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, Christmas noir? The opening of a lively chorus caroling and holiday cheering over Christmas cards displaying the credits evokes holiday spirit, except there’s always just the slightest manic edge to their liveliness creating a noir frisson. Then the chorus ends in a startled drop as the last card slips away to reveal a gun. Click here for a Silver/Ursini commentary on the opening.
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.
And here’s one last look at that luscious array of comestibles that Debra Horan serves up with nifty book chasers in cozy surroundings. The Book Lover’s Gourmet is a great reason to pass up Amazon so you can enjoy the warmth of a beautifully decorated store with real people. And Bait and Switch is definitely on sale there, so hurry down, buy a copy, and sit down with something tasty and refreshing in a sunlit room to read! Save a spot in the sun for Dusty!
So, to keep you entertained while you breathlessly await the forthcoming blogs on my appearance at The Book Lover’s Gourmet and my adventures at the Shakespeare of America Convention in New Orleans, here’s a link to an audio interview with me by Pat Driscoll for The New Worcester Spy. It contains more details on my interests in film noir and horror, on film and on the page, and even a little more on my background. Just click here. It’s what Dusty would want!
Well, after all my announcements and commotion, here, at last, is the report on my reading and signing at Annie’s Bookstop in Worcester. I HAD A BALL! What a wonderful experience. So, I will commemorate it in words and pictures for you.
Ah, a long shot of Annie’s as viewed by the author and her entourage – aka her husband. Hey, he’s one guy but he’s worth a battalion. We all know that about Yang!
Wait, here’s the heart-stopping moment where I see myself and my work celebrated in an honest-to-goodness advertisement! I’m a star! For the day. Sort of. That’s good enough for me!
One of my loyal fans, Barbara Werblin greets me with gifts celebrating my great victory in actually getting the darned thing published! We’re buddies from the “Y,” so she’s seen me in my sweats and really knows me! Barb’s a great friend who has given me tons of encouragement – and she loves the book, too! As the Mom of a wonderful poet, she understands the writer’s burden. Sigh!
You can see my pal and colleague MaryLynn just behind me in the shot above. In these two pictures, you can see my friend and former student, Erin Bassler, having a good time while she reports on the event for The New Worcester Spy. (Read the article here!) Ultimately, we had about 12 or 13 people attend, all told. I had loads of support from my friends: students, colleagues, folks I know who enjoyed Bait and Switch and like seeing me be a wise guy. So take a gander at some of the shots from the reading, question answering, and signing. Also, note how I got myself all gussied up in my smart-talking, forties gal, film noir look: white blouse, black skirt, black and white spectator pumps, technicolor red lipstick. Agent Carter, eat out your heart!
Someone said something shocking! How about those gorgeous flowers that Barbara got me for the occasion? And chocolate. She got me chocolate, too. A brilliant woman!
Here are some nice shots of other folks coming up with questions, pondering the noir-style mysteries engendered by James Crawford leaving Jessica Minton that mysterious package in Bait and Switch.
Erin Fragola follows along intently while I ham up my reading in the background.
Everyone gets intense with Pam McKay concentrating to express her thoughts on one of the many exciting and intriguing questions people posed to me on the characters, plot, historical background, cinematic style of the novel, and the true identity of Dusty. Both Erin Bassler and I look perplexed. Must have been a humdinger of a query! Something to do with Nazis?
While I’m signing books for my loyal fans, Pam and her friend Gaylene are perusing Bait and Switch to throw more thought-provoking questions my way.
Ah, the end of an exhilarating day! Here the author poses with her masterpiece. I could use a nice cuppa about now.Bait and Switch is the first in the series of Jessica Minton’s adventures in the 1940s. I’m not telling who else will be along for the ride in subsequent novels. You’ll have to buy the books to find out!
I’m lucky to have so many friends to support me and to enjoy what I write. My only regret is that I didn’t get to include pictures of two people who made this wonderful day possible, but I do extend my heartfelt thanks. Patty at Annie’s and my husband, who always believes in me – and is lots of fun to be with – yes, I know I dangled a preposition. So there!
The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA is celebrating the 125th birthday of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Providence’s own native son, with a week-long film festival. They kicked things off last night with two wonderful independent productions by HPLHS (the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society), adaptations of “The Whisperer in the Darkness” and “The Call of C’Thullu.” Both are done in vintage form, the first as a 1930s Universal horror film––complete with zeppelin rather than bi-plane circling the globe for the opening card/production logo, though the zeppelin moves with far more stateliness across the screen than that buzzing aeroplane (as our boy Lovecraft would spell it). The adaptation of Whisperer was superb, with the 1930s chiaroscuro black and white cinematography creating as much eerie, unsettling mystery as the films of the earlier era, also drawing on their use of canted camera angles and under lighting to evoke a strange blend of nightmare and melancholy that was highly effective for putting the strangeness of Lovecraft on the screen. The shots of Mt. Holyoke College for Miskatonic University were delightfully Gothic. Just one thing, why do college professors in films always have offices three times what I have––or what any one I know has?The adaptation of to film was faithful to Lovecraft’s actual writing, adding on only what rounded out his tale in the proper vein of horror. I was a little confused at the ending, but I can’t say too much without giving anything away. I do not want to spoil this film for Lovecraft, old movie, or horror devotes. Also worth noting is that the concessions to modern film making only improved on the old style, with the acting untroubled by the early thirties, “I’ve just come from Broadway and I am ACTING!” that undermines so many performances until the mid and late 1930s. The use of stop motion animation and CGI together creates delightfully creepy creatures! It is such a wonderful film. Find it and watch it –– the perfect treat for Halloween. It’s available in dvd and Blu Ray at the HPLHS web site, C’thullu Lives!
And your second feature should be none other than the same one we saw, The Call of C’thullu. Done as a silent film, this movie, uses the lighting and shadows, camera angles, sets, music, and such of silent era masterpieces like Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligeri, The Cat and the Canary, and Vampyr (actually partially sound) to convey the suspense, eeriness, and ambiguity of the era. Again, the acting is sound, like that of the good silent films––not over the top as people tend to stereotype all silent features. The visit to C’thullu’s island of R’lyeh was a tense and delightfully disquieting descent into horror. I vociferously applaud the HPLHS’s film making efforts and hope they keep at it. If you visit their site, you’ll also find great updates on all things (so to speak) Lovecraft, as well as Miskatonic paraphernalia and even sea shanties from Innsmouth on dvd. I’m inspired to go back and revise my own Lovecraft/film noir pastiche now!
Image of Lovecraft from Google Public Domain Images
One of my friends was asking me about my inspiration for Jessica Minton and Elizabeth Hennessey in my novel Bait and Switch, and I explained that I love creating characters in the vein of those smart-talking gals from films of the 1940s (sometimes ‘50s and 30s, too)––especially film noir. Lots of ink has been devoted to the femme fatale/innocent girl split-personae of women in noir, but not enough has been devoted to the women whom writers and actresses created who could not be easily relegated to either the “whore” or the “Madonna” category. Sheri Chinen Biesen moves us in that direction, though, with her article “Manufacturing Heroines: Gothic Victims and Working Women in Classic Noir Fiction,” where she discusses “multi-faceted, working career women” as part of the film noir cast of characters. I can see definite overlapping between her working girls and my smart-talking gals. What I’d like to do is focus on several actresses who made careers out of playing the smart talking gal––and you can feel free to suggest and write about such actresses, yourself, in this page’s comments.
First, though, what is a smart-talking gal? She’s too sharp witted, independent, and experienced to be the virginal, innocent. Still, she has too much wit and class to be anyone’s moll. Further, she’s definitely not a femme fatale. She doesn’t so much use wiles as wit; and her strength, smarts, and experience serve to get at the truth, solve conflicts, and protect herself and those she just might let herself care about––if they prove they’re worth it. She has a heart, but hard knocks have taught her to armor it. She may be sexually experienced, she may not be; she’s definitely not an innocent. This type redefines what it means to be a “good girl.” Some actresses who best personify the smart-talking gal include Joan Bennett, Claire Trevor, Ella Raines, Ida Lupino, Veronica Lake, Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, Rosalind Russell, and Lizabeth Scott. How about we look at a few of them at a time?
Joan Bennett: Joan has to be my favorite, and in many ways, she inspired the wit and independence of Jessica Minton in Bait and Switch. Now, Joan could play the evil femme fatale with the best of them. Think of Kitty March in Scarlet Street. Still, even some of her “hydrochloric dames” (as a NY Times critic put it) revealed genuine humanity behind caustic smart talk and ostensible manipulativeness. In The Woman in the Window, The Macomber Affair, and The Woman on the Beach, her characters act in defense against the bullying of men, and their seeming femme fatale status is a projection of a man’s fears and darker nature. However, in other films she’s a lot more fun––or at least clearly not the villainess. This is definitely more like Bait and Switch’s Jessica. In House Across the Bay, Joan’s a show girl not about to let anyone reduce her to a kept woman “dressed up in furs” who “takes a Pekinese for a walk around the block.” She’s also no pushover for a tough broad, either. When a jealous dame calls her, “Cheap, cheap, cheap,” she laughs back, “Where’s the bird seed?” And when that same dame pushes her luck further, Joan’s Brenda Bentley nails her with the rejoinder that she has a voice like “four panes of cracked glass.” The Man I Married finds Joan getting away with kicking Nazis in the shins and telling a German-born husband who has let German imperialism go to his head, “Heil, Heel!” In Confirm or Deny, she forestalls Don Ameche’s passes with dry humor and upholds national security with determination as the London blitz rages on. While in The Secret Beyond the Door, when faced with almost the same problems as the second Mrs. deWinter, rather than turning to whimpering mush, she uses common sense, humor, honesty, self-confidence, and a healthy dose of Jungian analysis to set everyone, including herself, straight. The Scar shows Bennett at her most incisive and tart, deflating Paul Henreid’s attempt to charmingly snow her with, “First comes you, second comes you, third comes you . . . . and then comes you.” When he later calls her “a bitter little lady,” she shoots back a cool, “It’s a bitter little world.” And yet Joan’s Evelyn Hahn has the heart to trust him when he finally does try to be on the square with her, only to have that heart smashed when fate, not his duplicity, makes it seem he has deserted her. In my film noir class, all the students, upon seeing her shadowed expression of resignation at the end of the movie, call for a rewrite.
Claire Trevor: Here’s another actress who can also hand you a dangerous femme fatale, but with NO redeeming traits. Her sexy villainesses in Johnny Angel; Murder, My Sweet; and Born to Kill all epitomize the characterization made by Anne Shirley’s character in Murder, My Sweet as “‘big league blondes.’ Beautiful, expensive babes who know what they’ve got . . . all bubble bath, and dewy morning, and moonlight. And inside: blue steel, cold––cold like that . . . only not that clean.” Nevertheless, Claire could deftly play the smart-talking gal with wit and warmth, as evidenced by her art critic in Crack-Up, Brian Donlevy’s seen-it-all secretary in The Lucky Stiff, the girlfriend who helps Dennis O’Keefe escape prison in Raw Deal (and gets one, herself when he dumps her for Marsha Hunt), and her government agent in Borderline. She’s particularly fun to watch in Crack-Up and Borderline. In the first, she helps a former “Monuments Man,” played by Pat O’Brien, evade the police when he’s framed for art theft and murder, while juggling Herbert Marshall’s British Intelligence agent and the police. Driving up and rescuing O’Brian’s fugitive art expert from being picked up by the police, she responds to his suspicion and lack of gratitude by pulling the car over and remarking with a neat blend of sharpness and warmth: “You can wait here. They’re going to put in a streetcar soon. Unless . . . unless you have some dim idea of what you’re doing and want me to help you.” Borderline finds Trevor as an undercover police woman trying to crack a narcotics ring by pretending to be part of a couple whom a drug trafficker will use to smuggle drugs. What she doesn’t realize is that her “husband” is also an undercover agent with a different agency, who is just as ignorant about her. The two have some wonderful exchanges, and their attempting to get each other to “cooperate” and go straight with each other’s agencies at the border is worth a chuckle or two.
Ella Raines: Ella Raines of the pert page-boy bob; the mischievous, knowing half-smile; and the clear green eyes that hint of something devilish up her sleeve is always a joy to watch. In The Phantom Lady, she’s Kansas, the faithful secretary who’ll move heaven and earth to clear the boss she unrequitedly loves of a murder frame-up. She’s tough enough to stalk a bartender to break his lying testimony (only to overplay her hand when she frightens him into running in front of bus rather than into telling the truth). She’s intrepid enough to doll herself up like a tart to try and pump a hyped up (or is it hopped up?) drummer for exculpatory info. Yet she’s compassionate enough to tread gently when she finally finds the fragile woman who holds her boss’s (and beloved’s) alibi in her broken mind. The Runaround finds Raines outsmarting two P.I.s hunting her down to bring her back to a father who doesn’t want his daughter marrying the man he believes a bounder, all with a knowing twinkle in her eyes. In The Web, she plays Noel Faraday, efficient and almost all-knowing secretary to shady Vincent Price––she doesn’t realize quite how shady Vincent is. All this while, initially parrying the come-ons of a brash lawyer played by Edmond O’Brien, replying to his claim that when he has “forty million” he’ll have a secretary that looks like her with: “Oh, my tastes are fairly simple. Twenty million would be quite enough.” Also check her out The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, Impact, and White Tie and Tails. A neat web site on Raines can be found at: http://ellarainesfilms.blogspot.com/2013/01/ella-raines-in-web.html
Quotations from Claire Trevor’s movies can be found at “Claire Trevor,” on the IMDB, under quotations for the film. Quotation from Ella Raines’s film can be found at “Ella Raines,” on the IMDB, under quotations for the film. Quotations from the Joan Bennett films can be found in the films noted. I remember them. What can I say; I’m a movie geek––but I don’t live in my parents’ basement. So there! Photos of Joan Bennett from the author’s collection (mostly bought from Jay Perino’s The Mint); photos of Claire Trevor from unknown sources; and photos of Ella Raines from the ellarainesfilms.blogspot (second image) and unknown sources.