|Since some of the Covid issues have waned, I’ve started going back to doing in-person author readings. Friday, October 14th, I had the good fortune to do an event at the Lee Library in Lee, Massachusetts. What a wonderful day! Lee is in the western part of Massachusetts, so my husband and I had an exciting drive through all the gorgeous fall foliage to arrive at our destination. Lee is a neat little town with a main street of equally neat shops, and in an antique store I found a 1940s movie magazine with pictures of favorite stars. The main street has lots of tasty restaurants. We had our lunch at The Starving Artist Cafe, where they craft the yummiest sandwiches and
crêpes. They made a pumpkin latte that was absolutely perfect – not all sugary and fake whipped cream, but good coffee, the flavor of pumpkin spice, and steamed milk. We sat outside at the street seating on a warm October day and enjoyed the small-town scenery, great food, and trees dressed in their autumn flames and oranges.After a stroll amongst the shops and a peek at some of the gorgeous Victorian houses in town, we went to the library for my talk. You can see what a beautiful old building the library is. When visiting the town earlier, I was taken with the building and thought, “I’d like to do a talk here.” Well, I contacted Jodi Magner at the library, and she was tremendously welcoming and enthusiastic at the prospect of my doing an event. She told me that they loved mysteries in that town!
That day, Jodi and her daughter Megan made me so welcome and helped my husband and I set up. I was delighted that my friend, mystery writer, Leslie Wheeler could join us, as well as other women whom I’d never met before. We were a small group, but we had a great time. I got so many intelligent questions, and people seemed interested in my inspiration from film noir and haunting movies of the 1940s like Val Lewton’s films and The Uninvited. They seemed to get a kick out of the excerpts that I read from Bait and Switch, Letter from a Dead Man, and Always Play the Dark Horse to illustrate how the dark, dreamy elements of noir and the smart talking gals of the 1940s influenced my writing! One of the women even said that a friend, sometime earlier, had been suggesting she read the Jessica Minton series. I’m getting a fan base! And now you can read all three Jessica Minton novels through the Lee Library.
Say, how do you like the pin-stripe black suit and the black fedora? I thought the gold blouse was just right to add fall color. Should I have brought along a gat?
I’m hoping to go back in the summer, after the fourth novel comes out: Shadows of a Dark Past. Maybe I’ll see you there!
I had a wonderful experience going back to my hometown of Lowell, Mass. to do an author event at Lala Books. This is a lovely bookstore on Market Street (189 Market, to be exact), filled with an extensive catalogue of fiction and nonfiction – with a large local author section, where I fit in. Well, we know I also fit in as a mystery writer. The store is roomy and pleasant, and I had a cozy corner to do my event.
The event went great! I got to talk about how I’ve always been a story teller, even scaring the other little kids on the block with ghost stories when I, myself, was but a nipper. I also got to talk about the influence of black and white film noir mysteries and films of hauntings and the supernatural. It was fun to connect Bait and Switch, Letter from a Dead Man, and Always Play the Dark Horse to specific films that influenced their creation. As always, I had fun talking answering questions about the writing process and publishing. I especially appreciated when one listener told me that reading Bait and Switch reminded him of watching old films with his Dad. I was so happy that everyone seemed to get a kick out of the excerpt I read from Dark Horse – I kept them in suspense!
The audience was, indeed, wonderful! I saw many old friends, including one gal I hadn’t seen since we were little kids and my parent moved our family to another neighborhood. I deeply appreciate all the friends who came out to support me, and tell me how much they love my mysteries – especially my descriptive style. It’s also great to make new friends and bring in new readers. And I did sell some books, too! By the way, do you like the dress? Yang made it based on a 1940s Simplicity pattern. The hat is one of my favorites!
Lauren and her daughter Thea did an admirable job setting up the event and supporting me when I was there. Thanks, so much to you! If you live in the Lowell area, be sure to drop in and do some book shopping. Christmas is coming! All three of my novels are available at Lala Books. Don’t forget, they have some neat events as well.
In June, I was finally able to get back in the saddle concerning appearances. After one fun reading in May at TidePool books in Worcester, I first did a joint author event with my friend and colleague, Leslie Wheeler, on Saturday, June 4th at the Booklovers’ Gourmet. We had a responsive audience and a lot of fun. Leslie suggested that we, ourselves, be more interactive. So, instead of just reading and talking separately, after each short reading, we asked each other questions about our methods of writing, our particular joys and pains in writing, future writing plans, etc. Our questions and responses, in turn, drew questions and observations from the audience. Totally interactive! I think we even made some new friends and readers, as well. I’m especially excited because we talked about Leslie’s new book, Wolf Bog, which will be released July 6th, this year!
Next, I joined an even bigger group of writers from Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America at a corner of the Natick Farmers’ Market called Beach Reads, organized by Tilia Jacobs. I shared my table with Janet Raye Stevens, who also writes mysteries set in the 1940s. It was a gorgeous day, where we enjoyed chatting with people -and each other- of course, also selling some books. Here’s a tip for writers: have a QR code on your bookmarks, postcards, or advertising poster so that if people don’t have cash, they can use their smartphones to connect to a site where they can buy the book (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, your web site) there or later. Anyway, it’s great to see people and enjoy a beautiful afternoon.
I already have some plans for August. On August 24th, from 7:00-7:30 p.m., I’ll be interviewed by Barry Eva on A Book and a Chat. I’ll provide more details when I have them. Next is Lala Books in Lowell, MA on August 26th from 7:00-8:00 p.m., so come and hear all about the latest 1940s mystery adventures for Jessica Minton, James Crawford, and Dusty – as well as talk about writing and publishing! I may be able to give you a sneak peek at book #4, Shadows of a Dark Past.
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.