Monday, 19 December 2022

Roots of Film Noir: Precursors from the Silent Era to the 1940s
by Kevin Grant
McFarland, November 2022, $39.95

There are so many books on the subject that it’s sometimes difficult to discern one from the other, so kudos to author Kevin Grant, for breaking new ground with Roots of Film Noir: Precursors from the Silent Era to the 1940s (McFarland, November 2022, 252 pages, $39.95). True, others have cited the influence of Hollywood gangster movies and German expressionism, but this entry, which follows the writer’s 2019 study, Vigilantes: Private Justice in Popular Cinema, goes beyond ruminations of the usual suspects with a detailed title-by-title lineup of more than 90 noir ancestors, complete with what Grant considers the bloodlines (so to speak).

Is the character of Barbara Stanwyck’s sexually bold Lily Powers, in 1933’s then-daring Baby Doll, a precursor to the man-eating Phyllis Dietrichson (also Stanwyck) of 1944’s noir classic Double Indemnity? Did Louise Brooks’s commanding performance in the 1929 silent, Pandora’s Box, anticipate the genre staple, the femme fatale? What about the characters, themes and settings of German Strassenfilme (aka “street film”)? Or the dark claustrophobia of French poetic realism? They certainly embrace noir tropes.

While US-made films—especially B-movies—constitute the bulk of Grant’s “proto-noir” selections, there are a dozen or more from the UK, plus a dozen from France, at least nine from Germany, and several from Japan, including Yasujiró Ozu’s 1933 gangster ode Dragnet Girl.

Grant also singles out persons of interest not typically associated with the genre, including directors Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. Lang’s M gets props for daring to elicit sympathy for its depiction (by Peter Lorre) of a child killer tormented by his urges—in the same way that the psychologically tortured men of noir commanded concern. As for Hitchcock, Grant explores the noir threads that run through titles dating to the silent 1926 Jack the Ripper tale The Lodger, as well as “modern” offerings such as the gothic Rebecca (1941).

Grant utilized a stack of respected genre works for this noir examination. Along with providing end-of-chapter source notes, and production-distribution tidbits, he includes information on where to view the movies (i.e. streaming services, DVD series). Plenty of artwork, including reproductions of the various films’ posters, adds to the package.

Thanks to this book, noir enthusiasts will find much to ponder—and plenty to add to their “must watch” lists. Me, I’m now on the trail of Night World (1932), Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935), and Nancy Steele is Missing! (1937).

Southern California native Pat H. Broeske is a longtime reviewer for Mystery Scene. As a mystery devotee, and a former film industry journalist, she often writes about the intersection of Hollywood & crime, including film noir.   

Review: "Roots of Film Noir: Precursors from the Silent Era to the 1940s"
Pat H. Broeske
Monday, 12 December 2022

Leslie Budewitz

During my senior year of high school in Billings, Montana, I gave a ride to a new girl, dropping her off at a motel on the edge of downtown where she lived with her grandmother and her little sister. I never saw her again.

Every few years in the decades since, I wondered who she was and why she was there. Our Catholic high school was small. Many of us had known each other since grade school. A “new kid” senior year was highly unusual.

And where had she gone? I knew I would never have an answer, unless I wrote one myself. Clearly, though, it was not one of my cozies, written under my real name Leslie Budewitz, but a suspense novel written as Alicia Beckman. The title that came as soon as I began to write aptly describes my process of discovering the story: Blind Faith.

(About six weeks into the first draft, it occurred to me that her grandmother may simply have lacked the $300 tuition and she’d transferred to public school. But I’m a crime writer, and that train had left the station.)

Psychologists describe creativity as a function of three main factors: plasticity, or mental flexibility; divergence, or associative thinking; and convergence, the ability to pull ideas together and make them tenable. All three are at play when writers connect one idea or image to another and another, and bend them into story.

Blind Faith by Alicia BeckmanAnd that’s what happened as I began to write about lawyer Lindsay Keller, who discovers a piece of evidence connected to the cold case murder of Father Michael Leary, one of her favorite high school teachers. She’s convinced it’s connected to Carrie West, the “new girl” who came to town senior year, and to an incident that occurred when Lindsay walked home with Carrie after school to meet her little sister and her grandmother, the priests’ new housekeeper. An incident shoved into the corners of her mind by another tragedy, so she barely noticed that Carrie never returned to school.

But what was that incident? I read a newspaper account of the murder of a priest in a small town in western Montana, not far from where I live. Days after the man disappeared, a pile of clothes stained with his blood was found at a highway turnout. A week later, his car was discovered miles away, along with his cash-stuffed wallet. His body has never been found. The case is still unsolved, nearly 40 years later, though the theory remains revenge for child molestation—a horror I wanted to stay a million miles away from. What other deadly secrets might a priest hold? Who would kill to keep him quiet?

And what did it have to do with two sisters and their widowed grandmother, and a lawyer who lets imperfect justice derail her passion for justice?

I hope you’ll read Blind Faith, and find out.

As Alicia Beckman, Leslie Budewitz writes moody suspense. She is also the author of two light-hearted mystery series: the Spice Shop Mysteries, set in Seattle, and the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in northwest Montana. Budewitz is a three-time Agatha Award winner and has been recognized for Spur, Derringer, Anthony, and Macavity awards. Leslie loves to cook, eat, hike, travel, garden, and paint—not necessarily in that order. She lives in northwest Montana with her husband, Don Beans, a singer-songwriter and doctor of natural medicine, and their gray tuxedo, officially named Squirt but affectionately called Mr. Kitten.

My Book: "Blind Faith"
Alicia Beckman (aka Leslie Budewitz)
Monday, 12 December 2022

Stephen Spotswood

The cover artist was Dave McKean. The book was The Sandman. And that’s how I discovered Neil Gaiman.

I hadn’t bought a comic book since I was 11. Amazing Spider-Man #316 with Venom standing over our bloody hero was a step too far for my parents. Too strange, too violent, too demonic.

I should have hid it better, but it was too late. In the trash they all went.

Cut to five years later. My high school drama class is doing secret Santa and the person whose name I drew wants an obscure graphic novel. Bookstores don’t carry it, so I’m directed to Captain Blue Hen Comics in Newark, Delaware. Wandering the store I notice a couple of boxes of comics on sale for ten cents a piece. Curious, I start flipping through.

Midway through the first box, I stop. It’s the cover that gets me. A shadow-box assemblage of lost objects and mysterious figures whose meaning I can’t hope to stitch together on my own.

It begs to be taken home and opened. So I do.

The cover artist was Dave McKean. The book was The Sandman. And that’s how I discovered Neil Gaiman. Idle curiosity and a handful of dimes.

These days millions know and adore Gaiman. From American Gods or Good Omens or Coraline. Thanks to Netflix, tens of millions were just introduced to The Sandman.

To me, at 16, it was a revelation. This story of a god learning to be a better person. It mixed the mythological with the base muck of everyday life; glorious schemes with petty emotions; grand overtures with dirty limericks. And the cast was full of queer, trans, and gender-fluid characters, which in 1994 was not something you saw on the regular.

My parents had given up on policing my reading material by then, but oh if they’d only known. Here was a comic with actual demons. With the Devil himself–brooding and beautiful, a four-color Renaissance sculpture questioning all the rules that had been imposed on him.

I could relate.

Neil Gaiman The SandmanI followed The Sandman to its bittersweet end a few years later, and then followed Gaiman into his career as a novelist and eventually carried him with me into my own career as a writer.

He taught me through example that it doesn’t matter how strange or larger-than-life a character is as long as at their heart they have things they desire, things they fear, things they would risk it all for. If they have dreams and nightmares.

Sometimes you end up loving those characters, or sometimes you end up hating them, but the important thing is you understand them. Maybe see yourself hiding beneath their skin.

And–with the very special ones—you take them home and invite them to hide beneath yours.

Stephen Spotswood (he/him) is an award-winning playwright, journalist, and educator. As a journalist, he has spent much of the last two decades writing about the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the struggles of wounded veterans. His dramatic work has been widely produced across the United States. He makes his home in Washington, D.C., with his wife, young adult author Jessica Spotswood.

Stephen Spotswood on Neil Gaiman
Stephen Spotswood