Let’s give a big welcome to Melodie Johnson Howe. Her journey from childhood to career as a Hollywood actress to career as a mystery author is fascinating. As is her series featuring Hollywood actress/sleuth Diana Poole.
My mother dropped my brother and me off at the movies. Before she drove away she said, “Enjoy yourselves, your father and I are getting divorced.”
In the darkness of the theater my brother nervously gnawed at his thumb as if it were a chicken leg. He couldn’t forget her words. Somethings she said were true. Somethings were not. Reality was no excuse in our family.
I was enveloped in the drama of the movie. It’s a drama that couldn’t hurt me. I loved being lost in make-believe.
Summer. Massillon, Ohio. I stood in my uncle’s home library. Ten years old. Short blonde hair. Long gawky legs. My family and I and were visiting from Los Angeles. My parents didn’t get divorced. The sun streamed in through a big paned window. I’ve never been in a house that had a room just for books. I pulled one from the shelf titled, For Whom the Bell Tolls. A man named Hemingway wrote it. I opened it and begin to read.
My mother, who had the ability to appear from nowhere, swept in and grabbed the book from my hands. “You’re too young to read this.”
The quiet room is suddenly full of adults. Talking.
My father, a sly grin on his face, said, “Oh, let her read it. She’s not going to understand it.” He had the ability to stand up for me and let me down at the same time.
“She understands enough,” my mother snapped. Face knotted.
My aunt asked if anybody would like iced tea.
My uncle, the lawyer, so pale he looked like he needs to be colored-in with crayons, said, “I have an appointment downtown. I’ll take her to the library and she’ll pick out a book that’s appropriate for her.”
Appropriate. My heart sank. Mother pulled me from the room. I looked back at the book now lost among the others on the shelf.
In the public library I ran my finger along the spines of the books. Most were about boys doing daring deeds. Nancy Drew! But I’d read her. I wanted something else … something … adult. And there it is! A bright red book titled, My Dear Wife. That sounds adult.
I opened it. No pictures. Only chapters. The print was bigger than Hemingway’s book and not so jammed together. I began to read. A young pretty woman and a handsome young man have just wedded. But before they can consummate their marriage the American Revolutionary War breaks out and he must go fight. Consummate. I whispered this new word. I had no trouble figuring out its meaning. My heart raced.
The young woman decides she must do her duty for the war, too. She becomes a spy. Hiding messages in the hem of her skirt she crosses enemy lines to give them to George Washington. And all the time searching for her husband.
Alone in bed that night, I finished the book. And felt the abandonment of having to leave this brave strong woman and the Revolutionary War. It was the same feeling of abandonment when I walked from the darkness of the movie theater into the daylight. My mother waiting for me. Years later when I became a writer I knew that I’d learned how to create suspense and strong women characters from reading My Dear Wife. The power of a book.
Ten years later, a motion picture agent “discovered” me at a cocktail party. I was put under contract at Universal studio I spent my days learning to act on the job. At night I drove to UCLA extension to learn the craft of writing. With the setting sun in my eyes, I sped along Sunset Blvd. The sky streaked with lurid cheap colors. The palm trees darkened into lurking shadows and the mansions turned sinister. I was in the land of Raymond Chandler. A land that felt right to me. California noir.
My two loves had come together in my life: movies and books. But they didn’t mingle well. I quit acting. People called me crazy to walk away. And it was crazy. Any giant leap you take is. I wanted to create my own world of make-believe. And so I did. I wrote about angry mothers, strong women such as Clare Conrad, the female version of Nero Wolfe, and Diana Poole, an actress.
I found myself in make-believe.
Melodie Johnson Howe always wanted to be a writer. But born in Los Angeles, she was “discovered” at a cocktail party, and put under contract to Universal Studios as an actress. In her first acting job she was shot dead in the titles of a TV movie. They covered her with a sheet and carted her off to an ambulance, with only her blonde hair showing. Over the next few years she acted in such movies as The Ride To Hangman’s Tree co-starring with James Farentino; Coogan’s Bluff with Clint Eastwood; Gaily, Gaily directed by Norman Jewison; Rabbit Run with James Caan; and The Moonshine War, co-starring with Alan Alda. During this period she also went to UCLA Extension at night to learn the craft of writing. After quitting acting she wrote her first mystery novel, The Mother Shadow, which was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allen Poe Award. The second mystery novel, Beauty Dies soon followed. Turning to the short story form she created a new character Diana Poole, an actress verging on middle age. The stories were published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Two have been nominated for the Barry Award. They are now collected into one book, Shooting Hollywood: The Diana Poole Stories.
City of Mirrors, Howe’s first novel to feature Diana Poole brings her acting life and writing life together. As The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said, “City of Mirrors is slick and smart with a “Chinatown” vibe, only funnier and with an insider’s view of Hollywood, a place that “has the attention span of a coked-up executive producer,’ a place where people live in ‘Technicolor’ and then ‘fade to black.’”
Hold A Scorpion is the latest Diana Poole novel.
Visit Melodie Johnson Howe on her web site (includes her buy links)
Melodie Johnson Howe’s Facebook Author Page
MysteriousPress.com publisher of the Clare Conrad/Maggie Hill books and Shooting Hollywood: the Diana Poole Stories