Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sounding Off on Influential Films

This week's topic for discussion is Films
That Influenced You--because although we can all
probably name a dozen books that shaped our writing--not to
mention our notions of how the world worked (and our place in it)
--sometimes we forget the impact of film.

So who better to kick off the discussion than guest
Girl Detective Libby Fischer Hellman. Libby, in case you
didn't know this, is the award-winning author of the Ellie
Foreman series about a film-maker sleuth.


Vintage Films: The Sound of Music

First off, as a stable-mate of the Girl Detective (we share
the same agent), I’m honored to contribute to a discussion of
vintage films. Thanks for having me!

I was 16 when “The Sound of Music” came out. It isn’t a classic –
in fact, my top 5 are The Godfather, Chinatown, The Battle of Algiers,
Citizen Kane, and Casablanca. The acting wasn’t great. The story was
somewhat contrived. It was basically just a sentimental musical with
pretty pictures and Julie Andrews’ wonderful voice. Still,
The Sound of Music changed my life.

I cried when the Captain Von Trapp finally declared his love
for Maria. I marveled at their daring escape from the Nazis. I
sang along with “My Favorite Things” and, of course, “Sixteen
Going on Seventeen.” But what touched me in a visceral way and
made me go back to see it three times -- those being the days
before VCRs and DVDs – were the sweeping panoramic shots of
the Austrian hills.

I remember one particular shot at the beginning – it must
have been an aerial, although I didn’t know what that was
back then – of Julie Andrews. The camera started on an
extreme wide angle – she wasn’t much more than a dot on
the screen. Then the camera panned and moved in on her
as she was twirling around singing the title song. They
must have cut to a stationary shot of her after that, but
I still remember the camera move. It wasn’t slow, in fact
it must have been rather fast, because it wasn’t at all
shaky. Even so, for me those few seconds became one of
those fundamental Proustian “Petite Madeleine” moments
in my life.

I still can’t tell you precisely what it was about the shot:
the greenness of the hills, the natural contours of the hills
and valley, the achingly blue sky, or the snow-capped mountains
in the distance (Were they the Austrian Alps?) But for the first
time in my adolescent life, I wanted to know that world.
Not just observe it on film. I wanted to sink myself into
it, to revel in the beauty, to understand the people and
the culture that sprang from it.

It was that simple. From that moment on, my only goal
was to go to Europe. To Austria. To see and feel that
scene for myself. I remember coming home from the movie
theater and writing the Experiment in International Living.
Two years later, I achieved my goal. I went to Europe for
two months. Not to Austria -- I didn’t speak a word of German
– but to France. And four years after that, I ended up at
NYU’s graduate school of film. I’ve produced films and
videos ever since, and my mystery series features Ellie
Foreman, a documentary and industrial video producer.

Was The Sound of Music responsible? Who knows?
Maybe it was simply an adolescent girl becoming
aware -- for the first time -- that a world beyond
high school, boyfriends, and the Beatles existed.
Maybe it was some kind of ancestral mitochondrial
DNA calling me -- my ancestors did come from that
part of the world. But maybe it was a subconscious
realization that film can kindle a need to explore
places, people, and stories that broaden and enrich
our world.

Now… can I tell you about the movie “Z?”

Libby Fischer Hellmann
A Shot to Die For, Readers Choice Award
for Best Traditional Novel
An Image of Death
A Picture of Guilt, Finalist Ben Franklin Award
An Eye for Murder, Anthony nominee

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Mummy Mia, Mummy Mia, Mummy Mia let me go....

It has been a mighty interesting couple of weeks. Today I received the hot-off-the-press copy of SONNET OF THE SPHINX. Ohmigod it's in print!!!

Really, I'm too old a hand to be excited by this...BUT I AM!!!


Composure regained.

Meanwhile the much-anticipated review from Publisher's Weekly was quite a disappointment. It wasn't a bad review, just...confused. To start with, they listed SOS as following HIGH RHYMES AND MISDEMEANORS. Jeez. Not the sort of mistake one expects from PW. Then they actually made a plot error. Gosh, did this guy even read the book?

But the very next day I learned that RT -- Romantic Times, that is--chose it as one of their TOP PICKS. 4 and 1/2 star review--color picture. Woohoooo!

Meanwhile, the Curse of the Mummy Contest continues. Contest #4 by all accounts was the very easiest so far. Mr. Thrilling is still promising to do a set of questions for me, but I've got him so busy doing bookmarks and ads that he really doesn't have much spare time.

Anyway, these are the questions and answers (in all caps) to Contest #4. Good luck to those of you scratching your heads over contest #5.

#1Which pairing below is NOT a husband and wife sleuthing team?
a- Jeff and Haila Troy
b- Nick and Nora Charles
d-Pat and Jean Abbott

#2 Vintage crime writer Leslie Ford is best known for the Grace Latham and Colonel Primrose mystery series. But she also wrote an earlier series—this one set in Britain—under which pen name?
a-David Lohr
b-David Lawrence
c-Lindsay Davis

#3 Name San Francisco Police Commissioner Mac and his wife Sally MacMillan’s idiosyncratic housekeeper:

#4 Which of the following novels is by Cornell Woolrich?
b-The Black Rustle
c-The Black Shrouds
d-The Black Honeymoon

#5 Who won the 2004 Edgar for Best Short Story?
a-Laurie Lynn Drummond
c-Barbara Serenella
d-Katherine Hall Page

#6 Nancy Drew’s dog was named:
d-Scooby Doo

#7 Who of the following was NOT one of Agatha Christie’s sleuthing duos:
a-Tommy and Tuppence
b-Poirot and Hastings
c-Mr. Satterthwaite and Mr. Quin

#8 Raymond Chandler’s final novel Poodle Springs was completed by crime writer:
a-Ross Macdonald
b-Robert B. Parker
c-Stephen King
d-John D. MacDonald

#9 At the end of the The Maltese Falcon, the falcon is:
a-returned to its rightful owner
b-broken in a scuffle
c-traded for valuable letters of transport

#10 Which coveted mystery award is a teapot?
a-The Edgar
b-The Leftie
d- The Thrillie

Saturday, March 11, 2006


This week we have something very special for you—absolutely nothing about me or my dadblamed contest!!! Instead we’ve got an interview with veteran crime writer Sandra Scoppettone. Scoppettone has been writing since the 70s. She’s written nineteen novels—five YA (young adult) and the rest crime stories for adults—including the critically acclaimed Lauren Laurano series.

More recently Scoppettone authored the Faye Quick series—and that is just up our mean streets here at Girl Detective, because Faye is a 1940s P.I. Actually she’s a 1940s secretary who gets roped into playing P.I. when her boss goes off to war. The first book in the series is This Dame For Hire, which I highly recommend. The second in the series, Too Darn Hot is due out this June.

DL: Were you a fan of girl detective novels growing up?

SS: Never read a one.

(All the Girl Detectives in the audience promptly faint—I mean, if Girl Detectives fainted—which they don’t.)

DL: How did you come up with the idea for doing a series about a woman P.I. during WWII?

SS: I honestly can’t remember how it came to me. The only thing I can recall is telling my writer friend, Marijane Meaker (Vin Packer), that I had an idea for a woman in the 1940s who takes over a detective agency when her boss goes to war. I can still see that moment because she was so enthusiastic about it.

I love the Forties and I’d never written about them. I’d written about most of the decades in the 20th century, but not that one. I don’t know why as the music and movies of the period were and are very important to me. I was a little girl during that time and I don’t remember a lot about the early 40s except movies and music. My parents took me to the movies every Friday night. And the music played on the radio. We didn’t get a television until I was twelve. Although at the time I sulked about that I’m very grateful for it now. I think listening to radio strengthened my imagination. I didn’t know that at the time but The Shadow Knew!

DL: What kind of research is involved for the series?

SS: I read some books about the period, especially the war years. And Marijane loaned me a lot of material. She had a bunch of Commemorative Yearbooks published by Champlain Publishing Inc. They were called Time Passages and had a page for every month and squares for every day that listed books, music, sporting events, everything that happened on those days in that month in that year. There are also pictures. The most important book I used was the Random House Thesaurus of Slang. This is a completely different type of thesaurus. You don’t have to know the slang word first. It’s the other way around. I would look up girl and be given a myriad of slang.

DL: Is Faye Quick based on anyone -- your grandmother perhaps? Do the women of your family have any particular stories during that era that you were able to draw on for the series?

SS: Faye isn’t based on anyone. I think she’s more a composite of 40s movie stars. Part Stanwyck, part Ann Southern, part Joan Blondell and all the others. There are no surviving women in my family from that era. You couldn’t know this, but the thought of Faye being based on either of my grandmothers is very funny. Of course there’s always a little bit of me in any character I create…especially if I’m writing in first person. I don’t remember any stories, but I do remember my mother crying when the bells sounded that the war was over.

DL: How relevant is the story about a vintage P.I. for contemporary readers?

SS: People are people. I get fan mail from men and women in their twenties, thirties, forties, and I got one from an eighty-two year old man. I think it’s very relevant right now as we’re in a war. But we didn’t need a war to make it relevant to readers. I hope my characters are universal.

DL: I found them real and refreshingly true to their time. Are you familiar with the writings of women writers of the 30s and 40s? Any favorites?

SS: I guess you mean crime writers. The best one of all in the Forties -- or any other time for that matter -- was Dorothy B. Hughes. Three of her novels were made into movies. Probably the best known was In A Lonely Place with Bogart and Gloria Grahame. I would have to say she’s my favorite. I never much cared for Christie. I don’t deny that she was the master of plot, but that isn’t all I look for in a crime or mystery novel. Josephine Bell was English and was very prolific. Helen MacInnes was Scottish. We had Craig Rice and Vera Caspary, but I’m sure I’m forgetting many, although I have a feeling there weren’t lots of American women crime writers during the 30s and 40s. I can hear the tapping of keys now telling me how wrong I am.

(Yes, but we'll let that go.) ;-D

DL: How much of a challenge was it finding a publisher for this series?

SS: No challenge at all. Ballantine was the first to see it and bought it on the basis of 100 pages. This doesn’t happen to me everyday.

DL: What are the unique challenges (or pleasures) of writing a historical series?

SS: My friend Annette Meyers, who has written an historical series with her husband Marty Meyers, is always kidding me because from the time we met I said I didn’t like historical mysteries and she considers the Quick novels historical. I don’t. I guess I don’t think of anything in the 20th century as historical. For me, historical begins with the 1st Century through the 19th. I know I’m wrong but that’s how I see it.

Okay. The pleasure to me in writing in the 40s was not having to worry about DNA or other forensic techniques. And I didn’t have to write sex scenes. Yes, I know people had sex then. But to show Faye or any other character having sex wouldn’t be right in the context of these books. If Faye ever gets around to it there’ll be a fade out or a cut to a roaring fire.

(The Girl Detectives are chuckling at this, being rather fond of fades and fires ourselves.)

DL: Tell us a little about the new book, TOO DARN HOT.

SS: This one takes place in the summer of 1943. All I’m going to say is nobody is who they seem to be. And I deal with anti-Semitism.

DL: Okay, well then we'll just have to buy the book--which I, for one, planned on doing anyway. So what's ahead for Faye Quick--and Sandra Scoppettone?

SS: I don’t know about Faye. Ballantine hasn’t offered me a contract for another Quick novel at this point. So it might end up being a series of two. As for me, I’m writing a stand alone crime novel. It’s contemporary and I’ve never written anything like it. But I’ve always wanted to. It’s a slippery devil and I’m learning as I go along. Some days I feel very confident and then there are those other days we all know about. This one has multiple points of view and is written in the third person. I don’t intend to give a hundred pages to my agent this time. I want to write the whole thing. Just to make sure I can actually do it.


Thanks to Sandra, and our sincere hopes that Ballantine is smart enough to give this series time to find its audience!

For more information on Sandra Scoppettone, check out her website or her blog.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


I actually hate doing this contest. It is so damn hard to be fair. Everytime I see a name I know crop up -- which is an awful lot of entries -- I want to rig the drawing. And then when I see names that have entered each time...I want to rig the drawing.

I really have a hard time disappointing people.

Anyway, while I work on my lack of competitive spirit, here are the questions and answers from CONTEST #3

1)The term "gewgaws" as used in Diana Killian's HIGH
a – a hard English candy similar to Jawbreakers
c – a colloquial expression of amazement
d – an ignorant country person (i.e., anyone not from

2)Millionaire Bruce Wayne's butler is named:
d-Mr. French

3)The creator of gentleman thief A.J. Raffles was
brother-in-law to which famous Victorian writer?
a-Rudyard Kipling
c-Maurice Le Blanc
d-J.M Barrie

Elementary, my dear Watsons!

4)Golden Age mystery writer John Dickson Carr also
wrote under the name of:
b-Nick Carter
c-G.K. Chesterton
e-Caleb Carr

5)"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" is
the opening line to which Gothic novel:
a- Jane Eyre
b- Glenarvon
d- Carmilla

6)What ethnic background did Dashiell Hammett give
suave detective Nick Charles:

7) Which well-known mystery writer also penned
successful Broadway comedies?
b-Mignon Good Eberhart
c-Lenore Glen Offord
d-Dorothy Cameron Disney

The show must go on!!!

8) In Diana Killian's VERSE OF THE VAMPYRE, a play is
being produced based on an earlier play by:
a-Lord Byron
b-Mary Shelley
c-Percy Shelley

9) Who among the following does NOT write a mystery
series featuring a gay private eye:
a-Richard Stevenson
b-Greg Herren
d-Dorien Grey

10) The wealthy intellectual wife of this is pulp
fiction writer committed suicide:
a-Paul Cain
c-Erle Stanley Gardner
d-Frederick Nebel

BUT WAS IT REALLY SUICIDE??? I keep warning Mr. Thrilling that this is a cautionary tale for those who marry crime writers.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Caper Film Caper

I’ve been a fan of caper flicks ever since my first Felix the Cat cartoon.

A good caper film has lots of action and suspense, humor (especially snappy dialog), a few surprises—and a little pinch of romance. The caper never really goes out of style, but at the same time it’s never a box office staple like…romantic comedy or action films--except maybe in the 1960s when they seemed to have made the majority of the classics.

A bad caper film is predictable and heavy-handed. Many a potentially good caper film has been ruined by stupid and unimaginative decisions—like…The Mummy Returns. (Don’t get me started on that one--WHY would they saddle the protags with a KID that early in the franchise?!) I think this usually happens because half the time Hollywood decision makers have no clue of why something succeeds or doesn’t.

I sound bitter, don't I? I took that Mummy misstep very badly--you all know how I feel about mummies.

When I write I write scenes from the movie playing in my head, and most of the time the movie is a caper film, so I guess it is natural that I would be so partial to the genre.

So I thought I would share a couple of my favorite caper films—and hopefully you’ll share some of yours.

One of my very favorite caper flicks is HOW TO STEAL A MILLION with Audrey Hepburn. Actually, this is probably a chick lit caper film—it’s the Audrey Factor. Those clothes! They’re worth the admission price alone—speaking of which, did you know Audrey Hepburn had size 10 feet? I find that very reassuring.

If you haven’t seen HOW TO STEAL A MILLION it’s about the daughter of a Parisian art collector and forger who has to steal back one of his statues from a Paris museum before the fake is discovered. She enlists an amateur thief who, unbeknownst to her, is actually a cop. The thief/cop is played by Peter O’Toole who I find sort of annoying. In fact, I find him a lot annoying, but the movie is still fun—though yes, occasionally verging on adorable. (Some people like adorable, though.)

The scenery, both of 1960s Paris and Audrey (okay and cartoon-cute O’Toole), is splendid.

I should probably mention TOPKAPI because it is one of the most famous of the 60s caper films—and I refer to it off and on during the Poetic Death series. But the truth is, I’m not that crazy about the movie. It’s well done, I give you that, but that Melina Mercouri is SO ANNOYING. Gosh!

That laugh!

So let’s not think about TOPKAPI. Check it out at Amazon or on the net. It’s a classic. If you enjoy the genre it is a must see. Once. With earplugs on.

A film that I do like, and that I think is really much more of a caper than a spy film, is ARABESQUE. Starring the always amiable Gregory Peck (who we DO like--but then everyone likes Greg Peck) and the exotically beautiful Sophia Loren at the peak of her EB, this 1966 film is about…it’s about…um…. Okay, so Peck is a professor of ancient languages in London. He’s hired to decode some ancient hieroglyphics that somehow reveal a plot to murder the Prime Minister of one of those teeny tiny extremely important middle eastern countries. It’s one of those International Intrigue things but with scads and scads of style.

I think style is also an element of the best caper films, but maybe that's just me.

As I said, it does seem like a lot of the best caper films were crafted in the 60s--and that ties in with the whole style thing, because say what you will about the 1960s, it was about as stylish a decade as you'll find.

Hmmm. CHARADE is not exactly a caper film, but it has a caper feel. It's another 60s gem, it a caper? They are searching for something....

Oh, there’s a terrific Michael Caine caper film—not THE ITALIAN JOB, though that’s quite good (oh, how we love Michael Caine). This one has Shirley Maclaine… GAMBIT--1966.

Caine plays Harry Dean, a career cat burglar who has targeted a priceless statue of an Asian princess belonging to a rich and ruthless widower. He enlists the help of Eurasian waitress Suzy Chang/Shirley Maclaine, who just happens to be the dead ringer of both the billionaire's late wife and, coincidentally, the princess of the statue.

This one is probably the smartest film of the bunch—and definitely worth checking out.

So what are some of your favorite caper films? Any good ones made in the last decade or so?