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“My Smart-Talking Gal Mystery Heroine: A Joan Bennett Birthday Tribute”

“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.
Surprise!
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

Christmas with the Yangs -human and feline

Christmas day approached and so did Rosalind to the manger.  Would the baby Jesus be safe?  One year Natasha ran off with one of the sheep!

Whew!  All is safe in Bethlehem, until Natasha decided that the fake snow on the roof looked delicious.  This leads me to an important question:  what’s with all this snow on manger roofs that we’re always seeing on cards and in manager displays?  How much snow do they get in the Mideast?  I know:  it’s a miracle!

 

Christmas day, the girls were absolutely delighted with their presents from my friend, Kathy Healey.  Both Natasha and Rosalind liked the Jackson Galaxy-approved “base-camp mat.”  Natasha was the more taken of the two.  And both had fun with the cat-nipped toys also a part of their feline care package.

 

 

 

 

After human and felines had opened all our presents,  the turkey having been cooked,  it was off to St. Matthews for the Christmas service.  We had a lovely service, with Mother Judith Lee presiding.  The 10:00 service was the third of three services held over two days (Christmas Eve included), so there was a small number of people attending.  That only made the experience even more homey and congenial than usual.  Yang and I both were the lectors!  Yang did the two readings and I did the Intercessions.  We’re lucky to be part of a church that makes us feel at home and happy.

Back home, we put together a wonderful Christmas dinner to share with each other.  I love cooking the Christmas and Thanksgiving meals with Yang.  It’s perfect teamwork, sharing the chores of preparation – and we haven’t dropped a turkey on the floor yet (knock on wood!) ! Of course Natasha was impatient to get her share.  She pulled that turkey right off Yang’s plate!  Little devil!

 

 

 

Here she is getting some turkey in a more acceptable manner – from Yang’s hand.  Kathy Healey take note!

I saluted Yang and the girls before we all tucked in!  It was a yummy meal, suitably stuffing everyone.  And speaking of stuffing, that’s my Mom’s simple but delicious recipe. The squash was my own, with nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, along with walnuts.  The meal was followed by a long walk around Millbury, checking out Victorian houses and Christmas decorations.

The end of the day gave us a glorious sunset, which I have to share with you in some spectacular shots.

“I’m Ready for My Close-up, Mr. DeMille!”

 

We’ve been seeing lots of beautiful birds as we move into June.  Many of the usual suspects are still showing up.  I managed to get some interesting close ups and Yang took some videos, so our birds are moving-picture stars!

One day when I was exercising in the parlor, I was lying on the floor, and when I cam up to window level, I saw the Rosebreasted Grosbeak up close.  So, I snuck off to get my camera and managed to take some wonderful close ups!  You’d swear he knew what was going on and decided to pose!  We’ve been so lucky to see one of the males almost every day.  We often see one male and one female together, while sometimes we also see a lone female.  We can hear their birdsong quite often.   I suspect they may be nesting fairly close by.  Maybe they’ll bring the kids to brunch some day.

 

We’ve also been blessed with some frisky catbirds who mainly love to chomp down on suet from the two such feeders we have in the yard.  I and the cats often watch them through the sun porch windows.  Today, one was chattering to me  while I was hanging out the clothes on the line. Anyway, here are some shots that Yang took for me.

 

 

The Downy Woodpeckers also like to feast on the suet as well.  Yang got a few shots of one doing so.  We haven’t seen many Hairy Woodpeckers this year – or Flickers or Yellow-bellied Woodpeckers.  Maybe the latter were too scared.

 

Yang also took some videos.  Here, we have The Adventures of Cardinal with special guest star Rosebreasted Grosbeak and a cameo by English Sparrow  Roll ’em!

 

We also have some mammals in our yard as well.  I managed to get a few shots of a baby rabbit, from which we strenuously held back both Rosalind and Natasha on separate occasions.  Enjoy watching him/her nibble.

Someone else enjoyed watching the bunny, as well.  She thought he looked delicious, er, adorable.  We made sure that she was restrained.

 

A Breath of Autumn

 

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Here’s a melange of interesting autumn images that I’ve come across this past September. One Friday afternoon, while riding the bicycle trail from Coventry, Yang and I came across these funky caterpillars. We’d seen them last fall on the same trail, so apparently these are their main stomping, er crawling, grounds. Does any one know into what they ultimately metamorph? Notice how they have prongs on their derrieres, no doubt to confuse predators as to which end they are biting. We wonder what these guys are.

The following weekend, we did 22 miles on the Nickerson Park Trail on the Cape. What should we see on the trail but this adorable quail! I suspect s/he is domesticated because the little critter did not seem at all unnerved by passing cyclists or walkers. I’ve seen pictures of domesticated quails on line, and this little guy seems to match up. Nevertheless, I’m counting him/her as one of my bird sightings for the year. I hope you can see the little guy in the center of the picture to left on the trail, almost in the leaves. Click on the image for a bigger picture.

 

Though not nearly as cute, here are some pictures of me in Brattleboro, VT. Every year this house creates a tunnel of enormous sunflowers. We went up last weekend and took these shots. The house used to also have a hutch for chickens and bunnies, but alas, those adorable creatures are no longer kept there. I’m not quite so adorable as a bunny, but I like to think I have some charm. Yang staged the photos nicely, don’t you think? Is there anything he can’t do?

 

 

 

Finally, Natasha desires to send you the best of autumn holiday greetings!

 

Rosie wants to photo bomb Natasha’s greeting – and Natasha is NOT amused.

 


 



All Hail Dusty!

Dusty, the feline star of my novel Bait and Switch, is based on a cat with whom I grew up.Dustyk

Dusty came into my life as a kitten when I was seven years old, and despite my occasional lapses of trying to saddle her with tack from my toy horse, Thunderhead, we were actually great pals. Dustye Especially since I would sit through thunderstorms when she hid behind the couch and try to calm to her.  I’m afraid singing was involved, but unlike Rosalind, she didn’t think my singing suggested I was in pain.

 

Dusty gets credit for inspiring what may actually have been my first venture into literature:  writing her biography, illustrated with pictures from a Purina Cat Chow book on cats.  It was mercifully short.  However, I did learn that Dusty was a silver or grey tabby from my research.

 

Inspiring the wise aleck attitude of her literary incarnation in Bait and Switch, the real Dusty was quite the character. Dustya Not only a top-flight mouser (which will come into greater play in the third Jessica Minton novel), Dusty also taught the neighbor’s dog an important lesson in inter-yard relations.  As my mother related the story, Spot (there’s an original name) had a bad habit of chasing Dusty, until one day her nibs stopped short, turned around, and, as if to embody that she’d had it with being a victim, unleashed her very sharp claws right across her pursuer’s nose.  He never bothered her again –– even though she would occasionally sit on her side of the fence between our yards and do the cat version of “Nyah-yah!”

 

She also was undeniably the boss of us. Dustyi If my brother or I spent too much time late at night sitting, talking in a car with our friends outside the house, Dusty would circle the vehicle growling, until we got out.  Then she would march us to the back door and into the house, before she galloped off to handle the rest of her catlly night duties.  Humans are so hard to take care of!

 

Also like her name sake in Bait and Switch, Dusty was quite the gourmand.  She also delighted in Polish ham, liverwurst, or fresh turkey and chicken.  Dusty additionally had some more unusual tastes for a feline:  peach ice cream; potato chips;  Dustydand, as you see here, corn still on the cob.   Note that her place setting has four bowls:  water, milk, and two types of cat food!

And woe to you if you didn’t feed her fast enough. My sister-in-law Dusty2 Pam got a sound smack on the hand once for not moving that chicken with sufficient alacrity.

 

Dusty may have had a secret scandalous life.  She did give birth to three kittens (Tiger Butterball, Jr; Mitzi Gaynor; and Midnight –– I didn’t name them!). Dustyf We also suspected she might have had a drinking problem.

 

 

 

 

All in all, Dusty was a dear and sympathetic pal, Dustyjgoing for walks with me in the yard, nuzzling me when I was down, playing with me when I needed some exercise.  She lived all the way up to sixteen, one day waiting for my mother to come home before taking her leave and making a final journey to the great beyond.  I have many more stories about her to tell, so mayhap we can have some more Dusty blogs.  I would love it if anyone else who remembers Dusty would share.  I just hope my novels are a fitting tribute to a truly cool cat!

 

 

Dustyc

Summer Birds and Beasts One

Yang went to pick up the watering can for the plants the other evening, and this is who greeted him. Frog2My friend Sarah tells me that he/she is a grey tree frog! We always have plenty of toads in the yard. In fact one used to sit on a floating platform in the fish pond and sing away the afternoon. However, I didn’t even know we had these guys in our yard! Quite the cutie, isn’t she/he?Frog1

Here, you can see, from left to right, a Blue Jay, a Mourning Dove, Birds1and the edge of a shy (or hungry) Red-bellied Woodpecker’s wing. I always get them mixed up with the Common Flicker. I can tell the difference in how they look; I just can never remember which name goes with which bird. Ah, here he is peeking out at us!birds2

 

Here’s a Downy Woodpecker. It could be a Hairy Woodpecker. I know the latter is bigger, but I can’t exactly make the comparison here.DSCN2839 I also know the Hairy has a longer beak, but unfortunately the picture is not quite sharp enough. We get both types, as well as Flickers and Nuthatches. No Piliated Woodpeckers, though!

 

 

Next are a Cardinal and a Mourning Dove. Some of these images aren’t as clear as they could be because I had the screen down on the window and had to shoot through it.birds4

 

Darned old Mourning Dove with a Red-winged Blackbird. The Blackbird is hard to catch. He comes by all the time, but always seems to see me and fly off before I can get a good shot.birds7 I’ll have some more bird pictures later with him in it –– as well as other birds. I would also love to get a shot of our Catbird. She is forever landing nearby and popping around looking for food or getting a drink from the bird bath near the fish pond. All I have to do is hold still and she’s my buddy. I’m happy to say that on our bicycle rides, Yang and I have seen a plethora of Catbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Song Sparrows!

Oh, and by the way, Yang and I aren’t the only ones in the house who like to bird watch.birdcat

 

Plymouth, NH Trip – May

When we went to Plainfield for me to participate in the Sisters in Crime panel on creating mysteries, we stayed over night in Plymouth, NH at one of our favorite places, the Red Carpet Inn.  For years Yang and I, myself alone, or myself and a pal had stayed there for the Medieval and Renaissance PlymouthForum when it was at Plymouth State University.  It’s always been pleasant.  Look at the beautiful view we had from our window!

 

The next day, we drove over to the Red Hill Cemetery where Claude Rains is buried with his wife Rosemary. Plymouthmay3 He has a beautiful epitaph:   “All things once are things forever, Soul, once living, lives forever.”  His wife’s is a variation on lines from Christina Rosetti’s “When I Am Dead” Sonnet –  one of my favorite poems.  We always try to pay a visit.  Just a simple way of saying, “Thanks for the great celluloid memories.” DSCN2816 It’s a special treat to know that my favorite actor is resting near me.  It almost feels like we’re neighbors.  Don’t they have a beautiful view? That’s Red Hill in the background, which Yang and I try to climb in good weather –– we’re tired afterward, but it’s worth it.DSCN2813

 

 

 

 

 

When we stopped in Center Harbor, I found a neat independent book store, Bayswater Book Co.  (12 Main St.).  Of course, I scoped out the lovely little shop –– and ultimately managed to make arrangements to give a reading Dustyaand signing on Saturday, July 9th, from 1:00-3:00.  Drop by and meet me.  Bait and Switch‘s Dusty will be be on the lookout for you!

 

I always wonder if this pun carries exactly the right connotations to bring in customers.  It must work, ’cause it’s been there for like 20 years!Plymouthmay1

 

Once we got home, we were happy to see that, on occasion, sleepingcats2Rosalind and Natasha can rest peacefully together.  The Moe will lie down with the Curly.

River Hawks Bookstore Lowell – Reading on My Old Home Turf

 

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.Lowell4

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.  Lowell5Here, 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! Lowell1 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 R08chamber 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.  Lowell7What 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, Sharon&GeoffI 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.

So, if you’re a friend from the Merrimack Valley, old or new, who missed the reading but still would like to get Bait and Switch, they have copies awaiting you at the Dusty1River Hawks Bookstore, 220 Pawtucket Street, Lowell.  Dusty from Bait and Switch will be watching for you.

Spring Bicycle Ride

We recently did the North Central Pathway rail trail. It technically extends between Gardner and Winchendon, though there is a break of about a mile that has not been developed yet.  It’s a beautiful paved trail that runs through clear, lovely, green woods in a straight path.  At the Winchendon end, we cycled down toward a sports/recreation area,Winchendon1 but right off the trail is this cool abandoned factory and what appears to be a ware house. It’s all next to a set of falls and canal off the river. Since there weren’t any “No Tresspassing” warnings or locked gates, we  checked out the area, being careful not to take any risks of falling or hurting ourselves.

 

 

Here’s a picture of a smoke stack;Winchendon2 somehow the rest of the factory seems to have fallen away – although there was a building behind it that looked as if it might have been part of the original manufacturing site.  Look at how gorgeously azure-blue the sky was that day.  The sun was so bright, I had to wear my shades – prescription, of course, or I’d have been riding off the road.

In this other Winchendon3shot of the chimney, you can better see the tree growing up around it and what’s left of the building behind it.

 

 

 

There were man-made falls next to the buildings and a canal running along it for water power. The scene was beautiful.  Winchendon5I have no idea what they made here.  Since this town was the rocking horse capital, perhaps that’s what they produced?

 

 

We got back on the trail for our return ride, passing a pond that had some Barrows Golden Eye Ducks.  Would that they  had been close enough to photograph.  These are diving ducks.  So it was a hoot to watch the flock sit up on the water, flap their wings, then dive down and disappear beneath the surface for a stretch.  Then, up they’d all pop.  Now you see them, now you don’t, now you do!

We did get to photograph some cute critters, though – at least I think they are cute.  So, here’s the trigger warning:  PICTURES OF A SNAKE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

I almost ran over a little one of these guys when he was trying to cross the trail. I guess he wanted to get to the other side.  Playing chicken?  He was too small for me to see right away, but Yang assured me he was okay. Winchendon9 Then, I came across his big sister right here.  A beauty, eh?  I don’t know what kind this one is.  His/her color is coppery with darker markings, so it doesn’t look like a garter snake to me.  What do you think? Can anyone answer my query?

Here Mr. or Ms. Snake seems to be saying:  “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. Demile!”Winchedon8

So, for those freaked out by this lovely creature, here are some soothing images.  First, the ginormous (for us, anyway) Winchendon13pumpkins Yang and I grew last year.

Then, Yang, himself, always a calming influence. Wynchendon6

And, of course two of the most adorable black cats in the world, NatashaWinchendon14

Winchendon15and Rosalind.