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Hitchcock’s Average American Family

This is the second in our member-written series: My Favorite Crime Movie.

Alfred Hitchcock said several times that Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was his favorite of the films he directed. The film is set in Santa Rosa, California. If I tell you that the last time I was in California, I went in search of Santa Rosa, you'll have some idea how much I love this movie. As a Hitchcock fan, I love the movie as a psychological thriller. As an academic researcher who studies crime and American culture, I love its numerous themes – from gender roles and family life to consumerism and murder as entertainment.

Based on a short story, the movie script was a collaboration by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville. A debonair serial killer (Joseph Cotton) decides to shake off the police by visiting his sister and her family. The two police detectives who are pursuing him as one of two suspects in the “Merry Widow” murders, are close behind. They visit the family, posing as survey-takers sent out to interview "average American" families. Charlotte (Teresa Wright) the oldest daughter, soon realizes the men are detectives. Thus begins a tense battle of wits between "Uncle Charlie," the serial killer, and his niece and namesake, "Young Charlie."

When first seen, Charlie is stretched out on her bed in a pose that echoes that of her uncle, on the other side of the country. When her father comes upstairs to check on her, she tells him that their family is in a rut. They do nothing but eat, work, and sleep. She doesn't know what is going to become of them. Her father, a bank clerk, reminds her of his recent raise. Charlie demands to know how he can talk about money, when she is "talking about souls."

Having thought of "just the right person" to come and "shake us all up," she rushes downtown to send her uncle a wire. She learns that he – having read her mind – has sent a wire announcing his arrival. But she is puzzled when he is helped from the train by the porter and a passenger. As the train pulls away, he straightens and strides toward her. She tells him, "I thought you were sick." Of course, he is sick, mentally disturbed. The depth of his illness is revealed during his dinner table rant about wealthy widows as "faded, fat, greedy women."

But in spite of his proclaimed disdain for money, Uncle Charlie has come bearing gifts for his sister’s family. The ruby ring that he gives to Charlie has an engraving that convinces Charlie he is the killer. As her father and next door neighbor, Herb, both crime buffs, discuss how to commit the "perfect murder," Charlie tries to get her uncle out of town before he can destroy her family. Her problem: Uncle Charlie likes Santa Rosa and wants to settle down there. When the other suspect is identified as the killer, Uncle Charlie realizes she is the only one who can unmask him.

—Frankie Y. Bailey

Frankie Y. Bailey is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany (SUNY). Her areas of research are crime history, and crime and mass media/popular culture and material culture. She is the author of a number of non-fiction books, including local histories and books about crime fiction. Her mystery novels feature crime historian, Lizzie Stuart, and police detective, Hannah McCabe. She also has written several short stories. She is currently working on a nonfiction book about dress, appearance, and criminal justice and a historical thriller set in 1939. Frankie is a past executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime.

My Favorite Crime Movie: Body Heat

This is the first in our member-written series: My Favorite Crime Movie.

I graduated from the University of Florida law school at the end of 1977 and stayed in Gainesville for almost another year, trying to figure out what to do – a process I've since learned may pause but never quite ends. North Central Florida was rough and rural, but charmingly so for someone with northern sensibilities. It wasn’t just the palm trees. There were blackwater rivers, live oaks hung with Spanish moss, and sluggish ponds where gators lazed with only their eyes breaking the surface.

When Body Heat was released in 1981, I was three years back in New York and working as an editor for a legal publishing company. My Florida memories had faded among life decisions, career concerns, and sputtering attempts at writing fiction. Body Heat revived them. I was a runner in law school, and when Ned Racine (William Hurt) jogged on the docks I could feel the searing heat of the Florida sun through his sweat-heavy FSU tee shirt. When Peter Lowenstein (Ted Danson) lifted his customary two glasses of iced tea off the coffee shop counter, I could taste that chilled sweetness at the back of my throat. And when Ned described his law practice as allowing him to send his shirts out and eat in a nice restaurant once a month if he didn't order an appetizer, I remembered several classmates who struggled to build law practices in the sawgrass and palmetto.

But the movie did more than just conjure up memories. It told a great story. You see Ned embark on an affair with the married Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), who stands to inherit a fortune if her husband had the common decency to die. Can Ned trust her? Should he trust her? You suspect not, but you cannot say why other than the fact that these types of affairs, and the murder plots they spawn, never turn out well.

Ultimately, the framing of Ned Racine is less surprising than the reason Matty Walker picked him as her mark. She doesn’t settle on him because he’s horny or because he’s barely scraping by in his backwater law practice. She targets him because his sloppy lawyering once landed him in a serious malpractice suit involving the bane of all law students: the Rule Against Perpetuities. With memories of both the Florida and New York bar exams still fresh in my mind, this was a harrowing thought.

Oh, yes. The clown.

As part of the murder plot, Ned travels to South Florida to establish an alibi. As he stands on a street corner, a convertible approaches, driven by a clown. If the clown simply passed in the background of the frame, it would have been an obvious symbol that Ned is a fool. But the scene subtly shifts into Ned's perspective, and the camera becomes Ned’s eyes, following the clown as he passes. We sense that he notices the clown because he already suspects, subconsciously, that he is being played for a fool.

You probably have had the experience of seeing something that appears to be an omen. It’s a subjective experience — you have something important on your mind and you interpret some random sight in terms of that thing. Life is messy, but art shouldn’t be, which makes it difficult to transpose that sense of foreboding onto the page or the screen without it seeming trite or contrived.

The clown scene in Body Heat nails it.

—Kevin Egan

Kevin Egan is the author of eight novels, including his latest, A Shattered Circle, and Midnight, a Kirkus Best Book of 2013. He works in the iconic New York County Courthouse, which serves as the setting and inspiration for most of his recent fiction. Several of his courthouse mystery stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. His short fiction also has been published in Thuglit, Rosebud, and the Westchester Review.

About The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

This is the second in our member-written series: My Favorite Golden Age Mystery.

Like many good stories, Dame Agatha Christie's novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd developed from an idea tossed off playfully by two of her friends. The novel was published in 1926, early in her career, and was merely the third time Hercule Poirot, her Belgian private investigator, had been called upon to use his little grey cells. (To me that's a curiosity, because in this story he’d already retired to the country.)

The story's startling ending gained for her novel inclusion into Howard Haycraft's list of important and/or groundbreaking detective stories (from Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story).

In the rare case that the reader has not read this novel, I won't reveal the ending. But I advise writers to read the book twice, first without knowledge, and another time while knowing its secret. The pacing may feel slow compared to today's need for speed, but you'll find Ms. Christie's word choices were immaculately spare. Short story writers know and follow this habit of making each word able to work hard, because of low word count requirements. In this novel, she crafted her story with word choices that could fairly be read two ways, with the character both innocent, and then revealed as guilty. She succeeds masterfully.

Four years later, Ms. Christie and other famed crime-writers formed The Detection Club, which exists today. It served as a model and inspiration for Mystery Writers of America. The club members swore an oath to adhere to a code of ethics in their writing to grant the reader a fair-play chance to guess who did it before the end. Whether The Murder of Roger Ackroyd incited the formation of the fair-play oath is unknown, but the furor over her use of that particular literary device continues today.

Fast forward to a nation riveted to their black-and-white television screens wide-eyed with anticipation as Alfred Hitchcock unfolds yet another story with a surprise ending. The surprise was inevitable, yet he still fooled many of his audience. The Twilight Zone, presented by Rod Serling, again played with viewers’ expectations, mixing oddities with surprise. As Dame Agatha well knew, readers love surprises. The unexpected sells.

What writer has not spent valuable time twisting and weighing his words in a story? No matter the format: feature film to short story to seven volumes of an epic, the aim is to make the story good! Readers are eager to suspend their disbelief. Every word in a story should be crafted to achieve that suspension of disbelief. Readers love the tension, and by extension: twists. The twist at the end that fools us. Or not, which makes us feel clever. Whatever creates a good story . . . works!

Ms. Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd lives still in the minds of this reader . . . because of the twist!

Angela Zeman

Angela Zeman's writing spans cozy to suspense. She's the author of The Witch and the Borscht Pearland Tales of the Witch, both featuring Mrs. Risk. Her stories can be found in several anthologies. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine featured “The First Tale of Roxanne” on their cover, the first in a new series.

Good God, The Swine Have Got Daddy

This begins a new series on our blog: My Favorite Golden Age Mystery, written by our members.

Her father gave her a gun.

Nancy Drew, girl detective, was about to embark on the adventure of The Hidden Staircase (1930), and her father was worried. "[Y]ou've often said you wanted me to grow up self-reliant and brave," she countered. And she had him. Instead of forbidding her to go, or insisting that she take someone with her, he handed her a revolver.

Is that cool, or what? As an overprotected middle-schooler in the mid-1950s, being squashed into a prissy femininity I knew wasn't me, I loved it.

And there was more. In other stories of that era, males were the rescuers, and females the rescuees. Bulldog Drummond's harebrained girlfriend, Phyllis, was kidnapped so often that one tongue-in-cheek review was titled, "Good God! The Swine Have Got Phyllis!"

In The Hidden Staircase, the swine have got Daddy. It was classic: a shady character meets Carson Drew at a train station with a vague tale of Nancy being hurt, and the next thing you know, there's Carson trussed up in a spooky old mansion. Blonde hair flying, Nancy races to the rescue.

Alas, it didn't last. Following World War II, women who'd had a whiff of free air in the 1920s and '30s were thrust back into unrelenting domesticity. Consider, for instance, this excerpt from Look magazine (1956), quoted in Betsy Israel's Bachelor Girl:

Forget the big career . . . now she gracefully concedes the top jobs to men. The wondrous creature also marries younger than ever, bears more babies and looks and acts more feminine than the emancipated girl of the 20s and 30s . . . if she makes an old-fashioned choice and lovingly tends a garden and a bumper crop of children, she rates more loud Hosannas than ever before.

Three years after that was written, Grosset and Dunlap began issuing revised versions of the early Nancy Drew titles to simplify the plots, remove racist language (by making all the characters white, but that's another article), and bring Nancy into conformity with a more traditional model of womanhood.

There's no gun, of course. A boyfriend has been added, to take her on a chaste date on Saturday night; and on Sunday morning, she and her father attend church.

Gone are her sauciness and autonomy. She still rescues Carson, but only with a companion ever at her side. Instead of sneaking in through a cellar window, she politely asks a realtor for the key.

I'm not alone in admiring the original Nancy, who's been cited as a model by such luminaries as Sonia Sotomayor, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Diane Sawyer, and Sara Paretsky. All are in their sixties or older, as I am. That's old enough to remember when we weren't allowed to do what the boys did, and when some of the best colleges, jobs, clubs, and awards were open only to men. But still, we had Nancy, taking names and kicking ass. Oh, yeah.

—Joan DelFattore

Joan DelFattore is professor emerita in English and Legal Studies at the University of Delaware. Her current project is a memoir/research hybrid on living single, including how to deal with serious illness while living alone. Her guest blogs have recently appeared at the Washington Post, Herald Tribune, KevinMD, the Medical Republic, Psychology Today, and Psych Central.

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