Where academia meets noir: former history professor Lisa Lieberman pens 1950s mysteries

  • Amherst writer Lisa Lieberman’s latest noir mystery is “The Glass Forest.” There will be a launch party for the novel at Amherst Books on Jan. 10. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst writer Lisa Lieberman, seen here in her home, has used her background as a history professor and student of mid-20th-century film to shape her mystery series. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The newest novel in Lieberman’s mystery series, “The Glass Forest,” takes place in South Vietnam in 1957.

  • Lierberman’s second novel is set in Budapest during the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and its subsequent crushing by Soviet military forces. Courtesy photo

  • Lieberman with her husband, Tim Lang, in Budapest alongside a statue of Ronald Reagan. Lieberman traces some of her family’s roots to Hungary when the country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Image courtesy of Lisa Lieberman

  • Lieberman’s book jacket photo; she is a student and fan of noirish literature and film. Image courtesy of Lisa Lieberman

Staff Writer
Published: 1/9/2020 9:11:22 AM
Modified: 1/9/2020 9:10:45 AM

All the time she was writing academic books and essays about the history of post-war Europe, Lisa Lieberman really wanted to be writing mysteries — noirish mysteries — that might plumb the same settings.

That’s a stretch, actually. But Lieberman, who taught history at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania for many years and has now retired in Amherst, has in recent years found a new outlet for her writing: mysteries narrated by a young actress with a Hollywood pedigree, Cara Walden, who finds herself caught up in tumultuous events in the 1950s, from the blacklisting of communist sympathizers in Hollywood to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution to the growing civil war in Vietnam.

All three of her books are also inspired in part by films and literature of the era, evoking the sensibility of work by Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, Graham Greene and others, such as Vera Caspary, the American author whose 1943 detective novel, “Laura,” was made into a film noir of the same name in 1944 that is now widely regarded as one of the best mystery films ever made.

“Part of the fun of this series is thinking about all the other trouble spots around the world at that time and then figuring out a way to get [Cara] there,” Lieberman said with a laugh during a recent phone interview.

Her newest novel, “The Glass Forest,” is set in and around Saigon in early 1957, following the end of French colonial rule in Vietnam, the continued civil war in the country, and the growing American presence in South Vietnam. Like Lieberman’s first two books, “The Glass Forest” mixes period detail and atmosphere with fictional characters and real-life ones — or characters based closely on real people — to create a quick, engrossing read in which, as one critic puts it, Lieberman “hits the sweet spot between Casablanca and John le Carré.”

There will be a book launch and celebration for “The Glass Forest” on Friday at 4 p.m. at Amherst Books, at which Lieberman says she’ll be serving Vietnamese iced coffee and French pastries.

In the new novel, Cara, who’s 23 and newly married to Jakub Ambramowicz — he’s a 30-something musician and former French Resistance fighter whose family in Poland was murdered by the Nazis — has come to Saigon to keep her brother, Gray, company for awhile. He’s a screenwriter, blacklisted in the U.S. for his past associations with communists (he’s also a closeted homosexual), who’s in Saigon because he wrote the initial screenplay for the film version of Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American,” which is set in Saigon in the early 1950s.

The movie, now in production in Saigon, has dramatically recast the book’s narrative and Gray’s screenplay; a cautionary tale about foreign intervention has now become an endorsement of American power as a bulwark against communism (as it was historically). Gray is furious and distraught.

But in trying to ease her brother’s mind, Cara discovers there’s more afoot on the scene. For one thing, her brother has fallen in love with a young Vietnamese man, Tam, a charmer who speaks excellent English and loves American films. But he may also be connected to the Viet Minh, or Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese insurgents operating in South Vietnam.

Then there’s the somewhat cloddish but seemingly good-hearted American, Buckingham “Buck” Polk, who says he’s in Vietnam as part of a relief agency that’s trying to get refugees from North Vietnam resettled in the South. After Cara loses her job as an extra on the film site, Buck hires her to help with his office work. But he’s rather vague about the details of his organization and its funding sources — is he really who he claims to be?

Lieberman says her entrée into her new novel was Greene’s “The Quiet American,” which “is probably my favorite novel of his. It really captures that time period so well.” As well as plumbing other historical and literary sources for her novel, she was able to visit Vietnam for free in 2015 when she served as a guest lecturer on a cruise ship that made several stops in the country. “I got to see a number of places that would be hard to visit on your own, and it gave me a much better sense [of the country] than just reading about it.”

From enervating heat, to descriptions of the jungle (“It felt as if we’d entered a terrarium, the foliage so thick and so diverse, every tree colonized by other plants”), to the contrast between Saigon’s aging but still elegant French colonial buildings and the shanties of the poor, “The Glass Forest” abounds in period atmosphere, while the plot steadily ratchets up the tension wrought by Vietnam’s murky politics and the interactions between the Vietnamese, the Americans and the French.

“Nothing here,” says Cara at one point, “was what it seemed.”

Drawing on the past

Before turning her hand to writing period mysteries, Lieberman taught 20th-century European history at Dickinson College and wrote on topics such as the Hungarian Revolution, the French-Algerian war of 1954-62, and the Holocaust. She also translated works by the French writers and philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Her husband, Tim Lang, taught history at Dickinson as well, and the couple spent a fair amount of time in Europe when their children were younger, in part because Lieberman directed a study abroad program in Italy for her college.

After the family spent two years in Norwich, England, where Lierberman and Lang directed another overseas Dickinson program, the couple came to Amherst in 2003 for a sabbatical. They liked the area so much they decided to stay and finish raising their children here. Lang took a job teaching in the Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, while Lieberman started a nonprofit educational organization to redress racial and economic inequity in public K-12 schools.

Now, she jokes, she and her husband, “after dragging their children all over Europe when they were growing up,” are both happily retired in Amherst.

Yet it’s been an active retirement for Lieberman, who says she wanted to write a mystery series with a female narrator in part “because there’s too much crime fiction written from the male point of view.” Having Cara come from a Hollywood family also caters to her interest in film; she says she long made period movies a part of her history courses “because it really helps you get into the mindset of another era.” (She now blogs regularly on film as well.)

Cara’s family background, in fact, is based somewhat on a trio of real-life brothers — Alexander, Zoltan and Vincent Korda — who were born in Hungary in the late 19th century but later became major figures, in a variety of positions, in Hollywood and the English film industry in the first half of the 20th century. The first book of Lieberman’s series, “All The Wrong Places,” in part follows Cara’s attempt to find out how her mother, a glamorous actress named Vivien Grant, really died when Cara was just 10.

“Cara’s been kind of protected and coddled much of her life, whether from her mother’s death or the world at large, so what I like about this series is that she has a chance to come into her own, kind of take responsibility for her life and her actions,” said Lieberman.

She’s not sure exactly where Cara may touch down next, but she’s got an eye on Cuba, circa 1959, as Fidel Castro takes control of the country. “I’ve just got to figure out a way to get her there,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Lisa Lieberman’s website is deathlessprose.com.


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