From Whence Porter Down

Gentle Readers: 

If you read either of my novels in the Porter Down series - Frankenstein's Witch: St. Lizzie, Pray for Us, and/or Platinum Widow: Who Killed Jean Harlow's Husband? - you possibly wondered: From where sprang the idea for this private investigator character? 

Well...first of all, as a film historian and author of many books and audio commentaries on cinema history, I've marveled at the many times in Hollywood that truth was, indeed, stranger than fiction. Considering what we do know about what happened in the 1930s and 1940s, what stories might there be that we never will discover? That were concealed from the public by the studios? That might truly have destroyed Hollywood if they ever emerged from guarded secrecy? 

Having interviewed over 100 people who worked in the notorious film industry of eight-to-nine decades ago, and having heard and preserved their candid stories, I can say in all honesty that few things would shock or surprise me anymore regarding vintage Hollywood. Hence, the basis for these novels and their offbeat protagonist: Considering what we do know, what secrets might we NOT know?

That's where Porter Down makes his entrance. Research the tragic personalities involved in the shooting of the original Frankenstein in 1931, and you likely won't find it hard to believe the novel's premise that a witch infiltrated the company of this notorious horror classic... and created blasphemous havoc. Study the lives of Jean Harlow and her doomed bridegroom Paul Bern, and you realize the variety of sordid, scandalous motivations that caused Bern to become either a suicide or a murder victim. Take a deep-dive into the darkness of the Hollywood studios of the Golden Age, and you find a tarnished, sinister world that often destroyed unmercifully its talented, beautiful, and ultimately ill-fated inhabitants.

Porter Down battles the Witch. He combats the forces conspiring against Jean Harlow. He dares to wage a one-man war against Hollywood itself. 

The inspiration for Porter? When I first became interested in the old movies, an actor named Brian Donlevy intrigued me. He was especially striking in the mid-1930s, when he had a fair, handsome, sharp profile on a squat body with a puffin walk. He later became a rather stiff utility player, taking on the look of a teamster boss, but in his youth, he was a feisty presence with great comic timing who could play heroes or villains (notably the unspeakable Sgt. Markoff in the 1939 Beau Geste - which, by the way, is possibly going to be the setting of a future Porter Down Hollywood Mystery). His publicity claimed he'd been a decorated ace teenage pilot in World War I with the legendary Lafayette Escadrille and a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy before becoming a Broadway actor in 1924. 

Well, as it turned out, Donlevy was WWI veteran - but not a pilot. And although he attended Annapolis’ Naval Academy - he never graduated. However, for whatever reasons, in the mid/late 1930s, he wore a white sailor suit and cap at his leisure. I once saw a picture taken in Missouri of Brian on location in 1938 for the shooting of the classic western Jesse James, and there he was, relaxing in his sailor suit and cap. If the sailor togs were a hang-up for Brian Donlevy, I decided they'd be one too for Porter Down - who, in the novels, really was a Lafayette Escadrille pilot (and for a time, attended the Naval Academy). 

Porter Down is the ideal hero for these novels because he, too, has his dark secrets. The novels gradually, powerfully reveal them. He fears nothing, knows much of Shakespeare and the Bible by heart, still flies a biplane, loves animals (especially his pet one-legged jackrabbit), suffers no fools gladly, has an irreverent sense of humor, and has battled face-to-face with Evil in a colony where it blooms exotically. 

In his next book, which takes place with the 1935 horror film Mark of the Vampire as a backdrop, he takes on his most unholy foe and faces some of his own deepest, darkest secrets. 

He and I have become pals. Long may he reign in my imagination.