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
“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.
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