Excerpt: 'Dial H For Hitchcock' In Susan Kandel's latest Cece Caruso mystery, the middle-aged fashionista and part-time sleuth is about to hit the bottom. Her love life is a shambles, her biography of Alfred Hitchcock is over deadline, and to top it all off, she's just been accused of murder.
NPR logo Excerpt: 'Dial H For Hitchcock'

Excerpt: 'Dial H For Hitchcock'

Dial H For Hitchcock
Dial H For Hitchcock
By Susan Kandel
Paperback, 320 pages
Harper Paperbacks
List price: $13.99

Bachelor Number One appeared later that evening at the beautiful old Orpheum Theatre on Broadway. He was tall, dark and handsome, but it still hurt like hell when he stepped on my toe.

"Sorry," he said. "Is that seat taken?"

"Yes!" The woman sitting next to me threw her beige cardigan across the seat. "My lover is on her way. She's been unavoidably detained." The woman had an anxious look on her face and plastic-wrapped dry cleaning enveloping her feet, like swaddling. "She's a neurologist, if you must know. There was an emergency."

"Maybe you meant this one?" I indicated the empty seat on my other side.

"That's the one," Bachelor Number One said with a smile.

I smiled back. Then I felt the smile crumble. Then, fighting a sudden desire to weep, I sputtered, "Actually, I don't know. About the seat, I mean. I think it might be taken. That could very well be the case."

The bachelor scratched his head. "Well, are you with someone?"

"That's rich," the woman with the beige cardigan muttered.

I looked at her, completely unsure of myself now.

"Am I with someone?" I repeated, as if translating from the Croatian.

A blonde in a robin's egg blue dress squeezed past us to a seat at the far end of the row. "Sorry. Close quarters here."

She was juggling red licorice and a large bucket of popcorn.

"I told you I wanted butter," said her bald boyfriend, snatching the bucket out of her hands.

"Why don't you just say thank you?" I asked him, my voice rising in something like panic. Then, spinning back around to the bachelor, I said, "Whether or not I'm with someone is an extremely personal question. I didn't ask you whether or not you were with someone. You're not wearing a wedding ring, but I didn't say, 'Excuse me, sir, are you single, or divorced, or god forbid maybe even married but not wearing a ring in the hopes of misleading trusting young women?' So what's your excuse? What do you care if I'm single, or if I'm married, or if I came this close to getting married but didn't, and had to mail back all the lovely presents, some to Buffalo, New York, even?"

Perhaps I wasn't ready to start dating again.

"Look, I'm just trying to see a movie here." The bachelor was now backing into the aisle, hands raised in surrender. "No hard feelings. It's pretty obvious you have stuff to work out."

After he walked away, I closed my eyes and imagined myself as a little girl skipping through a field of wildflowers, the sun warming my skin. When my breathing returned to normal, I opened my eyes and picked a piece of popcorn off my vintage black and white Lilli Ann suit with raspberry silk lining and three quarter length sleeves. Whatever. The suit was tweed boucle, so debris actually blended in.

As the house lights went down the collective sound of several hundred people switching their cell phones to vibrate filled the cavernous space. I scrambled around beneath my feet but couldn't find my purse because the beige cardigan's neurologist lover had arrived and piled her own plastic-wrapped dry cleaning on the floor in front of us. Plus groceries. Smelled like fish. Brain food. Anyway, it didn't matter about my phone. It was unlikely ever to ring again. Everyone I knew thought I was out of my mind.

The red velvet curtains parted with a swoosh and the Orpheum's magnificent Wurlitzer organ began playing the overture to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.

I took a deep breath and let the music wash over me, the haunting low harp, the ominous two-note falling motif.

Then, apparently unable to stop myself, I leaned across the first woman, her lover, and the bald man and whispered to the blonde in the robin's egg blue dress, "Is it really that obvious? About my stuff?"

She chewed on some licorice and considered. "It's not like you're an exception to the rule. You love and lose, and then you love and lose all over again. It's all there in the movie. Haven't you seen it before?"

Twelve times, to be exact.

How I came to be sitting three rows up from the back in a restored former vaudeville theatre in downtown Los Angeles where Judy Garland once sang as one of the Gumm Sisters, watching (for the thirteenth time, no less) doomed lovers Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) and Judy/Madeleine (Kim Novak) run circles around one another may require some explanation.

My name is Cece Caruso.

I am approximately forty years old.

I am Italian, named after my fat aunt Cecilia.

My family consists of cops, beauticians, and the people who love them.

I am a former beauty queen, strictly small-time, who married once, early and badly.

I was blessed with a second chance at love, but as you may have surmised, I recently blew that, too.

That is why I made the decision to pour myself into my work (Freud — speaking of — called this sublimation), which consists of writing biographies of dead mystery authors.

Currently, I'm researching the auteur Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, he of the portly silhouette and legendary perfectionism.

Pay attention now.

Alfred Hitchcock is the most recognizable director in the history of the cinema, with a career that encompassed fifty-three films, two long-running television series, and a magazine that still bears his name.

That's what I've got so far.

The sum total of my research.

You'd think a person could do a little better.

Hitchcock was, after all, a man who infected the world with his deepest neuroses and darkest obsessions, a man whose stated aim was to leave not a dry seat in the house, a man who liked to introduce himself to new acquaintances as,

"Hitch-without the cock."

Okay, I did know this: he liked practical jokes.

Practical jokes, expensive red wine, dark suits and Dover sole he flew in from England and stored in his walk-in freezer in Bel Air. Also cool blondes that got hot in taxicabs.

What he didn't like was sex (Had It Exactly Once) and cops (Was Locked In A Jail Cell As A Boy As Punishment For Naughty Behavior). Or so he said.

Ask him a question, and he'd toss you a red herring.

Look for a person, and he'd offer you a persona.

Perhaps you see my problem.

Hitch's movies are equally dissembling, all reflective surfaces, switchbacks, and spirals: Janet Leigh's blood swirling down the drain in Psycho; Tippi Hedren's lingerie circling her ankles like shackles in Marnie; Jimmy Stewart's corkscrew iris and the coils of Kim Novak's chignon in Vertigo.

Oh, but what the man could do with a chignon. A chignon, a glimpse of white shoulder, and a beautifully tailored suit. If Hitch couldn't undress his leading ladies, he'd fetishize every detail of their dress.

Some of them rebelled.

Tallulah Bankhead, the star of Lifeboat — who came to Hollywood to sleep with Gary Gooper, which a person could well understand — refused to wear panties, leaving Hitch to moan, "I don't know if I should consult wardrobe, makeup, or hairdressing!"

Kim Novak-Hitch's second choice for the role of Madeleine/Judy, after Vera Miles had the temerity to get pregnant by her husband, Gordon Scott, the movies' eleventh Tarzan — wouldn't wear a brassiere, but he showed her. Vertigo is the only one of his love stories to end with the leading lady's death.

"I'm not buying it," said the beige cardigan, gathering up her dry cleaning as the lights came up. "Is this yours?" She handed me my purse, which had gotten mixed up with her things.

"Thanks." It was Lucite, from the fifties, with a tortoise shell handle that didn't quite close. I'd gotten it cheap, like most of my vintage wardrobe.

"Of course you're not buying it," said the neurologist girlfriend. "Vertigo is not psychological in origin. It's a problem relating to disequilibrium. Calcium buildup in the inner ear. Makes you feel dizzy, light-headed and faint."

"Sounds like love to me," said the blonde, stepping over them.

"Actually, overuse of antidepressants," the neurologist interjected. She handed me her business card. "I see it a lot in my practice, this being L.A. and all."

I mulled that one over in the parking lot, waiting for my turn at the ticket kiosk. Then I got rear-ended. Well, you could barely call it that. More like a tap.

"Hey!" I said, leaning out the window.

Bachelor Number One leaned his head out his window. He had one dimple, which made him appear rakish as opposed to cherubic. "Hey."

"Look, I'm sorry about before," I said.

"I'm sorry about now," he said, "which makes us even."

I put the car in park and met him at my rear bumper, which looked fine.

"It looks terrible," I said, snapping pictures with my cell phone. "I'll have to take it in."


"We should probably exchange numbers," I said.

"Good idea."

I followed him back to his shiny black car, which was a total mess inside. I like that in a man. Schizophrenia. Keeps you on your toes.

The bachelor scrawled his number on the back of a Chinese menu he found in his back seat, and I scrawled mine on a parking ticket he pulled out of the glove compartment, dated two years earlier.

I drove away feeling dizzy, lightheaded, and faint.

It wasn't love, though.

I didn't believe in love at first sight.

I did, however, believe in deja-vu.

Which turned out to be one hell of a problem.

Reprinted from Dial H For Hitchcock by Susan Kandel by arrangement with Harper Paperbacks. Copyright © 2009 by Susan Kandel.

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