Monday, January 30, 2023

Now on View by Mary Dutta

I love museums. They are everywhere, endlessly fascinating, and full of cool things, including writing ideas.

Take Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered, an exhibit currently on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Hirshfield was a self-taught artist who only started painting after retiring at 65 from a career in the garment industry. He won acclaim from the influential gallerist Peggy Guggenheim and her Surrealist artist husband and friends. The founding director of the Museum of Modern Art even gave him a solo show.

Critical reception was harsh, however, one reviewer dismissing Hirshfield as “the master of two left feet,” a slam against what he saw as an amateurish inability to correctly represent the human form. The museum director was fired, and Hirshfield lapsed back into obscurity. 

I found the whole story fascinating and, in many ways, analogous to the mystery-writing world. Some authors get their start later in life after leaving other careers. Some writers are championed while others are ignored. Some have all-too-brief moments of fame. And despite the best efforts at promotion, some works just never catch on.

Hirshfield’s tale also opens up a world of crime story ideas. What happens to the artist who fails to achieve the heights she thinks she’s been promised? What about the artist who isn’t plucked from obscurity, what might that resentment drive her to do? What revenge will the museum director take for the loss of his job? My latest published story, The Grift of the Magi, in Hook, Line, and Sinker: The Seventh Guppy Anthology, is about a divorcing couple’s battle over a valuable painting. Now I’m thinking I may have more art stories to tell.

Not all museums focus on art, of course. On the same trip, I learned more about Jewish delicatessens at the New York Historical Society. The exhibition explored immigration, culture, and (of course) food. Food plays an outsize role in many cozy mysteries, and some actually use delis as a setting. Maybe I’ll be the next author to slip in a killing between the pastrami and the rye, with a side of cole slaw and revenge. There could be a stolen recipe, a food service inspector on the take, or a long-time waitress with a brand-new secret. There is a full menu of plotlines to choose from.

Mystery came to mind again at a Poster House exhibit on World War II anti-spying propaganda. Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel N or M deals with the exact fears of British fifth columnists and Nazi infiltrators that the posters warned against, underscoring yet again how mystery novels reflect the world around them. The lines between fiction and reality blurred even further in that case when the British security service, MI-5, investigated Christie because she named one of the novel’s characters Major Bletchley. The spies were worried that she had knowledge of their then-secret code-breaking facility at Bletchley Park (another great museum to visit, by the way).

Speaking of Christie, my next trip is to Egypt. I’m looking forward to mystery ideas ancient and new. How about you? Has a museum ever inspired you?


Susan said...

Wow, naming characters in a legally scary business! Thanks for the warning.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Enjoy Egypt! My 2019 trip was life-changing. When we took a felucca to the Cataract Hotel in Aswan, we could see Dame Agatha's balcony where she wrote Death on the Nile.

KM Rockwood said...

The world is full of fascinating objects and ideas, and museums are the ideal place to explore them. Enjoy your travels!

Korina Moss said...

Museums are a wealth of inspiration! What a great article. My ex-husband's family is Jewish and I love their culture, especially as it relates to food. Jewish delis and diners were a mainstay for us. I am so jealous you are going to Egypt -- it's sure to feed your muse. Agatha's Death on the Nile creative energy will be felt. I can't wait to see what comes of your trip.

E. B. Davis said...

I was just thinking the other day how future forward the TV show Maxwell Smart was. It's ridiculous, but he had a shoe phone, like a cell phone. When I first got a cell phone and it rang inside my pocketbook, I held my pocketbook up to my ear. My friend and I started laughing because it reminded us of Max taking off his shoe to talk. Sometimes even old TV shows have genius. Of course, I find inspiration in such because I like humorous mysteries!

Lori Roberts Herbst said...

Fascinating post and great insight into how a mystery writer's mind takes every bit of knowledge and analyzes it for the story it might tell. And Egypt? I'm so jealous!

Kait said...

Fascinating post. I can’t say I’ve ever been inspired by a museum – if you don’t count awe-inspired – but I can definitely see possibilities….

Molly MacRae said...

Great post and insight into museums, Mary. Two and a half decades ago I was director of the history museum in Tennessee's oldest town - Jonesborough. Years before that, as a graduate student, I had a position at what was then called the World Heritage Museum at the University of Illinois. Oh the inspiration that continues to come out of both places! I owe at least a couple of published mysteries to them, a great murder weapon, and a whole exhibit's worth of characters. Ooh, and now your post has inspired the topic for my next post. Thanks! Let's tour a museum together sometime.