On Using Landmarks in Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Happy Easter! And what better time for the reappearance of America’s favorite vigilante nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice?

Yes, it’s finally here: FORCE OF HABIT 5: HOT CROSS NUNS. I had the title first. All I needed was the story to go with it. A hot cross … hmm … a stolen cross? But how big a deal would that be?

Then it hit me. Mrs. B and I love going to the Hollywood Bowl in the summer. We bring a picnic dinner and sit in an area that gives us a view of iconic Hollywood buildings, like Capitol Records, The Roosevelt Hotel (where, it said, the ghost of Marilyn Monroe hangs out), and the old, rugged Hollywood Cross. That was it! The perfect MacGuffin for the title.

A little L.A. history is in order:

[T] cross was conceived … as a memorial to one of Hollywood’s pioneers, Christine Wetherell Stevenson, the heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint fortune who helped arrange construction of the Hollywood Bowl. She was also an aspiring playwright who wrote “The Pilgrimage Play,” a pageant about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

In 1920, Stevenson chose 29 acres across the Cahuenga Pass from the Hollywood Bowl and helped carry stones from the nearby hills to build the open-air Pilgrimage Theater. She died two years later and in 1923, her admirers memorialized her by planting the cross on the hill above the theater.

Within six years, a brush fire destroyed the original theater and in 1931 Stevenson’s drama reopened in a concrete theater designed in what was described as an “ancient Judaic style.”

For many years, the cross was lighted only at Easter and during the annual “Pilgrimage Play” season. But the public’s affection for the landmark grew and soon Sunday school children were donating money to keep the cross lit. Ultimately, Southern California Edison Co. assumed that expense and bore it until 1941, when the theater and cross were donated to the county. After the county supervisors accepted the gift, they renamed the theater after Supervisor John Anson Ford, recognizing his 24 years of service to the district in which the theater is located. The play continued its annual run until 1964, when the first in a series of lawsuits triggered by the facility’s religious uses forced an end to the performances.

The cross was damaged by fire a year later. The county replaced it with a steel and Plexiglas structure and operated it routinely for years. But the tradition came under legal fire in 1978, when a California Supreme Court ruling ended Los Angeles’ 30-year practice of lighting City Hall windows to form a cross at Christmas and Easter. Two years later, a college professor successfully argued in court that the county was violating the constitutional separation of church and state by maintaining the cross…

The cross, however, remained–dark and unguarded, abused and unused. Vandals chipped away at its foundation until a windstorm knocked it over it 1984.

Afterward, a small group of crusaders began raising funds for a new cross by doing a video documentary, recording a song, “The Ballad of the Hollywood Cross” by Mindas Masiulis, and collaborating with the Hollywood Heritage preservation group.

Almost 10 years later, with little fanfare, a new cross was erected on the small hilltop patch after the group purchased the site from the county.

So how could this landmark possibly be stolen? Who would do such a thing? And why? Find out in FORCE OF HABIT 5: HOT CROSS NUNS, on sale now for 99¢. Like the other novelettes in the series, it can be read as a stand-alone. The other entries are:

FORCE OF HABIT

FORCE OF HABIT 2: AND THEN THERE WERE NUNS

FORCE OF HABIT 3: NUN THE WISER

FORCE OF HABIT 4: THE NUN ALSO RISES 

I love seeing landmarks in fiction and film. Who will ever forget the chase over Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest? Or King Kong atop the Empire State Building? Or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man stepping on Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Ghostbusters, bringing forth Bill Murray’s classic line: “Nobody steps on a church in my town!”

The landmark doesn’t even have to be world famous. For example, there’s Top Notch Hamburgers in Austin, TX. That’s where Matthew “All right, all right, all right” McConaughey made his mark in Dazed and Confused.

So what’s a landmark in your home town? You do have one, you know. Even Takoma Park, Maryland has Roscoe the Rooster. So share yours!

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My Kind of Thriller

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m currently working on a new thriller titled The Girl in the Window Who Saw the Woman on the Train Before She Was Gone. I don’t believe in chasing trends, unless it’s this one.

Actually, I wanted to talk about a sub-genre known as the “domestic thriller.” I’m not sure when this was coined, but it’s quite popular now, especially after Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, Gone Girl. More recently, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window has kept readers flipping the pages.

My research didn’t uncover a hard-and-fast definition of the domestic thriller. It seems to be a cousin of the psychological thriller, but with a home setting and (usually) a woman as protagonist and (usually) a male as the villain. A title like It’s Always The Husband (Michele Campbell) will clue you into the vibe.

I don’t, however, consider this a new genre. It’s at least as old as Gaslight, the 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton. You’ve probably seen the 1944 movie version for which Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award as Best Actress. (I actually like the British version better. Released in 1940, it stars Anton Walbrook and the absolutely amazing Diana Wynyard. Catch it if you can!)

Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) may rightly be deemed a domestic thriller.

I would classify many of Harlan Coben’s books as domestic thrillers. Suburban setting, ordinary person, crazily extraordinary circumstances.

Which is my favorite kind of thriller. I’ve always loved Hitchcock, and he was the master at the ordinary man or woman theme. My favorite example is the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much starring James Stewart and Doris Day. The idea, Hitchcock once explained, came from a scene he pictured in his mind. A foreign, dark-skinned man, with a knife in his back, is being chased, and falls dead in front of some strangers. When someone tries to help him, heavy makeup comes off the man’s face leaving finger streaks on his cheeks.

So Hitchcock did that very thing. He had Stewart and Day as tourists in Morocco, and in the marketplace one morning a man with a knife in his back falls at Stewart’s feet. Stewart gets the face makeup on his hands.

Of course, right before he kicks the bucket the dying man whispers a secret of international importance into Jimmy’s ear, and we’re off and running. The bad guys want to know what Jimmy knows and they’re willing to kidnap his son to find out.

Another example: Cary Grant as the ad executive in North by Northwest (1959). Because of a terrible coincidence, he’s taken to be a master spy by two thugs who kidnap him outside of the Plaza Hotel. Cary is going to spend the next two hours on the run. His only consolation is that he gets to meet Eva Marie Saint.

One more, and this one is chilling because it was based on a true story. In Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), Henry Fonda, a happily married musician, resembles a gun-toting holdup man. He’s arrested and put through the wringer. Will the real culprit be nabbed before they lock the prison doors on Hank?

So why does the “ordinary man/woman” or the “domestic” thriller resonate so well? Perhaps because 1) it’s easy to empathize with the main character; and 2) it helps us deal with one of our darkest fears—having evil show up at our doorstep.

We read these kinds of thrillers, in part, to reaffirm our hope that there’s a moral force in the universe, that justice will prevail, and that we can get through anything if we hang on with courage.

Plus, we all like getting lost in the fictive dream of a page-turner. Escapist entertainment, Dean Koontz once said, is a noble enterprise, considering what we have to put up with on this spinning orb.

So in that spirit, I offer you my latest thriller, Your Son Is Alive.

The idea for the book came from playing the first-line game. That’s where you just make up first lines that grab, not knowing anything else. One day I wrote this: “Your son is alive.”

Who says it? And why? And to whom?

I had to write the novel to find out.

So I did. The ebook is available from Amazon this week at the special launch price of $2.99:

AMAZON

AMAZON INTERNATIONAL STORES

(The print version will be available soon.)

As always, I have tried to write according to Hitchock’s Axiom: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” 

Do you have a favorite kind of thriller?

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