Was It Worth It?

I’ve always been a reader; my earliest (and most of the happiest) memories of my early years is of reading books that I deeply loved. I think it was the 4th grade where I really began to read series books of mysteries for kids; I’m not sure which was the first one, but it was either The Three Investigators’ The Mystery of the Moaning Cave or Trixie Belden’s The Read Trailer Mystery. When I discovered Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and the rest, I decided I not only wanted to be a writer when I grew up but wanted to write a similar type series. I wrote my very first “book” in the fifth grade, called The Mystery of the Haunted Mansion, and of course it was really derivative and more of a pastiche; I don’t remember the name of my main character, but I had a friend type it up for me, and then I bound it inside cardboard and drew a cover for it (which I still remember; it was basically a rip off of the original cover for Nancy Drew’s The Ghost of Blackwood Hall). The concept of a mystery series for kids has never really left me, and always periodically came up again throughout my life…until I actually started writing seriously. About fourteen years ago I thought about it again; going so far as to actually come up with a series character…and it came up again in conversation with a friend who actually writes middle grade the other day (That Bitch Ford, to be exact) and the idea has continued to swirl in my head ever since. Yesterday morning, I went through my horribly disorganized file cabinet, looking for the file folder labeled KIDS’ SERIES and took it out of the file. Inside are yellowed pages of book synopses, lists of possible titles, characters, different series…and as I paged through it, I also found traces of things that eventually showed up in my work since I actually became a published writer: the name of a town, character names, etc.

But I moved the file from the cabinet and put it in my inbox; at some point, perhaps this weekend, I’ll start going through it and seeing what might actually be of use to me. It’s not something I’m going to work on now–heavens no, there’s still too much else I have to write that I am already behind on–but it’s something to think about for the future, for sure.

And as I glanced over some of the titles, some of them were clearly “inspired/influenced” by Scooby Doo Where Are You and Jonny Quest. One–The Mystery of the Galloping Ghost–may have even been used in the Ken Holt series; I’d have to check to be certain, but I definitely think so. (And yes, I know titles cannot be copyrighted; both Ken Holt and The Three Investigators uncovered The Secret of Skeleton Island, for example) And I literally just watched the Jonny Quest episode with the gargoyle last week (on my list of titles is The Mystery of the Stone Gargoyle), and there’s also one called The Mystery of the Lost Crusade–I have thought, for many years, about writing a Colin stand alone called The Lost Crusade–and now I see that I had come up with that very title at least fifteen years earlier, before it swam up to my consciousness again. And surely The Witch of the Swamp was inspired by a Scooby Doo Where Are You episode I rewatched lately, about a witch in a swamp. And there’s The Mystery of the Crying Nun–I currently have a short story in progress called “The Crying Nun” (it’s a New Orleans ghost story). And The Mystery of the Haunted Airport was definitely a rip-off of a Scooby gang adventure.

There’s even detailed character descriptions, and plot summaries for more than ten of the “books.”

Something worth exploring, since I have nothing else to do.

We watched another episode of Dark last night, and boy, you have to hand it to the Germans when it comes to atmosphere and creepiness. They are slowly but surely explaining what is actually going on in this little German town–we’re only two episodes in–and the lovely thing is it’s most likely, based on last night’s episode, nothing we were thinking it was going to be. I love shows that surprise you like this; Orphan Black was really good at this, and I love having no idea where the story is going or what could possibly happen next. Those shows inevitably end up being my favorites to watch.

I slept very well again last night, and am working from home today with a lot of things to get done for the day job as well as a lot of things to get done for various things this weekend–both writing wise and volunteer wise–and I also have to make groceries at some point this weekend as well. The summer weather has finally kicked into it’s usual high gear–I don’t know why it always blindsides me every year, but there you have it–and so going out into the heat to do anything is always an energy-suck and exhausting. I also want to get deeper into my reading of Kelly Ford’s wonderful Cottonmouths–I’m not sure why I am having so much trouble focusing on reading this summer, but there it is–and think next will be a reread of Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree. I’m also going to spend some time culling the books again this weekend, even though there’s no place for me to take them to donate because of the pandemic. I also need to take some bags of beads to the donation drop for those as well–which will also be a lot of fun in the heat, yay–but it’s just clutter, you know.

And the thing is I want to declutter, and it’s not like we’ll go the rest of our lives never getting more beads. Catching them is more fun than keeping them, anyway.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines.

The Night I Fell in Love

And now begins the three day weekend. Yay!

It’s also July now, as one can tell by the tropical weather experience New Orleans is currently enjoying; heat index averaging high nineties over a hundred everyday, your occasional heat advisory (“stay indoors if at all possible”), thunderstorms and flash flood warnings out of nowhere and some Sahara sand storm dust thrown in for shits and giggles.

I finished watching the only season of the original Jonny Quest yesterday while making condom packs, and I have to say, the original writers of this show had some serious issues with Asians, and most especially the Chinese. It’s unusual that in a decade and time period when the Cold War was particularly chilly–it originally aired only a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in prime time that single season–the Russians were never the villains. Dr. Quest’s arch enemy was the evil Chinese scientist Dr. Sun; and in several episodes the villains were Chinese. They also had a remarkable number of adventures in Asia–China, Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Nepal; and the natives were always either evil or horrible stereotypes (as were any jungle natives they encountered in either South America or Africa). Hadji, a series regular, was a particularly stereotypical magical Indian youth–who managed to charm snakes, levitate others, and numerous other magic tricks while chanting “Heem, heem, salabeem” or some such nonsensical thing. He was always in a turban and Nehru jacket, and even in beach scenes, when the others wore swim trunks, he wore a Gandhi loincloth. Why?

I also watched a couple of episodes of Scooby Doo Where Are You, and despite the simplistic, casual racism of Jonny Quest, it’s still the superior show. I’ve not watched any of the later reboots of Jonny Quest–the one from 1986 shows up on HBO MAX as the second season, and in the mid-nineties The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest launched, with the boys aged to teenagers from eleven year olds, and Race’s daughter added to the mix (I guess to deflect the deep queerness of the original); the animation in this version is perhaps the best of all three versions–with Race finally achieving his full muscle-god bodyguard perfection–but whenever I’ve tried to watch, the “it’s not really Jonny Quest” disappointment always sets in and I stop watching.

We also got deeper into Season 2 of Titans, and it gets better and better with every episode, frankly. The Jericho story is particularly heartbreaking; and I love that they are using the second season (with some continuity errors) to explore how the team came to break apart in the first place (the show begins with the Titans already broken up, and them coming back together to confront the big bad of Season One) and how, essentially, all the action of Season One really was set into motion. It’s very exceptional story-telling, frankly, and the plotting and pacing is, for the most part, superb. Also superb is the addition of several new cast members: Rose Slade, Conner Kent, and Deathstroke as the big bad, with Aqualad appearing briefly as set up for the original conflict between the Titans and Deathstroke. We only have two episodes left, and I was glad to see the show was renewed for a third season already…although, given the pandemic, who knows when it will ever be filmed or when it will actually air.

Today, as I already mentioned earlier this week, is the day I am taking off. I have some emails to respond to, and some other things I need to get done this morning, but as soon as I get all of that done I am going on sabbatical for the rest of the weekend. I want to get a lot of writing done this weekend–the Secret Project must be finished, and there’s a couple more short stories in progress I want to work on and develop, but today for the most part I’m planning on mostly cleaning and reading and chilling out, so I can just let my brain relax and recuperate and my body to rest, so that the rest of the weekend I can get the writing I need to get done finished. I am looking forward to getting back into Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths–the first chapter was blistering–and getting through all the emails in my inbox. I also have my edits for the Sherlock story, which I’ll also have to get through this weekend–perhaps today–I am giving myself until one to deal with the Internet and emails and so forth before shutting down for the holiday weekend.

It’s very strange outside this morning, neither light nor dark but sort of grim-looking and hazy. The trees aren’t moving so there’s no wind of any kind out there. I’m not sure what the weather is supposed to be like today–there’s usually not much point in checking the forecast as it’s inevitably always the same–hot humid chance of rain–and usually, after June, we surrender to it and don’t bother with daily updates and just start paying attention to tropical formations and depressions coming across the Atlantic or forming deep in the Gulf. It isn’t hot in the kitchen/office this morning yet–the absence of the blindingly brilliant morning sun has helped, and I haven’t had to turn on the portable Arctic Air coolers yet (but I know it’s inevitable), but it actually feels pleasantly cool down here this morning thus far, which is rather nice, quite frankly.

I still have three stories out for submission (“The Snow Globe”, “Moves in the Field,” and “This Thing of Darkness”), but I do want to spend the summer trying to get more out there. One of the biggest disappointments I’ve found as a writer is the continual drying up of short story markets that actually pay, and while others have sprung up in their place they either don’t pay, or pay so little as to just be a token (and might as well be unpaid, for that matter). I’ve always been concerned about the decline of the short story market, because I do think the form is important to literature, and to crime fiction in particular. I personally love the short form–despite my constant struggle with it–and I also know I am just as guilty as anyone in its decline, because I don’t read them as much as I should. I do buy anthologies and short story collections–Sara Paretsky’s is winging its way to me even as I type this, along with the new one edited by Lawrence Block–and I am probably going to be putting together another one of my own at some point over the next year or so (provided the world doesn’t burn to the ground in the meantime). I was calling it Once a Tiger and Other Stories, but I have to completely rethink the title story, “Once a Tiger,” and so I may need to rename it. I would also like to include some of these stories I’ve recently sold–which will delay the collection more, as the original publications have to occur first, but I was thinking perhaps The Carriage House and Other Stories, or Night Follows Night and Other Stories. I also would love to collect all my love story/romance short stories into an edition–I’ve published three or four, but have a lot more just sitting in files needing to be revised or rewritten or finished.

And on that note, I am going to head back down into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, everyone.

Only the Wind

While the official first day of the summer season isn’t here quite yet, it’s already summertime in New Orleans–with everything that means. The thick heavy wet air that clings to you like a warm wet wool blanket; the beautifully bright and yellow sunlight that burns your skin red as it pierces through the windows of your car; and the climbing electric bills as your air conditioning unit desperately tries–and only occasionally succeeds–to keep the temperature livable and breathable inside your home. Tourists who come to New Orleans often complain about the extreme difference in temperature from going inside to out and back inside again; how cold it is everywhere in doors; that the shorts and tank tops, soggy and wet from sweat, aren’t enough covering as the they dry in the cold frigid inside air. It is really impossible to know how to dress in New Orleans when it’s hot; but those of us who live here are used to it, but you never get used to how just existing and moving around outside sucks the energy right out of you, and sometimes–like when you’re lugging all the shit you bought at Costco in from the car–you have to just sit for a spell, chug some cold water or Gatorade (or a daiquiri if you planned ahead), and collect yourself.

That was my yesterday. As you may have noticed had you paid close attention, I had been unwell for a while; primarily from forgetting that I have to be more cautious dealing with heat and more careful and mindful of the maintenance required for my older body. This whole thing started with me being unable to sleep for several nights in a row, and the moved on to severe dehydration and exhaustion and stomach issues. This led to another COVID-19 test, being sent home from work, and a slow recovery. But after days of drinking lots of water, avoiding caffeine (much to my own detriment when it comes to productivity), and good sleep–as well as staying inside as much as possible–I am finally, this morning, feeling like myself once again; energetic and creative and ready to go. I took two more vacation days this week–Wednesday and Thursday–to continue my rest and recovery, and it seems to have done the trick (I was really worried about the Costco trip being a setback; but I am stubborn and I wanted to get it out of the way; but I downed lots of water before I went, took a Gatorade with me, and had another after I got home).

And this morning, yes, I feel like me again for the first time in what seems like an incredibly long time.

I’m working from home today, which means data entry and making condom packs while streaming things on the television; I should finish the first season of Jonny Quest today, since the episodes are only about twenty-four minutes long; which makes me wonder if that’s why it had such a short run on Saturday mornings when I was a child–not enough time left for commercials. Scooby Doo Where Are You? episodes are 21-22 minutes. Money is key, and despite some problematic issues with the show (it was produced in the 1960’s, after all) it still holds up pretty well. It did put me in mind of another kids’ book series I read when I was younger–the Rick Brant Science Adventures by John Blaine, which was yet another one of the many Grosset & Dunlap series. Like the Ken Holt series I talked about recently, the Rick Brant series was never as popular as the Hardy Boys (nothing ever achieved the popularity of Nancy Drew), but were much more interesting, more action-packed, involved actual detective work, and were far better written. The similarities between Jonny Quest and Rick Brant are staggering; the Quests live on an island; Rick and his family also lived on Spindrift Island, separated by tidal flats from the coast on New Jersey. The Quests sort of adopted Hadji, who became Jonny’s best friend; Rick’s best friend is Don Scott (Scotty), and the Brants unofficially adopt him into their family. Jonny and his family go all over the world having adventures and solving mysteries having to do with science, for the most part; Rick and Scotty do the same. Jonny’s father is world-famous scientific genius Benton Quest; Rick’s father is world-famous scientific genius Hartson Brant.

The first few Rick Brants I read, like Ken Holt, I obtained off the sales table in the bargain basement at Goldblatt’s in Chicago: The Rocket’s Shadow, The Egyptian Cat Mystery, The Flying Stingaree, and The Flaming Mountain. Over the years, I found more of them at swap meets and flea markets and used bookstores; I think I met have an almost complete set of them now (I did acquire some via eBay after Katrina). Some of the books are now available for download on Project Gutenberg; several volumes from a variety of those old kids’ series–including Ken Holt, Judy Bolton, and Biff Brewster–are there (and yes, I downloaded all of them). I want to start revisiting some of these series, since they influenced me into becoming a mystery writer, and while scientific knowledge has proceeded incredibly rapidly since the Brant series were published and went out of print, it’s kind of fun to go back and revisit the world of cutting-edge science (or what was seen as futuristic science) at the time; The Rocket’s Shadow was basically about how the Spindrift Island scientists (other scientists and their families also lived on the island) were racing to build and launch a moon rocket–the case involved Rick trying to solve the mystery of who on the island was a traitor and leaking secret information about the rocket project to a competitor; Scotty rescues him from the bad guys in the first chapter. Scotty was a military veteran who lied about his age to enlist and fight in the war (World War II; the book was originally published in 1947)–which was glossed over and ignored as time passed and the series continued, which would have aged him. This was twenty-two years before the actual moon landing, so to kids reading this in 1947 and the years after, it was kind of science fiction.

We will finish the final two episodes of Elite that are available tonight, and then will have to wait for season four. They had started filming before the world shut down, alas, so there’s no telling how long it will be before we get another season to binge and love. I also am not sure how the show is going to continue; this season has them all graduating and the crime this season is focusing on occurs at the graduation party. I can’t praise this show enough; it’s completely addicting, and there are never any slow parts. The way they have developed the characters and their relationships with each other make total sense and are completely believable, despite the sometimes completely over-the-top situations they find themselves in. Once we finish watching, I will devote an entire entry to discussing the show. But seriously–you won’t be sorry if you watch.

And now back to the spice mines. Have a lovely day, everyone.

Closer to Heaven

Yesterday was Friday, and I was tired.

Really, really tired.

I slept for ten hours last night and woke up still exhausted this morning–bleary-eyed and bone-tired. It makes me a bit nervous, as the last time I was able to sleep so much, or do deeply, only to still be tired, was when I was sick this last time, and whatever that was, I sure as hell don’t want to see it return again. I just feel what we used to say down south–“bone tired”. (Hmm, that’s not a bad title.) So, while I have things to do today–we need to swing by the Cat Practice to get Scooter another bag of food, for one, and I definitely need to do some writing and cleaning and organizing around here, if I have the energy–and in a worst case scenario, I can always simply curl up with some books or short stories. I did manage to do some reorganizing/rearranging of the books last night–out Netflix app on the Apple TV is all fucked up; I’m probably going to have to delete and download it again, which is an enormous pain in the ass. Our wireless was also running ridiculously  slow the last few days, so I rebooted the cable box and the wireless router yesterday, which signed me out of everything fucking thing and I just was too tired to deal with that shit last night. We wound up watching an incredibly bad gay movie on Amazon Prime–I won’t name it out of respect for the effort, time and money that went into it, plus I don’t like dumping on gay creators–during which both Paul and I dozed off here and there, before it was over and I finally retired to bed. I was also too tired last night to focus on doing any reading–which was definitely a lost opportunity, and one that I deeply regret. I’d like to finish reading Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin this weekend; it’s really quite wonderful, and I’d like to move on to his We Disappear once I finish it. I’ve also got a lot of short stories to read–not the least of which is W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter,” and I simply love that it’s the source material for one of my favorite Bette Davis movies, of the same name–and there’s another one, by Mark Twain, about an incident that happened at the court of Charles VI in France (I stumbled on this story somehow; the true story it’s based on is detailed in Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, which is starting to seem like a really great inspiration for me, almost Biblical in its inspiration). Plus I have, as I noticed last night as I reorganized the books, The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor and the latest Lawrence Block anthology–Mr. Block does some seriously excellent anthologies, for the record–and so there’s all kinds of good reading on hand should I have the mental acuity to focus on some reading today.

It’s also not a bad idea to read the stories I am currently readying for submission by the end of the month. Perhaps I should spend the day in my easy chair with print outs of stories and perhaps spend some time with some of my favorite short story writers. It’s also not a bad idea to revisit Bury Me in Shadows, which I have decided to completely overhaul–the problem is the main character’s age, but because I envisioned it originally as being about a teenager, I was stubbornly clinging to that idea, and it actually works better if I advance his age to having just graduated Pre-Law from college and readying to attend law school in the fall; this having a free place to live in the summer and a paying job that is relatively easy makes more sense for the character to agree to what he’s doing; plus it eliminates the entire what is his mother thinking in letting him do this? It will also require me to do some other tweaking (not that kind of tweaking, those days are long in my past, thank you very much), but I also think it’ll be stronger and a better story for it.

Which is always a plus.

I would like to do some work this weekend on other stories that are currently hanging in stasis right now, not the least of which is my pandemic story, “The Flagellants.” I’m not certain why that story is nagging at me; I don’t know what it’s going to be or how its going to end; so I guess it’s one of those stories that will reveal itself to me as I write it, which is madness, really.

Recently someone–I think Gabino Iglesias? I could be wrong–tweeted asking writers to stop talking about how much they hate writing, and his tweets really resonated with me. I don’t hate writing, but it would be easy to assume that I do from reading what I post, tweet and blog about writing. I do love writing; I love everything about it, even the frustrations and irritations–which I usually have to express to get out of my system. Publishing is an entire different subject than writing; I reserve the right to always be able to bitch about the publishing industry and its quirks and utter seeming ridiculousness whenever I please, along with the right to complain about being frustrated with the writing process at any time. But I want to make it very clear that I love writing and that’s why I do it. I love writing what I write, even though I am well aware (and if I wasn’t, have been told enough times by my heterosexual colleagues) that there’s not really any money in writing gay crime stories. But I like writing gay crime stories; I like writing gay characters, and I also feel like the full potential for gay crime stories has yet to be tapped. But I’ve dabbled with heterosexual narratives in my short stories, and if I am ever going to write a novel about straight people–or centering the straight point of view–the short stories are an excellent way to practice.

And…every new story I finish writing puts me that much closer to a second collection of stories, which is very exciting to me. I was originally calling the second collection Once a Tiger and Other Stories, but I am thinking about changing it to This Town and Other Stories, primarily because “This Town” is a better story than “Once a Tiger” and secondly, I like the symbolism of “this town” referring to New Orleans–even though that’s not what the Go-Go’s were referring to in their song of the same title, which was the inspiration for my story. (My original collection began as Annunciation Shotgun and Other Stories before metamorphosing into Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories.)

I also started writing a blog entry about my love of The Three Investigators, which will probably go up at some point over this weekend; depends, I suppose, on when I finish it. And there’s a shit ton of emails that need my attention in my inbox as well; but I just can’t face that yet today. Maybe later on, after I get some things done, I can spend some time answering emails (as drafts to send on Monday) as well as writing some that I need to send.

But I just heard the dryer stop, which means I need to go fold some clothes and add another load to the dryer, and my coffee cup is also empty and in dire need of refilling; my stomach is growling as well, so it’s probably time for me to push away from the desk, get more coffee, fold some clothes and then have some Honey-nut Cheerios–which has been my pandemic breakfast of choice these days.

It also looks like a beautiful day outside. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader!

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Who’s That Girl

Ah, Trixie Belden.

Not as well known or as beloved as Nancy Drew, I always kind of preferred Trixie to Nancy; and not just because she was kind of an underdog in comparison. No other kids’ series was/is as popular as Nancy Drew; even the Hardy Boys can’t compare to Nancy’s popularity.

But…I liked Trixie more than I liked Nancy. Sometimes Nancy seemed insufferable; and in all fairness to Nancy, that was more a result of the “new” Nancy that resulted from the revisions of the original texts, beginning in 1959, and this “new” Nancy appeared in the newer books as they were released as well. This Nancy was too perfect; she was good at everything, she was nice and polite, she was such a goody-two-shoes I was amazed Bess and George could stand her–although they weren’t much better. The Nancy of the original texts had more of a personality; she was a goody-two-shoes, to be sure, but she also had a lot of self-confidence and self-assurance, and she was a good person who enjoyed helping people. But when the books were revised–and this new Nancy became the Nancy of record for all new books, going forward–they basically took all of her personality away and left a one-dimensional cardboard cutout. I didn’t give up on the series, by any means, but..new Nancy was someone I wouldn’t have liked in real life.

Trixie Belden, on the other hand…seemed like a real person, or at least she did at first. Like Nancy, there was a definite turning point in her behavior in the series which happened when the original writer–Julie Campbell–stepped aside and was replaced by a bunch of ghostwriters using the pen name Kathryn Kenny. (Julie Campbell, by the way, also wrote some of the Cherry Ames ad Vicki Barr series, using the name Julie Tatham.) Trixie lost her temper, was fidgety, was a tomboy with no use for girly things, and hated doing her chores–to the point where sometimes she hurried through them so quickly she kind of did a shitty job. But she was at heart a nice kid, and regularly felt bad when she had misbehaved and tried to make up for it after the fact. She also sometimes blurted things out that hurt other people’s feelings–immediately feeling horrible about it–and these were all things, aspects of her personality, that made her relatable–as opposed to perfect paragon of virtue Nancy Drew, who was so emotionless she might as well have been a Stepford wife.

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“Oh, Moms,” Trixie moaned, running her hands through her short, sandy curls. “I’ll just die if I don’t have a horse.”

Mrs. Belden looked up from the row of tomato plants she was transplanting in the fenced-in vegetable garden.

“Trixie,” she said, trying to look stern, “if you died as many times as you thought you were going to, you’d have to be a cat with nine lives to be with us for one day.”

“I don’t care!” Tears of indignation welled up in Trixie’s round blue eyes. She scooped up a fat little worm, watched it wriggle in the palm of her hand for a minute, then gently let it go. “With Brian and Mart at camp this summer, I’ll die of boredom. I mean it, Moms.”

Mrs. Belden sighed. “You declared you’d suffer the same fate if we didn’t buy you a bike three years ago. Remember?” She stood up, frowning in the glare of the hot July sun. “Now, listen, Trixie, once and for all. If you want to buy a horse like the one you fell in love with at the horse show yesterday, you will have to earn the money yourself. You know perfectly well the only reason your brothers could go to camp is because they are working as junior counselors.”

Crabapple Farm, Trixie reflected, was really a grand place to live, and she had always had a lot of fun there, but she did wish there was another girl in the neighborhood. The big estate, known as the Manor House, which bounded the Belden property on the west had been vacant ever since Trixie could remember. There were no other homes nearby except the crumbling mansion on the eastern hill, where queer old Mr. Frayne lived.

The three estates faced a quiet country road two miles from the village of Sleepyside that nestled among the rolling hills on the east bank of the Hudson River. Trixie’s father worked in the bank in Sleepyside, and Trixie and her brothers went to the village school. She had many friends in Sleepyside, but she rarely saw them except when school was in session. Now that her brothers, Brian and Mart, had gone to camp, there was nobody but her little brother, Bobby, to play with.

Trixie impatiently kicked a hole in the dust of the path with her shoe.

“It’s not fair. You wouldn’t let me try for a job as a waitress or anything. Maybe I could have gone, too.”

“You’re only thirteen,” her mother said patiently. “Next year we might consider something of the sort. Dad and I are really sorry, dear,” she added  gently, “that we couldn’t afford to send you to camp this year.”

Trixie suddenly felt ashamed of herself, and she impulsively threw her arms around her mother. “Oh, I know, Moms, and I’m a pest to nag at you. I won’t any more, I promise.”

As I said, I greatly enjoyed the Trixie Belden series when I was a kid, and while some of the later volumes were also quite good, it was also very clear that the first six–the Julie Campbell written ones–were clearly written by someone other than those who continued the series, and were also vastly superior in terms of character, plot, setting and the writing, frankly. Just this opening of the first book in the series, The Secret of the Mansion, was quite excellent; look at everything that is set up in those first paragraphs and in the dialogue between mother and daughter: you can tell there’s deep affection there; we establish that Trixie has three brothers, two of whom are spending the summer working as junior counselors at camp; Trixie is prone to being overly dramatic; her father works at the bank and her mother likes to garden and grow her own vegetables; they live near a small town on the east bank of the Hudson River; they only have two other homes nearby–the empty Manor House and across to the road from that one is the Mansion, where a creepy old man lives (I doubt the author was using the word queer in the modern sense here; more likely the old definition, “odd.”).

That’s a lot of background and character work, yet it feels organic and not in the least like the bane of all writers, the infamous “info dump.” Soon, Trixie’s mom agrees to pay Trixie five dollars a week with help around the house and garden and sometimes watching her six year old brother, Bobby, and that way she can save money to buy her horse. Shortly after this, Trixie notices moving trucks arriving at the Manor House–her mother has forgotten to tell her that the wealthy Wheelers have bought the place and are moving in–and they have horses. Trixie grabs Bobby and they take off to meet the new neighbors, where she meets her soon-to-be best friend, Honey, who is sickly and ridiculously well-mannered and pale, along with some of the other staff–including Miss Trask, Honey’s governess, and Regan the groom.

The Secret of the Mansion was probably one of the best first novels of a kids’ series ever published. Not only did it introduce us to the Belden family, it did so slowly–we wouldn’t meet the other two members of the family until the third book, when Mart and Brian returned from camp in The Gatehouse Mystery–and we also met the boy who would become the other important tentpole of the series: red-headed Jim Frayne, crazy old Mr. Frayne’s grand-nephew, whose mother had died leaving him at the mercy of a horrible and abusive stepfather, Jonesy. Jim ran away and came to find his great-uncle, only to find out that he’d been hospitalized and in a coma. There was also some depth to the stories, as well–poor old Mr. Frayne’s wife had been bitten by a copperhead snake, he was rushing her to the hospital and their car broke down, and she died waiting for him to get help; the old man went mad with grief, left the car where it was broken down and would never allow another car on his property. The house also began to crumble and get in pretty bad shape–he supposedly had a lot of money, most of which most people assumed was hidden in his messy mansion (old Mr. Frayne was a hoarder). Trixie and Honey are trying to help Jim–Trixie is sure there is money secreted in the house–and eventually, Jonesy shows up after Mr. Frayne dies in the hospital, and Jim runs away again–leaving a note for Trixie and Honey. The old house also catches fire in the night and burns to the ground the night Jim runs away–there’s a lot of action and excitement in the book, including Trixie saving her brother’s life when  he, too, is bitten by a copperhead–and again, character development, as Honey becomes more and more outdoorsy and healthy and more like Trixie, and the two girls become more bonded in their friendship. The book also sets up the sequel, The Red Trailer Mystery, (which was actually the first book in the series I read)–in which the girls and Miss Trask hit the road to go looking for Jim–who actually inherited the small fortune Mr. Frayne had left behind, safely invested. They do find him–and solve another mystery–and it turned out that Jim’s long-deceased father was a college friend of Honey’s father, so the Wheelers adopt Jim, writing a lovely end to the story of the runaway red-headed boy with nothing.

As I mentioned earlier, there was a noticeable shift in tone, continuity, and who Trixie was as a character with the switch in authors, from one author writing under her own name (I believe her name was actually Julie Tatham Campbell, or the other way around). The last two books she wrote, Mystery off Glen Road and Mystery in Arizona, were kind of light on the mystery and stronger on the development of the characters and their friendships/relationships with each other. With the invention of “Kathryn Kenny” as a pseudonym to make other authors,  the books became more heavy on the mysteries and the new authors didn’t care so much about continuity or the established history of the characters: Trixie became more “girly” than tomboy-ish, for one thing, and they started playing up the “boyfriend/girlfriend” dynamic between, not only Trixie and Jim, but Honey and Brian Belden, as well as Mart with Diana Lynch (who was first mentioned in The Red Trailer Mystery, and joined their club, the Bob-Whites of the Glen, after being the central focus of The Mysterious Visitor). They added yet another member to their group, Dan Mangan, Regan’s nephew, in The Black Jacket Mystery–although the core group of five appeared in every book, Diana and Dan often got left out of their future adventures, begging the question of why were they added into the group in the first place? Some of the later books were good, fun mysteries–The Marshland Mystery, The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island, Mystery of the Emeralds, The Mystery of the Missing Heiress–but that core strength from the characterizations in the initial six books was missing from the rest, and as the series continued beyond those first sixteen (a long period of time passed before “Kathryn Kenny” started writing again) the stories and characters grew weaker, which was a shame.

The series gradually evolved from a “how to start a mystery series for kids” primer to “how to ruin a mystery series for kids” primer, which is a shame. I’d match those first four volumes against the first four volumes of any other kids’ mystery series and Trixie would, almost without exception, win, hands down. She was never as popular as Nancy Drew–no one was–but I always thought Trixie and her friends, having fun and adventures in the Hudson valley north of New York City and in the lower Catskills, would have made a fun television series for kids.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Trixie….and The Secret of the Mansion remains one of the best mysteries for kids ever published.

If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got The Time

One of the things I find fascinating about many people is their dedication to nostalgia; their insistence that some past time of their life was somehow this incredibly magical time of innocence (which it could conceivably have been); a utopia paradise of some sort where everything was right with the world and everyone was so happy and–you get the picture. It’s like how people glowingly refer to high school as one of the “best times of their lives” (which, frankly, is terribly sad and tells me more about their present circumstances than I’d care to know); the past wasn’t magic and neither were our childhoods. If they mean I liked life better before I knew how awful it can be, that I can understand–and I do think that is what they actually mean, even if it isn’t what they are actually saying: they preferred life when the bills and putting food on the table was someone else’s responsibility; when the biggest worries were who will I go to the Homecoming dance with and I have to study for that History test and so forth. But my teenaged years weren’t halcyon and rosy. The 1970’s was a very strange decade of reaction to the 1960’s–and for a queer kid, first trapped in a middle to upper middle class suburb of Chicago and then a small rural town in Kansas, it was hard. I’ve no desire to ever relive high school or go back to being a teenager. Sure, it might be easier to be a queer teen  in a Chicago suburb now–but I suspect it’s not that different in a rural high school in Kansas now than it was forty years ago.

Reading was always my escape from the pressures of a world into which I really didn’t fit–and one that from my earliest memories as a child I knew I didn’t belong in. Reading was a godsend for me, and I read ravenously. I was always being told to go outside and play instead of reading; the most effective punishments were the ones either prohibiting me from reading or limiting how much I could read, and the earliest signs of my obsessive/compulsive disorder were evident with my discovery of the mystery series for kids, which was the next gradual move for me as a reader from the Scholastic Book Fair mysteries. My goal has always been to finish collecting all the series I read and collected as a child: the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls, The Three Investigators and Trixie Belden, as well as the lesser known ones like Biff Brewster, Ken Holt (over whom I had a weird bonding moment with James Ellroy), Rick Brant, Vicki Barr, Judy Bolton, Cherry Ames, Kay Tracey, and Connie Blair. (I also collected the Chip Hilton sports series.) I still have the copies I had as a child, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I discovered eBay and tried to finish collecting the series. I don’t have room in the Lost Apartment to display them proudly in a bookcase–I have far too many books; and many of them are boxed up and stored–but I refuse to rid myself of them, because I keep holding out hope that someday I will live in an apartment or condo or house where I can have a room filled with bookcases that will also serve as my office.

But eBay gradually led me to collectors’ and fan pages of these books on Facebook..occasionally someone on one of those pages will be selling a copy of something I need to complete my collections.  There is a generic page for series books in general, and then there are individual pages for Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, respectively–and probably still others for the other series that I don’t know about. I know there are also fan websites and serious scholarship on the kids’ series–some of them make for interesting reading, if you have some free time (or are wasting time you should be spending on writing). Some of the fan websites also have conferences and trips–the Nancy Drew group, for example, has an annual trip to where one of the books was set, and tours and so forth to visit the places Nancy also went to look for clues in the course of her investigation. (They were in New Orleans a few years ago; I was going to register–it’s not cheap–until I realized it was more about being a fan than anything else.)

And boy, do these people take their series fandom seriously. I’m not as rabid or as devoted as the majority of them; periodically I might reread one of the series books (I’d love to write an essay about the Ken Holt series, which was darker and more hard-boiled than any of the others; which was why James Ellroy and I bonded over them–which is still so weird to me), but I don’t reread an entire series from beginning to end, and while I used to remember plot details quite vividly, as I’ve gotten older those memories are fading.

I’ve not watched the new CW series Nancy Drew–well, I watched the first episode but didn’t keep watching; primarily because I haven’t had time and Paul and I usually watch shows together–at least, I like to give him a chance to watch something I might enjoy before moving on to watch it on my own (like Riverdale). Maybe he’ll be interested in Nancy Drew, maybe he won’t; I thought he’d like Riverdale but he didn’t. Maybe Nancy Drew is something I’ll wind up watching while he’s working in the evenings; I don’t know. But I’ve also not seen the recent film adaptation, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, either. But boy, do these Nancy Drew fans take their Nancy Drew seriously. They were outraged that Nancy Drew had sex in the first episode (because Nancy of course never had sex in the series; I don’t even think she even enjoyed a chaste kiss from Ned in all 58 of the original books) and Ned Nickerson was black! Nancy Drew was not only having sex but she was having sex with a black teenager!

The pearls were clutched so tightly! And if you stuck a piece of coal up these people’s asses, it would have come out a diamond. There was a lot of moaning and whining about people’s childhoods being ruined (really? Mine is still just fine) and the “horrors of political correctness” and on and on and on. In other words, Nancy should be a virgin and only know white, straight, cishet people. Got it.

Anyway, Hulu recently announced that they are doing a Hardy Boys series; however, instead of Bayport the town is Bridgeport; their first case is their mother’s murder; and rather than being 18 and 17, their ages will be 16 and 12. Their father is off investigating the murder and so he deposits them with their aunt in Bridgeport, but they soon realize their mother’s death is somehow connected to the town–and everyone in town is a suspect.

Yes, these are significant changes to the original canon of the Hardy Boys, but also remember: The Mickey Mouse Club did two serialized versions of the Hardy Boys, making them also about 13 and 14. The Hardy Boys fans are fan with this, of course, and with the other changes Disney made…so what’s the problem? As someone pointed out, in response to all the whining and moaning about ruining characters and childhoods and “political correctness”, someone also commented, grumpily, “I suppose Chet will be slim, gay, and black”–which actually sounded kind of good to me, frankly. The character of Chet is overweight and loves to eat (kind of like Bess in the Nancy series) and also like Bess, his appetite and weight are the subject of lots of jokes, teasing and sometimes humiliation. Not really cool, if we’re being completely honest.

And yes, all of these people are grandparents with graying hair and are white people. All of this whining and complaining over two television series based on characters that have evolved and changed and been rewritten multiple times in the nearly hundred years they’ve been around–to appeal to  new generations of readers. The original versions of the books were all revised in the 1950’s and 1960’s because they were loaded with racial and ethnic stereotypes that were beyond offensive; naturally, the nice old white people prefer the original texts (big shock, right?).

And if any kids’ series need to be turned into television programs, can I vote for The Three Investigators and Encyclopedia Brown?

I am really tired of this whole “you’re ruining my childhood” nonsense. Unless they are traveling back in time to do so, your childhood hasn’t changed.

I’ve always wanted to write a book about kids’ series fans and conventions; I might just have to now. I mean, I get it–people don’t like change, and something that was beloved when you were a child you want frozen in amber forever. But I just wish these people would unpack their issues with the updates and changes–and nothing gets my gorge going more than the ever popular whine of every racist, misogynist, and homophobic piece of shit out there: politically correct. Sorry you don’t feel safe expressing your hateful bigoted opinions any more without consequence.

I’ve also always wanted to write my own middle-grade series; I used to think about that all the time when I was a kid, even up to coming up with characters and titles for the books in the series because of course I did. I don’t know if I can write middle-grade or not; but it’s worth a shot sometime.

And of course, I can talk for hours on the subject of the kids’ series. Perhaps someday I will.

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After the Event

I’ve loved, and been fascinated, by ancient Egypt ever since I was a kid. I don’t remember when, precisely, Egypt became so lodged into my brain; but for as long as I can remember, the ancient history of one of our oldest civilization has intrigued me, and held my interest. I’m hardly an expert–not even close–but I remember pestering my parents to subscribe to the Time-Life Great Ages of Man series; the very first volume of which was, naturally,  Ancient Egypt (for the record, I still have my entire set of those books). Cleopatra, of course, also interested me; I’m not sure if my Egyptian interest came before or after watching the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra on television. (I still am terribly interested in Cleopatra; the court intrigues and politics of the Ptolemy dynasty makes the Borgias and the Medici look like pikers. I always wanted to write a book about–of all things–Cleopatra’s older sister Berenice, who briefly overthrew their father and took the Egyptian crown. The Romans sent legions to support her father, so her reign was very brief. Her younger sister, Arsinoe, who fought Cleopatra for the throne–only to be defeated by Caesar, also interests me.) I’ve always been interested in Akhenaten (loved Allen Drury’s two books about the Amarna revolution, A God Against the Gods and Return to Thebes), Tutankhamun (of course), and Hatshepsut (I read a great Scholastic mystery set during her reign called The Mystery of the Pharaoh’s Treasure, and I think I bought a copy from eBay a while back; I may have the name wrong.)

But as much as I love Egypt, I didn’t love it enough to read Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. I borrowed it from the library, and couldn’t get through the first chapter.

Sorry not sorry.

As a teenager who loved mysteries, I gravitated towards women authors once I’d fairly exhausted the canons of Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Erle Stanley Gardner primarily because I couldn’t relate or identify with the crime novels being written by men at the time. Grim and hard-boiled and toxic masculinity wasn’t a combination I was terribly interested in at the time; I did appreciate noir (discovering James M. Cain when I was about nineteen was wonderful), though–but that was because I associated it with all those great movies I used to watch with my grandmother. I eventually came around, and started enjoying John D. MacDonald and Hammett and Chandler as I got older.

But when I saw this book on the paperback rack at the grocery store in Emporia, I had to get it. It was a mystery; blurbed by one of my favorite writers, Phyllis A. Whitney, and of course, that was the Sphinx on the cover. I bought it, read it, loved it–and forgot about Elizabeth Peters for about a decade or so (I came back to Barbara Michaels in my mid-twenties, and when I discovered she was also Elizabeth Peters, it didn’t register with me.) Then one day I was in the Waldenbooks and More on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa when I saw a book on the end cap that called to me: The Last Camel Died at Noon, plus an unmistakably Egyptian scene on the cover. The title and the cover alone sold me–and I also knew by then that Elizabeth Peters was the same writer as Barbara Michaels. I bought it and when I got home, I opened to the first page and started reading….about a page in I stopped. Wait, Emerson and Peabody? I turned back to the beginning of the book and there it was, on the BY THE SAME AUTHOR page: THE AMELIA PEABODY SERIES, and the first title was Crocodile on the Sandbank! 

You can only imagine my delight. I loved those characters, loved that first book, and to find out now there was a series? I read The Last Camel Died at Noon cover to cover in about twenty-four hours, and the next day I went back to Waldenbooks and More and bought the entire series, and settled in to get reacquainted with two of my favorite fictional characters of all time.

crocodile on the sandbank

When I first set eyes on Evelyn Barton-Forbes she was walking the streets of Rome–(I am informed, by the self-appointed critic who reads over my shoulder as I write, that I have already committed an error. If those seemingly simple English words do indeed imply that which I am told they imply to the vulgar, I must in justice to Evelyn find other phrasing.)

In justice to myself, however, I must insist that Evelyn was doing precisely what I have said she was doing, but with no ulterior purpose in mind. Indeed, the poor girl had no purpose and no means of carrying it out if she had. Our meeting was fortuitous, but fortunate. I had, as I always have, purpose enough for two.

I had left my hotel that morning in considerable irritation of spirits. My plans had gone awry. I am not accustomed to having my plans go awry. Sensing my mood, my small Italian guide trailed behind me in silence. Piero was not silent when I first encountered him, in the lobby of the hotel, where, in common with others of his kind, he awaited the arrival of helpless foreign visitors in need of a translator and guide. I selected him from amid the throng because his appearance was a trifle less villainous than that of the others.

I was well aware of the propensity of these fellows to bully, cheat, and otherwise take advantage of the victims who employ them, but I had no intention of being victimized. It did not take me long to make this clear to Piero. My first act was to bargain ruthlessly with the shopkeeper to whom Piero took me to buy silk. The final price was so low that Piero’s commission was reduced to a negligible sum. He expressed his chagrin to his compatriot in his native tongue, and included in his tirade several personal comments on my appearance and manner. I let him go on for some time and then interrupted him with a comment on his manners. I speak Italian, and understand it, quite well. After that, Piero and I got on admirably. I had not employed him because I required an interpreter, but because I wanted someone to carry parcels and run errands.

My God, that incredible, incredible voice.

By the end of the second page, I was madly in love with Amelia Peabody; by the end of the third, I wanted to be Amelia Peabody. How could you not love her? She’s fiercely intelligent, even more fiercely independent, spoke her mind, got straight to the point, and had no desire whatsoever to deal with frivolities, sentimentality, and so forth. The youngest child and only daughter of a classics scholar, her six older brothers got married and left her home to take care of their father. She speaks four languages fluently, and frequently curses the accident of birth that left her a female. Her father died and left her everything–which her brothers thought was fair, until it turned out he was a lot richer than anyone thought and had left her half a million pounds, which was an insane amount of money in the late nineteenth century. Unmarried at thirty-two, she considers herself to be too plain, too old, and too sharp-tongued to ever marry, and has decided she is going to die a spinster. (I could never respect a man who would allow his wife to dominate him, but at the same time I could never allow any man to dominate me.) She decides to use her fortune to travel to visit the places she’s always dreamed of and read about in books–which is what brings her to Rome, along with her paid companion–whom she doesn’t care for, and just chance puts her in the forum at the same time as Evelyn, who faints and Peabody, of course, takes charge. She decides to help Evelyn–who was seduced away from her wealthy family and “ruined”, as well as cut off, and she’d come to Rome with the man she thought she loved only to be abandoned by him, with no clothes but what she is wearing and not a penny to her name. Peabody and Evelyn hit it off, she sends the paid companion back to England and engages Evelyn as her new companion, and they depart for Egypt.

So, now two of our players are now in place; it’s time to meet the other two. Once they are all checked in at Shepheard’s in Cairo, Peabody is quickly besotted with Egypt, and pyramids, in particular–and reading Peabody’s descriptions of the country, you cannot help but fall in love with it, too (not a problem for me; I was already there before I read the book). They go to the Antiquities Museum one afternoon–the director was a friend of Peabody’s father–and Peabody is put off by how disheveled and disorganized–and dusty–everything is. She picks up a dusty pot and begins to wipe the dust from it, only to have an enormous man explode with rage at her. They give each other what-for–they are suitably matched in that regard–and this is Emerson, archaeologist with a passion for discovery and knowledge and preserving the past. Emerson’s brother makes apologies, and a spark is lit between Walter and Evelyn. Soon, the Emersons are off to their dig at Amarna, and Peabody and Evelyn rent a sailboat–a dahabeeyah, to be exact–and begin their trip down the Nile.

Naturally, they stop at Amarna, and stumble into quite a bizarre mystery, which includes an animated mummy and several attempts on our troop’s lives. But the four are definitely up to the task–there are times when I laughed out loud–and hilariously, while both Peabody and Emerson become quite irritated with Walter and Evelyn, who can’t see that the other is madly in love with them; Peabody and Emerson are also falling in love, and refuse to see it, bickering and fighting and–oh, it’s just wonderful and charming, and I know I am failing to do the magnificent Ms. Peters’ work any kind of justice. Amanda is just so, so wonderfully fearless and courageous and pure, and doesn’t even worry about her own safety when those she loves are in danger. The book has a most satisfying resolution, and I remember putting it down that first (much as I do every time I reread it) with a happy smile on my face. The Peabody and Emerson books bring me a lot of joy.

I devoured the entire series, loving them all–the way Peters deftly ages her characters and deepens their relationships, and of course the children…one thing that will always make The Last Camel Died at Noon special for me was that was also the adventure that introduced our merry band of archaeologists to Nofret–and therein lies another tale, for yet another time.

I am so, so delighted I reread Crocodile on the Sandbank. If you’ve not read this series, you really should treat yourself to it, because it is just that: the most amazing gift you can give yourself.

Mighty Love

I love nothing more than a great ghost story (which is why, although I loved the book, I was enormously disappointed with Peter Straub’s Ghost Story; it’s an amazing novel and a horror classic and one of my favorite horror novels of all time, but it is emphatically not a ghost story). I’m not sure why I love them so much, but even as a kid, reading the mysteries for kids I always gravitated towards the ones with some kind of ghostly title: The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, The Haunted Fort, The Phantom of Pine Hill, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, The Haunted Showboat, The Ghost in the Gallery, etc. The ghosts and hauntings in these books were never real–just like the ghosts and monsters on Scooby Doo Where Are You? weren’t–but I still was drawn to them.

There was an ABC Movie of the Week when I was really young that I absolutely loved: The House That Would Not Die. It starred Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who moved into a house she’d inherited from a relative, along with her niece, and of course, the house turned out to be haunted. The story was terrific and it scared me a lot–and you can never go wrong with Barbara Stanwyck; I may even have watched it with my grandmother, who was a big Stanwyck fan. A few years later, we were somewhere–some people my parents knew had invited us over for dinner, and before and after, as the adults, my sister and I were deposited in the den to watch television and entertain ourselves while behaving. They had books, which I gravitated towards, I pulled down a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and found a ghost story inside. As I started reading, I was drawn into it and I realized it was the same plot, the same story, of the TV movie I’d liked, and kept reading. I read the entire thing that evening–it was condensed, after all–and thought, oh, I’d like to see that movie again.

Flash forward and I am in college, browsing in a second-hand bookstore when I find a worn paperback copy of the book. Pleased and delighted at the opportunity to not only read it again but read the entire version? For fifty cents? Absolutely.

It was Ammie, Come Home, which is one of my favorite ghost stories, and favorite novels, of all time. It was written by Barbara Michaels–for another dollar I picked up two more of her novels, Witch and House of Many Shadows. I loved all three books, but I’ve always preferred Ammie, considered it my favorite. Over the years Michaels–and her alter-ego, Elizabeth Peters-became one of my favorite writers of all time. I love her books, no matter what the name or brand or whatever you want to call it; they are all witty, with strong, likable female characters, there’s some little dash of romantic interest involved in all of them, and a very strong suspense component. The Peters novels were more mysteries; the Michaels sometimes involved the supernatural, and sometimes they didn’t.

But, oh, how I love Ammie, Come Home, and I recently, during my isolation, took it down and made it a part of this year Reread Project.

Ammie Come Home Barbara Michaels Fawcett Crest 1968 harry bennet cover art

By five o’clock it was almost dark, which was not surprising, since the month was November; but Ruth kept glancing uneasily toward the windows at the far end of the room. It was a warm, handsome room, furnished in the style of a past century, with furniture whose present value would have astonished the original owners.. Only the big overstuffed sodas, which face one another before the fireplace, were relatively modern. Their ivory brocade upholstery fitted the blue-and-white color scheme, which has been based upon the delicate Wedgwood plaques set in the mantel. A cheerful fire burned on the hearth, sending sparks dancing from the crystal glasses on the coffee table and turning the sherry in the cut-glass decanter the color of melted copper. Since her niece had come to stay with her, Ruth had set out glasses and wine every evening. It was a pleasant ritual, which they both enjoyed even when it was followed by nothing more elegant than hamburgers. But tonight Sara was late.

The darkening windows blossomed yellow as the streetlights went on; and Ruth rose to draw the curtains. She lingered at the window, one hand absently stroking the pale blue satin. Sara’s class had been over at three-thirty…

And, Ruth reminded herself sternly, Sara was twenty years old. When she agreed to board her niece while the girl attended the Foreign Service Institute at a local university, she had not guaranteed full-time baby-sitting. Sara, of course, considered herself an adult. However, to Ruth her niece still had the touching, terrifying illusion of personal invulnerability which is an unmistakable attribute of youth. And the streets of Washington–ven of this ultrafashionable section–were not completely safe after dark,

Even at the dying time of year, with a bleak dusk lowering, the view from Ruth’s window retained some of the famous charm of Georgetown, a charm based on formal architecture and the awareness of age. Nowadays that antique grace was rather self-conscious; after decades of neglect, the eighteenth century houses of the old town had become fashionable again, and now they had the sleek, smug look born of painstaking restoration and a lot of money.

Ammie, Come Home is possibly one of the best constructed, if not the very best, ghost stories I’ve ever read. As you can see from the opening paragraphs, Michaels does an exceptional job of setting everything up, giving us insights into her main character, Ruth Bennett, and her relationship with her niece. We go on to find out that Ruth is probably in her mid to late forties, was widowed in World War II, never remarried, and for the most part, it’s implied that her husband’s death pretty much was the end of any romance in her life; something she isn’t terribly interested in. This is, of course, foreshadowing–but not the way the reader might think. Yes, in the opening scene of the book, which features her niece Sara getting a ride home from one of her professors, that ah, yes, Ruth and Dr. Pat MacDougal are going to fall in love-but there’s more to Ruth’s history than that, which of course is the mark of the truly terrific writer. We also glean that childless Ruth has grown deeply fond of her niece Sara–and disapproves of Sara’s boyfriend Bruce (mainly because of his youth, the way he dresses, and what she thinks of as his smug superiority).

(This last, by the way, is the only part of the book that feels dated. Written and originally published in the 1960’s, Sara and Bruce are both college students and Pat works at a college–he’s a cultural anthropologist with a specialty in superstitions and rituals–so, as anyone who knows anything about the 1960’s knows, it was a decade of youthful rebellion and anti-establishmentarianism. There are occasional asides from both Ruth and Pat about the generation gap–this was also the first time this phrase was used, during this period–where the kids want to make change. There are a few mild arguments over that, but it’s always very good natured and never gets very deep. But the very generation gap is part of the structure of the novel; when strange things start happening in Ruth’s home, particularly involving Sara–Ruth and Pat immediately think of mental illness; Bruce is the only one open-minded enough to see the truth; that the house is haunted by a malevolent spirit–and there may even be more than one.)

It’s also very clever of Michaels to use that generational divide to explore the notions of the supernatural and a spirit world–because Bruce is given a forty-eight hour deadline to convince the older two in their quartet that Sara isn’t mentally ill but is being haunted. So, as Bruce convinces them–helped by more apparitions and events in the house–the reader is also being convinced that what’s going on in the house is supernatural in origin. How she does it is a master class in suspense/horror writing; and there are some lines that just the reader to the bone: And what looked back at her through Sara’s eyes was not Sara.

The ghost hunters eventually get to the bottom of the haunting of the old house in Georgetown by finding out the deeply hidden truth about what happened there centuries earlier, and finally freeing the spirits trapped to the house.

And maybe the creepiest, yet saddest, thing is the disembodied voice they hear, over and over, in the back yard, calling Ammie….come home…..come home…..Ammie…. —which is described as “it sounded like what the wind would sound like if it had a voice.”

And despite the dated 1960’s references, the book still holds up, over forty years later.

I rediscovered Michaels in the mid to late 1980’s, which was when I also discovered that she also wrote the Elizabeth Peters novels, and that the absolutely delightful Crocodile on the Sandbank, which I’d loved, wasn’t merely a stand alone, but the first book in a long-running, and completely fantastic, series featuring heiress Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband Emerson. There isn’t a single dud in the Amelia Peabody series–and there are smart, funny, clever, and intricately plotted–and over the years the Peabody-Emerson clan had children, raised them, and those children grew up to be involved in the adventures of their parents–and every book, save one, actually took place in Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century. I need to reread Crocodile on the Sandbank, and in fact, would love to revisit the entire series. She wrote two other series as Elizabeth Peters as well–the Vicky Bliss series and the Jacqueline Kirby–as well as stand alones; every Peters novel is a gem, as is every novel she wrote as Barbara Michaels.

And now back to the spice mines.

Killin’ Time

As Constant Reader is aware, on 2019 I embarked on something I called The Diversity Project for myself; an effort to read books by authors who were not straight or white or cisgender. I had hoped to use 2019, and this project, as not only a way to broaden my reading and make up for years of lost time, but also to broaden my mind, my knowledge, and my experience.

It does not escape me that it’s kind of shitty that I actually had to make an effort, make in into an actual project, to ensure that I read outside of my own privileged experience. I don’t deserve a cookie or praise for doing something I should have been doing my entire life. It’s horribly shitty that my entire reading life could best be described as a mayonnaise sandwich on Wonder bread. I’ve also been trying to remember something, anything, other than Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird that I read as a child that had people of color as characters (and frankly, those two problematic books don’t count). Bayport and River Heights and Rocky Beach and Sleepyside and all the other towns and villages in the teenaged sleuth series for kids I read were all lily-white.

Several  years ago, Brash Books brought the entire Blanche White series by Barbara Neely, all four of them, back into print. I had never read Ms. Neely’s books; I’d never, to be completely honest, even heard of them. But the concept sounded fantastic, and unlike anything I’d ever read before, so I went ahead and ordered Blanche on the Lam, the first book in the series, which proceeded to languish and collect dust in my (massive) TBR pile. Mystery Writers of America recently selected Ms. Neely as a Grand Master, and as I was heading up to New York for the board retreat/orientation for 2020, I thought to myself, self, take Ms. Neely’s book with you on the trip to read–it’s serendipity and meant to be, and also far past time.

And that’s exactly what I did.

blanche on the lam

“Have you anything to say for yourself?” The judge gave Blanche a look that made her raise her handbag to her chest like a shield.

“Your Honor…I’m sorry…I…”

“Sorry? It most certainly is sorry! This is the fourth, I repeat, the fourth time you’ve been before this court on a bad-check charge. Perhaps some time in a jail cell will convince you to earn your money before you spend it, like the rest of us! Thirty days and restitution!”

“But, Your Honor…” Blanche’s legs were suddenly weak. Her hands were freezing. Beads of sweat popped out on her nose. She wanted to tell the judge that a jail cell was cruel and unusual punishment for  a person who panicked in slow elevators. She also wanted to ask him where the hell he got off, lying about her like that! This was her second, not her fourth, charge. Furthermore, just as she’d done the last time, she would have made good on the checks even if she hadn’t been summoned to court. Hadn’t she already covered three of the five checks she’s written? And right here in her handbag she had the forty-two-fifty she still owed, plus fifty dollars for the fine–same as the judge had made her pay last time. But last time she’d had a judge with his mind already on the gold course. He’d hardly bothered to look at her. There’d been no talk of jail that time.

From the opening sentence, Neely is being completely subversive to her readers–not only is she writing about a woman of color, front and center, that woman is also working class and struggling to make ends meet. She is dealing with–in even a small way–with the criminal justice system that is tilted against her–poor, working class, of color–and sure enough, she gets screwed. And while some might argue she shouldn’t have bounced checks (it’s not really clear whether she deliberately wrote bad checks, or if she wrote them thinking she was going to get paid, and then didn’t), I think everyone can agree that thirty days in jail–and a judge sentencing her based on a false premise that she was a more habitual offender–is excessive.

Blanche’s voice is one that is rarely, if ever, heard in crime fiction, either before or after this series, and that’s a shame. The book itself is thoroughly enjoyable, as Blanche manages to take advantage of a distraction at the courthouse and walk out, unimpeded…thus going “on the lam”, and not knowing what to do or where to go, remembers that she was supposed to take a temp gig as a housekeeper, and goes to that address. She winds up going out of town to work at a wealthy family’s vacation home, and it soon becomes very apparent that there is something really wrong with the family.

It’s also next to impossible not to root for Blanche, to want her to do well, and somehow get herself out of the predicament she’s found herself in. After all–there is a murder, she’s a fugitive from “justice,” and of course she’s a woman of color in a corrupt, racist place–it would be incredibly easy for law enforcement to simply pin the murder on her and wash their hands of the entire mess. It’s an absolute joy to see Blanche–with her own heart and compassion, not give in to impulses she shouldn’t, and to think her way out of everything, and not only exceed the reader’s expectations but subvert them completely.

Read this book. Read the entire series. There’s seriously no question that Barbara Neely is a grand master. None whatsoever. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

Blank Space

Well, that’s over, and there’s a sort of slight return to some semblance of normalcy this morning. I have to work today and tomorrow before the weekend starts up again–and of course, next week is a shortened week in much the same way. I didn’t want to get up this morning because the bed was feeling all kinds of comfortable, but I dragged myself out of bed and am on my first cup of coffee thus far. We’ll see how it goes.

We drove out to Elmwood to see The Rise of Skywalker yesterday, and I enjoyed it. I know there are people up in arms and angry about it–because we can’t, of course, just enjoy anything for the sake of enjoyment anymore without some segment of a fan base getting their balls retracted and their sphincters tightened–but I thought it brought everything to a nice close and the entire film itself was fun. I’ve never understood the toxic parts of fandom, but it definitely exists, and social media has given it much more of  a voice. I never thought The Last Jedi was the worst thing that ever happened to the franchise, and I loved The Force Awakens.  But even Nancy Drew fandom has toxic elements to it (If I have to read one more whine about someone’s fucking childhood being “ruined”…newsflash: your childhood wasn’t ruined and neither were your memories. And if you think they were, well, you might need to seek professional help) and the Star Wars fandom is probably one of the most toxic. But it was a lot of fun, it had a lot of action and some absolutely spectacular visuals, and it did what Star Wars was designed to do–not to make you think, but to thrill to an exciting adventure. I do think The Mandalorian might have taken some of the wind out of its sails, but I am terribly excited to see what else Disney Plus intends to do with television series in that universe.

Once we made it back home, we started streaming The Witcher on Netflix. Paul wasn’t very into it, and it seemed kind of slow to me, but I’m intrigued enough to continue watching.  I did wonder about the wisdom of hiring one of the hottest, handsomest, and sexiest actors working today and then trying to make him look as ugly as possible–and in the two episodes I watched, no shirtless Henry Cavill either. I’m not certain whether Paul will want to continue watching or not, but I thought it was interesting enough, if a little slow. Continuing won’t be a huge priority, but can we just stop calling every new fantasy series “the new Game of Thrones” or whatever network’s “attempt at Game of Thrones”? Game of Thrones was its own thing; a unique, incredibly layered and complicated series with a massive backstory and an enormous world to pull from and so many, many characters; The Witcher is practically an interior show in comparison. And building up audience expectations is always a fool’s game. Nothing is going to be, or will ever replace, Game of Thrones.

I also started rereading The Talented Mr. Ripley yesterday and have some thoughts about it as well, but they will keep until I finish reading it–but it has to do with unlikable characters and why we are so drawn to them.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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