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December 14, 2009

Susan Kandel: Hitchcock and Christmas Dinner

Posted by webmaster
Susan Kandel traded her job as an art critic to write a mystery series featuring Cece Caruso --- California girl, biographer of dead mystery authors and amateur sleuth. Her latest whodunit is Dial H for Hitchcock. Today's guest blogger, Susan shares some insights into the research process (which involves reading books and watching movies) and what she'll be serving for Christmas dinner.

The holiday season is upon us, and my thoughts have turned toward murder. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that certain members of my family are making a visit. I like all of them. Truly. And what could be more cheerful than a crackling fire, a house full of hungry people and a refrigerator packed with the season's butter-basted and Crisco-enlivened foodstuffs?

No, murder is on my mind not merely at Christmastime, but year-round: as the crocuses bloom in springtime, as I wiggle my feet in the sand during the dog days of August, with autumn's turning of the leaves (yes, in Southern California), on frigid November nights, when the temperature dips down to a torturous 58 degrees. This is because I write a mystery series, and murder is my business.

My series centers on a sexy, eternally fortyish, vintage clothes-obsessed closet brainiac named Cece Caruso. A former Miss Asbury Park (her beauty queen career was thankfully short-lived), Cece's day job consists of writing biographies of dead mystery authors such as Erle Stanley Gardner, Carolyn Keene, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock. In the course of her research, Cece invariably turns up a dead body, and has to figure out whodunit before somebody else gets bludgeoned/stabbed/shot/poisoned/shoved off the edge of a cliff.

While I have yet to turn up a dead body, I do devote myself to research, precisely as if I were biographer Cece. This means that before I do my writing, I do a great deal of reading: Perry Mason novels, Nancy Drew novels, Sam Spade novels, Hercule Poirot novels; critical, literary and historical essays about these works; biographies and autobiographies about their creators. The research process is extremely important, not only because this is where I get the factual information woven through each of my books, but also, because the research provides me with my plots.

While researching Not a Girl Detective, for example, I discovered that Russell Tandy, the illustrator of the original Nancy Drew dust jackets from the 1930s, was an old drinking buddy of Salvador Dali's. That irresistible fact formed the cornerstone of the book, which involved a mysterious missing portrait of Nancy in the buff (I made that part up). In researching Christietown, I learned about Christie's mysterious eleven-day disappearance in December of 1926, and Cece's "explanation" of what transpired during those fateful days wound up determining the twists and turns of that book's intricate plot.

With my latest Cece Caruso mystery, Dial H for Hitchcock, the research process was more prolonged than usual. That is because in addition to my usual reading, I spent many contented hours watching the Master of Suspense's films and catching up on episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents I'd missed the first time around.

Let me tell you about my favorite episode from the TV series. "Lamb to the Slaughter" is one of only seventeen episodes actually directed by Hitch. Written by the diabolical Roald Dahl, it stars Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie from Dallas) as Mary Malone, a pregnant housewife told by her cheating spouse that he wants a divorce. Infuriated, Mary sneaks up behind her hubby with a leg of lamb and delivers a fatal whack to his head. Mary then cooks the leg of lamb and feeds it to the policemen investigating the murder, cleverly dispatching with the murder weapon. Score one for the ladies.

"Back for Christmas" is another unforgettable episode, which involves a husband killing his wife and burying her body in the basement. I'd recommend it for family holiday viewing, accompanied by festive snacks such as chocolate-dipped pretzel rods and frosty mugs of egg nog. But maybe you shouldn't trust me. I had totally forgotten what Hitch's The Birds was like, and let my nine-year old daughter watch it with me, after describing it as having lots of animals in it, sort of like 101 Dalmations.

And what will you be serving your guests for Christmas dinner?

I've decided on a nice leg of lamb.

Join us---if you dare.