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Writing Crime

Murder at the Movies
By Kathryn Gandek-Tighe
Posted: 2019-08-22T11:33:00Z

Two of SinCNE's authors and board members both write mysteries about history and the film industry - Frances McNamara and Lisa Lieberman. We've asked them some questions about how it happened and what motivated their choices.

Frances and Lisa, you’ve both written historical mysteries highlighting lesser known aspects of the film industry. How did you get interested in this topic?


Frances: I enjoy unearthing forgotten history. Death at the Selig Studios (Allium Press, 2018) is the seventh of my Emily Cabot Mysteries. It is set in 1909 in a silent film studio in Chicago. This was before filmmakers moved to Hollywood, when there were studios scattered around America. Thomas Edison started The Black Maria in West Orange, New Jersey. You had Famous Players in Manhattan, Biograph Studio in the Bronx, Vitagraph in Brooklyn, Wheelan-Loper Film Company of Dallas and San Antonio, Texas. Chicago had two studios, Selig and Essanay. Who knew?


Lisa: I love 1950s noir, and many of my favorite films were made by blacklisted directors, or written by blacklisted screenwriters. Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle published a wonderful oral history, Tender Comrades, about how these people survived the McCarthy era. Some named names, others went to jail rather than betray their friends, and then there were the ones who left the US for Europe or Mexico, where they became stranded when the government refused to renew their passports. So I set the first book of my Cara Walden mystery series, All the Wrong Places (Five Star, 2015) among the American expatriate community in London. Cara’s got a brother too, by the way, a blacklisted screenwriter who has to work under a pseudonym.


How did you research your books?


Frances: There were newspaper and magazine articles about the film stars and movie-making written then. Think of all the Making Of features you get nowadays. The people described were down right whacky. Film making became such an important part of culture in the twentieth century it would be hard to ignore when writing about the period.


Lisa: In my former life, I was a history professor and postwar Europe was my prime territory. Over time, I came to develop a “feel” for the era, an awareness of how politics and events shaped people’s attitudes. Setting a book in the past requires more than layering on period details—clothing, cocktails, slang, popular songs—the surface stuff. I will admit that one of my guilty pleasures is watching old movies in the middle of the afternoon (for research, you know?), but immersing a reader in another time and place means getting at mindsets, shared assumptions that weren’t always articulated. You can uncover the cultural baggage that people were carrying around by reading memoirs and correspondence and second-rate literature, dated books that were justly forgotten.


Both of you use real movies and real movie actors in your books. Can you tell us more about why you chose to do that?


Frances I use a mix of real historical people and fictional people in my books, and the real people are often more interesting than you could make a fictional character. Col. William Selig was larger than life and some of the details I discovered were unbelievable. For example, he purchased a circus because he specialized in animal films and he had a lion roaming the set at one point. Later, when he moved the studio to Hollywood, he had a kind of zoo out in California. Olga the Leopard Lady was a real fixture in early animal films and later, she helped Katherine Heburn with the animal in Bringing Up Baby. Kathlyn Williams was a hugely interesting actress who worked on action films and cliffhangers before there were stunt doubles.


Films that actually were being made in Chicago in 1909 included Tom Mix cowboy films, The Adventures of Kathlyn with actress Kathlyn Williams, the first film of The Wizard of Oz, and a fictitious version of Theodore Roosevelts African Safari. You can go to youtube and see that Wizard of Oz film as well as some films by Tom Mix and Kathlyn Williams.


Lisa:  Another of my guilty pleasures is reading trashy Hollywood bios and the stuff I’ve learned, as Frances said, well, you couldn’t make it up. Pool parties at some of those Beverly Hills mansions in the 1920s and 30s featuring naked starlets, philandering Hungarian directors who left a trail of broken hearts—and illegitimate children—in their wake: I used all of that. Some of my characters are amalgams of real people. Geoffrey Bryce-Jones, an upper-class British pacifist who sat out World War II in Hollywood consulting on screenplays for costume dramas, is modeled on Aldous Huxley, with a dash of Noel Coward thrown in for leavening. There’s also an Italian neorealist director based on Roberto Rosselini, Luca, and his spurned mistress, Francesca, (loosely inspired on Anna Magnani and the characters she tended to play). The challenge is to make these larger-than-life figures recognizable, yet believable in the context of my story.


I also give my favorite actors cameos in my books. Cary Grant shows up at Grace Kelly’s wedding in the first book, wearing a tuxedo, because that’s the way I like him. Marlene Dietrich sashays through the dining room of the Beverly Hills Hotel, also wearing a tuxedo, in the second book and loans Cara and her new husband her bungalow for their wedding night. I’m about to release the third book, The Glass Forest, which is set in Saigon during the filming of the Joseph Mankiewicz version of my favorite Graham Greene novel, The Quiet American. Lots of juicy gossip about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans works it way into this one. I had a blast writing it.


Amherst author Lisa Lieberman writes the Cara Walden series of historical mysteries based on old movies and featuring blacklisted Hollywood people on the lam in dangerous international locales. Her books hit the sweet spot between Casablanca and John le Carré. Trained as a modern European cultural and intellectual historian, Lieberman abandoned a perfectly respectable academic career for the life of a vicarious adventurer through perilous times. She has written extensively on postwar Europe and lectures locally on efforts to come to terms with the trauma of the Holocaust in film and literature. She is Vice President of the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime and a member of Mystery Writers of America.

Frances McNamara grew up in Boston, where her father served as Police Commissioner for ten years. She has degrees from Mount Holyoke and Simmons Colleges, and recently retired from the University of Chicago. She now divides her time between Boston and Cape Cod. Author of The Emily Cabot Mysteries about a social activist in Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Frances is Secretary of Sisters in Crime New England and active in MWA New England. Death at the Selig Studios is set in a silent film studio in Chicago in 1909.
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