s collections
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?
Last weekend, we had a mini-vacation in Vermont, connected to my day at Bookstock. What a great time! We’re so fortunate to be living in New England. Friday afternoon, we took a leisurely drive up to Brattleboro to have an early supper at our favorite bakery on Main Street. In a space overlooking the river and mountain, we watched a thunderstorm roll in while we enjoyed a scrumptious olive tapenade/goat cheese/walnut salad and a cappuccino. The storm passed; we rolled out for Springfield, Vermont and the Toonerville Rail Trail. It’s not a long trail, only seven miles round trip, but it runs along the Black River and through some gorgeous Vermont mountain and woodsy scenery. I even managed to spot some Phoebes and Thrushes! The river ran fast and muddy. I’m not sure if that was just from the recent rainfall. Whatever the case, there were some notable rapids. This should be a nice ride in the colorful New England fall.
The next day was my stint at the Sisters In Crime-New England Table on Woodstock Green at Bookstock. I had a wonderful time with two of my favorite writers, and pals, Leslie Wheeler and Connie Johnson Hambley. Leslie has a new book out in Rattlesnake Hill and Connie has completed her Jessica trilogy. If you’re looking for some exciting and enjoyable summer reading, these are great choices – as are Letter from a Dead Man and Bait and Switch! We have the best conversations on writing, the great stuff to do in New England, our families, etc. We also had a lot of fun talking to and getting to know readers and writers visiting our table. I can’t say enough about the great opportunities Sisters in Crime offers both readers and writers (published or not). And one of the best benefits is meeting the other members of the group. I’ve made some swell (as Anne Sheridan would have put it in a movie) friends here. At our booth, the three of us couldn’t help telling interested readers how enjoyable we found each other’s writing!
Last day of our vacation, Yang and I went to Shelburne Falls and visited the Bridge of Flowers. If you’ve never been there, this is an old foot bridge that has been planted on either side of a central path with all kinds of different, beautiful flowers and shrubs.
There are zinnias, roses, red hot poker, delphinium with bachelor buttons, Rose of Sharon, bee balm – you name it. Here are some lovely lilies.
These dahlias and the sunflower are all set for the Fall !
Here I am, delighted to be with a shrub with which I share a name!
You can see from the pictures how gorgeous the flowers are. Several years back, a terrible flood wiped out the bridge garden; but, as you can see, it has been restored with resounding success. Some of the flowers will last several seasons of the year, while some are more seasonal and will be replaced with flowers and plants appropriate to the autumn, later.
So many people enjoy the garden! However, as I will show you, humans aren’t the only ones who delight in the Bridge of Flowers. Yang got several wonderful pictures of one of the many Tiger Swallowtails taking a sunny Sunday brunch on the Bridge.
There was also a Hummingbird Hawk Moth, which people frequently mistake for a Hummingbird. Gorgeous and otherworldly, isn’t it?
Then, we got some shots of the real deal: this female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. She adored the Bee Balm and the Red Hot Poker! She was also fairly undaunted by most of the humans at her restaurant. Yang got some superb shots, didn’t he? I’m happy to say that we also saw another such bird on our stroll through town and that the hummingbird who usually visits us each year at home has made several appearances already! All in all, a delightful weekend!
Wood Thrush Image: https://www.freeclipartnow.com/animals/birds/Wood-Thrush.jpg.html
All other images, author’s collection
In between the raging blizzards of this spring, I was fortunate enough to be able to join some wonderful fellow mystery writers to promote our books and make connections with readers and neophyte writers. The first such adventure took Yang and I to the far north (of New York, anyway) to Ithaca and Buffalo Street Books. Here, my friend Lisa Lieberman and I presented “An Evening of Noir,” where we not only talked about our books but about the noir films that inspired us! Lisa’s husband Tim created this gorgeous poster for our adventure. Note that it features my favorite femme fatale and/or smart-talking gal, Joan Bennett! Didn’t he do a superb job?!
Lisa and I had a fun program. I had prepared a cd of background music to help create the mood of dark, mean streets; tough detectives; mysterious dames; and haunted pasts. Our playlist contained multiple versions of “Laura,” “Harlem Nocturne,” “Penny Blues,” “Drink Dirty Water,” “Peter Gunn,” and even Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” to name a few. And, of course, we dressed the parts, with Lisa’s swanky mink stole and slinky mystery-lady dress and my Claire Trevor femme fatale black suit with swag, complimented by red velvet and black feathered cap. Watch out Phil Marlow and Sam Spade!
We had loads of fun talking with our audience about the trademarks of film noir and how they influenced our novels, especially in terms of specific films. Lisa detailed how her experiences in Hungary and the film The Third Man inspired the tense and dark atmosphere and tight plot twists of her Burning Cold. I shared how the wit, surprising reversals, and slippery characters in films like The Scar; Murder, My Sweet; and Double Indemnity shaped the latest adventures of Jessica Minton in Letter from a Dead Man. And both us ladies of noir had a great time sharing trivia and background about the filmmakers and writers of our favorite noir films with our audience. We had such a wonderful time, we’re thinking of adding film clips and “taking our act on the road”!
My other recent appearance was on a delightful panel, with an equally delightful name: “Stealing from the Dead.” This Sisters-in-Crime Panel took place at Atria Bay in Barrington, RI. I was pleased to join Frances MCNamara and Steve Liskow for a fun presentation at the community. Both writers have fascinating books, with Frances’s latest series set in early 20th century Chicago and Steve’s in Connecticut and New York concerning the brutal reality of human trafficking. Do click on each of their names to check out their work in greater detail. You won’t be sorry! You can see from the picture on the left that I had a wonderful time. If you ever want to book a Sisters-In-Crime panel for your library, school, or other such group, you can contact Leslie Wheeler at the Speakers Bureau.
I also want to extend my thanks to Margaret Shand of Atria Bay for setting up the panel. the audience had intriguing questions and great comments for us. My thanks to Margaret for the photo at the top of the paragraph.
Yang took what is probably the best shot of me, below.
So, Christmas noir? The opening of a lively chorus caroling and holiday cheering over Christmas cards displaying the credits evokes holiday spirit, except there’s always just the slightest manic edge to their liveliness creating a noir frisson. Then the chorus ends in a startled drop as the last card slips away to reveal a gun. Click here for a Silver/Ursini commentary on the opening.
Every October, I like to have some bedtime reading that suits the season. I just finished two new books: Midnight Fires and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The first is a mystery by Nancy Means Wright that features Mary Wollstonecraft as its intrepid detective. Wollstonecraft is a great choice for the role, as anyone who has read her Vindications would agree that she has all the nerve, smarts, and wit to boldly ask the questions and dig the dirt necessary for an investigator. Her being cast in this role makes perfect sense. The novel is set during Wollstonecraft’s tenure as governess to the aristocratic Kingsborough family in Ireland and does a neat job of characterizing “the troubles.” We also get good views of the workings of the Kingsborough family, as well as how contemporary views of women have stunted and warped them – right in line with MW’s own writings. The descriptions of the landscapes are a pleasure to read as well. Not least of all, the mystery has some neat twists and turns.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was a pleasantly amusing visit with the supernatural – a low key, smile-inducing progress of Lucy/Lucia Muir’s liberation from oppressive Edwardian propriety to become a mischievous, independent woman – with a little help from a frank and fiery sea captain’s ghost – though she was already well on her way to freedom before they met at Gull Cottage. There are some significant changes from book to film, but both work equally well. I do think that Gene Tierney gives Lucia Muir a bit more power than the character in the book.
There are four books that I usually return to once I finish any new prizes for the month: The Uninvited (Dorothy Mcardle), The Sign of the Ram (Margaret Ferguson), The Undying Monster (Jessie Douglas Kerriush), and Redeeming Time (me, unpublished – yet!). What I admire in the first three (and try to emulate in the fourth), is the depth of characterization, the creation of a powerful mystical/eerie atmosphere, the vividness of the landscapes, and the intelligence of the storylines. What makes them such a pleasure to read is their authors’ deftness with language: there’s enough detail to savor and shape your imagination but no excess or filler. Right now, I’m working on The Uninvited. I review it and The Sign of the Ram on this web site, under Golden Age Mysteries. The Undying Monster is part of the psychic detective genre, with a woman psychic brought in to help a scientist uncover the nature of the beast that has ravaged an ancient British family for centuries and now threatens to destroy his two close friends. The novel deftly captures the post WWI fascination with psychic phenomenon and leads characters and readers into the dark depths of ancient ruins, crypts, and family history to reach a final, mystical resolution – and it’s a fun ride!
What’s Redeeming Time about? Think H. P. Lovecraft meets film noir meets Indiana Jones meets Val Lewton.
Image of Gene Tierney from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir copyright 1946, 20th-Century Fox (http://classicbeckybrainfood.blogspot.com/2010/08/just-thought.html)
So, on May 28th I gave my final reading of the month at my alma mater’s bookstore, River Hawks. It wasn’t exactly a trek back to Tara, but it was a wonderful experience for seeing so many old friends at UMass Lowell.
First of all, the day was a scorcher: in the 90s! Of course, I had to have a hot cappuccino before my performance! Thank God this place is air conditioned – but the nice, comfortable kind of air conditioning, not the Arctic temps that make polar bears shiver, which you find too often once May rolls around. Here, I’m sitting, looking over my notes and finishing my coffee in the lobby. The building is really nice, with lots of windows and airy space.
Ham bone that I am, I had to get a picture of myself with the display for my book! The young woman clerking at the counter was nice enough to do the honors. Like the dress? Yang made it for me by copying a vintage dress I’d bought on Ebay. This way we get the beauty of authentic vintage design combined with the convenience of material you can hand or machine wash! There’s not much he can’t do: from using physics to move boulders to building an oxygen chamber for a kitten recovering from double pneumonia. Note the luxurious quarters: litter box, bed, blanket, toys, and inspiring pictures (Rosie the Riveter, Rosalind in AYLI, and Rosalind Russell).
Before the session, I had a nice chat with Abbey and Christina, who had taken charge of setting up the space for me. As you can see from the pictures, it’s a great area for doing a reading. What I could really kick myself over is that I had such a wonderful time seeing old friends that I forgot to have my entourage (Yang) take any pictures of folks. Damn! Not even a group shot! So, who’s on the red – or here royal blue- carpet?
Sue Thorne-Gagnon and her husband Bobby were first to arrive. Sue and I were at ULowell together at the same time, but darned if we never met until years later when we were working at BASF systems before we both went back into teaching. She’s a wonderful teacher and flutist. Next came Lisa McCarthy and her daughter Hedda. I’ve known Lisa since the late seventies, and we’ve been through everything together from rambles around Boston, hikes through the woods, and Star Trek conventions. My nephew Phil and his wife Steph also appeared on the scene. Steph is responsible for addicting me to Psych; Monk; Murder, She Wrote; and Miss Fisher’s Mysteries. Can I get her hooked on Murdoch? Steph is a teacher and Phil is a filmmaker – check out his co-production of My Name Is Jonah. When he and his older brother were kids, I used to hold them under the arms and swing them in a circle, which they loved. Now they can do it to me, but not at the reading. Here’s a picture of my giving Geoffrey a whirl.
After the reading started, I was so excited to see, first, Barbara DeMeuth then Mary Lou Beausoleil slip in! These guys have been my friends since grammar school! Clearly, they have much forbearance. It was fantastic that they came to support me! Barb is actually my oldest friend – not in age but in duration. We met when we were going into the fifth grade. Mary Lou is only a few months behind. But we can’t get together as much as we’d like, so it was fantastic to catch up! Mary Lou was one of the earliest readers of one of the earliest versions of Bait and Switch – and she still came, anyway! Barb and I have managed to stay in touch on the phone or over an occasional lunch lo! these many years. Both have wonderfully wicked senses of humor!
It was an absolute delight to see people I care so much about, and who showed me they cared by being here to share in the success of Bait and Switch. And thanks to Maria Shusta, Christina, and Abbey at River Hawks for doing a wonderful job of setting everything up for me and making the day run so smoothly.
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.