Thursday, November 20, 2014

When is a house, not just a house?

When is a house, not just a house? When it becomes a character, of course. That's what happens in my Tracy Eaton mystery, Revenge for Old Times' Sake.

Tracy's nutty old house, a gift from her nutty old mother, movie star Martha Collins, reflects more architectural styles than a first-year architecture textbook. It first put in an appearance at the end of the second adventure in my madcap series, Dem Bones' Revenge. Though it's instrumental in the wrapping up of that mystery, it's only in Revenge for Old Times' Sake that the house truly blossoms into a full-blown character.

First we meet the “angels” room, which is decorated in a fairly conventional manner — if you can overlook the small angels painted across its walls. Only with closer scrutiny does it become apparent they all resemble Martha’s film contemporaries, the people who actually occupied that room when they visited. Even knowing they were real people, Tracy notes that she might have found the sight of those angels peaceful — if one celestial spirit, who looked suspiciously like a leading man with whom her mother reportedly carried on a torrid dalliance, hadn’t been flashing her.

And then there’s the “chalkboard” room, with its blackboard walls. Martha always gave that guest room to artists and provided them with pastel chalk, encouraging them to create their own surroundings. Now, Tracy uses it to house her fastidious mother-in-law Charlotte, knowing that with her penchant for neatness, Charlotte won't be able to tolerate anything as dusty as chalk. While Tracy savors the sight of Charlotte anxiously rubbing at invisible spots, she amuses herself with the fantasy that her prissy mother-in-law has the DTs.

Most of the book’s action centers around the home’s gaudy Art Deco pool, where only hours after Tracy’s sweetie Drew bops his boorish boss Ian Dragger in the nose — Ian is found floating face down in the Eaton’s pool, deader than disco. And when the bodies in the pool start stacking up like logs in a lumber camp, it’s only because of the unusual resources in that crazy house, they’re able to hide one of the murders until Tracy can do a little of her unconventional sleuthing. 

While writing Revenge for Old Times’ Sake, that house became so real to me, it was almost as if I could hear my own footsteps tapping against its Spanish tile floors, as if I were sitting at the dining table built to resemble Stonehenge, as if I could actually work the trick carpet staircase runner that, when flicked just right, hurls someone down the steps. No real designer would think to offer a feature like that, but the runner comes in handy in Revenge for Old Times’ Sake.

I always knew where I wanted to place the. Rimming the Northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles is a picturesque sandstone mountain range called the Simi Hills. Today that rocky area is mostly filled with suburban homes. But back in what would have been Martha and Alec’s heyday, it was all vast vistas and horse ranches, as well as a popular location setting for Western movies. Some of the Hollywood crowd even built country homes there. I felt sure that Martha would have built a doozy of a house in that locale.

I must confess that one of my secret fantasies has always been to inherit an old wreck of a house stuffed to the rafters with what others might describe as “junk,” but which I’d consider “treasures.” Not for the financial gain, but the fun of exploring the old mausoleum. Since nobody in my family ever owned such a place, the odds of one falling into my hands seem slim.

But like all writers, I can live out my fantasies through my characters. I think it's even better that way. Let's be honest — what are the odds that I could actually find a house this crazy in real life?

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