Up Close: Raymond Benson
Mastering Dual Plotlines
By J. H. Bográn
One of the questions authors fear the most is “Where do your ideas come from?” It’s a trick question, and answering correctly is almost impossible. The truth is, ideas can come from anywhere. And in the case of Raymond Benson’s latest novel, BLUES IN THE DARK, the idea came from a newspaper clipping.
Sometime in the spring of 2017, his then-96-year-old mother sent Benson an article about a couple renovating a house who discovered a human skeleton in the wall.
“I got to thinking about secrets that old houses might have,” Benson says. “I also had in mind a story about a femme fatale actress in film noir pictures of the 1940s in Hollywood who gets in trouble and perhaps is involved in a murder, or is murdered; and then someone in the present day—a movie producer, perhaps—finds out what really happened back then.”
The two ideas merged. The creepy old house is still in the tale, but the skeleton is now “in the closet” of the 1940s actress.
BLUES IN THE DARK is about Karissa Glover, a movie producer who moves into a decrepit but functional old mansion in the West Adams Heights area of Los Angeles, where black celebrities of yesteryear—Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, and others—once resided. The former owner was a white actress, Blair Kendrick, who often starred as the “bad girl”—a femme fatale—in noir films of the 1940s. However, Blair’s career was cut short when she was tragically killed by the mob after allegedly witnessing the slaying of a corrupt studio head in 1949. As the Hollywood saying goes, “the plot thickens” when Karissa learns that Blair was involved in a then-taboo interracial relationship with jazz musician Hank Marley.
“Karissa Glover is a modern-day, smart, on-top-of-it independent film producer in Hollywood who co-owns a small production company with her best friend from film school,” Benson says. “She’s in her 40s, recently divorced, no kids, biracial, and she’s looking for her next big project after getting acclaim for the company’s previous picture. Blair Kendrick is a Hollywood actress in her 20s in the 1940s, newly discovered by one of the middle-level studios, and she’s particularly good at playing the femme fatale roles in crime pictures. Tall, blond, charismatic, and, for the time, independent and liberated. She has drive and ambition, and she takes no guff from anyone.”
Benson has mastered the style of running parallel storylines in his novels. The five books in his Black Stiletto serial do this—jumping back and forth from the late ’50s/early ’60s to the present day. The Secrets on Chicory Lane also had intercutting timelines. BLUES IN THE DARK continues that tradition.
“As the book is structured with a present-day plot and a 1940s-era plot, one might say it has two protagonists,” Benson says. “But ultimately, it’s Karissa’s story as she makes a movie, the tagline of which is The Blair Kendrick Story.”
It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but outlining the book before writing it helps with the plotting, and Benson is a confessed plotter. He believes in outlining as he feels he’s building a novel and thus needs the blueprints. “This process goes all the way back to my theater training, and how my stage directing professor taught me to completely analyze a play and draw all the blocking on paper before the first rehearsal. There’s no one correct way to write a book! We all have different methods. We do whatever works for us.”
Another staple of Benson’s books is strong female characters, which he writes with realism and respect. That respect forced him to challenge himself further because Karissa is not only female, she’s also biracial. “As there are other characters who are people of color in the novel, I knew I needed to do due diligence and get it right,” Benson says.
“I interviewed and talked to several people, and I traveled to LA to research the West Adams Heights neighborhood. I had beta readers who were people of color and the publisher enlisted a sensitivity copyeditor beyond my usual editor,” he says. “The biracial element added another difficulty level that I knew I needed to present as accurately and honestly as I could.”
That honesty includes dealing with the inherent racism of each era. The book was written during the summer of 2017, and there had been a lot of recent national discussion about racism. The first draft was finished just weeks prior to that fall, when the #MeToo movement began, and coincidentally the book also deals with sexual harassment.
“I didn’t plan it, but I may have been influenced by current events. The racism that existed in Hollywood in the 1940s was real, and one only need look around to see that there is still racism today,” he says. “That said, BLUES IN THE DARK is a crime thriller, and that’s all I ever really wanted it to be. Any social statements that exist in the book grew out of the development of the story, and they were not intentional from the get-go.”
The title BLUES IN THE DARK is a reference to a song first recorded in 1938 by Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing, but it has been recorded by others since then. “I discovered the song doing the research for the book. I wanted an old blues song that would become the signature tune for Hank and Blair’s relationship, and it fit the bill perfectly. It also provided me with the perfect title for the novel.
“I’ve published around 40 books, and this one was the most difficult,” Benson says. “I honestly didn’t know that it would grow into the kind of story that it did, with the characters that it contains, until I was so far along that I was hooked and couldn’t stop. I was compelled to challenge myself and allow the novel to be what it naturally became. I worked very hard on it, my editor at Skyhorse/Arcade CrimeWise worked very hard on it, and everyone—from my literary agent to the marketing people—had a hand in helping me make sure that I’ve told this story with sensitivity and truthfulness.”
BLUES IN THE DARK is the kind of book that compels readers to turn the pages the way only a good suspense thriller can.
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