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
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!
I recently posted a blog on the Touchpoint Publishing Web Site discussing how real life settings inspire my writing as well as how ideas for my novel inspire me to seek out real life settings. Click here to read “Location! Location! Location!”
Many moons ago, back in grad school, my friend Andrea Rossi Reder told me about this wonderful museum of Medieval and Renaissance art, the Cloisters, that was constructed like a medieval cloistered monastery. It took me a few years to get there, but my husband and I visited one spring some time ago. It was a beautiful place, near Fort Tryon Park, overlooking the Hudson River. I not only enjoyed all the exquisite art and the ancient-styled construction, but loved wandering the herbal garden in the sun and warmth of spring. Last week, my husband proved is is indeed “goals” by taking me back there after another stretch of many years. This winter visit had charms of its own. I had forgotten just how much I enjoyed the museum.
After taking the A-train from the 125th St. station, we hopped the 100 Bus to St. Nicholas Street, then another subway, and we were right outside Fort Tryon Park. Crossing the park showed us the bleak beauty of winter, the red bar berry bushes, crimson hemlock berries, and the frosty-blue berries of another type evergreen. We even got to see a fluffy, black squirrel, rare in my neck of the woods. Then the Cloisters loomed through the trees against azure shading down to soft winter-blue skies .
These sculpture, likely not Medieval, greeted us as we made our way up the drive. We took turns guessing what the hell they were as we approached. I hit the jackpot with the conjecture of, “Pears?” For once, modern sculpture stuck in the middle of nature didn’t appear so terribly intrusive.
I like this shot of the arched entry way. Note the cobblestone drive way. We had to dodge a few not so Medieval buses dropping off passengers here. I’ll apologize in advance for not having pictures of Yang. We used his Ipad and I hate trying to take pictures with the darned thing.
After entering and moving through the great hall, we moved off to the side to the square surrounding the cloisters garden, now closed off from us by glass – allowing us to look out at the neatly mown ghost of the summer garden, while keeping the December cold outside. During the warmer months, this area is all open. When I visited Mont St. Michel and saw their cloister garden growing within the monastery, high atop the island mountain, I realized the inspiration for the Cloisters garden. Even with winter’s hand stilling the garden, the December sunshine filled the indoor court surrounding it with brightness and beauty. The carvings on the capitals of the columns were fascinating – humans, beasts (mythological and fanciful), gods – I could swear I saw C’thullu.
We went back into the building proper, then wandered from room to interconnected room, drinking in the sacred images culled from monasteries, churches, and castles – excited to find these treasures opened up to our experience, but, perhaps, a bit troubled that they had been stripped from their original homes. Still, here, they are restored, protected, and cherished. Towards the end of our meander, we came across this carved altar with the golden reliquaries of a saint and her attendants – I think St. Ursula.
Female and male martyrs of the early Church were honored in stained glass, wooden statuary, and paintings. There were tons of artwork of St. Margaret. However, in honor of my BFF Barbara, I have to include this statue of St. Barbara.
From the other side of the arch in the same chamber, here is one of my favorite statues of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus. She is clothed in the sun and stands on the crescent moon. Just to the left, you can see a carving of St. Christopher bearing the child Jesus. These statues are more colorful than some of the others. I don’t remember if their paint had been restored. Most likely the case.
Here are some more particularly striking carvings of Virgin and Child. What must the colors have been like when this piece was even relatively new? The thought takes my breath away. If you can look closely at the folds of Mary’s robes and the strands of her hair, you’ll be filled with amazement at the workmanship. Truly, this work is a loving prayer.