Women of Mystery: A Filmmaker and a Librarian Team Up to Connect Crime Authors with Social Issues on the Page, on Film, and in the Library

Article excerpt

By the time the film Women of Mystery: Three Writers Who Forever Changed Detective Fiction had been completed by filmmakers Pamela Beere Briggs and William McDonald, it had inspired the creation of a screening, reading, and discussion program that would go on to delight, provoke, and stimulate audiences in California libraries. Here the film's codirector relates the movie's genesis, and a librarian tells how it developed into an innovative program for libraries.

1990: A reader is hooked, and the public library supplies her habit.

PAMELA BEERE BRIGGS: I remember seeking fun-to-read, engaging mystery fiction following my graduation from college in 1980, but all I found were the books I had already read as a teenager: Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and thrillers. By the time Sara Paretsky's and Sue Grafton's books first appeared in 1982, I had given up my search and gone on to other kinds of books and then to graduate film school, where my schedule no longer allowed any time to read fiction.

By 1990, I was working as a congressional fellow on Capitol Hill for Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, and simultaneously editing my film Funny Ladies: A Portrait of Women Cartoonists in the living room of the apartment I shared with my husband and filmmaking partner, Bill McDonald. One day, after hearing me yearn for mysteries as riveting as those I had read as a child, an intern in Schroeder's office placed on my desk a copy of Paretsky's Killing Orders. Little did she know that this gesture would influence the next 12 years of my life.

I will never forget the excitement I felt in meeting Paretsky's protagonist, V. I. Warshawski, for the first time. Bold, intelligent, strong, and brave, she was vastly different from any character I had previously encountered in fiction. By page 50 I was hooked; I couldn't stop reading. Happily, the District of Columbia Public Library's Cleveland Park branch fed my hunger for Paretsky's books and introduced me to such writers as Linda Barnes, Liz Cody, Amanda Cross, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller.

I soon realized that many others were reading these novels with as much interest and enthusiasm as I was. This was no surprise: The writers were raising compelling questions about such social issues as spousal abuse, the environment, homelessness, and the death penalty; about crime and justice; and about the importance of women's voices to literature, and the intimate connection between readers and the female hero. Because I am a filmmaker, my response to these questions was turning into an idea for a film--one that would be a celebration and exploration of these writers' works, and a historic record of their contribution to the genre and their impact on readers.

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The 1990s: A film is (gradually) made.

I spent the 1990s working on my film Women of Mystery: Three Writers Who Forever Changed Detective Fiction. Bill and I moved back across the country to Los Angeles, where Bill would eventually have a position at the University of California/Los Angeles; we had a child; we bought our first house; and we spent hours, weeks, months writing grant proposals to find enough money to fund the film. By 1997, after spending days filming with Grafton, Muller, and Paretsky, we had the major pieces in place to begin editing.

During the editing process, we realized that the film was as much about reading as it was about writing. With that in mind, we filmed re-creations of passages from the authors' books, told from the readers' point-of-view. Our goal was to re-create what it feels like to be a reader in the world of the book. We decided to have one narrator, actress JoBeth Williams, perform the voice of all three detectives, because when readers hear a book's characters speak it's with the reader's own voice.

January 2000: The Center for the Book enters the picture and a discussion series is born.

Toward the end of the filmmaking process, but several thousand dollars short of completion, I learned about the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress and its state center affiliates. …