Sharon Healy-Yang's newest historical mystery is set in 1946 and brings back Jessica Minton. She answers questions about the book today on the blog!
Writers usually hate writing book summaries. Will you share with us your real book blurb or one you wish you could have used?
One foggy spring evening in 1946, a young college professor slips into a deserted campus building for a surreptitious meeting with her lover - only to be shot dead in the darkness. Who is the victim? Who is her murderer? The answers will only gradually be uncovered after newlyweds Jessica Minton and James Crawford come to that same campus on Long Island Sound. With James returning to teaching, the future should be sparkling for the two. Yet darkness looms. James is haunted by memories of the war and a mission that he isn’t allowed to tell Jessica about, until their discovery of the missing professor’s decomposing corpse washed up on the beach forces his hand and plunges them both into treachery and more murder.
What excited you most about writing this story?
Two things especially excited me in writing Dark Horse. The first was a chance to create the kind of haunted noir setting that intrigued me in films of the 1940s, especially Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach, Orson Welles’s The Stranger, and Henry Levin’s The Guilt of Janet Ames. I loved the dark, dreamy expressionism of these films and enjoyed using language to evoke the same sensations and atmosphere in which to immerse my characters as they search for answers and survival. The second was an opportunity to write about horse racing. I’ve been an improver of the breed since 1966, when I picked Amberoid in the Kentucky Derby. Okay, he finished eleventh, but he did take the Belmont Stakes. So, now, I got to write about my interest in horse racing, which my lead character Jessica Minton shares with me. It was fun to draw on some real stories about actual race horses: Equipoise, who would bite a horse rather than let him pass; Kelso, who was not only regarded as one of the top racers of the twentieth century but would let kids feed him ice cream sundaes; and Devil His Due, who once chased two intrusive IRS agents from his stall, but not before taking a chunk out of one of them.
Who is your favorite character and why?
I can’t pick one favorite character, but I can tell you why three in particular are important to me. I love my main character Jessica Minton because she’s smart, sassy, and independent and funny. Since when I write, I often cast my characters as actors from the golden era, I see her as my favorite, Joan Bennett, who wonderfully exhibits all these qualities in many of the roles she plays. I also love James Crawford, Jessica’s husband. His humor, loyalty, care, and respect for his wife are just the traits I expect a right guy to have. He’s also human, like his wife, so they have their contretemps from time to time. However, I wanted to write a good marriage and not get people hung up over whether insecurity or ego was going to break them up. They work things out like grownups, with humor and understanding. The real suspense and tension comes from the threats around them, from those they suspect and those they don’t. Finally, I really love Jessica’s friend Rose Nyquist. I cast Barbara Stanwyck, a smart, strong, no-nonsense, flip gal in that role. But I also based much of her character and her friendship with Jessica on my relationship with my friend Kathy Healey. Still, though Kathy and I have both braved the perils of academia, something like Jess and Rose, we haven’t had to face off against murder, kidnapping, and Nazis - that I can recall.
Is there a setting in your book that you would like to visit?
Rather than discuss what setting I’d like to visit from my novel, I’d rather tell you about a location that I love visiting which helped inspire the story. The Avery Point Campus for the University of Connecticut is located on the former Branford Estate. There is a gorgeous mansion based on a chateau called “Branford House” which now houses administration offices and a small, but wonderful art museum. I first discovered the building many years back when attending a scientific conference there (as a guest). I fell in love the first floor spacious rooms with their gorgeous paneling and ornately decorated hearths love - as well as the great hall and it’s impressive, dark paneling, and wall of french doors (where Dark Horse starts with a murder). Then, of course, there was a stone spiral staircase, almost hidden, that led to the second floor - you can bet that architectural charmer made it into my novel in a pivotal episode. And it’s all on the ocean, with a gorgeous view of the Long Island Sound. I said to myself, “Self, this is the perfect setting for a mystery - and this building is the dream setting for teaching.” So, Margaret Point College, with its secrets of treachery, adultery, espionage, and murder, was born.
What is the most interesting thing you learned in writing your book?
Everything and everyone was either on strike or just about to go. Even the street ice-cream vendors! - everybody! We always get a rosy picture about what life in the U.S. was like at the end of the war, but history sweeps a lot under the rug. Reading through the New York Times for the weeks surrounding my story (June-August 1946), I saw a lot of misery in terms of veterans messed up by the war, Republicans still trying to hang a scandal on the president who had just won the war over Pearl Harbor, all this strike business, housing shortages, and the price of salmon sandwiches shooting up. Maybe most disturbing was that people were actually eating salmon and sardine sandwiches - blech!!!!
Sharon Healy-Yang’s love of mysteries from the 1940s inspired her Jessica Minton mysteries. Bait and Switch and Letter from a Dead Man are the first two novels in the series, with Always Play the Dark Horse, coming out in 2020, bringing in another of her passions: thoroughbred racing.