Q.: The Scott Elliott stories are so steeped in the flavor of Golden Age Hollywood—is it fair to assume you love the movies of that era?
A.: I do. I’ll watch almost any old movie, but my favorite period runs from the dawn of the talkies to the end of the Second World War. This was both the golden age of the studio system and a time of crisis for the country: the Great Depression running right into the war, with “minor” crises like the rise of Prohibition-fueled organized crime contributing to the general angst. I find interesting both the films intended to give people a breather from their worries and those that address their problems directly. And there’s the opportunity to play armchair archaeologist by watching how people back then did simple, routine things like toasting bread or lighting cigarettes or wearing hats. You can even trace shifts in word pronunciation, like the hard G of Los Angeles giving way to a soft one.
Our contemporary films are doing the same thing for viewers of the future, of course. They’re making overt statements concerning the nature of our society—judgments which may or may not hold up—but also passing on hundreds of little details about how we lived our daily lives, information which is accurate because it didn’t come from anyone’s script.
Lately, I’ve begun to find films from the Depression and war periods comforting because they collectively portray a society that got through its very serious problems successfully. Not a bad example to have right now.
Q.: In something you’ve written, you likened the Elliott stories to the period's film noir. Could you explain?
A.: My take on film noir (as opposed to literary noir) is that its first flowering in the late forties was closely tied to the Second World War. That is, some of the people who made those films and many of the customers who flocked to see them were ex-servicemen and women, people for whom stories about a protagonist yanked from a normal life and trapped in a situation he doesn’t understand and can’t control (the basic set-up of golden age film noirs) would have resonated. That was definitely the case for Scott Elliott, a man drafted out of one life in 1941 and deposited in a less glamorous and more dangerous one in the European Theater of Operations. I’m guessing Elliott found film noir plots familiar, perhaps too much so.
As to the Elliott stories, I think the first two novels have a noir quality, though the trapped character, for whom there is no escape, isn’t Elliott himself. At least one of the short stories, “A Bullet from Yesterday,” might also have made a decent film noir.
Q.: It's interesting that you portray Elliott as somewhat disillusioned. The immediate post-war period is often pictured as full of optimism--the American Dream embodied in Levittown.
A.: If I did my job right, the progress of the series should show Elliott losing his illusions over time. Anyone who worked for Paddy Maguire at Hollywood Security, a graduate level course in the seamier side of the movie business, would be bound to. What’s interesting to me about Elliott is that he doesn’t end up a sour and disappointed man. Not even when it’s obvious that he’s losing his one-man battle to protect his unrequited love—the prewar Hollywood out of which the war yanked him. He’s saved from total cynicism by his family and his occasional small successes and by the feeling he took away from combat that just being on his feet is an amazing gift.
Q.: Does Elliott's world bear on the present?
A.: Beyond the “what’s past is prologue” angle, readers given to symbolism might see Elliott’s fast-unraveling Hollywood as a microcosm of a society that’s unraveling. More than a few of the children of Levittown, after all, grew up to be people who disdained the society their parents had fought so hard to preserve. As a country, we’ve tapped the brakes on that tendency from time to time, but those brakes seem to be overheating at the moment. When I was more optimistic about the Elliott series lasting, I had a vague idea for a scene in the last novel, set when Elliott is an old man. He would consider the prewar Hollywood as dead as Troy and his career spent trying to protect it a failure. But he’d meet some young filmmakers who consider the pre-war films to be immensely important because they preserved in amber values that were tossed aside in the sixties and forgotten afterward. For these kids, the artist of the old studio system would be like the Irish monks who preserved ancient learning during the Dark Ages. It would hearten Elliott to know that the old Hollywood hadn’t really gone away and would never go away.
This idea shows me at my most naïve, which is saying something. Nowadays film students find a great deal to criticize in the values presented in old movies. Even the venerable Turner Classic Movies, which has done so much to revive the memory of forgotten Hollywood figures, routinely prefaces certain films with warnings about their dated and dangerous content. It’s not hard to imagine a day when all their films will come with warning labels and some won’t be shown at all.
Q.: What drew you to writing about Hollywood in the first place?
A.: Well, I had a huge time investment in otherwise useless movie knowledge to draw on. But what really inspired the series was an idea for a sequel to Casablanca, one that could get Bergman and Bogart back together by the fadeout. As it was decades too late to make the movie, I decided to write a private-eye novel in which an attempt to film the sequel is interrupted by a murder. It happened that the idea came to me not long after I’d watched Ken Burns’ Civil War series. I’d come away from that experience wondering how the Civil War veterans had been able to live out their lives knowing that the most important work they’d ever be involved in was over. I decided to explore that question using a World War II veteran, Scott Elliott.
Q.: Who's your favorite actress from the period? (If you say Bergman, she's spoken for.) Who's your favorite actor?
A.: It would be easier to list the actresses and actors I don’t like.
In the actress category, I like Myrna Loy and Jean Arthur quite a bit. They were both good in dramas and in comedies. I value the latter talent more because I think the comedies of the thirties hold up much better than the dramas. Claudette Colbert and Ginger Rogers are two other favorites, again because of their comedy techniques.
My all-time favorite actor is Basil Rathbone. I’m a life member of his fan club. Years ago I was asked by my book editor to pad my very thin dust-jacket resume, so I added that I was “one of the country’s foremost authorities on the films of Basil Rathbone.” I thought that undocumented claim might amuse close family members and friends who’d suffered through my proselytizing on Rathbone’s behalf. By a very circuitous route, the claim led to my induction into the Baker Street Irregulars, the country’s foremost Sherlockian society, but that’s another story. I also like Ronald Colman and William Powell, Myrna Loy’s frequent costar. All three men, Rathbone, Colman, and Powell, occasionally played detectives, not coincidently.
Q: Which movie from the period have you watched most often?
A.: I’d be interested to know myself. It’s probably either Casablanca, the inspiration for the first Scott Elliott novel, or The Adventures of Robin Hood, which contains Basil Rathbone’s finest costumed-villain turn. I agree with George MacDonald Fraser, who called Robin Hood “a near-perfect motion picture, quite the best evocation of a folk legend ever put on the screen.”
Q.: Is there a Hollywood figure you've tried to bring into a story who just refused to play his role (so to speak)?
A.: Not to date. I don’t actually use real Hollywood figures in prominent roles in any of the stories. The books all use pastiches of famous films, Passage to Lisbon for Casablanca in Kill Me Again, for example. So my stars are also substitutes, Torrance Beaumont for Humphrey Bogart, etc. This approach has advantages for a mystery writer. A reader might never accept Humphrey Bogart as a serious suspect in a murder mystery but would have no qualms about suspecting Torrance Beaumont. And being a character I created, Beaumont “took direction” better than Bogart might have.
As a writer who outlines (and perhaps overplots), I’ve always been leery of characters who won’t do what they’re told. I’ve heard about them on panels and in other places writers gather (bars, for instance) and even heard their virtues touted. I’ve never bought into that. I don’t object to a character who runs on at the mouth if I happen to be short on word count. But in general, I prefer a character who hits his marks, speaks his piece, and exits.
Q.: Can we look forward to another Scott Elliott novel?
A.: I recently came up with the idea for a new Elliott short story while reading Picture by Lillian Ross, a book about the making of Red Badge of Courage. I may give it a try. It would be fun to write in Elliott’s voice again.
Q.: Terrific! Thank you, Terry! Terence Faherty explains how the Scott Elliott short stories came about in this 2011 article for the late Ed Gorman's great blog. Read here.