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Burlesque queen turned detective comes alive on stage in June

In much the same way a spore can lay dormant for decades — and even centuries — before conditions are just right for its germination, Velda, burlesque queen turned detective, became encysted in Ron Miller’s mind, 20 years before her birth, entirely unbeknownst to the local author and illustrator.

 

On June 8 and 9, Halifax County Little Theatre will produce the play “Velda: Girl Detective” with performances in Constitution Square.

Admission will be free.

“Velda,” Miller’s brainchild, is based on a character he created for the novel “Velda” as well as a series of short stories and comic books. 

The stories take place in the early 1950s.

Miller said he had never thought of anything like her when he walked into a used bookstore in Mexico City back in 1983. 

 “I had never even considered the possibility of writing a novel about anything at all, let alone a hard-boiled detective,” he said.

Indeed, he didn’t think he had even read a hard-boiled detective novel.

 He had created a couple of books, however, one, of which — “The Grand Tour,” a non-fiction travelogue of the solar system — had gotten Miller the job that had brought him to Mexico. 

Miller was working as a production illustrator for the motion picture version of “Dune,” and his wife, who was a modelmaker for the film, enjoyed prowling the nooks and crannies of the great, sprawling city.

“One weekend, we found a tiny bookstore run by the United States Embassy, the proceeds from its sales going to some charity or another,” Miller said.

Since the source of the books was Embassy personnel, and the bulk of the books sold were to Embasy personnel, the thousands of old paperback volumes had been circulating and recirculating since World War II, at the very least.

“As an illustrator, I found myself, well, boggled as I browsed through the shelves, finding endless classic paperback covers in nearly mint condition,” Miller said.

What really attracted Miller’s attention were the lurid covers of the detective novels.

“I’d never really seen anything like these before, at least not outside of books and magazine articles about the history of paperback publishing. I had no idea there were so many, and that they were so good. Man, could those old illustrators paint or what,” Miller said.

He began pulling the books off the shelf after he learned they were a nickel each. He ultimately carried out four or five cartons of books, maybe 200 or 300. 

And he began to read the books.

“I had every one of the Shell Scott series and all of the Mike Hammers, natch. Those must have gotten a lot of Embassy personnel though a lot of drizzly Mexican winters. 

“I had David Goodis, Frank Kane, Leslie Charteris and Dashiell Hammett (a first-edition Continental Op, too, which I understand is actually worth something) and Dodge, Sterling, Evans, Bellam and Halliday. I had Dell mapbacks and Ace doubles. 

“I had authors even I’d heard of and authors who were totally new to me. Hundreds of books and I eventually read them all,” he said.

And that sort of thing had an affect on the author and illustrator.

In the meantime, Miller continued to write non-fiction trying his hand at three novels, but they weren’t mysteries.

“Although I didn’t realize it at the time I wrote them, they were in that peculiar sub-genre of science fiction known as  ‘steam punk,’ which was OK by me since I’m a great fan of Jules Verne. And then I wrote another novel, this time in the realm of historical fantasy,” Miller said.

 The four books shared a kind of theme, however. All featured a woman as the protagonist. And not just any kind of woman, either, but a type which was described by one character as “a tough cookie.”

The trilogy concerned the trials and tribulations of a plucky if irascible princess, and the historic fantasy centered around the adventures of Bradamant, a rather dangerous female knight in the service of Charlemagne, who was in turn based on a character from the 16th century epic poem, Orlando Furioso.

Which brought Miller to yet another of the threads that led to “Velda.”

“I’ve always had a special interest in strong women. Not ‘strong’ as in physically powerful. I have no particular affection for female body builders. But, rather, strong in character and purpose. 

Miller said he has long contemplated compiling a book about the great, unknown heroines of history.

 “Not the Susan B. Anthonys or the Florence Nightengales, but the heroines relegated to footnotes, if even that much, because their heroism did not lie within traditional female roles. The women samurai, the women Vikings, women explorers, warriors and pirates.”

Miller said while that book remains to be written he did create a book about the great female characters of science fiction and fantasy, the ones who belie the hoary old stereotype that the typical science fiction heroine is a blonde bimbo swooning in the tentacles of a bug-eyed-monster.

“Firebrands, with a text by science fiction author Pamela Sargent accompanied by a hundred of my paintings, illustrated many of the great heroines, villainesses and monsters from more than 200 years of classic science fiction and fantasy, many of them recreated with the help of the original authors themselves,” Miller said.

All of this had to eventually come together for the author — an interest in heroic women, his penchant for writing novels with strong female leads and his love of lurid, hard-boiled detective novels. 

“What finally tipped me off to what was obviously heading my way was a re-reading of Mickey Spillane’s ‘Vengeance is Mine,”’ Miller recalled.

Miller said he had always found Mike Hammer’s secretary, Velda fascinating. He realized the book was really hers, not Mike’s.

In the story, Hammer loses his license and gun permit and has to depend on Velda — who has her ticket and apparently always carries an automatic in her purse —to  carry through the actual investigation.

She’s very good at legwork as it turns out, Miller noted.

“I found myself wishing that Spillane had at some time devoted at least one novel outright to Velda — she had certainly earned it. Then  I started thinking that if Spillane hadn’t or wouldn’t, then someone should,” Miller said. 

“I considered the possibility myself, but the thought lasted only about 15 seconds. I didn’t really want to write about someone else’s character (let alone go through what it would take to do so). But I did want to write about a female private eye, and I wanted it to be set in the 50s, just like in all those great paperbacks I’d been reading.”

Miller recalled an obscure little book written by an anonymous author at the beginning of the 20th century. 

“Her Other Self” described a purportedly true case that took place in the late 1800s, about a girl accused of a crime she remembered doing but couldn’t possibly have committed.

That sure seemed like a swell plot idea to Miller, and he started thinking about how to translate it into the mid-20th century. 

“I decided to call my detective ‘Velda’ as a tip of the hat to Hammer’s indefatigable assistant. She has a black page-boy haircut, too, but that’s more because I like that style than the fact that Velda 1 preferred it,” Miller said.

Miller said he based most of Velda’s personality on his wife, as he tended to do with his previous characters and her physical description on Patricia McFarren, a close relative who worked her way through college as a runway model.

According to Miller, McFarren has the perfect 50’s look as though she had just stepped out of a cold war- era Vogue, and 500-ampere glare.

 Miller said as his character, Velda Bellinghausen, evolved, she became a burlesque dance queen who tired and disgusted, had decided to change careers when she found an advertisement for a correspondence school course in detection on a matchbook cover. 

That seemed a natural thing for her to do, since her father had been a cop — one killed under mysterious and scandal-ridden circumstances that had left her with no resources (her mother having died some years earlier).

Dropping out of secretarial school to get a job as clerk in a theatrical agency, she was discovered by Maxim Slotsky and offered a job in the chorus line of his follies. 

And what happened after all this took place is the novel, Miller said.

To promote the novel, Miller thought it would be fun to pretend that the book really had been published in 1954. 

“I asked myself, ‘What sort of things might it have inspired?,”’ Miller said.

The first thing that occurred to him was that a crime comic would have been a natural spin-off. So he did a four-page 50s-style crime comic for the Velda website. 

“That was fun! So I expanded it into a full-size comic book. That was even more fun,” Miller said.

 Now there are eight comic books...as well as a collection of short stories.

After moving to South Boston five years ago, Miller and some of his friends got together and made two short Velda videos. They featured Christy Newton as Velda, along with George Ford, Tom Shepherd, Ben Capozzi and other familiar faces. 

Shortly afterward, the Convergence Art Guild produced a 15-minute one-act Velda play. 

A few months later, the Shoestring Radio Theatre of San Francisco broadcast two Velda radio plays. They were heard over 110 NPR stations coast-to-coast. 

A third radio play will be broadcast this spring.

And for those who want to learn more about Miller’s character of Velda, this spring will be the premiere of a full-length stage play written especially for the Halifax County Little Theatre. 

It will be performed on June 8 and 9 at 5 p.m. in Constitution Square.