Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Wake of Charlottesville

image courtesy of pixabay, pexels

            Let’s get one thing out of the way right from the get-go: I do not write political posts. I do not post anything political on any social media platform. And in a way, what I’m about to write really isn’t political; rather, it’s a statement of my beliefs about humans, having nothing to do with either or any political party.

            The recent events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, following a despicable display of hatred, bigotry, and ignorance were, simply put, abominable. I grieve for the family of the woman who lost her life and for the people, like me, who felt a deep sadness and icy dread when they saw the images of the people carrying torches through the darkened campus of the University of Virginia and the streets of Charlottesville.

            The entire incident ignited in me a desire—no, a need—to spend some time in the shoes of people who may not look like me, who may not think like me, who may experience life in ways that are different from the ways in which I experience life. And I’m not talking here about racial differences alone. I’m talking about any differences, whether they be racial, religious, social, economic, educational, or generational.

image courtesy of pixabay, maxlkt

I don’t pretend that I’m suddenly going to understand what it’s like to be anything other than a white woman of early middle-age with a college education living in New Jersey, but I mean to try. And I’m a writer, so what better way to spend time in other people’s shoes than in books?

With that in mind, I’ve done some research into books that deal head-on with issues of separation: things and ideas that separate individuals, that separate people who practice different religions, that separate individuals from society. And I want to share a short list of books that I think might be a good place to start in bridging the gaps that exist in our communities. Some of the books I’ve already read, but I intend to read them again with a renewed intensity and a renewed urgency.   

We have to stop the hatred.

1.      And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts
2.      Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
3.      Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns
4.      Generation M by Shelina Janmohamed
5.      God is Not One by Stephan R. Prothero
6.      I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim by Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T Suratwala, et al.
7.      The Short and Tragic Life of RobertPeace by Jeff Hobbs
8.      Somewhere Towards theEnd: A Memoir by Diana Athill
9.      To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
10.  White Like Me by Tim Wise
11.  Wonder by R.J. Palacio

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good start. If nothing else, it’s at least one good thing that came out of Charlottesville. It’s not what happened in the “wake” of Charlottesville, but what happened in the “wake-up” of Charlottesville. A wake-up call to understand “the other,” whomever that may be to each of us. I hope you’ll join me, and I hope you’ll add your reading suggestions to the comments below.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Double Indemnity: A Must-See Film for Crime Writers

Double Indemnity (1944) is my all-time favorite movie, one that I urge all crime writers to study. The superb dialog, with its emphasis on double entendres and provocative banter, not only entertains but it moves the plot along. The use of light and shadow create a virtual underworld that emphasizes the unsavoriness of the characters and plot. 

Double Indemnity is the ultimate film noir—it’s dark, steamy, loaded with atmosphere, and the characters are sleazy as all get out. In this story, originally penned by James M. Cain and adapted for the silver screen by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, discontented housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) bewitches insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) into killing her husband. Together, she promises, they will collect on a double indemnity insurance clause.

Phyllis is film noir’s classic femme fatale, luring a man whose brain goes on hiatus the moment he sees her. Walter seems like a good guy, but he’s no match for the lovely and smoldering Phyllis. She doesn’t even seem good—she’s evil to the core. Since he’s only marginally good, ensnaring him in her web is child’s play. Indeed, Double Indemnity’s best lesson for writers may be its showing how easily someone can be led astray by promises of a lifetime of riches and passion. Consider this classic line delivered by Walter Neff:  

“I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money. And I didn't get the woman.”     

That’s Double Indemnity in a nutshell. You can almost feel sorry for Walter—after all, if you go to all the trouble of murdering your lover’s husband, shouldn’t you reap some of the benefits?

Elements of Alfred Hitchcock are evident in Double Indemnity. You don’t see the murder but you know it’s happening just out of camera range.

Writers are frequently advised to show, not tell. Writers are frequently advised to show, not tell. Double Indemnity follows this advice to good effect in its depictions of the life styles of Phyllis and Walter. Phyllis lives in an elegant Spanish house in the hills overlooking the Loz Feliz section of Los Angeles. Walter spends his days selling insurance, operating out of a ubiquitous office building in downtown L.A. where the worker bees toil in a pre-cubicle bullpen desk arrangement. Evening comes and Walter returns to his cramped apartment not far from his office. The contrast of life styles is stark, but never verbalized, only shown.  

When it comes to sex scenes, the censorship of the day forced writers to show without telling, allowing them to achieve higher levels of creativity.  Sex was left to the imagination using suggestive dialog and longing looks. A scene in Walter’s apartment hints that Walter and Phyllis had just been intimate. You don’t know for sure … but you’re pretty sure.  

After the murder, things go downhill. For one thing, Walter’s boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is highly suspicious of Phyllis’s double indemnity claim and investigates it like a dog with ten bones. And Walter and Phyllis grow to distrust each other (no surprise there). By the time Walter realizes that murdering Mr. Dietrichson wasn’t such a good idea, it’s too late. But is he sorry that he killed the man? Or does he only regret that he’s left with nothing to show for his efforts beyond a bullet in his shoulder?

So far in my brief writing career my murderers have acted out of revenge—they have not been motivated by sex and money alone. But it’s early days in my writing career and I know I have a greed/lust story to tell.


James M. Cain took his inspiration for Double Indemnity from a real life case. In 1927 a New York woman named Ruth Snyder persuaded her lover, a corset salesman named Judd Gray, to kill her husband. She had recently convinced her spouse to take out a $48,000 insurance policy with a double indemnity clause. For more information on the case, read this article

Richard Crenna and Samantha Eggar starred in a made-for-TV remake of Double Indemnity in 1973. The dialog was virtually identical to the original. As for the bright seventies style of the set—in my view, the original black and white version with darkness and shadows is the only way to view Double Indemnity.

If you prefer sex in your movies I suggest Body Heat (1981). That film, starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, took its inspiration from Double Indemnity and heaped on the sex. 

View photos of Double Indemnity’s film locations. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Time for a quickie

Having just returned to the UK from a holiday in Florida, which was wonderful, I knew I would still be struggling with tiredness as my body battles to return to its normal sleep pattern, not to mention eating and drinking smaller quantities 😊.
So this month I decided to share a story. A few months ago I began adding a very quick five minute read to my monthly newsletter. I use it as an opportunity to experiment with my writing including genres, points of view, third or first person etc. It's also a great discipline for me. I can be a little verbose and have to rise to the challenge of only having two sides of A4 for a beginning, middle and end. Because I send it to my reading list first, and it later appears on my website, I have to keep things "clean"—something else I'm not used to in my writing. It really awakens my brain cells. That said, I know it is mentioned here many times, the effort and discipline required to write and edit any story takes a lot of work.
So. You can pop over to my website to see my first "quickie" five minute read.

Let me know what you think and if you do anything similar.