When Smuggling Meets Screwball Comedy

I love Romancing the Stone. I love Charade. I don’t care that loving movies from the 80s, the 60s, or even the 40s (Bringing up Baby or The Lady Eve) dates me, because strong, screwball heroines, thrown out of their element, compel me as much now as they ever did. Maybe more. And even though my UCLA screenwriting students aren’t always familiar with these movies until I show them in class, they watch in wonder too.

These women were sexy but not sleazy, smart but not “Type A,” resourceful and willing to break the rules, but always fair. They created chaos, but the good kind. Even when transporting leopards, discovering snakes in their cruise cabins, or being thrown into a crocodile pit, they were always capable of a great one-liner. And in the end, they always saved themselves—without superpowers.

So, as I left North Carolina after graduate school in my own 1965 Ford Galaxie 500 to embark on what I hoped would be a screenwriting career in L.A., I aspired to write my own romantic caper, complete with a bona fide screwball heroine, an exotic location, lots of high risk encounters, and snappy banter. I just needed to find my own, unique “Joan Wilder” for the 21st century and a crime worthy of her time.

As I scrambled to sell movie-of-the-week treatments, romantic comedies, and T.V. pilots, I always I kept the idea of an exotic screwball adventure in my head. I even wound up working on a few “animal centric” projects, first on the PBS show Wishbone and later adapting Kipling’s Just So Stories for Disney, where I lived daily with imaginary baby elephants, leopards and rhinos. I didn’t know then that all the movies I loved and the movies I worked on would be leading me to my debut novel, Lost Luggage.

She was in the jungle, in heels

The first time I saw Cyd Redondo in my mind, she was in the jungle, in heels, surrounded by men in cargo pants and bandannas.  She smiled, then knocked them out one by one with wrist to elbow bangles she’d just snatched up at a local market. She was short, everything she was wearing had been at least 80 percent off, and she was furious.

From there, she started to take shape. I wanted her out of her element, so I made her a travel agent from Brooklyn. I wanted her to have a bit of “Joan Wilder” inexperience, so I gave her an overprotective and overly male family, who never let her travel farther than New Jersey. I figured if she were deprived of the vacations she sold her clients every day, she’d be willing to do something desperate for an international plane ticket.

I thought about how often my favorite screwball heroine’s adventures took place on their travels, complete with exotic or dangerous animals and decided I wanted the story to take place in Africa, probably on safari (Mogambo or Out of Africa). I settled on Tanzania, since it featured over twenty wildlife parks and preserves, including the legendary Serengeti National Park (scene of the great wildebeest migration we’ve all seen on PBS), the Selous Game Reserve (full of big cats,) and Ngorongora Crater, a relatively safe haven for the remaining rhino population.

Monkeys Down their pants

But my research revealed that no place in Africa was really safe for animals, particularly endangered ones, as long as animal traffickers plotted to capture or kill the rarest species for pure profit.

Like Cyd, I knew nothing about the smuggling world. I saw the occasional news story about someone stopped at an airport with a monkey down his pants or snakes in his socks and alerts about “save the pandas/dolphins/rhinos/elephants,” but had no idea that trafficking of animals and animal parts was second only to drug smuggling—at last count a 23 billion dollar industry.

I didn’t know that the fines and jail time for smuggling were negligible, that rhinos were slaughtered for the nonexistent “aphrodisiac” in their horns, or that poaching was so lucrative that terrorists were using it for funding—the Kenyan Wildlife Service now limits its anti-poaching “fly overs” because Al Queda shoots the planes and rangers down with rocket launchers.

Meetings with Scotland Yard’s Wildlife Crime Prevention Unit and Special Agents for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and my own queasy visit to a Herpetology Expo, all convinced me to choose smuggling as the crime that would blindside and anger my heroine and throw her into a world of poachers, mercenaries, corrupt Customs agents, billionaire underworld collectors, and Interpol.

Only the reader can say whether I achieved my screwball aspirations, but at least I managed to get Cyd into a leopard trap–with a leopard. I only wish Barbara Stanwyck were still around to step into my protagonist’s kitten heels.