Call it what you will, “the necessary” is the perfect setting!
It’s true; everything Susan and I have written together invariably features a bathroom scene. It is the most versatile of locations, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether our heroine is twelve or twenty-nine, sooner or later, she’ll have to go. Not that she actually ever “goes,” although in Outbid by the Boss, we had to give Samantha Redfern a break because…
“She really was bursting for a pee. And a little privacy because this, she fumed as she locked the cubicle door behind her, was probably her last chance for either.”
And it was. Sam never did get another chance to relieve herself in the entire book, at least not on the page. But she did get time for a frantic call to her friend Mia while her boss waited impatiently to whisk her away to his ancestral home where they, of course, fell in love.
Not all bathroom scenes end that way. From films to novels and series television, characters surreptitiously hook up with one another in public toilets, hide from villains in the one room in the house with the smallest window, and often meet their end in the most gruesome ways.
Nonetheless, taking refuge in the rest room is a time-honoured tactic.
It’s also useful if you don’t have an office in downtown Toronto. Back in the day, we used to collate our scripts in a seldom-used ladies’ room at the Delta Chelsea before we began writing romance novels as Stephanie Browning. Worked a treat!
In Undone by the Star, the second in our London trilogy, head concierge Alexis Kirkwood takes a ribbing in the staff lounge at the exclusive Sadler Hotel (we do like posh hotels) after a close encounter with a new guest…who just happens to be a drop-dead gorgeous movie star.
Alex uncapped her lipstick. “What exactly did you hear…not that I’m interested.” She touched up her lips, her face reflecting studied nonchalance.
“Well…” said Kate, “…according to my sources…first, Marc Daniels tricks you into personally escorting him to his suite, and then, mere moments later, the plumber wanders out of the loo to find Mister Daniels undressing you, with his teeth, ripping the teeny tiny buttons off your shirt while you pretend to fight him off…”
“Which you, of course, totally believe!”
“Are you kidding me! What woman in her right mind would fight him off?”
“Actually, I was swooning with ecstasy!” drawled Alex.
“Really?” Kate’s eyes threatened to pop out of her head.
“Nooo… If anyone got caught in the act, it was Bert. You should have seen him. Just as I was telling Marc there was a problem with the toilet, it flushes, and out comes Bert hoisting up the back of his pants!”
“And you’re blushing because….”
She’s falling in love. Alex might not know it yet, but we had it all arranged. Marc and Alec were destined to be together and, as far as we know, still live happily ever after.
Ironically, our first co-authored “toilet scene” was in The Mad Hacker, a juvenile mystery we wrote for Scholastic featuring 12-year-old super sleuths Amber Mitchell and Liz Elliot. Liz is hiding out in the girls’ washroom waiting for Amber when in walks Jane Dobbs, Amber’s arch enemy.
Liz leapt up on the toilet seat and crouched down, praying for balance and Amber’s speedy return.
“If you ask me,” Jane was saying to another girl in her unmistakable whine, “Amber’s hot for Jonathan. Why else would she stick up for him?”
“Amber always sticks up for people,” came the reply. “She’s been doing it since kindergarten.”
That has to be Karen Lee, thought Liz.
“Well I want to know where they are,” insisted Jane. “The police wouldn’t have sent for Jonathan if Liz and Amber had been at lunch. They’re up to something.”
“Probably,” replied Karen. ‘They usually are. But I bet they won’t tell you.”
“Come on,” said Jane. “Let’s go.”
“Just a minute. I have to go to the washroom.”
Liz lost her balance and almost fell into the toilet. Then the door swung open, and there she was, perched on the facilities like a vulture with cramps.
The colour drained from Karen’s face.
Liz grabbed some toilet paper and shoved it at her.
Karen stared back. “I think I’ll go later,” she called to Jane, then she grinned at Liz and shut the door.
We had a lot of fun with that scene, especially when we adapted The Mad Hacker for television — at which point “location” took on a whole new meaning!
The first time I saw Susan was at Camp Etobicokee. We would have been about eleven that summer, gawky in shorts and t-shirts and sticking fast to the kids we already knew. The morning activities were over and Susan was at a picnic table on the far side of the clearing eating lunch with her gang while I, and my group of hormone-ridden preteens, sat opposite eating ours.
The lines had been drawn. Nostrils flared, and for some inexplicable reason, Susan’s eyes locked on mine, and war was declared. And every day at noon from then on, we took up our positions and glared at each other with great hostility as we sipped on our chocolate milk.
I blame Hayley Mills.
The Parent Trap, the movie that had every girl desperately wanting to be an identical twin, had opened in Toronto two weeks earlier. With British actor Hayley Mills playing both parts, the “sisters” show up at Miss Inch’s Camp for Girls totally unaware of each other’s existence. Naturally, they become arch enemies, then best friends and one big happy family by the end of the film.
It took us a lot longer.
My family had moved to London; Susan’s had stayed in Toronto and then, all of a sudden, eight years had passed and it was time to go to university. I packed my bags and headed for Ottawa, picked up the keys to my dorm room and, with great excitement, opened the door and came face-to-face with my new roommate!
I honestly can’t remember what happened next. I suppose Susan and I were simply too stunned to do anything but declare a truce and divvy up the closet space. By the end of the day, we were fast friends, both studying journalism and sharing our “camp story” with anyone who would listen.
A dozen years later we started writing mysteries together, like the ones we read as kids. And even though we haven’t lived in the same city, or even the same country since university, and still don’t, we co-authored two highly-successful children’s mysteries — The Mad Hacker and Something’s Fishy at Ash Lake — and went on to adapt them for television.
Ironically, while checking the release date for the original version of The Parent Trap, I discovered that it, too, is an adaptation. The original book, Lottie and Lisa by German author Erich Kästner, was published in 1949. Kästner, who is known the world over for Emil and the Detectives, died in 1974, but his beloved tale of the resourceful Emil, lives on.
As does The Parent Trap, which was remade in 1998 staring Lindsay Lohan, allowing us to retell our “camp story” over and over again!
The Mad Hacker will be re-issued this fall.
The Cover Story…
As soon as Susan and I found our storyline for Undone by the Star, our second Stephanie Browning romance, we immediately started thinking about the cover. We’d been thrilled with the image and design for Outbid by the Boss, and wanted to replicate the look.
But how? And with what? We had yet to write the scene that would riff off the title and give us that double-entendre we had so cleverly come up with. Something to think about, we decided, as we continued writing.
Now I’m not the best sleeper in the world. Conundrums like finding the right image, the right word, or even the right title tend to be my version of counting sheep. (I’ve tried counting money, but I always run out before I nod off.) So there I was thinking about what our drop-dead gorgeous film star might be “undoing” when I remembered the bridesmaid’s dress my daughter Lindsay had worn to her friend Emily’s wedding.
It would be perfect: two-piece, gorgeous silvery-blue peau de soie, and…the bodice had a back zipper! My imagination soared. We could use the same scarf we’d used for the cover of Outbid by the Boss as the backdrop, drape the pearls across the back of the bodice, and with the zipper partway down to add a whisper of intent, we’d have our cover shot!
Problem solved – I could go to sleep.
But just as I was drifting off, I swear I heard Jane Austen…
“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” she cooed in my ear, “that once a wedding is over, a bridesmaid’s dress is rarely, if ever, seen again.”
Damn the woman.
I closed my eyes and tried to picture the garment bags hanging next to the winter coats in the guest room closet at my daughter’s. As if that would help. It was now ten past three. Lindsay would be up in a couple of hours. All I had to do was wait.
I fell asleep of course. Mothers do that when they’re old…they also hoard bridesmaid’s dresses. I’m sure I’ll give it back one day, but in the meantime…it’s in my cupboard now!
Spoiler Alert: There are no bridesmaids in Undone by the Star, but the bodice pictured on the front cover does indeed belong to my daughter Lindsay.
In her 1986 appearance at Trinity College in Toronto, P.D. James reasoned that our fascination with detective fiction stems from a longing to “return in spirit to a more ordered society, a more assured morality.” We want our murderers caught and their crimes punished, their motivation explained and the cases closed.
But for James Ellroy, author of such international bestsellers as L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid and The Black Dahlia, real life didn’t work out that way. His mother Jean, a 43-year-old nurse working for an aircraft manufacturer, was murdered in 1958 when James was just 10 years old, her body dumped on a roadway in suburban Los Angeles, her murderer never found.
My Dark Places is Ellroy’s acknowledgment of the past – his tortured adolescence, his struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, and his complex feelings about the mother he had barely know and harshly judged. His journey back began in 1994 with a call from a friend. Frank Girardot was writing an article on five unsolved killings – including Ellroy’s mother’s murder. He would be reading her files and seeing her body exposed in photos from the crime scene. Ellroy couldn’t avoid it any longer.
Six weeks later, he was on a plane to California. With the help of Bill Stoner, a retired Los Angeles County homicide detective, Ellroy sifted through the old police files and newspaper accounts of the case, and then systematically tracked down anyone he could who was even remotely connected with his mother’s murder. While the belated attempts to identify Jean’s killer were unsuccessful, Ellroy was able to finally establish a relationship with his mother, albeit a posthumous one.
Part autobiography, part investigative journalism, My Dark Places is a no-holds-barred and difficult read by a man who, by his own admission, is obsessed with murdered women and a debt to his mother that he can never repay.
Howard Engel, best known for his fictional series featuring private eye Benny Cooperman, also enters the non-fiction market this year with Lord High Executioner, a comprehensive look at the history of execution. Ranging from the gallows at Newgate Prison and mass executions in the Chinese province of Guangdong to New York’s introduction of the electric chair and death by lethal injection in Texas, Engel has written an engaging account of the men – and women – who have “done our dirty work for us” and the methods they used.
According to Engel, there have been as many botched executions as successful ones. Jack Ketch, who appears to have been one of the most inept men ever to wield an axe, was almost lynched by a crowd of onlookers when he had to use his knife to finish off the Duke of Monmouth. Our own Arthur Ellis, once the most feared man in Canada, cut short his career as a hangman when he neglected to take into account the additional weight Tomasino Sarao had gained in prison while awaiting her execution. His calculations were off and Sarao was decapitated as she fell through the trapdoor of the scaffold.
While Engel makes it clear that he did not set out to write a sociological analysis of capital punishment, his strong belief in abolition and the way in which he has presented his material give Lord High Executioner a distinctly Canadian point of view. His frustrations with the inequities in the legal system are particularly evident in his chapters on the United States where “Hispanics and blacks are disproportionately represented in the Death House.” It’s an unsettling conclusion to a witty and well-written book that continues to resonate.
In A Dance With Death, Frank W. Anderson documents the cases of 49 women who were condemned to death in Canada between 1754 and 1954, including the aforementioned Tomasino Sarao.
It’s hard to imagine how friends and neighbours were not aware of what was happening when Minnie McGee sent her children to buy matches and then mixed their phosphorus tips into the children’s porridge, but Anderson presents her case within the context of the times. Life in rural Prince Edward Island was hard. Minnie herself had had 14 children and already buried three from natural causes. She succeeded in killing them all before the community finally believed in her guilt. Pleading insanity, she spent six years in an asylum before receiving an early release to take care of her ailing father – alas, there’s no mention of how long he lived!
By delving into the original trial records and newspaper accounts of the day for his material, Anderson, who has published numerous other books on crime and Canadian history, has produced a vivid portrait of Canadian society.
Women Who Kill by Ann Jones became an international bestseller when it was first published in 1979. While this book, which explores how and why women have killed throughout history, has long been a staple for students majoring in sociology and women’s studies, it covers a lot more ground than its title suggests. Each case, from the famous to the obscure, is explored within the context of the prevailing social and legal attitudes towards women in the United States at that time.
This new edition, which contains previously unpublished material, takes issue with the media and with society’s reaction towards women’s criminality, as well as the impact feminism has had on the public’s perception of justifiable homicide. While it’s not fiction, it does confirm P.D. James’s theory that all detective novels provide us with “one crime for which we need feel no responsibility.”
Twenty years have passed since this article first appeared in The Ottawa Citizen, but its relevance remains.