I am not a huge fan of public speaking. It causes me horrible anxiety and stress, because I suffer from a really horrible case of stage fright. I’m not sure why that is–probably a side effect of being horribly shy and self-conscious–but it is what it is. Moderating panels, even being on them, are difficult for me; let alone having to get up in front of a room full of people and trying to sound eloquent and smart. Being on a panel isn’t nearly as stressful as moderating one, of course; but the worst is having to get up in front of a room full of people and speak. If there is a hell of any kind, regardless of spiritual beliefs and values, mine would be having to stand in front of a room full of people and having to speak, endlessly on a loop. That would be my personal hell.
I had to speak at the Lefty Awards banquet, since Mystery Writers of America sponsored the banquet. Stan and Lucinda, who organize Left Coast Crime, asked me to get up and speak a little bit about MWA. All week leading up to it I agonized over what to say, and how long I should be up there. I made notes, practiced, thought about it and agonized and then finally, they called me up to the stage and I had no idea what to say as my mind went completely blank. I tried to grab hold of the podium so my hands wouldn’t visibly shake but naturally, at one point started talking and gesturing with my hands…which were shaking. I do remember saying that we are currently living in a golden age of crime fiction–and that a quick glance at all the nominees for Best First over the past few years for every award in the genre would show that the future of the genre is in very good hands.
One thing I’ve really enjoyed throughout my life as a reader is the discovery of debut authors, and watching their careers take off due to their hard work and talent.
And keep your eye on Wanda M. Morris.
The three of us–me, my brother, Sam and Vera or Miss Vee as everyone in Chillicothe called her–looked like a little trio of vagabonds as we stood in the Greyhound Bus Station, which, in Chillicothe, meant a lean-to bus port in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly. By God’s grace, we’d survived summer’s blazing days and humid nights, the fire ant stings and mosquito welts, and all the side-of-the-mouth whispers that floated around town. What happened? What did those young’uns do? Why is Ellie Littlejohn really leaving town? Even though I was headed to Virginia on a full-rde scholarship to boarding school, it didn’t stop some people from around town from talking in hushed tones and asking meddlesome questions.
The morning sun sizzled across the black asphalt parking lot scattered with a few dented cars and an old Ford pickup. But we were the only ones waiting for the 7:15 bus headed north. I wore a tie-dyed T-shirt and a pair of jeans Vera had cut off at the knees when they got too short. She hadn’t gotten to the jeans Sam was wearing because they were about two inches above his ankles. His yellow T-shirt still bore the cherry Popsicle stain from the day before. And from the looks of it, he hasn’t combed his hair, either.
Wow, where to start with this rollercoaster ride?
I guess the easiest place to start is with how authentic Ms. Morris’ representation of small rural Southern towns in the 1970’s is. As someone who spent time in the deep south in a small rural town (and the country) in the 1970’s, Morris brought Chillicothe to life realistically and so well I could completely visualize it–from the lazy flies and the mosquito bites and how box fans just push the hot air around. Vivid images of my own past flashed through my mind every time Morris took us back to Ellise’s childhood in Chillicothe, where all her dark little secrets were first born and hidden away. She masters two separate timelines in this masterful work–Chillicothe back when she was a child, and her life in modern day Atlanta. That poor little girl got scholarships and worked her butt off to become a lawyer, and now works for a large corporation in Atlanta–a corporation currently being accused of racist hiring practices, along with protestors outside the building. One morning Ellise comes to work to meet with her married boss–with whom she has been having a rather long-term affair with, following him from a job with a legal firm to this company–early in the morning, only to discover his dead body in his office, shot through the head. Ellise immediately backs out of the office and heads back down two floors to the legal department, and doesn’t call the police, doesn’t say anything to anyone–and fortunately, there are no security cameras up on the twentieth floor to capture her tell-tale image for the police or anyone who wants to go looking for what went on up there when the man was murdered.
But was having an affair really enough justification for Ellise to NOT call the police?
Of course not…and this is where the fun begins. Ellise is also hiding a lot more than just the affair with her boss–she has run away from a traumatic childhood and now moves in rarefied air–and doesn’t want anyone in her new life to know anything about her old.
Then Ellise is promoted to replace her now-dead lover/boss, and despite asking for time to think it over, it is announced as a fait accompli, which understandably makes Ellise suspicious. Something weird is going on up there on the twentieth floor, and she is smack dab in the middle of it all–but what? Was her boss’ death a suicide, as everyone at the company desperately wants to believe, or was he involved in something else, something else that led to him being murdered?
The thrills and suspense build from the very beginning–what is going on there? What does any of this have to do with Ellise and her past? Morris expertly weaves her two tales of Ellise and her life, the two timelines, together seamlessly and it is impossible to look away or put the book down. But even more important than the story is the character of Ellise, who is at the heart of the story and without whom the reader has no buy-in to the story. Ellise is compelling, juggling her identity as a modern Black woman with no small success in her life alongside the poor little girl with the alcoholic and abusive mother, abused not just by family and the nastiness of the vicious hateful little town but also the virulent ugly racism of the times. Her brother Sam–her only living relative–has had a much harder time of it than she has, and she struggles with trying to balance helping him out when he needs it or the tough love she thinks he needs to straighten out his life–but the strength of their bond is beautifully depicted. Ellise has constructed this incredible facade to hold the world at bay, but inside she is still that same scared little girl from Chillicothe, once again–as she did when she a little girl–trying hard to survive in an incredibly hostile world not of her own making.
This is an extraordinarily strong debut novel, and I cannot recommend it enough. Wanda M. Morris is going to be a major player in our genre–you can quote me on that.