Interview with Jane Stanton Hitchcock, Author of Bluff

Jane Stanton Hitchcock‘s novel Bluff was the Winner of the 2019 Dashiell Hammett Prize for Literary Excellence in Crime Writing.

The Strand Magazine says: “Not only can Hitchcock stage a murder mystery that’s as comedic as it is clever, but she also skewers the social elite―a world in which she grew up―with a satirical touch that’s both razor-sharp and subtly sympathetic.”

We were delighted to speak with Jane about Bluff, her noir crime thriller that released in paperback in April.

BLUFF grew out of your own mastery of poker. In what ways did the game inspire this book – and how is the idea of bluffing a catalyst for suspense?

First of all, I would never say I had “mastered” poker.  If anything, the game is my master.  It’s taught me a lot about life and how to deal with adversity – namely, there’s no point in dwelling on bad luck or one’s mistakes.  Hard as it is, you sometimes have to say “Next Hand” and get on with it.  I also realized that at the poker table I was being underestimated just as I had been in life.  Players never expect an older woman to play anything but Old Lady Poker, just like the guy who swindled my mother out of millions of dollars never expected me to find out about his larceny and ultimately help put him in jail.  When I made this connection I found a way into the book:  Combine being underestimated in life and in poker and write a twisty tale of murder, revenge, and bluffing.  I hope the reader will be intrigued by the characters and swept up in the twists and turns of the story.  The book is one long poker hand with a Flop, a Turn, and the River.  As they play the hand with me, I want them to be thinking:   “How the hell does she get out of this?”  Only one way:  Bluff!

“Mad Maud” Warner is a complex character – and a timely one, given the fervor of feminism and the #MeToo movement. In what ways do you see her as an everywoman of sorts – and how did you balance likability with believability in developing her person? 

I say in the book: “Older women are invisible, and we don’t even have to disappear.”  Power derived from supposed weakness is a theme of the book. In the very first scene, Maud is able to escape because no one can fathom a woman like her – an older, well-dressed socialite – could have had the balls to commit such a shocking crime in a posh and crowded restaurant.

The book is told in two voices:  Maud’s own, as she recounts what led her to commit murder; and the third person, which details the crime and its aftermath on all the people involved.  My hope is that the reader will be rooting for Maud as she explains what has led her to such violence and why she thinks she can possibly get away with it if she literally plays her cards right!  I guess she’s a #MeToo murderer!

You also satirize high society. How do you view humor as a tool for enlightenment – and what’s your rule for achieving a sense of fun (and funny) without crossing the line into farce or offensiveness? 

I like what Abba Eban said: “The upper crust is a bunch of crumbs held together by dough.”  I grew up in so-called “High Society” and, as I say in the book “money is a matter of luck; class is a matter of character.”  Maud knows she can trust some of her dicey poker playing pals much more than the “social” friends she’s known her entire life.  I also say:  “Money exaggerates who people are.  If you’re good you’ll be better, if you’re bad you’ll jump right down on the devil’s trampoline.”  A lot of people think having money makes them better than other people.  I like to aim my pen at such pretension and there’s no better way to do it than with humor.  I’d have to be Dostoevsky to write my own family’s story without humor.  As the book shows, money doesn’t save anyone from addiction, swindling, and death.  In fact, money often makes things worse.  But there’s nothing more exasperating than self-pity.  So telling my family’s story was a challenge.  It took me nineteen drafts!  But the poker theme eventually helped me harness the humor in all the darkness.

In addition to a novelist, you are also a playwright and screenwriter. In what ways do these disciplines inform one another – and what are the greatest challenges of the novel in comparison?

Movies are really a directors’ medium so a writer is blessed if he/she has a good director.  Enough said.  Playwriting taught me about creating scenes and developing characters through dialogue.  In the theatre time on the stage grows more expensive with each minute.  You have to engage the audience.  Therefore, you always have to ask yourself:  What’s at stake?  Why should people care about these characters, this situation?  You have a captive audience sitting there waiting for things to develop in a finite amount of time.  The novel has no such constraints.  But I confess, I love a good, twisty plot. I like every scene to further the story.  But I also think it’s important for the reader not to be one jump ahead of me.  It’s when surprise meets inevitability that I feel I’ve done my job.  I want my readers to say:  Wow I didn’t see that coming, but now it all makes sense!

I try and give the reader a sense of place without overloading the description.  Action is character and I really like writing dialogue, putting myself into all the characters – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  It’s fun to create a good villain and more fun to see the villain get his/her comeuppance.  But in my books, there is usually an anti-heroine who is, herself, operating in an amoral sphere.  In Bluff, I want my audience to be complicit in Maud’s revenge and root for her to get it – otherwise the book doesn’t work.

What does winning the Hammett Prize mean to you?

It’s an incredible honor.  I never expected to win it!  Being nominated was enough, particularly among such a talented group of writers, not to mention the distinguished nominees and winners of past years.  Frankly, just to be favorably mentioned in the same sentence with Dashiell Hammett is a mystery writer’s dream.

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