Whodunnit, American Style


Orcas Island, the setting for my latest novel, An Unseen Current, is the largest of the San Juan Islands.  Now, with names like those I know you’re picturing some other south of the equator island, where the palm fronds sway and whales frolic off-shore.  You’d be right about the whales, but thanks to a 1790’s Spanish explorer who was anxious to impress his boss, the Viceroy of Mexico (Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo) the San Juan Islands are bit further North – in Washington State. So while, Orcas whales do indeed frolic, if you visit Orcas you’re more likely to be doused with rain and smacked by an evergreen bow than conked on the head by a coconut.  However, the San Juans do share some of the same cultural characteristics as the tropical islands we all picture.  Life there runs on island time, people do all know each other, and islanders learn to make do with the resources they have on hand.  Accessible only by ferry or seaplane, Orcas is full of artists, foodies, retirees, tourists, and those who just don’t really care for the hustle and bustle of the mainland. And if you’re a mystery writer, it’s the perfect place for a murder.

UnseenCurrent_Vook-600x899I’ve been visiting Orcas for most of my life.  My dad’s best friend lives there and summer visits were pretty normal (if you didn’t mind the glass outhouse), and it wasn’t until college that I recognized the murderous potential of Orcas. I was teaching a water safety class for girls at Camp Moran and I realized that it was the perfect setting for an American version of the classic “English Country House” mystery.  The English Country House mystery’s cropped up with invention detective fiction and featured an amateur sleuth dropped into a murder mystery when one of the guests at their house party is killed.  The amateur sleuth is practically forced to interfere since village police are clearly unsuited to handle the case, London police are practically unreachable, and by George, no one gets away with killing one of my guests!  On Orcas, although there are police, the nearest major crimes detective is a ferry ride away in Anacortes, the suspect pool is limited to the population of the island, and while my ex-CIA agent character, seventy-something Tobias Yearly, doesn’t think he owns the island, he does think he’s the most qualified to find who murdered his best friend.  Tobias, and his granddaughter Tish, must make their way through suspects from all over the island as they contend with a suspicious police detective, an angry baker, and killer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

As I wrote An Unseen Current I tried to capture all the quirkiness and beauty of Orcas, but also to show that even small towns and islands can hide a killer.  Now, hopefully, next time I visit, none of the locals take exception to that or I may find myself stuck in the glass outhouse with someone throwing stones.

The Long Tweet Goodnight


J.M. Phillippe

In celebration of Mother’s Day my friend and fellow writer, J.M. Phillippe watched and tweeted the 1996 action flick The Long Kiss Goodnight.  You can read all our tweets at Storify. J.M and I watched the movie, tweeting as we went and then discussed the film before rating it on Feminism, Action, and Romance.


The Long Kiss Goodnight is centered around Samantha Cain (Geena Davis) the schoolteacher mom who washed up on the Jersey shore with amenesia eight years before the start of the movie. Now firmly ensconced in suburban life with her darling daughter and sweet fiance, Samantha still wonders about her past and has hired a less than professional hard drinking private detective (also ex-cop and ex-con) Hennessy (Samuel L. Jackson) to discover who she was. When she’s attacked in her home by a one-eyed psychopath (who wants his eye back, bitch!), Samantha discovers that maybe she wasn’t always the Suzie Homemaker she appears to be.  As she and Hennessy track down her past they discover that Samantha Cain is really Charly Baltimore, a hard core spy with a foul mouth, smoking habit, and penchant for violence.  While she’s been away, raising her daughter, a lot has changed on the espionage front. People who were her friends are now trying to kill her and Timothy, the man who may be the father of her child, is just plain evil. She and Hennessy are in over their heads and Samantha/Charly must reconnect with her past and make peace with her present role as a mom in order to thwart the bad guys and save their own lives.


J.M.: I never got back to your question earlier about the last time we saw this. I feel like we bought this during one of those Blockbuster used video sales in college, but I feel like it’s been a few years since I watched it. Few as is more than 5. Maybe almost as many as 10? I’m going to stop thinking about that because I already feel super old now.
Bethany: That would explain why it’s not in my DVD collection – it probably went out in the great video cassette purge of 2003.
J.M.: I think the first time I saw it I was blown away by the action, which was pretty good for the time, but mostly because it was a woman doing it all. But I also remember wishing that the dude she ended up with was more bad-ass. Like, maybe she’d redeem Timothy or something.
Bethany: I actually remember seeing this in the theater with my brother and thinking for sure that she would end up with Timothy or Samuel L. at the very least.  Timothy was TOO good looking AND the father of her kid.  I thought for sure he would find out he was the father and then turn, but probably still die.  I didn’t like that she went back to the boring fiance.  Not that there was anything wrong with him… just that he was boring.  Watching it this time, I don’t feel let down that she didn’t end up with Timothy or Samuel L., but it does feel a little convenient to end up back with the guy she started with.  Although, ditching him after he took care of the kid would have been lame.
J.M.: I also don’t remember thinking that the kid was as whiny back then. But this was Geena Davis from Beetlejuice — same hair and practically the same wardrobe, at least in the beginning, and it was shocking to see her transform. Even in Thelma & Louise, she was the “softer” one. I don’t think I ever really thought of her as tough until A League of Their Own. Judging the action by modern standards, I bought her fight scenes way more than some contemporary actresses. What really sucks is that she sort of drops of the film scene after this, outside of a few kids movies.
Bethany: I think Geena Davis was married to the director, Renny Harlin, and after they got divorced it feels like she stopped making that style of movie (he also directed Die Hard 2).
J.M.: We really don’t have a lot of women in the movie, and the others have like two little scenes. This is the Charly show, with only her daughter getting any real screen time as a female character. I think some of the henchmen got more screen time than the other women. I can’t say any of the other characters stood out to me enough to comment on. The dudes were sort of typical villains of the era — evil and tough and that edge of psychotic. Charly ends up having something sexual with all of them, even having to go into the crotch of the dead assassin trainer dude to get his gun. Plus there was that gratuitous shower scene, which is probably as close as it was gonna get to gratuitous boob scene (a staple of every action movie in a certain era). Still, I think they were softer on the objectification than even more modern movies. Like Mr. & Mrs. Smith has a whole scene where Angelina Jolie is dressed as a dominatrix in order to go kill a dude. Sex was one of her weapons, and while they hinted at that past with Charly, they mostly showed her being tough.
Bethany: They were way softer on the objectification.  And if nothing else, they spent 3 minutes of screen time lambasting Hennessy/Samuel L. for leering at a female jogger.  But I remember watching this in the theater and being uncomfortable with Charly’s sexual aggression. It was unusual then and I feel like it’s still unusual on film today.


Bechdel test:

J.M.: She does talk to her daughter, but I feel like this is supposed to be a conversation between two adult women. Other than Charly sort of talking to her other self, this never happens – that I can recall.
Bethany: No! I’m totally counting that.  Her kid plays a pivotal role in saving the day on two occasions and they use the conversations with her daughter to illuminate Charly’s character.  I say, it passed.

Feminist Rating:

J.M.: High, four burned bras (out of five). They did actually seem to think about what a female spy’s life would be like and the action didn’t feel like it was written for a dude, but they put a woman in it. This was a story genuinely centered around a woman, and a mother’s, experience.
Bethany: I’m giving it five out of five for slipping in a few feminist points aside from the main plot and action.

Action Rating:

J.M.: Five High Kicks (out of Five). Her fights/stunts were at least on par with the dudes of the era, with a few stand-out moments, like the fight in the kitchen, shooting the ice, the wheel, and even being a sharp shooter and saving Hennessey.

Bethany: Also five out of five for me. Great stunts, great explosions (raining cars!), it was everything you want from an action movie, and I feel the movie itself was well constructed.

Romance Rating:

J.M.: One heart (out of 5). The fiance in the beginning just sort of exists to dove-tail the story and give it a happy ending, and Charly and Hennessey have more of a bromance going on, with an extra layer of sexual tension. This is not a romantic action movie.
Bethany: Ditto. The Bromance is awesome, but not even the loosest interpretation of “romance” can count that for more than one heart.


J.M.: Overall still one of my favorite action flicks. I’ll have to put it in more regular rotation.
Bethany: I agree – thanks for the mother’s day gift! I’m glad to own it.  Find out more about J.M. Phillippe and her forthcoming novel Perfect Likeness at www.jennaephillippe.com