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
Part Three: Always Play the Dark Horse
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?
The ground may be covered with snow right now, but it wasn’t so long ago that Yang and I had an autumn day at the beach. Of course, it was kind of a gothic day at the beach because we were visiting one of the famous Five Ruins of Connecticut, The Aquinas Retreat at Charles Island.
We hadn’t planned on starting the grand tour, but our love of ruins has already taken us to two of the locations in the set. I posted our earlier visit to Hearthstone Castle in Danbury, CT. So, that Sunday afternoon, we trekked down to Milford, CT to finally get the chance to travel the tombolo out across the bay to
the island. This trip had been on our agenda for years, but getting to the island is no easy feat – not because of reefs, pirates, or sea monsters, though. The ocean only subsides from the tombolo during low tide and this land path is only dry and clear enough when the moon and sun exert their strongest gravitational pull. On top of that, colonies of egrets and cranes nest on the island from April until September, so the Wildlife Service has deemed Charles Island off limits during that time.
There’s a legend about the island holding Captain Kidd’s hidden treasure, but the treasure we found were beautiful ocean scenes and fun walking and exploring the edges of the island that has a circumference of a bout a mile. The going could be a bit rocky and uneven when you start out counterclockwise, but you get to enjoy the gorgeous ocean bay as much as do the lounging cormorants.
Then there are the ruins of the Aquinas Retreat Center. Not many extensive ruins to find. Built in 1929 by the Dominican Fathers as a lay retreat, it was abandoned by 1938. Perhaps storms or difficult access for supplies undermined its success. At this point, there are barely the scraps of stone and mortar outlines left to some out buildings and small towers.
There was also one lovely archway. I wonder if this structure could be the remains of an entrance to a chapel or shrine.
This space must have been a wonderful location for contemplation and communing with God through nature amidst the calls of wild birds, the surge of waves, and the rush of wind.
We also saw some nice smaller birds on the island. Yang got a great shot of an Eastern Kingbird.
And while I was watching birds, Yang was watching me!
It was such a lovely, warm and sunny fall afternoon. There were families and young and old couples, also making the circuit of the island, but never so many you’d feel crowded – and the cormorants didn’t seem to mind.
Say, what do you think of this place for setting a mystery novel? In the 1860s, there was resort here. Maybe Jessica and James need a vacation, or Liz needs a retreat – Naagh, no shopping!
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.
Saturday, 11/18/17, Letter from a Dead Man got its official launch at The Booklovers’ Gourmet in Webster. What a wonderful experience! There was a nice turnout of friends, colleagues from school, fellow writers, students from WSU, and even new people I didn’t know yet. As usual, Deb Horan had the room set up beautifully, and we all had the opportunity to partake of some yummy comestibles and beverages. I smoothed out my vocal cords with a tasty pumpkin latte – ’tis the season!
We all started off by chatting about writing, teaching, and the inspirations for my 1940s-style mysteries, especially how I like to cast my characters as favorite actors from the era: Joan Bennett and Rosalind Russell as the smart-talking Minton sisters, Lloyd Nolan as the tough-guy henchman, and Claire Trevor as the ultimate femme fatale, for example. Interspersed with these points, I did some readings, which I’m happy to report, people found tense and intriguing. I gave them a scene where sisters Jessica and Liz have to face off against the threats of the femme fatale’s menacing torpedo – without giving away what mysterious object he held in his hand that would prove a vital pivot for the plot. I later read from the scene where Jessica had to flee and seek refuge from deadly pursuers behind one of the lions in front of the New York Public Library. This led to a discussion of Dead Man’s cover and the fun story where I went to New York with Yang to “test” out the scene of Jessica’s flight.
I was fortunate that two of my Sisters In Crime, Lisa Lieberman and Leslie Wheeler, joined me. The three of us bounced questions and comments off one another to give the rest of the audience insights into the sources of our ideas, how we write (outliners or seat-of-our-pantsers), how we overcome writer’s block, and how good editors or writers/readers groups challenge and inspire us to overcome obstacles in the way of getting the right words on the page and those pages into print.
Speaking of reading/writing groups, one of the posse who keeps me on my toes, my friend Judy Jeon-Chapman, was able to join us. Not only has she given me great feedback, but there were days when she’d needle me every night to get her more chapters to calm the suspense I’d enkindled with my writing. So, as a reward, I worked her into the third story (yet to be published) as I was editing it! Several of these pictures even came from her.
You can see how enthusiastic I am about talking writing here. I also love Leslie’s “Crime Scene” scarf!
Maybe the best part of the day was getting to spend time with old friends and colleagues whom I hadn’t seen in a while, like Rini Kilcoyne and Jim Foley from Worcester State. I so much appreciate how these folks support me and the good friends and coworkers they have been over the years. I’m a lucky gal!
Here’s a picture of my favorite supporter!
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.
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.