Friday, January 10, 2014

The Crime Writer's Life According to Hollywood

Suspicion, 1941. Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine. An Alfred Hitchcock thriller. If you remember it, you remember that Cary Grant's character had a friend who was a famous mystery writer, a middle-aged woman, quite plain, with snapping, intelligent dark eyes (although for all she was able to see through Cary Grant this woman must have been as dumb as a box of rocks). She had dinner parties where the guests sat around the table discussing the best, the most untraceable ways to kill people. Her shelves were full of her own crime novels, each featuring a different means of murder. Cary Grant borrowed the books and people died mysteriously.

Sound familiar? No? What, you don't live like that? No sociopaths borrowing your work, turning up at dinner and pestering you for good poisons?

Here's another one: Sleuth, 1972. Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine. Olivier plays a successful crime writer (and collector of weird toys). Of course he is assumed to have a brilliantly evil mind, capable of plotting unimaginable crimes. Well, aren't we all like that? Hm? Brilliantly evil. And stinking rich. The camera pans lovingly over the precious objects in Olivier's palatial house, not the least of which is an Edgar®, sitting on a table with the rest of the chi-chi bric-a-brac. I wonder sometimes whose Edgar® that was, or where the prop people got it.

Deathtrap, 1982. Another of that ilk. The aging playwright, fantastically successful because he got hold of the can't-fail idea for a suspenseful play. The can't-fail idea. That's all you need, right? After that it's all beer and skittles. Any idiot could do it. Riches, acclaim, public adulation, it's all waiting for the one with the can't-fail idea. That's why all the agents and editors are waiting to steal your work. They want to take your can't-fail idea and kick you to the curb.

Not even to speak of Murder She Wrote, where cozy writer Jessica Fletcher stumbles over a dead body every day after breakfast and solves the crime before supper.

The actual life of the crime writer is very different. You start with the can't-fail idea and then you work with it for a year or so, changing things as you go along because sometimes it doesn't work. If sociopaths come to your house to pick your brains for their perfect crime, you change your telephone number and the locks on all your doors. Sometimes you move to another house. Confronted with a real murder, as, thank God, few of us ever are, you shudder and leave it to the police. The agents and editors, far from stealing your ideas, find them to be without commercial value. Not right for our list. Good luck with placing it elsewhere.

Some day Hollywood will make a movie about the real life of the mystery writer. It will be gritty, like those post-war Italian films with the men in their wife-beater shirts. Or, no, most of our husbands (if any) don't look that good in wife-beaters any more. So it will be a little different. But it's important to cast the cat properly. It should be a placid little beast. Maybe they could fancy up the office a little. Put a fake Edgar® on the bookshelf. If you have a real one I'm not sure I want to even talk to you. They must cast a name to star as the writer. Katherine Heigl. Film her sitting in front of the word processor in her pajamas for two hours, maybe getting up once to feed the cat. The Life of the Crime Writer, 2014. Hey! A can't-fail idea!

© 2014 Kate Gallison


  1. Yesss... ya gotta watch those sociopaths turning up for dinner... and how about them psychopaths too??? ths

  2. Ah, yes. Jessica Fletcher was a bit much. I had a firiend who said if she went to a party and Jessica Fletcher was a guest, she would leave immediately as she wouldn't want to witness to violence or be the corpse that everyone chatted about.

  3. The winner of the Edgar in the movie shot probably got more for renting it to the prop department than he/she did as advance for the novel that won, and quite likely for any novel since. Here's an idea: a group of mystery writers who share a blog offer to invent undetectable crimes for actual criminals. They are paid grandly for their imaginative plans and their silence. They use the money to supplement their meager earnings. Half way through the film the FBI discovers their activities as accessories to crime. They turn state's evidence in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Their baddest customer realizes that they are ratting him out. He tries to kill them at their annual blogmate luncheon in a restaurant on Lexington Avenue. Many cars are wrecked in the scene where they escape. By the end of the movie, their exploits are are bought by the Weinstein Brothers. They get a $2million movie deal and win an Oscar for the screen play. The Edgar for that year's best screen play, however, goes to an Englishman.

  4. Annamaria, that's a Treatment. I love it. If I still had an agent I'd get him to send it to Hollywood and make us a couple of million. Who do you want to play you? I have dibs on Essie Davis (the lady who plays Phryne Fisher).

  5. I continue to muse on Annamaria's fabulous movie. Bob Knightly will be played by George Clooney. Katherine Heigl is Stephanie. Our Stephanie, that is. Annamaria can be portrayed by Penelope Cruz, for that jolt of continental verve. Thelma has to be played by somebody southern, maybe Reese Witherspoon. Sheila has to be played by somebody cool and sophisticated. Can't think of anybody. Maybe I'll let her have Essie Davis and I can be Helen Mirren. Who do we like for the archvillain?

    1. I'd prefer Sydney Greenstreet--with hair, Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook, Jr. Bob

    2. Right. But we're looking for actors who are still alive.

    3. Oh, yeah. Forgot.

  6. Billy Bob Thornton for the arch villain. Ralph Finnes for the smarmy English screenwriter who wins the Edgar.

  7. Hey, folks, I just got a phone call from Judy Dench!!! She read about this project and wants to play the southern gal... so she's paying me a cool million in cash... Whatta show! Oh, just heard on CNN that Scorsese wants a piece of the pie ...- shall we vote on it???