I first met sister-author Janet Raye Stevens when my friend Lisa Lieberman (another mystery author) asked me to join her and Janet to do a ZOOM program on the importance of clothing and fashion in the development of our mid-century mysteries. This was my initial chance to read Janet’s Beryl Blue time cop series and her stand alone, A Moment After Dark. I was hooked.
Janet and I both love the 1940s, especially the era’s sharp and challenging mysteries, which inspire our own writing. We are especially taken by the “smart-talking gals” populating 1930s-40s mysteries, neither femme fatale not babyish innocent: a woman who has been around, learned the ropes, but has not lost her integrity.
We loved the sharp wit and clever cracks of the likes of Joan Bennett, Claire Trevor (when they were playing on the side of the angels), Lynn Bari, Lauren Bacall, Ella Raines and many others. We especially loved how they were usually the ones who set the noir’s anti-heroes straight, pulled together and made sense of the disparate threads of clues, and weren’t above skirting conventions and the law to see fairness prevail. So, it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows us and our smart talking heroines Jessica Minton (me) and Beryl Blue and A Moment After Dark’s Addie Brandt (Janet) that we put together our heads and came up with a presentation: “She Can Do It! Real/‘Reel’ Women and Mid-Century Mysteries.”
We did our initial run at the Lynnfield Library, thanks to the go-ahead from Assistant Library Director Marita Klements. Our space was a loft area in the former schoolhouse, now library, where we set up a multi-media show. We started by introducing the fact that with the war, women now had opportunities to put their considerable talents to work in factories, in the air, in battlefield hospitals, etc.
However, you can’t talk about the influence of movie smart-talking gals without showing some clips, can you? For fun, we showed a clip from a 1938 Nancy Drew movies, where a teenage Nancy not only recognizes a kidnapping and tracks kidnappers in her car, only thwarted when her car has a flat – which she changes herself without missing a beat. Sisters were doing it for themselves in 1938, and we talked about how the wave of independence continued through the 1940s, in real and reel life.
Janet and I broke down the presentation into three sections, first showing a clip (talking about it a little), then showing its influence on our development of our heroines by each doing a related reading from her own text that reflected what went on in the scene. Murder suspect Lynn Bari’s snappy but cool exchange with detective George Raft in Nocturne illustrated a woman with substance, unintimidated by authority. Dark Passage’s Lauren Bacall revealed a gal resourcefully rescuing Humphrey Bogart from persecution by unjust law. Finally, Anne Shirley, in Murder, My Sweet, showed our gal calling out both men and women who misjudge or threaten her. After reading related, short excerpts from our books, Janet and I explained how these smart-talking gals influenced our heroines
We had a lot of fun, watching our audience get into our writings as we read. (It’s always great when people laugh in the right places!) It was just as neat to see them enjoy the smart-talking gals tell it like it is, be unflummoxed by adversity – on the screen or on our pages. We also got thoughtful questions about our research, background on the films and the actresses, and the influence of these films on women’s changed roles during and after the war.
So, if you think this evening sounded like fun, get in touch with Janet (firstname.lastname@example.org) or me (email@example.com) and maybe we can make an appearance at a library, senior center, or other venue near you.
(P.S. Yang made my suit based on an actual 1940s suit that I own!)