How I Met Phyllis

Phyllis Page hero, writer Nellie Bly, 1888
Frank saw her as a pest at first. They met about halfway into Oddly Dead, my second Phantom Eye mystery novel. One-eyed PI Frank Ritz was questioning the caretakers of a hideaway aerie tucked into a chaparral-covered canyon high above Beverly Hills searching for its missing owner, 1960s all-American screen sweetheart Sally Pope. Someone else had the same idea.

 “This is Phyllis Page. She’s from the L.A. Times ...,” said one of the caretakers. 

“Sorry for barging in. Your front door was open.” The young woman excused herself too shyly for a reporter. She was round-faced, with short-cropped, auburn bangs and freckles, wearing blue-jeans and a white shirt with a yellow kerchief, high-top tennis shoes, and carried a note pad under one arm –  too collegiate for the City Room, I thought – a regular Nancy Drew who would turn glamorous when she took off her steel-rimmed glasses. 

I'm terrible at planning, organizing and outlining. I just try to portray what I imagine unfolding and rewrite my way to clarity if I'm lucky. Phyllis could have been a walk-on when she met Frank. PIs often cross paths with journalists, I know, having spent years as the latter. 

I was stuck.It was one of those bring-in-a-new-character-and-see-what-happens-moments. I didn't know that within the hour, Phyllis would be a passenger in Frank's Studebaker, as he negotiated the canyon road's hairpin turns to Sunset Boulevard -- along with an uninvited rattlesnake rudely disturbed from its nap beneath the driver's seat. I won't give away what happens next, except that it's a major turn, as it were.

Phyllis turns out to be a major character in Oddly Dead as she and Frank develop a complex, sometimes abrasive relationship. Their up-and-down, on-again-off-again relationship flows into my half-finished third novel of my Frank Ritz series --  Death and the Droid

Memorable characters acquire a life of their own. Some of them even show up in other people's books. Phyllis -- like others -- is modeled on people I've known and is influenced by my favourite characters in fact and fiction. 

I recognize the spirits of struggling, up-and-coming women reporters I knew at the L.A. Times during my tenure there in the 1960s and '70s inspiring and modeling Phyllis, This was a time of the "new feminist" movement when the then-grey-old paper went through the motions at least of of diversification. 

Being a paper of record and weight, it drew the best of the best women and men of color and strength -- adventuresome, smart, social warriors this reporter admired. They made the paper so much better. The suits upstairs never returned their favours adequately, despite our protests. 

It's natural that Phyllis Page would be part of this movement -- of mixed heritage herself. “I’m Chumash, on my mother’s side,” she tells Frank. “But like a lot of Indian children, I was taken off the reservation and raised by Christian missionaries. My biological mother died when I was six... It’s an old story among native peoples,” she added. “There aren’t many of us left, Chumash descent that is. I didn’t even know what I was until I dug into it as a teenager. Look up ‘California Massacre,’ next time you’re in a library. You whiteys murdered thousands of us during the Gold Rush.”

Phyllis loves good food and isn't shy about chowing it down. She smokes but is trying to quit. She's dogged in search of a story and doesn't wait to be invited into the middle of things

Phyllis asks a lot of questions and talks a lot, but silently searches for her self like a circling raptor. She tracks her tribal history and follows feminist politics and pokes relentlessly at consumer culture. She fights for space in the paper, manoeuvering through its white palace politics. She draws inspiration from those who fought the lonely battles before her -- Nellie Bly, for example -- the first ever, around-the-world reporter -- famous for her first-hand 1920s Zepplin diary and a Victorian-era pioneer investigative reporter, gazed down from a  niche in Phyllis' Pantheon, right up there with war correspondents Martha Gellhorn and Dorothy Thompson -- rare women excelling in the almost exclusively male world of 1930s and '40s journalism.

Some of my favourite female fictional characters inhabit Phyllis -- drawn from my eclectic list of self-defining underdogs -- Antigone, Viola of 12th Night, Becky Sharpe, Janie Crawford, and Chicago's own V. I. Warshawski.

Frank Ritz has his own paradoxes with which to deal. Something tells him that he risks being in over his head with Phyllis, but that draws him to her all the more, pushing back at the same time. Frank likes challenges -- in his cases and with women -- both of which threaten to be his undoing.   

It's easy to guess what comes next for Phyllis Page: starring in her own novel. I'm already making notes.


 Me from bear to books

Umberto Tosi
's recently published books include the highly praised, Frank Ritz, Hollywood noir detective mystery The Phantom Eye, plus his story collection, Sometimes Ridiculous, plus Ophelia Rising, High Treason, Sports Psyching and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published most recently in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His nonfiction essays and articles have been published widely in print and online. He began his career at the Los Angeles Times as a staff writer and an editor for its prize-winning, Sunday magazine, West. He went on to become  editor of San Francisco Magazine. and managing editor of Francis Coppola's City of San Francisco. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult daughters. He resides in Chicago.


Enjoy my Hollywood noir detective thrillers: The Phantom Eye (a Frank Ritz Mystery)  - followed by Oddly Dead, just out in Kindle and paperback, and forthcoming: Death and the Droid.
 "Tosi writes with tremendous style and a pitch perfect ear for everything that makes the classic noir detective story irresistible. Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, make room for Frank Ritz!" - Elizabeth McKenzie, best-selling author of The Portable Veblen. 



Peter Leyland said…
Thanks for this Umberto about your Frank Ritz character and his one time passenger, Phyllis Page, who I'm now going to find more about. I am a great fan of Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski novels. Bitter Medicine (1988) in a sense references the current Roe v Wade reversal. I also have her book Writing in an Age of Silence about how change for good is possible, although we may now wonder. I will look here (UK) for one of your Frank Ritz books - we have lots of bookshops devoted to crime - and maybe one day Phyllis Page!

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