Sharon Hunt’s short stories had already appeared in a variety of literary magazines before her EQMM debut in August 2015 with “The Water Was Rising.” That story is currently nominated in the best-short-story category for Canada’s most prestigious award for crime writing, the Arthur Ellis, and for an International Thriller Award. In this post the talented Ontario author lets us in on how her interest in mystery and suspense was born.—Janet Hutchings
A woman sits alone in the dark.
Who is she?
Where is she?
Why is she there?
What will happen next?
The first sentence generates the germ of a story while answering the questions that follow flesh it out into something memorable (at least, for me).
My mother loved a good scare. She loved suspense and mystery, delighted in working with gumshoes or the upper crust, uncovering clues, making deductions, bringing the guilty to justice.
As Sherlock Holmes played his violin to help him think and Philip Marlowe plied people with liquor to get them to talk, my mother had her rituals, too. She sat in our rec room with the lights out and the blinds drawn. Once a movie began there were no interruptions, unless someone had severed a limb or the house was burning down. There was no talking. I think she would have made notes had that not seemed foolish to her.
Besides, she didn’t need notes since she never forgot anything—a less than enviable trait in a mother when you become her teenage daughter, but a longed for one later, when you are a writer—and never missed a thing, including every Hitchcock cameo.
In place of more traditional detecting garb—fedoras and trench coats or deerstalkers and tweed jackets—she wore a nightgown, robe and slippers but, despite this, when the mystery unfolded, she was all business.
Some nights she watched just one movie and was in bed before midnight but other nights she watched two or three and didn’t come upstairs until the witching hour had passed.
At dinner she would warn my sister and me to stay in bed and not sneak downstairs to try to watch things that were inappropriate for us. My sister was usually “dead to the world” by ten, along with my father, but I was a night owl and curious like my mother and the warning was really directed at me.
In addition to not wanting me to watch movies I shouldn’t, she didn’t want to be interrupted because she might miss a valuable clue (this was before VCRs or DVDs were common).
She hated not being able to figure out who was guilty. When this happened, it was either because a scriptwriter or director had tried to be too clever or thrown in “ridiculous” coincidences that infuriated her or because she had to shoo me back upstairs from my hiding place (never very good because I was always seen).
It was a mystery why she loved these movies. As a girl, she had been scared of the dark and avoided conflict and menace, shielded from much of it by her twin sister, but yet there she was, my mother, alone in the night, relishing murder.
She watched any movie that sounded good, but those by Alfred Hitchcock were favorites. She loved Rear Window not only because of Jimmy Stewart (who could do no wrong) but also because of how his character, initially watching his neighbors because he’s broken his leg and is bored, becomes convinced that one of them has committed murder. The slow-simmering suspicion complemented the sultry courtyard setting.
In Vertigo, she suspected beautiful Madeleine (Kim Novack) from the beginning because perfection was always a mask and felt Scottie (Stewart, again) should have been more suspicious, too, while North by Northwest’s simple premise of “wrong place, wrong time” worked into a story so satisfying she never tired of watching it. Hitchcock might have missed the bus in that cameo, but he didn’t miss anything else, she thought.
Psycho left her shaken but less over the shower scene than when Mrs. Bates runs out and attacks the private investigator at the top of the stairs, confirming something my mother believed; the unexpected can work when it’s done right.
The Maltese Falcon also confirmed that in Humphrey Bogart’s hands, Sam Spade would sort things out, while the cursed beast in The Hound of the Baskervilles was no match for the deductive powers of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the quintessential Holmes and Watson (the modern, high-functioning sociopath and his blogging sidekick would have paled for her next to the Rathbone and Bruce duo, but she would have loved the pure, glorious evil of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty since without great villains, great mysteries fall apart).
The mysteries did fall apart a bit the summer I was eight. We had moved to a gloomy two-storey house in the country while my parents looked for a suburban bungalow. The attic was home to creatures my mother refused to name, although she feared she knew what they were, the staircase creaked unless you hugged the loose, right banister and crept down, and the lights flickered on and off as if possessed.
Still, her movie rituals continued, although in the living room as that basement was too frightening, even for her. The movies she watched that summer didn’t wrap up as neatly as she liked but were suspenseful just the same.
Alfred Hitchcock put in an appearance with The Birds and their unexplained attacks and then Bette Davis came along, first as an actress tormenting her crippled sister in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and then as a southern belle with a lover whose hand and head are cut off.
Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte was definitely not for children, my mother warned and so, of course, hugging the loose, right banister in the dark, I crept down the stairs until I could see the television in the living room, right at the moment the cleaver fell.
I ran back up to my room, not caring about the creaking, and the next morning, my mother suggested I wait until I was a bit older for “good scares like that.”
I did and a few years later, joined her in the rec room of the house we now owned. Although most of the rituals stayed the same—dressed for a bed that would have to wait and eagerness to put things right—one thing changed. When the two of us were together, we talked while the movie played, trading information and conferring, our own version of Holmes and Watson.
It wasn’t until after she died and I started writing mysteries that I realized how much those movie nights influenced my writing. It wasn’t the plot or the characters or the settings of any particular movie, it was what she said about them that mattered. She was a reader, too, like me, but she didn’t analyse books the way she did movies.
With them, she instinctively knew why a story lagged and where an unexpected event would help. If she figured out the killer’s identity too quickly or too easily, that was a problem. If the killer ended up being the last person either of us would have thought, that was a bigger problem because it wasn’t fair.
She saw cardboard characters for what they were, window dressing, and quickly ignored them. It didn’t matter, though, if characters were bad, as long as they were real.
“Why would he do that? It doesn’t make sense,” she complained if someone acted out of character.
“That setting doesn’t work. She wouldn’t be there.”
I still hear the things she said and although I didn’t realize it then, I was making notes.
A woman sits alone in the dark. A girl joins her.
The germs of so many stories were being fleshed out for later.