By Jean Lotus
Two Hollywood filmmakers blew into Forest Park, Aug. 23, with a 26-minute short and a goal: to get intelligent viewers to help them develop an 11-part mystery adventure set between 1895 and 1905.
Where better to get live crowd feedback on your historical detective film than Forest Park's Centuries and Sleuths, a book emporium specializing in history and mystery?
Stephanie Argy and Alex Boehm screened episode five of their series, A Person Known to Me, in the bookshelf-lined shop. This was the first screening the shop had ever hosted, said owner Augie Aleksy.
"We wanted to get some ideas about building the relationship with an audience," Argy said. They sought sophisticated, knowledgeable viewers and readers who could give them help developing their project.
They were in luck.
In the audience sat local mystery novelist Frances McNamara, author of Chicago-based mysteries Death at Pullman and Death at Hull House. Her publisher, Forest Park's Emily Victorson, was in the audience too, as was Steppenwolf actress Karen Vaccaro.
The film they screened is part of a multimedia detective series that will include seven illustrated novellas and three short films. It ends with a full-length feature film, set in Chicago in 1905.
Episode five, filmed in picturesque Port Townshend, Wash., tells the story of a cub detective, Cassius Delaney, expelled from Harvard and hired by the legendary Mahoney & Porter Investigative Agency in 1898. The episode portrays the novice's meeting with the series' protagonist, gritty Constantine Sherro, and the murder they attempt to solve.
"Originally we wanted to set the plot during the Civil War," Boehm said, "but we like to use comedy, and it's hard to be funny about the Civil War."
"We don't have any historical characters because they tend to die at inconvenient moments in a plot," said Argy.
The two chose the 10-year period at the turn of the century, partly because it was a time of such rapid technological change. Railroads overtook steamboats, steel displaced iron, telegraph lines were everywhere, and telephones were not far behind.
In the film, detectives break into a hotel room using lanterns in 1898, but several years later, they'll have electric lights, the filmmakers said.
Publishing is in the midst of a similar technological shift today. The duo said they had not yet decided which formats to use, whether book or ebook, digital file or DVD.
The audience of detective novelists and fans praised the film for its attention to historic detail, production values and comic timing.
"I cared about the characters," said McNamara.
"I loved it. Hurry up and finish it," said Victorson.
High praise indeed.