Jeopardy

So, yesterday was my birthday. Fifty-six officially; although I always add a year to my age on New Year’s Day for the sake of simplicity. I had some trouble falling asleep on Saturday night; a combination of restlessness and heartburn. I wound up sleeping in till almost ten; which is late for me but since I didn’t really fall asleep until around three in the morning it wasn’t that much sleep. But I had a lovely day, really. I kind of just laid around and reread In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, rewatched The Philadelphia Story on TCM (Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant were both robbed of Oscars), then watched The Nineties and The History of Comedy on CNN before finally watching last night’s Game of Thrones.  I also thought about the new Scotty some; I have today off from work as my birthday gift to myself, so I plan on doing some writing, line editing, and revising, and thinking about what I’m going to write next before actually sitting down at the computer is always a wise thing to do (although usually I never had the time to do that, thanks to deadlines). There’s a serious moral dilemma coming for Scotty in this book; one that really has been needing to be dealt with in the series for quite some time, but I’ve dodged it and avoided it; this is the book where I am finally going to have to have him face up to it, the way I am bringing it to the forefront so he can no longer avoid it is, if I do say so myself, rather clever.

Or it’s just going to be a steaming pile of shit. There’s no middle ground, really.

It was kind of fun to reread the Hughes novel; it is a masterpiece of noir that has been sadly overlooked for many years. Hughes was an exceptional writer, and I do admit that opinion is based on my having read only two of her novels, this and The Expendable Man (which, sadly, was her last and published in 1962). It’s not easy to find Hughes’ novels. I do feel safe in calling Hughes one of the best writers of her generation, and certainly one of the best noir writers of all time, based on those two books because they are just that good. I do have a copy of her The Blackbirder, which I want to read before the end of the year. In A Lonely Place was also filmed, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame; the film is significantly different from the novel, but it’s also outstanding. The new edition of the novel, from New York Review Books (who also have republished The Expendable Man and The Blackbirder), includes an afterward by the wonderful Megan Abbott, who is not only one of this generations greatest writers but also one of crime fiction’s most knowledgeable critics; her literary criticism is intelligent, thoughtful, incredibly well-written, and certainly puts me in my place whenever I am lucky enough to read some of it; I would love to read her study of literary and film noir, The Street Was Mine. (Whenever I read her criticism, any thoughts I might have about pursuing academic criticism–gay noir, gay representation in crime fiction, the heyday of romantic suspense from the 1950’s till its unfortunate death in the 1980’s–go out the window.)

Her all-too-short essay in the back of this edition alone makes the cover price worthwhile.

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It was good standing there on the promontory overlooking the evening sea, the fog lifting itself like gauzy veils to touch his face. There was something in it akin to flying; the sense of being lifted high above crawling earth, of being a part of the wildness of air. Something too of being closed within an unknown and strange world of mist and cloud and wind. He’d liked flying at night; he’d missed it after the war had crashed to a finish and dribbled to an end. It wasn’t the same flying a private little crate. He’d tried it; it was like returning to the stone ax after precision tools. He had found nothing yet to take the place of flying wild.

It wasn’t often he could capture any part of that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky. There was a touch of it here, looking down at the ocean rolling endlessly in from the horizon; here  high above the beach road with its crawling traffic, its dotting of lights. The outline of beach houses zigzagged against the sky but did not obscure the pale waste of sand, the dark restless waters beyond.

He didn’t know why he hadn’t come out here before. It wasn’t far. He didn’t even know why he’d come tonight. When he got on the bus, he had no destination. Just the restlessness. And the bus brought him here.

Isn’t that an incredible opening?

Not being an expert in crime fiction–there’s so much of it to read, and there’s more new stuff all the time, so it’s hard to keep up with the new let alone trying to read everything already published–I am unable to place In A Lonely Place into any kind of context as far as the history of crime fiction is concerned, but Abbott does this beautifully in her afterward. But it’s very clear in this opening paragraphs that Hughes is addressing alienation in this book, and toxic masculinity, which may have seen its ultimate pinnacle in the second World War (the alienation of returning veterans, and the difficulty of readjusting from war to peace was also being addressed in films like The Best Years of Our Lives) and by having Dix, her main character, pretend to be writing a novel also took on the glut of post-war war novels that so many returning soldiers were writing; novels that continued to proliferate for several decades beyond the war.

The first time I read the book, having already seen the film, I was more focused on the story itself rather than an examination of how deftly Hughes creates her story, the language and imagery she chooses, and the nuanced way she creates her character. On this read, knowing how it’s going to end, I was able to pay more attention to these things, and was able to marvel at how brilliant the entire package is.

A recurring motif in the novel is fog; Hughes uses the fog as a metaphor for the fog in Dix’s brain; and we are never sure when Dix’s mind changed, making him lethal. He was raised by a puritanical uncle, Fergus, who is currently supporting him while he writes his novel–but there is a limit to the support, and while in our time $250 a month may not seem like much, at the time of the novel it was a fortune, just over $2500 in today’s dollars. Dix’s resentment of the uncle–we never learn what precisely happened to his parents–who is rough on him and has always made him work, even when he was in college at Princeton trying to fit in with the idle rich sons of privilege and then goes into detail how humiliating it all was, doing things for them for ‘tips’ until he could manipulate events to make it look as though he were the wealthy one and the sad unfortunate, unpopular boy he used for money were the dolt. In this way, Hughes also makes a sly commentary about class and privilege (which, in my opinion, she does far better than Fitzgerald did in an entire novel with The Great Gatsby, and she does it only in a few pages). So, there was always some kind of a chip on Dix’s shoulder; the war simply gave him a way to channel that anger and discontent and alienation. Now the way is over, and Dix is having to find a new way to channel those diabolical energies–and he does, in committing murder.

The entire tale is told through Dix’s perspective, which also makes him one of the first unreliable narrators in crime fiction. (It was done before, but never quite so lethally.) So, when we see the other characters–and there are only three: his old war buddy Brub, now a police detective; Brub’s wife Sylvia, whom Dix despises on first sightl and of course, the love interest, Laurel Gray–is she the femme fatale he thinks she is, or is that just a product of his own warped sense of right and wrong? Who is Laurel, of the reddish gold hair and the tempting figure? Is she the hard-as-nails user he thinks she is, or is she an entirely different character altogether?

In  A Lonely Place is a masterpiece of noir, and hopefully, this edition will elevate Hughes to the position both she and the book deserve in the annals of our genre.

And now back to the spice mines.

 

Twilight Zone

Ugh, my dryer is on the fritz, and I just can’t–in the ultimate of bougie problems–I just can’t function without a working washer and dryer. I can’t decide if it’s worth it to get a repair guy out here, or if we should just go ahead and get a new one. I know I called a repairman once for the washing machine–and it was only slightly less expensive than buying a new one. Heavy heaving sigh. I think we’ve already replaced the dryer once before. It’s so infuriating. I wish I were more handy, because I bet it is something that is really easy to fix; but I am not handy like that. I’m so glad my parents were so focused on my future that they wouldn’t let me take Shop or Auto Shop because they were too easy.

Yeah. They just would have saved me thousands of dollars over the years. But hey, those classes weren’t useful for my future.

Heavy heaving sigh.

So, I spent the evening trying to dry clothes in a faulty dryer–eventually they dried–while filing and washing dishes and also finishing reading Eric Ambler’s Journey Into Fear, which was quite fun.

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The steamer, Sestri Levante, stood high above the dock side, and the watery sleet, carried on the wind blustening down from the Black Sea had drenched even the small shelter deck. In the after well, the Turkish stevedores, with sacking tied round their shoulders, were still loading cargo.

Graham saw the steward carry his suit-case through a door marked PASSEGGIERI, and turned aside to see if the two men who had shaken hands with him at the foot of the gangway were still there. They had not come aboard lest the the uniform of one of them should draw attention to him. Now they were walking away across the crane lines towards the warehouses and the dock gates beyond. As they reached the shelter of the first shed they looked back. He raised his left arm and saw an answering wave. They walked on out of sight.

For a moment he stood there shivering and staring out of the mist that shrouded the domes and spires of Stamboul. Behind the rumble and clatter of the winches, the Turkish foreman was shouting plaintively in bad Italian to one of the ship’s officers. Graham remembered that he had been told to go to his cabin and stay there until the ship sailed. He followed the steward through the door.

The man was waiting for him at the head of a short flight of stairs. There was no sign of any of the nine other passengers.

Eric Ambler, considered (per his bio) is considered the father of the modern thriller and was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1975. His novels, focused on intrigue, espionage and spying, have been called influences by many writers, including John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum and Len Deighton. (I loved Ludlum, but am ashamed to admit I’ve never read Le Carre or Deighton; but I do have a copy of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold that I need to get around to reading.) I had never read Ambler; although my friend Pat, a huge fan of the crime genre, has recommended A Coffin for Demetrios to me on several different occasions, and usually one of Ambler’s works winds up on those lists of ‘crime novels everyone should read.’ I bought Epitaph for a Spy and several others a few years ago; I finally sat down and pulled Journey Into Fear out of the TBR Mountain and started reading it. It took me longer than it should have; it’s short, for one thing, but very engrossing. It’s also very…for want of a better term, it’s very British.

I love novels where normal, every day people going about their business and minding their own business are suddenly thrust into peril. Ludlum was a master of this, and I call it Hitchcockian; it was also a staple in many of his films. Journey into Fear also falls into this category; Graham, the main character, is a forty year old British man who works for an engineering firm and was sent to Turkey to help work on updating and refitting the Turkish fleet because of the outbreak of World War II. Graham, who is happily married and generally just goes about his business. What Graham, in his unassuming way, doesn’t realize or understand just how valuable he–and his work–are to the Allied forces; he is just doing his job. Then, on his last night in Istanbul, someone is waiting for him in his hotel room and shoots at him. Fortunately, he is only slightly wounded in his hand but this is when Turkish intelligence gets involved. It is a matter of vital Turkish importance to their defense that Graham make it back to England and his work not be interrupted; Graham doesn’t it take it seriously…at first. But once he is on the freighter traveling through the night to Genoa, he finds out just how much danger he is actually in.

The book is very tightly written, and not very long; but it also falls into the classic trope of suspense in a tight, controlled area with a very small cast of characters; like Murder on the Orient Express. This trope is very hard to pull off–even harder nowadays–and Ambler does it beautifully, even adding the element of “no one will believe me if I ask for help.” The other characters on the ship are richly drawn; Ambler is able to create a character with brief sentences that pretty much tell you everything you need to know about that character to make them real.

I am very much looking forward to reading more Ambler. Now I am going to give Dorothy B. Hughes’ sublime In a Lonely Place  a reread.

And now, back to the spice mines.

 

Let’s Dance

I managed, yesterday, to polish off Chapter Two; I wrote 1700 words or so in about an hour and fifteen minutes and voila! The pesky chapter was finished. I also started Chapter Three this morning; alas, maybe about a paragraph was all I was able to get done, but it was a start, and a start is always lovely. This weekend is my birthday; I will officially be fifty-six; but I’ve been saying I’m fifty-six for quite a while now. (I usually add the year after New Year’s; it’s just easier and I don’t really think of my birthday as a big deal, quite frankly). Paul and I are going to go see Dunkirk tomorrow night, and then out for dinner afterwards. I’ve taken Monday off, and I am working a late night on Tuesday, so I won’t have to be in to work until around three, which means I basically have a three and a half day weekend, which is lovely. I am hoping to be able to get a lot done this weekend; I want to finish reading the Ambler, which I am loving, then I am going to reread Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place, and then I am going to reread The Haunting of Hill House. After that, it’s either Jeff Abbott’s Blame or my advance copy of Laura Lippman’s newest, Sunburn.

One of the best perks of being a writer is that I get advance copies of books, or know people who do that can pass them along to me. My dear friend Lisa recently gave me an advance copy of this:

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I don’t consider myself to be a horror writer (SHUT UP BACK THERE! I said horror, not horrible), but I do consider myself to be a big fan of the genre. I read a lot of these books–not all, who knew there were so many? But I was a voracious reader, and I loved to read horror. The first horror novel I read was The Other–I still have the hardcover copy I originally read in junior high; I’m not sure I remember how I got a hardcover copy of it, maybe it was my grandmother’s–and I also read The Exorcist in junior high; everyone was reading it, and as all tweens (although we weren’t called that then) are wont to do, all we talked about was the crucifix masturbation scene. I always liked horror–I remember watching old black and white scary movies with my grandmother (she also likes mysteries) when I was a kid, but I never thought I could write it. I certainly never tried until the 1980’s, when my fandom of Stephen King made me give it a try. I still love reading horror, and there are certainly some amazing horror writers being published today whose books I greatly enjoy.

My inability to get any of it published is an indicator that crime was a better fit for my talents.

But what a wonderful resource this is! And a lovely trip down memory lane. To be honest, I thought I hadn’t read much horror throughout my life outside of the usual suspects (Stephen King, Peter Straub, Poppy Z. Brite) and some others that have come along more recently, but in going through this, I saw many titles I’d forgotten I’d read, and authors I’d forgotten.

This is a must for all horror fans; even those who are too young to remember the glory days of the mass market paperback boom of the 70’s and 80’s.

And now, back to the spice mines.

 

Hungry Like the Wolf

Ah, Thursday. I am very tired this morning; my sleep last night was restless and of course, after a long day yesterday (twelve hours), which included bar testing and all the walking that entails, I am very low energy this morning. I didn’t get much writing done yesterday morning; I am still in the midst of Chapter Two of the new Scotty but part of that problem is trying to make sure I have the voice and tone right–which is, of course, ridiculous; it can always be fixed in a later draft. I need to plow through this first draft and get the story done. Everything else can be repaired later.

Why do I always try to make it right the first time? So stupid. How many books have I written? Some people seriously never learn, you know what I mean?

The line edit continues as well, and is beginning to feel like my own personal invasion of Afghanistan; an endless quagmire I’m never going to get out from under. I still want to have it all finished by the end of the month and the clock is seriously ticking. Heavy heaving sigh.

The lovely thing is I have a three day weekend to look forward to; my birthday is this weekend and as such, I took Monday off as a treat for myself. We’re going to go see Dunkirk Saturday evening, and have a lovely dinner out afterwards. I also hope to be able to use the extra time off to get some work done and do some reading; I want to get the Ambler novel read this weekend so I can reread Dorothy B. Hughes’ sublime In a Lonely Place in its new edition with an afterward by the sublime Megan Abbott. I read it several years ago on the recommendation of Megan, Margery Flax and the wonderful Sarah Weinman, and I became a huge fan of Hughes as a result. I went on to read everything she’d written that was still in print, and started hunting down used copies of the rest on eBay and second hand booksellers on-line. If you’ve not read Hughes and are a fan of crime fiction, you really should read In a Lonely Place. You owe it to yourself to read it.

The film, while different from the book, is also extraordinary. You can’t go wrong with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

All right I need to hit the spice mines. Your Throwback Thursday hunk is actor/model Ed Fury.

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Never Gonna Let You Go

Have you read the comic book co-written by Megan Abbott and Alison Gaylin, Normandy Gold?

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It will come as no surprise that its fantastic. Megan Abbott and Alison Gaylin are two of the best crime writers of our Golden Age of women crime writers.

One of the things that can get confusing with crime fiction is the subgenres and the sometimes slight distinctions between them; take hard-boiled vs. noir as an example. I think the confusion comes because a hard-boiled crime novel, when made into a film, can fit into the film noir category, which is a bit broader than the genre definitions crime novels can use and books can fall into; for example, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep are hard-boiled detective novels; the films, however, are classic film noir. (Your mileage may vary; I am speaking only for myself and how I classify books.) For me, a detective novel that is dark and brooding and cynical in nature is hard-boiled, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky’s novels, for me, fall into this category, as do Hammett’s detective fiction and Chandler’s. James M. Cain’s novels were noir, as are Megan Abbott’s. Alison Gaylin’s detective novels are more hard-boiled; her stand alone novels are more noir. For me, a noir novel doesn’t have a professional investigator as the main character; those are hard-boiled.

Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime line of novels contains both noir and hard-boiled fiction; the team-up of Gaylin and Abbott with the graphic serial novel Normandy Gold is a fine addition to Hard Case, and one of the best comics/graphic novels I’ve come across in a long while. As I read the first issue on my iPad, all I could think was how glorious this is; excellent, crisp dialogue and incredible storytelling, along with some amazing artwork. If there are awards for graphic novels, just start sending them along to the team that produced this now!

Normandy Gold firmly straddles the line between noir and hard-boiled with guns blazing. Set in the 1970’s, Normandy is a small town sheriff in rural Oregon. Her mother was a prostitute, and she ran away when she was a teen to try to find a better life for herself, leaving her younger sister behind. One day she gets a call from her sister, and is still on the line with her as her sister is murdered. Normandy comes to Washington DC to find out what she can about her sister’s death; the cops have written it off as just another dead whore no one cares about and unsolvable. But Normandy also finds out her sister wasn’t just a prostitute; she worked for a very elite, high level escort service, and decides to go undercover to find what happened to her sister.

This typical-sounding set-up comes alive in the hands of two master storytellers, and the art itself is stunningly beautiful. The story moves very quickly, and the 1970’s setting is perfectly done; not a false note in the entire first issue. This is the kind of story that, as a film in the 1970’s, would have earned a star like Jane Fonda or Ellen Burstyn or Ann-Margret an Oscar nomination, if not the statue itself. Vividly realized, you keep turning the pages to see what happens next…and when you get to the end of the issue, you’re sorry it’s done but can’t wait to read the next.

Highly recommended.

 

She Works Hard for the Money

Tuesday.

I had yesterday off, which was most lovely, and I spent the day relaxing, making lists, writing, editing, reading, and cleaning. I made shrimp creole for dinner, which was fabulous, and then we watched the series finale for Orphan Black. I am going to miss the sestras; it was quite a thrill ride for five seasons, and Tatiana Maslany’s talent is truly amazing.

I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked, but sometimes just being able to reflect and think is just as effective as actually writing. Plus, I kind of needed a rest. I am going to get some more writing done today, and I am going to finish the second half of the WIP line edit, and then tomorrow (a twelve hour day) I am going to hopefully get started on the first half of the manuscript’s line edit. I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to get this done; and then I am going to have to story edit one more time just to make sure. I want to be able to start sending it to agents after Labor Day. I want to get the first draft of this Scotty finished by mid-September as well, then let it sit for a month or so while I write this noir I’ve been wanting to write for a while. I think the working on something different between drafts is working for me. It doesn’t make sense in any sort of writing universe to write this way, but it’s working for me and as I always tell beginning writers–find whatever system works for you, even if it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense to anyone else.

I am also way behind–and off the rails–for short stories. I need to get back to “For All Tomorrow’s Lies” soon; it’s due for an edit/revision, and I never did finish that draft of “Quiet Desperation.” Heavy heaving sigh. I think there’s another one I was working on–oh, yes, “This Thing of Darkness,” and some others, too, that never quite got finished. This creative ADD needs to stop.

I need to make a list, is what I need to do.

Heavy heaving sigh.

I’m really enjoying Journey Into Fear. The action has now moved from Istanbul to on board a ship, sailing to Genoa with Our Hero, whose life is in danger. I love these kinds of stories; and miss them. The change from trains and ships as means of transportation has kind of eliminated them as settings for crime novels and thrillers; there will be no more books like this or Murder on the Orient Express, which is really unfortunate. The whole air of being away from everyone else in the world, isolated on a journey with only your fellow passengers, any one of which might be the murderer/spy/assassin,  that whole claustrophobic feeling–an author has to really push themselves and their creativity to come up with a way to isolate the characters and seal them off from the rest of the world these days. Rebecca Chance did this beautifully in her novel Mile High, set on a luxury airliner on a flight from London to Los Angeles; Nick Cutter’s The Deep set his novel on a sealab at the bottom of the Marianas Trench (and that sense of claustrophobia was so beautifully portrayed in that novel that just remembering it makes me shudder). It is still possible, of course, to do something along the lines of And Then There Were None, where the characters are stranded on an island and cut off from the rest of the world; the single season suspense show Harper’s Island did this nicely…I’ve always wanted to do one of those types of novels, and Scotty would be the perfect character for such a book, I think, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to make it work. I guess I’ll just let it sit in the back of my head until I get one of those a-ha moments that I am always afraid I’ll stop having.

And now, back to the spice mines. Here’s today’s hunk for you:

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Come on Eileen

Saturday! I managed to finish Chapter One last night and started Chapter Two; huzzah! They are crap, of course, but I’ll worry about that later. I finally got a good night’s sleep today; I have Wacky Russian this morning, have to go to the office to work for a bit, and am going to make a Costco run on the way home. (Just a minor one.) It’s so nice to feel rested; I am hoping that tonight I’ll be so worn out I won’t have any choice but to sleep deeply and well.

I can dream, at any rate.

My weekend this weekend is actually, therefore, Sunday and Monday; it’s going to be strange to have Monday off–next weekend is my birthday, so I am taking a three day weekend to celebrate–so I am, of course, hoping to get some more Scotty written, some more of the line edit finished, and maybe revise a short story or two. Ambitious plans, to be sure, but I am nothing if not overly ambitious. We’re also trying to find a new show to watch; Orphan Black ends this weekend, Game of Thrones only has a few more episodes to run, and  I suspect Animal Kingdom is also approaching its season finale. We never did finish the final season of Bates Motel, though, and there have to be some other shows out there that we just haven’t discovered yet, or forgot we watched.

I want to finish reading Journey Into Fear this weekend so I can get started on my annual reread of The Haunting of Hill House. I think I might read something more noirish after that; not sure what, but there are plenty of things for me to read around the house, believe you me. Maybe I’ll do something I’ve really grown to love over the last year or so–a short story challenge, where I read a short story every day and then blog about it. I do love short stories, and I really would like to write more of them. I’d love to do a collection of my crime and horror short stories…perhaps by the end of the year I would have enough of them on hand to actually put a collection together. (I may already have enough; I’m not sure, but I’d love to have some new, unpublished material.) Maybe I’ll wait and do short-story September, which would be way fun.

And on that note, I think I shall head off to the spice mines. Here’s a Saturday hunk for you viewing pleasure, Constant Reader:

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