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Talking Pictures 

Fridge Factor

By David Templeton

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he sits through the IQ-impaired thriller The Rich Man's Wife with award-winning mystery novelist Judith Greber.

"Don't be think badly of me if I cover my eyes during the scary parts," whispers mystery writer Judy Greber, taking her seat in the darkened theater. "Psycho-killer movies are not really my forte. I prefer my murderers to be somewhat civilized." Voices low in deference to the three other members of the audience, we embark on a short discussion of the merits of Agatha Christie's refined bloodshed ("The murderer's identity was never known till the last moment, all the victims died right on cue, and they all died politely," my guest points out), until our chat is interrupted by the uncivil, illogical, nonsensically plotted, graphically portrayed mayhem of The Rich Man's Wife.

Starring Halle Berry as, well, a rich man's wife, the film quickly kills the hubby off, placing the fresh young widow in danger of being the next victim. The husband's violent end--in the rain, in a playground, with bullet after bullet ripping him open as the killer, a drifter we've already met, leaps about shouting, "Why don't you just fucking die!"--inspires my mumbled remark, "Not an Agatha Christie kind of death, is it?"

"Certainly not," comes the reply. "And I think I know who did it."

Greber is the author of numerous novels, including the successful Amanda Pepper Mystery series, written under the nom de plume Gillian Roberts. The first of the books, Caught Dead in Philadelphia (Ballantine, 1990) won the Anthony Award for Best Friend Mystery. Decidedly old-fashioned, though full of witty, acerbic ruminations on modern life, the series follows a young Philadelphia English teacher with a keen knack for sleuthing. The endings are morally satisfying and the victims do tend to die politely. In With Friends Like These ... (Ballantine, 1993), the victim dies of poisoned fruit tarts. The latest novel, The Mummer's Curse (Ballantine, 1996), begins with a feathered parade participant dropping dead with a graciously received bulletin his head.

The author lives in Tiburon, Calif., and has gone to matinees only twice in her life, today being the second time.

"I know a guy who used to write these kinds of movies. He still does, so he shall remain nameless," Greber discloses, stirring her iced tea as we discuss the film in a nearby cafe. "I think he was the one who said, 'You know, we just make it move fast.' Because if a film moves fast enough, you won't get that it doesn't make sense.

"It's the 'refrigerator factor.' Have you ever heard of that? It's when, in the middle of the night, after you go to the refrigerator for a snack or something, and you open the door and the light comes on, you suddenly go, 'Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Where did--blugh!'"

I understand instantly.

"'Blugh' stands for everything we wonder about in movies, from 'If she is telling this story how could she describe the murder when she was really at home crying at the time?' to 'If this is millions of years in the future how come the apes speak perfect 20th-century English?

"But you've paid your money by the time the refrigerator factor kicks in," Greber goes on. "It's too late for you. This will be that kind of movie."

A moment's pause, and then, out of the blue, "The husband, at the funeral, was amazingly well embalmed for someone who'd been shot in the face 700 times, don't you think? Didn't they do a nice job? Kudos to the funeral director."

There are fridge-factor movies, I observe, and then there are films with a 10 minutes-later-while-drinking-iced-tea factor.

"I try, when I'm writing, to at least keep a sense of what is rational," Greber says. "And admittedly, what I write is not so very believable either, with my amateur-sleuth English teacher who gets involved with murders and she can solve the murders that the police can't solve? I ask readers to suspend disbelief from the Empire State building! But the stories, still, I hope, hinge together. The pieces of the puzzle fit."

And the nasty old murders?

"Murder, I think, should always feel like a disruption of society," Greber suggests. "It's an outrage. We should think, 'This is a terrible thing that has happened!' I think that is there in my work. But in movies like this, it's all so stylishly filmed that you never consider the consequences of this rather casually committed killing."

"There's a new kind of murderer, I think," she adds. "Really creepy, stupid, murdering maiming. It repels me, and there's a part of me that feels like I'm standing up as a true puritan. And I'm not for censorship, but ... "

She lets it hang there in the air, that odious dilemma of those opposed to censoring art but who long for a society with less unsettling appetites. "I don't know what to do about it," she finally says. "As far as censorship is concerned, I've only done it personally, by saying, simply, 'I don't want to see that.' I want certain things kept from out of my database. Ultimately, there are some pictures I just don't want in my head."

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