|I’ve been a horse-racing aficionado since 1966, when I started watching the Triple Crown races on TV. My pick was Amberoid, who finished eleventh in the Derby, moved on up to third in the Preakness, then blasted home first by 2 1/2 lengths in the Belmont Stakes. Sorry Kaui King on crimping your Triple Crown bid. So it’s been lots of fun for me to bring my favorite sport into play in Always Play the Dark Horse. For verisimilitude, I drew on some real race horses’ interesting quirks when creating the equine players of my story.
Equipoise, a handicap star of the 1930s, was known as “The Chocolate Soldier” for his dark brown coat and his warrior-like determination to win. A tough horse, he ran for five seasons and won an impressive 29 of 52 starts. If he couldn’t outrun his competition, he wasn’t above taking a little chunk out of a horse who challenged him in a stretch drive – hence his disqualification in the 1934 Metropolitan Handicap. That loss actually was used for the final twist in the play and movie Three Men and a Horse. He brought such disqualifications on himself two other times as well, but he was also known as “the best assistant starter” for keeping fractious horses in line when he was set on the business of getting the race started clean. An honest, hard-working, hard-knocking horse (literally), Equipoise was a leading stakes and money winner.
Another champion handicap horse, equally determined but far less free with his chompers, was Kelso. For 4 years (1961-65) Kelso dominated handicap racing, knocking heads with such stars as Gun Bow, Mongo, Beau Purple, and Roman Brother. He was horse of the year four consecutive years and won one handicap triple crown as well four consecutive Jockey Club Gold Cups, eventually became leading money winner, just missing being the first horse to win two million dollars. Kelly may have been a tough nut to crack on the track, but he was a tenderhearted guy when it came to kids, letting them feed him ice cream sundaes. After he retired, his owner, Mrs. Allaire Dupont even turned him into a saddle horse, but Kelso was not one to poke along trails. She noticed he had an affinity for jumping natural obstacles on their rides, so to keep her equine friend from getting bored, she successfully trained him as a jumper. I can remember one of his exhibitions at a New York track where the old guy showed himself a master in yet another equine endeavor. The racehorse to jumper story almost made it into Dark Horse; but, alas, necessary cuts sheared it from the story. Maybe a sequel where this equine character makes a return engagement?
Devil His Due was a racer of the 1990s who looked as if he could have played the title role in Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series. Unusual for a champion stallion, he was not retired early but ran into his sixth year. Also unusual, he was sound enough to never have run on Lasix. I was even lucky enough to have seen him at Belmont Park when he ran in the 1994 Woodward Stakes. Unfortunately, it was Holy Bull’s day of glory not Devil’s. This black stallion still won more than his share of stakes: Pimlico Special, Brooklyn Handicap, Gulfstream Park Handicap, and back-to-back victories in the Suburban Handicap (with 1994 victories in the Brooklyn and Suburban, he copped two legs of the Handicap Triple Crown). He was especially admired for his determined stretch battle with Lured in the Wood Memorial, finishing in a dead heat for first with the other horse.
Our black stallion was also famous for a little escapade with the IRS, a version of which makes it into Dark Horse. Apparently, the IRS didn’t believe that the horse actually belonged to Edith Libutti, but thought the ownership was a tax dodge for her father. They had a court order to take possession of him. When trainer Allen Jerkins warned the IRS reps that race horses were temperamental and dangerous if not handled properly, the head agent snapped back that the government had a lien on Devil, could do whatever they wanted with him, going into the stall to seize him. Devil was having none of this: laying back his ears and barring his teeth, he chased the agents out. Apparently Devil was too tough even for the IRS. He was back on the track and winning that same racing season. Blackie in Dark Horse puts on a similar show, demonstrating that we should all use our horse sense – if not our flashing teeth and hooves.
Sources for information and Images on each of the thoroughbreds. If you believe the posting of an image here violates your copyright, please contact me and I will remove it. No violation of copyright intended.
Amberoid photo: Turf and Sport Digest Cover, September 1966
Devil His Due
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