Save the Best for Last

Thursday!

My Bouchercon homework continues, with me now reading James Ziskin’s Cast the First Stone. I am very excited to read this; I’ve heard nothing but great things about his books, plus he’s a pretty good guy. I had bought the first in his series–still in the TBR pile, alas–so am kind of glad that this book became a homework assignment. I am really enjoying it thus far, and if it’s going where I think it may be going–well, that would be awesome, but I am sure I am going to love it even if it doesn’t.

I started watching the BBC series The Musketeers on Hulu this evening. I did a half-day today; one of my co-workers and I tested at a conference at the Riverside Hilton for four hours, after which I walked home on an afternoon in August. Heavy sigh. Any way, ’tis a good thing I did work only half-a-day, because alas we are having to clean everything in the house because Scooter had a couple of fleas. His medication is working–the fleas we’ve found were dying or dead–but it’s August and we live in a swamp, and so while there have been no signs of infestation thus far, we aren’t going to take the risk. So I’ve been cleaning all day ever since I got home; taking breaks now and then to watch something on the television, and having it on as I launder things and vacuum things and well, it needed to be done, didn’t it?

That’s a rather tired and round about way of getting to the point, isn’t it? Long story short: I’ve always been a big fan of The Three Musketeers, ever since I was a kid, and I’ve been meaning to watch this BBC series for years…but kept forgetting about it. Someone posted somewhere on Facebook last night asking people to name their favorite d’Artagnan, and as I always do, whenever I get the chance, I replied Always Michael York. Always. But someone else posted a picture of the young actor who plays him in the television series and I thought, yes, I’d been meaning to watch that, hadn’t I? So I watched a couple of episodes as I cleaned–and am intrigued. More watching is most definitely called for.

Next up in Florida Happens is “A Postcard for the Dead”, by Susanna Calkins.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Susanna Calkins lives outside Chicago with her husband and two sons. Holding a PhD in history, Susanna writes the award-winning Lucy Campion historical mysteries as well as the forthcoming Speakeasy Murders, both from St. Martin’s Minotaur. Murder Knocks Twice, set in Prohibition-Era Chicago, will be out Spring 2019. Her first short story, “The Trial of Madame Pelletier,” featuring a 19th century poisoning case, is up for an Anthony Award (and can be read on her website at www.susannacalkins.com).

Susanna says: “A POSTCARD FOR THE DEAD” is my second published short story. When I saw the call for the Bouchercon anthology, on a whim I began to read through 1920s Florida newspapers, since I was already researching the Roaring Twenties for my Prohibition-Era novels. There, I stumbled across the rather odd story of Lena Clarke, a postmistress who had embezzled huge amounts of money from the Post Office and then framed a local playboy for the crime. What struck me most about this story was how Lena gave her testimony in court using a crystal ball, having been part of a wild West Palm Beach Bohemian set, before being declared insane. Although I altered the case substantially in my version, I retained the embezzlement aspect and of course the crystal ball. After a little more digging, l discovered that Lena’s brother had died of a snakebite, which just seemed too Florida of a detail not too include. I thought about setting the story in a courtroom, but given that my FIRST short story, “The Trial of Madame Pelletier” featured, well, a trial, I thought I’d better frame it a little differently.

Calkins author photo outside

West Palm Beach, Florida

July 1921

Lily Baker peered inside her mailbox before reaching in to retrieve her mail. Back when her half-brother had been West Palm Beach’s postmaster, he had delighted in leaving snakes in mailboxes as pranks. Of course, the last laugh had been on him, when he had died of a snake bite last Christmas.

There was only one piece of mail today, though—a postcard featuring a swanky hotel in Orlando, a city she’d never been. She turned it over to read the message but was surprised to find it blank. Only her name and address had been printed on the postcard, in careful block letters.

Curiously, she studied the card. The stamp had been cancelled in Orlando two days before. July 27, 1921. Flipping the card back over, she looked at the picture more closely. The hotel was the San Juan, which the postcard informed her had been built in 1885 by C.E. Pierce. Built for the filthy rich, from the looks of it.

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Lily was still by her mailbox when she saw Officer Danny Jamison coming down the street on his bicycle.  She had known Officer Jamison since they were kids—he’d been just one year ahead of her in school. After high school they’d gone in different directions, although on occasion their paths crossed. She was about to wave as he passed by, when instead he stopped in front of her and dismounted his bike in one easy move.

“Hey Lily,” he said, leaning his bike against her palm tree. “Your sister around?”

Lily shifted from one foot to the other. Why was Danny asking after Junie? Though she and her older half-sister had lived together since their parents had passed away a few years before, Junie tended to be tight-lipped about her goings-on. But Lily would catch whispers about illicit gin, late night séances, Ouija parties, and other secret doings connected with West Palm Beach’s furtive Bohemian scene. A far cry from her day job heading the town’s Post Office, which Junie had taken over from their brother some eight months before.  “She must have left for work early,” Lily said.  “I didn’t see her this morning.”

“I see. But you saw her last night?”

Great beginning, right? It’s a terrific story, but what I think I enjoyed the most about it was the narrator’s voice; I really liked the character of Lily, how Calkins gradually let us into Lily’s life, and through character, built a very clever crime story.

Baby-Baby-Baby

John D. MacDonald is one of my favorite authors. Period.

I first read MacDonald when I was about thirteen: The Dreadful Lemon Sky. I didn’t care too much for it on my first read; I was coming off reading Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner and Charlotte Armstrong, and was deep into my Victoria Holt/Phyllis Whitney phase, so I was confused–this isn’t a mystery at all, I remember thinking as I read it…and ironically, it was this enormous disappointment that led to me moving away from reading mystery/crime novels for a very long time.

When I was about sixteen, I bought a couple of ratty old MacDonald paperbacks for a dime each at a flea market: Murder in the Wind, The Crossroads, and The Drowner. These were three of his stand-alones from his pulp days, before he started writing the Travis McGee series, and I loved all three of them. This was my first experience with pulp fiction/noir; it was shortly after this that I went on my James M. Cain kick, and slowly came to an appreciation of the less-traditional style  of  crime novel. Years later, when Grafton, Muller and Paretsky brought me back into reading crime, I remembered how much I’d enjoyed those pulpy MacDonalds and decided to give Travis McGee another try. I bought another copy of The Dreadful Lemon Sky, and this time, the character caught on with me–and soon I was tearing through the entire series. The earlier MacDonald novels had all mostly gone out of print, but he periodically was still writing stand-alones; still dark and twisty and noir and pulpy, but these novels had more heft–Condominium, One More Sunday, Barrier Island–and I think those later three don’t get the credit they deserve.

In the last few years I’ve been acquiring used copies of those old MacDonald pulp stand-alones–and while they are dated, they are still compelling reads. And yes, as I have said before, Chanse MacLeod owes a lot to Travis McGee.

So, you can IMAGINE my thrill that the MacDonald Estate allowed me to reprint one of his stories in Florida Happens.

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From his website: This website is devoted to John D. MacDonald, author of 78 books, including the famous Travis McGee series.  JDM is well-known in mystery fiction writing, especially for his books with Florida as a setting.  Most of the current Florida mystery writers acknowledge JDM’s impact on their writing.

Born In Sharon, Pa., MacDonald , as a young boy, wished he had been born a writer, believing that they were a separate “race,” marked from birth.  But two years of  writing 10 to 12 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week, in 1945 and 1946, convinced him otherwise.

By the time he died he had published 78 books, with more than 75 million copies in print.

He married Dorothy Prentiss in a secret ceremony in 1937 in Pennsylvania  and a public wedding was held in Poland, N.Y.  in 1938.

He graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in business in 1939 and then went to Harvard to work on an MBA. His son, Maynard, was born that year.

He worked at several menial jobs after earning his MBA in 1939.

MacDonald then served in the Army beginning in 1940 at the Rochester N.Y Ordnance station.  He was sent to  India in late 1943, and was accepted in the OSS in late 1944 . He  was sent  to Ceylon  where he was the Commander of Detachment 404.  He was not a spy, however, but served in the Ordnance areas.

He wrote nearly 450 short stories, and published his first novel ,The Brass Cupcake, in 1950 (complete bibliography here) He continues to earn praise from millions of readers and lasting respect from fellow authors. He was given the Grandmaster Award in 1972 by the Mystery Writers of America; the Ben Franklin Award (1955);and was Guest of Honor at Bouchercon in 1983. Numerous other awards and Honorary Doctorates were given to him as well.

Perhaps the greatest testament to his writing, now decades  after his death in 1986, is that his books continue to sell, movies continue to be planned, and the internet continues to serve as a place to discuss his work and related matters.  See the Facebook Busted Flush group.

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The story is “Hangover.”

He dreamed that he had dropped something, lost something of value in the furnace, and he lay on his side trying to look down at an angle through a little hole, look beyond the flame down into the dark guts of the furnace for what he had lost. But the flame kept pulsing through the hole with a brightness that hurt his eyes, with a heat that parched his face, pulsing with an intermittent husky rasping sound.

With his awakening, the dream became painfully explicable—the pulsing roar was his own harsh breathing, the parched feeling was a consuming thirst, the brightness was transmuted into pain intensely localized behind his eyes. When he opened his eyes, a long slant of early morning sun dazzled him, and he shut his eyes quickly again.

This was a morning time of awareness of discomfort so acute that he had no thought for anything beyond the appraisal of the body and its functions. Though he was dimly aware of psychic discomforts that might later exceed the anguish of the flesh, the immediacy of bodily pain localized his attentions. Even without the horizontal brightness of the sun, he would have known it was early. Long sleep would have muffled the beat of the taxed heart to a softened, sedate, and comfortable rhythm. But it was early and the heart knocked sharply with a violence and in a cadence almost hysterical, so that no matter how he turned his head, he could feel it, a tack hammer chipping away at his mortality.

His thirst was monstrous, undiminished by the random nausea that teased at the back of his throat. His hands and feet were cool, yet where his thighs touched he was sweaty. His body felt clotted, and he knew that he had perspired heavily during the evening, an oily perspiration that left an unpleasant residue when it dried. The pain behind his eyes was a slow bulging and shrinking, in contrapuntal rhythm to the clatter of his heart.

He sat on the edge of the bed, head bowed, eyes squeezed shut, cool trembling fingers resting on his bare knees. He felt weak, nauseated, and acutely depressed.

This was the great joke. This was a hangover. Thing of sly wink, of rueful guffaw. This was death in the morning.

Great, terrific writing.

And now I can say I edited an anthology with John D. MacDonald as a contributor.

I may never stop being thrilled.

Jump

Wednesday!

The week is at its halfway point. I am also taking a three day weekend to honor my fifty-seventh birthday (it’s on Monday; there’s still plenty of time to shop for a gift–although cold hard cash is always welcome), and who knows what else I’ll get up to this weekend? We shall see, but if anything I am looking forward to just having three days off from work.

I’ll probably end up cleaning a lot, which is what I always tend to do.

Last night I broke down and took a sleeping pill, so today I feel amazing and rested. I’ll try to sleep tonight again without one.

Next up in the Florida Happens short stories would be Craig Pittman’s “How to Handle a Shovel.”

Per  his website: Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. Born in Pensacola, he graduated from Troy State University in Alabama, where his muckraking work for the student paper prompted an agitated dean to label him “the most destructive force on campus.” Since then he has covered a variety of newspaper beats and quite a few natural disasters, including hurricanes, wildfires and the Florida Legislature. Since 1998, he has covered environmental issues for Florida’s largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. He has won the Waldo Proffitt Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism in Florida four times, and twice won the top investigative reporting award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Stories he has written for Sarasota magazine have won three first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association.He’s the co-author, with Matthew Waite, of Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss, (2009), which won the Stetson Kennedy Award from the Florida Historical Society. His second book was Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species (2010), which the Florida Humanities Council named one of 21 “essential” books for Floridians. His latest book The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid, was just published. His latest book, Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, hit stores in July 2016.

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The green Ford pickup truck jounced along the washboard road, a cloud of dust swirling in its wake. The radio was on. Carrie Underwood faded in and out of the static like she was about to disappear.

Billy, the skinny kid sitting in the passenger seat, peered over his shoulder into the bed of the truck to check on their load. As the truck rumbled on, the twelve gopher tortoises were all of bouncing around in their shells and probably wondering what the hell happened to them.

The driver, a heavyset man everybody called J.T., noticed what Billy was doing and smiled to himself.

“It ain’t fair,” Billy said, turning back around.

A sunburn blossomed on Billy’s cheeks. The wind from the open truck window plucked at his straw-colored hair. Sweat had bled through his  T-shirt, and globs of dirt stuck to his ragged sneakers and the sweaty parts of his shirt and faded jeans. It even adhered in spots to the sweat that had run down his face, creating splotches of salty mud.

“What ain’t fair?” asked J.T. He wore a sweat-stained camo cap pulled down low his bald head. His short-sleeve shirt strained at its buttons. It had once been dark blue but it had faded until it matched the sky. J.T. kept the shirt tail untucked to accommodate his bulk, and now it lay across his lap like a table cloth, parted in the middle for the spit cup he held between his meaty thighs. J.T.’s graying beard started around his earlobes and hung down to his belly like a pennant, and around one side of his mouth were a few stray flecks of tobacco. He kept his sun-baked elbow leaning on the truck window, steering with two fingers on his left hand. With his right, he grabbed the cup and held it up so he could spit a stream of brown juice into it, still keeping his eyes on the road. Then he shoved the cup back where it had been.

“What ain’t fair is how I’m doin’ all the work and takin’ all the risk, and you keep about all the money, that’s what,” Billy said. He knew he sounded like a whiner. He didn’t care. He was just trying one more time to persuade J.T. to hand over his money before he was forced to off the fat man.

This is a fun dark little story about two small-time crooks–redneck Floridians, which are a breed apart from other rednecks–poaching gopher turtles and the rise of conflict between them; a charming if grim little tale. Craig gets both characters pitch-perfect, and the voice is also terrific. I read his Oh, Florida book and loved it; full of insights about Florida and how the crazy state came to be the way it is, it also brought back a lot of my own memories about summers in Florida when I was a kid–back in the 1970s, before it turned into the beachfront condo hell it is now.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Your Wildest Dreams

Good morning! It’s Thursday, everyone, and with a short day at the office ahead of me and just one more day before the weekend, I am feeling good. Not as good perhaps as I should, but I slept really well last night, don’t have to be at work until later this afternoon, and I am going to even go to the gym this morning before it’s time to go to work.

I call that a winning day, don’t you?

I am reading Lori Rader-Day’s The Day I Died as prep work for my moderating duties at Bouchercon next month. I am, in case you weren’t paying attention, Constant Reader, moderating the panel highlighting the Anthony Award finalists for Best Paperback Original. After I finish Lori’s book I’ll be reading Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck, What We Reckon by Eryk Pruitt, Cast the First Stone by James Ziskin, and Uncorking a Lie by Nadine Nettmann. I’m enjoying Lori’s book–I also enjoyed the previous one of hers I’d read, Little Pretty Things, and as I’ve said before, there’s no one more fun to traverse the back roads of rural Alabama on a rainy morning with. All of these books had been in my TBR pile for quite some time, so it’s great to have an excuse to pull them out and read them.

I worked a little more on “Please Die Soon” yesterday; the story is becoming even creepier the more I work on it–although I think I may have done some overkill with it. But I am going to keep going with it, and once I am finished with the first draft I’ll figure it out in the revision process. I am also letting “A Whisper from the Graveyard” sit for a while–I know there’s some serious tweakage needed in it as well before submitting it–and I am starting to get to work on the August/September project as well. Exciting times for a Gregalicious.

And before I go to the gym this morning, I’m going to try to get the house straightened up a bit.

And while I know I’ve already talked about my story in Florida Happens (“Cold Beer No Flies”) I intend to spend the rest of this month’s focus on The Short Story Project on the stories and authors in the book, to try to whet your appetite for either preordering the book or buying it at Bouchercon. We are doing a launch for the book there on Thursday at 1; all the authors present gathering to sign and/or discuss the book and their story. And of course, it’s just easier for me to start by talking about my own.

Dane Brewer stepped out of his air-conditioned trailer, wiped sweat off his forehead and locked the door. It was early June and already unbearably hot, the humidity so thick it was hard to breathe. He was too far inland from the bay to get much of the cooling sea breeze but not so far away he couldn’t smell it. The fishy wet sea smell he was sick to death of hung in the salty air. It was omnipresent, inescapable. He trudged along the reddish-orange dirt path through towering pine trees wreathed in Spanish moss. The path was strewn with pine cones the size of his head and enormous dead pine needles the color of rust that crunched beneath his shoes. His face was dripping with sweat. He came into the clearing along the state road where a glorified Quonset hut with a tin roof stood.  It used to be a bait and tackle until its resurrection as a cheap bar. It was called My Place. It sounded cozy—the kind of place people would stop by every afternoon for a cold one after clocking out from work, before heading home.

The portable reader board parked where the parking lot met the state road read Cold Beer No Flies.

Simple, matter of fact, no pretense. No Hurricanes in fancy glasses like the touristy places littering the towns along the gulf coast. Just simple drinks served in plain glasses, ice-cold beer in bottles or cans stocked in refrigerated cases at simple prices hard-working people could afford. Tuscadega’s business was fish, and its canning plant stank of dead fish and guts and cold blood for miles. Tuscadega sat on the inside coast of a large shallow bay. The bay’s narrow mouth was crowned by a bridge barely visible from town. A long two-lane bridge across the bay led to the gold mine of the white sand beaches and green water along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Tourists didn’t flock to Tuscadega, but Tuscadega didn’t want them, either. Dreamers kept saying when land along the gulf got too expensive the bay shores would be developed, but it hadn’t and Dane doubted it ever would.

Tuscadega was just a tired old town and always would be, best he could figure it. A dead end the best and the brightest fled as soon as they were able.

 He was going to follow them one day, once he could afford it.

Towns like Tuscadega weren’t kind to people like Dane.

“Cold Beer No Flies” was originally conceived of back when I lived in Kansas, as far back as when I was a teenager. There was a bar in Emporia called My Place, which was an okay place–it had a concrete floor, just like the one in my story–and it also had one of those rolling readerboard signs along the road, and it literally read that: MY PLACE COLD BEER, NO FLIES. I always thought that was funny, and I always wanted to write a story called “Cold Beer No Flies.” I think I wrote the original first draft of the story in the 1980’s, and it languished in my files all these years. When it came to be time to write something for Florida Happens, I picked out “Cold Beer No Flies”, read the first two drafts of what I had written before, and decided to reboot the story and adapt it to the Florida setting. I’d always seen it as a noir story, and in rewriting/adapting it to fit this I needed to obviously move the setting from Kansas to Florida. I also had the bright idea to set it in the panhandle; I figured (rightly) that the majority of stories would be set in the beach communities literally the southern coasts of the state, and not many people would be moved to right about either the interior parts or the panhandle. I picked a dying, rotten little small town and placed it on a panhandle bay, similar to the little town my grandparents retired to in the early 1970’s. I also wanted to look at, and explore, what it’s like to grow up gay and working class in such a place–very redneck, very conservative, very backwards, very religious, very homophobic. The story turned out very creepy, I think, which was precisely what I was going for, and I hope you enjoy it when the time comes, Constant Reader.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Nikita

I read a terrific piece about Mary Higgins Clark the other day; about how her books are really, at the barest bone, about how women cannot even truly trust men. It’s a terrific read, and I do think everyone should read this piece–draw your own conclusions. The brilliant Sarah Weinman then tweeted the piece, positing that she considers Clark the bridge between the domestic suspense thrillers of the past (writers like Dorothy B. Hughes, Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and scores of others) to the modern day women who are killing it in the crime fiction world. On that tweet thread, someone (I think Jeff Abbott?) brought up Phyllis A. Whitney.

Now, Phyllis A. Whitney is one of my favorite writers of all time. I first read her children’s/young adult mysteries (the first being The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye, which I checked out from the library at Eli Whitney Elementary School, after which I started tearing through them. Some were available through the Scholastic Book Club, others I got from the library. I loved them all because they were always set in far off places I wanted to visit–Tiger’s Eye taught me about South Africa and apartheid; The Mystery of the Hidden Hand taught me about Greece and the black market for antiquities, etc.

My mom let me join the Mystery Guild when I was eleven, and I was very thrilled and excited to see as one of the choices, a book by Phyllis A. Whitney, Listen for the Whisperer, and I added it to my choices, filling in the little white box with the correct item number. I was also, at this same time, going through my Hollywood period, reading biographies of movie stars and producers and histories of the film industry. So, you can imagine my thrill to discover that Listen for the Whisperer also was sort of about the film industry; the main character’s biological mother, had been a major Hollywood star, even winning an Oscar, when a scandal destroyed her career; her director was murdered one night on the film set of what would ultimately be her last film, a Gothic black-and-white suspense film called The Whisperer.

It was amazing. A romance and a thriller and a murder mystery, with a lot of Hollywood background to it, it’s remained one of my favorite books of all time, and always makes any list I make of books that were important and/or formative to me.

I soon began tearing through her backlist: Thunder Heights, Seven Tears for Apollo, Blue Fire, Black Amber, Skye Cameron, The Trembling Hills, Silverhill, The Winter People, The Quicksilver Pool, Lost Island, The Moonflower, Sea Jade, Columbella, and Hunter’s Green. Mrs. Whitney continued producing work for almost another twenty years, and I read those books as they were released in paperback, later getting them as they were originally released in hardcover: Snowfire, The Turquoise Mask, The Golden Unicorn, The Glass Flame, Spindrift, Rainbow in the Mist, Woman without a Past, and Vermilion, among many others. Like her teen books, the adult novels also were often set in exotic places which Mrs. Whitney described perfectly, and you learned a little something about the places as you read about them. I also began to realize that when Mrs. Whitney went on one of her research trips, she often wrote two books set there–one for kids, and another for adults.

But the primary difference, I think, between Mary Higgins Clark and Phyllis Whitney is this: if, as the article I read (and linked to) is correct, Ms. Clark’s message is a woman can’t trust any man, then Mrs. Whitney’s was a woman can’t trust anyone, ESPECIALLY not family.

Mrs. Whitney’s books were often, not always, about a young woman trying to either obtain closure (like meeting the birth mother she never knew in Listen for the Whisperer, or confronting her estranged husband who finally wants a divorce after several years of separation in Hunter’s Green, or seeking a relationship with the child she gave up in Lost Island) or trying to get to know a family she’s never met or knew existed (Silverhill, Woman without a Past, Thunder Heights, Sea Jade). 

You couldn’t trust anyone in a Whitney novel; sometimes her killers were actually women.

A common trope in Whitney’s work was also the bad girl, who was often either married to, or engaged to, the love interest for the main character; and frequently, particularly in her earlier works, the bad girl wound up as the murder victim (Columbella, Lost Island). There was almost always a “bad girl” archetype in these books; a beautiful, sexually free woman who refused to be a submissive wife, and was sometimes, quite frankly, a nasty bitch to the main character (The Turquoise Mask, Vermilion) but eventually came over the heroine’s side and thus survived the story.

Here’s a list of all her novels (you can see, she was very prolific and her career lasted over fifty years; often publishing more than one book per year–and remember, she had to use a typewriter):

  • A Place for Ann (1941)
  • A Star for Ginny (1942)
  • A Window for Julie (1943)
  • Red is for Murder (1943), Reissued as The Red Carnelian (1965)
  • The Silver Inkwell (1945)
  • Writing Juvenile Fiction (1947)
  • Willow Hill (1947)
  • Ever After (1948)
  • The Mystery of the Gulls (1949)
  • Linda’s Homecoming (1950)
  • The Island of Dark Woods (1951), Reissued as Mystery of the Strange Traveler (1967)
  • Love Me, Love Me Not (1952)
  • Step to the Music (1953)
  • Mystery of the Black Diamonds (1954)
  • A Long Time Coming (1954)
  • Mystery on the Isle of Skye (1955)
  • The Quicksilver Pool (1955)
  • The Fire and the Gold (1956)
  • The Highest Dream (1956)
  • The Trembling Hills (1956)
  • Mystery of the Green Cat (1957)
  • Skye Cameron (1957)
  • Secret of the Samurai Sword (1958)
  • The Moonflower (1958)
  • Creole Holiday (1959)
  • Mystery of the Haunted Pool (1960)
  • Thunder Heights (1960)
  • Secret of the Tiger’s Eye (1961)
  • Blue Fire (1961)
  • Mystery of the Golden Horn (1962)
  • Window on the Square (1962)
  • Mystery of the Hidden Hand (1963)
  • Seven Tears for Apollo (1963)
  • Secret of the Emerald Star (1964)
  • Black Amber (1964)
  • Mystery of the Angry Idol (1965)
  • Sea Jade (1965)
  • Columbella (1966)
  • Secret of the Spotted Shell (1967)
  • Silverhill (1967)
  • Hunter’s Green (1968)
  • Secret of Goblin Glen (1969)
  • The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost (1969)
  • The Winter People (1969)
  • Secret of the Missing Footprint (1969)
  • Lost Island (1970)
  • The Vanishing Scarecrow (1971)
  • Nobody Likes Trina (1972)
  • Listen for the Whisperer (1972)
  • Mystery of the Scowling Boy (1973)
  • Snowfire (1973)
  • The Turquoise Mask (1974)
  • Secret of Haunted Mesa (1975)
  • Spindrift (1975)
  • The Golden Unicorn (1976)
  • Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels (1976)
  • Secret of the Stone Face (1977)
  • The Stone Bull (1977)
  • The Glass Flame (1978)
  • Domino (1979)
  • Poinciana (1980)
  • Vermilion (1981)
  • Guide to Fiction Writing (1982)
  • Emerald (1983)
  • Rainsong (1984)
  • Dream of Orchids (1985)
  • Flaming Tree (1986)
  • Silversword (1987)
  • Feather on the Moon (1988)
  • Rainbow in the Mist (1989)
  • The Singing Stones (1990)
  • Woman Without a Past (1991)
  • The Ebony Swan (1992)
  • Star Flight (1993)
  • Daughter of the Stars (1994)
  • Amethyst Dreams (1997)

She won two Edgars for her mysteries for children, and was eventually named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

I did sometimes get frustrated with her heroines for being more wimpy than they needed to be; usually, though, the course of the novel allowed her heroines to become more confident in themselves as well as to work through whatever neuroses they had at the start of the novel. And like I said, a common theme was damaged families. Her books, along with those of Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, were labelled as romantic suspense, but I think female noir is actually a better label for them; and as an adult, I really don’t think Stewart’s books actually are romantic suspense…but that’s a topic for another time.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Rumors

I wrote a short story the other day; or rather, I finished writing one. It’s called “This Thing of Darkness” (I love that title. It’s from Shakespeare; The Tempest, to be exact.) and it’s one I started writing several months ago and then set aside to work on other things. I’ve always wanted to finish it, and while the story I should have been working on was kind of stalled out for me, rather than trying to force it or work some kind of voodoo magic somehow, I thought, oh, I should just finish “This Thing of Darkness” and soon enough have the first draft banged out. It needs work, of course, but I am very pleased, as the writing has been very slow going this month.

The second story I am writing, the one I really need to finish, continues to be a slog. Heavy sigh. But I am hoping to have a breakthrough on it really soon; otherwise I am just going to have to push myself to write through it.

I really hate when the writing stalls, don’t you?

I also started another story this week. It was one of those things where it came to me Monday night as I was sitting in my easy chair watching the news unfold, and shaking my head in disbelief, frankly. It’s called “Please Die Soon” and I think it’s kind of a clever idea; we shall see if I can deliver on its original promise, shan’t we?

Our anniversary–the twenty-third–is this Friday, and to celebrate we are going to go see a movie on Saturday and go out to dinner. There’s no end to the living large, is there?

And hurray for Thursday! I’ve almost made it through the week.

Today’s short story is “Prey” by Richard Matheson, from The Best of Richard Matheson:

Amelia arrived at her apartment at six-fourteen. Hanging her coat in the hall closet, she carried the small package into the living room and sat on the sofa. She nudged off her shoes while she unwrapped the package on her lap. The wooden box resembled a casket. Amelia raised the lid and smiled. It was the ugliest doo she’d ever seen. Seven inches long and carved from wood, it had a skeletal body and an oversized head. Its expression was maniacally fierce, its pointed teeth completely bared, its glaring eyes protuberant. It clutched an eight-inch spear in its right hand. A length of fine, gold chain was wrapped round its body from the shoulders to the knees. A tiny scroll was wedged between the doll and the inside wall of its box. Amelia picked it up and unrolled it. There was handwriting on it. This is He Who Kills, it began. He is a deadly hunter. Amelia smiled as she read the rest of the words. Arthur would be pleased.

The thought of Arthur made her turn to look at the telephone on the table beside her. After a while, she sighed and set the wooden box on the sofa. Lifting the telephone to her lap, she picked up the receiver and dialed a number.

Her mother answered.

“Hello, Mom,” Amelia said.

“Haven’t you left yet?” her mother asked.

Amelia steeled herself. “Mom, I know it’s Friday night–” she started.

She couldn’t finish. There was silence on the line. Amelia closed her eyes. Mom, please, she thought. She swallowed. “There’s this man,” she said, “His name is Arthur Breslow. he’s a high-school teacher.”

“You aren’t coming,” her mother said.

Amelia shivered “It’s his birthday, ” she said. She opened her eyes and looked at the doll. “I sort of promised him we’d…spend the evening together.”

Every one who was old enough to watch television in the 1970’s knows this story, because everyone watched the made-for-TV movie Trilogy of Terror, which starred Karen Black. Trilogy of Terror was an anthology film; three short stories adapted into thirty-minute stories, all starring Karen Black, and “Prey” was the final story. It was completely unforgettable, because it was absolutely terrifying. It gave me nightmares for weeks, and I had to sleep with a night light on for months. All three were stories by Matheson; Matheson only wrote the screenplay for the third segment. It’s equally chilling as a short story as it was a short film; Amelia buys a fetish doll for a male friend with whom she has a date that night. She has to cancel a visit to her mother, who is very controlling, but while she is on the phone with her mother the gold chain that keeps the spirit of the fetish doll imprisoned and trapped falls off….and the real terror begins.

Absolutely unforgettable.

The movie was also produced by Dan Curtis, of Dark Shadows fame, who also produced and directed Burnt Offerings.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Small Town

I’m never really certain how to describe where I’m from; because it isn’t simple. I was born in Alabama, which is where my people are from (which is what we say in Alabama), but we moved to Chicago when I was two. We lived in the city until I was ten, which is when we moved out to the suburbs. I was fourteen when we moved to Kansas, and nineteen when I followed my parents to California. Since California, I’ve lived in: Houston, Tampa, Houston, Tampa, Minneapolis, New Orleans, DC, and then back to New Orleans once and for all. So, saying I grew up in Kansas isn’t quite accurate, nor is I grew up in Chicago. I graduated from high school in Kansas, so there is that. I consider New Orleans home; I’ve certainly lived here longer than I have anywhere else in my life, but in a sense, I am kind of ‘homeless’ in that regard. I’ve always pretty much considered wherever my parents live to be home, even though now they live somewhere I’ve never actually lived–so I lazily say I’m going home to see my parents, even though their current home has never really been my home; I guess in that sense that wherever my parents are is home because my parents define, for me, where that indescribable, undefinable place that I call home would be. I also think of Alabama as home, too; though I haven’t lived there in fifty-five years and I have no memory of ever living there.

Does that make sense?

New Orleans is home for me now; Alabama is where I’m from, but I also consider anywhere my parents live to also be home.

Is it any wonder I am barely clinging to my sanity with my fingernails?

And yes, I lived in a very small town in Kansas: I believe the population of Americus was 932 when I lived there (that number is stuck in my head, so it came from somewhere), and moving there, even from a suburb of Chicago, was a bit of culture shock for me. (Not nearly as big as the shock must have been for my parents, moving from a mostly country existence in a remote part of Alabama to Chicago when they were twenty with two toddlers.) The streets didn’t have names or numbers; and at the main intersection in town there was a blinking red light hovering over the center, suspended on wire that waved and swayed in the wind. There was a gas station and a tiny little food place called the Katy Drive-in; what was now the Americus Road that you took to “go to town” (the county seat, Emporia, about eight miles away) used to be the Katy Railroad Line, long gone and almost completely forgotten. We caught the bus at the grade school, which had been the high school until its conversion when the old grade school was condemned by the fire marshall; people in town were still bitter about the loss of the town’s high school and the students being absorbed into the consolidated high school, about sixteen miles from town: Northern Heights High School, about a mile east of yet another small town named Allen. Northern Heights’s student body was an amalgamation of farm kids and kids from five towns: Americus, Bushong, Allen, Admire, and Miller, each of which used to have it’s own grade and high school.

It was strange for me, but being the new kid  had added benefits to it; no one knew, at my new school, that at my previous school I was picked on and sort of mocked and belittled and made fun of; had gay slurs sneered at me in the hallways since the seventh grade, sometimes cornered by a group of boys who got their jollies by mocking me and making me worry about physical violence. By the time some of the kids at my new school realized that I was different not only because I was new and from the big city but because I was harboring the deep secret that I was gay it was the second semester of my senior year and I only had a few months to endure slurs and mocking laughter, of finding Greg Herren sucks cock written in magic marker on my locker or on the desk I usually sat in during a class.

Kansas has been on my mind a lot lately; Constant Reader will no doubt remember that several months ago I had dinner with a classmate, passing through town on his way to a long bike ride along the Natchez Trace. That dinner reminded me of things I hadn’t thought about in years; the smell of corn fields after the rain, the brooding heat, how you could see a thunderstorm coming from miles away across the flat terrain, and the long drive to school. The WIP is set in a town based on Emporia; Sara was set in a high school based on the one I attended. Laura, my main character in Sorceress, was from Kansas and had gone to the Sara high school until her parents’ death, which is the impetus that ended with her in the California mountains. My story “Promises in Every Star” is set at an imaginary high school reunion in Kansas, where my main character returns for the first time in years.

I do have a lot of fond memories of my high school years in Kansas; I don’t want to make it seem as though I don’t. But the passing of time and the malignant spread of nostalgia through my brain hasn’t yet succeeded in dulling the bad memories either, or painting over them with a golden, rosy sheen.

But I also wouldn’t be who I am now were it not for that time, so I can’t be bitter or angry about the bad; you can’t have the good that came from then without having to accept the bad. And there was a lot of good, really, a lot of fun and laughter. Even were I not a gay kid terrified of what would happen if anyone knew–although more knew than I was aware back then–being from the city would have made me different anyway; as would being a creative type who loved to read and aspired to be a writer.

I would have been different anyway; the main issue of almost all of my life experiences before I finally came to terms with who I am, my difference, was always predicated in my mind on my sexuality; it took a long time for me to realize that my difference wasn’t just the gay thing because the gay thing overrode everything else.

Heavy thoughts for a Sunday morning.

And you will be pleased to know, Constant Reader, that I have returned to the Short Story Project. Next up is “Nemesia’s Garden” by Mariano Alonso, from Cemetery Dance, Issue 79, edited by Richard Chizmar:

Why is it that the secrets we don’t like to talk about during our lives are the same secrets we don’t want to take to the grave with us?

The day before dying on a hospital bed after a long battle with cancer, my mother told me a story that happened the year before I went off to college. The story was as strange as the time she chose to share it.

For many years, my mother worked as a cleaning lady in several private residences on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Upper West Side. She was an illegal immigrant with basic education and poor English-language skills; for this reason she was in no position to negotiate with her wealthy patrons for a fair wage that, at least, was always in cash and tax-free.

This is a creepy ass story about two twisted, elderly sisters–one disabled, the other cruel–which is more than a little reminiscent of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in style and theme and tone, but I greatly enjoyed reading it. It’s told from the perspective of their cleaning woman, an illegal immigrant who is telling the story to her son, as you can tell above, when she is dying, because she can’t go to her grave with the creepy tale on her conscience.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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