All 4 Love

So, yes, it’s my birthday. I took the day off from work and am staying home for the most part. But I do have to go to Costco AND the grocery store today; living large, right? This might be my wildest birthday ever! (Sarcasm.)

I mean, do I know how to celebrate a birthday or what?

But this is the fifty-seventh, and I wasn’t really raised to be overly sentimental about birthdays; I’ve never really made a big deal out of mine, and now all it really is, is simply an excuse to take a day off from the office. I didn’t get nearly as much done this weekend as I would have liked; yesterday was lovely–I don’t think I went outside even once, which to me is of course a lovely lovely day.

I really  do want to become a recluse. I remember someone asked me on a panel once to describe what my dream success would be, and I replied, to make enough money to  not only not have to have a day job but to be able to pay someone to run my errands for me so I’d only have to leave the house to go to the gym.

Is that really so much to ask? Apparently. Ah, well.

I hope to do some writing today as well. We shall see how that goes.

Next up in Florida Happens is Neil Plakcy’s “Southernmost Point.”

Neil S. Plakcy is a U.S. writer whose works range from mystery to romance to anthologies and collections of gay erotica. He has twice been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Men’s Mystery Novel.

Plakcy began his professional publishing career with the first of his Hawaiian mysteries, Mahu, acquired and edited for Haworth Press by mystery author Greg Herren. With the second book in the series, Mahu Surfer, Plakcy moved to Alyson Books, which continued the series with Mahu Fire and Mahu Vice, and published their own edition of Mahu in 2009. After the close of Alyson, MLR Books picked up the series, publishing new editions of the first three and then continuing the series.

Plakcy and long-time friend Sharon Sakson co-edited a collection of stories by gay men about their experiences with their dogs, entitled Paws and Reflect: A Special Bond Between Man and Dog. A frequent contributor to gay anthologies, Plakcy has also edited numerous collections of gay erotica.

With the publication of GayLife.com in 2009, Plakcy entered the M/M romance genre, basing the book on his own experiences in software and web development and his familiarity with Miami Beach.

Plakcy has been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award three times: twice in gay mystery, and once in gay romance. He won the “Hawaii Five-O” award given by attendees at the Left Coast Crime fan conference and his work has been enthusiastically reviewed by mainstream and specialty publications as well as by many fans.

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It started with a selfie, and the drag queen who photo-bombed my boyfriend Lester and me.

Lester represents single-batch whiskeys, based out of Fort Lauderdale, where we both live. His region extends all the way to Key West, and one weekend in January he had a couple of promotions set up at bars on Duval Street, in the center of the entertainment district. I had a couple of days’ vacation coming to me from the FBI, where I work as a Special Agent attached to the Violent Crimes Task Force, so I took them and went along for the ride.

And a beautiful ride it was, once we ran out of highway, then cleared the urban congestion of Key Largo. All of a sudden there was water on both sides of the road, the dark blue-green of the Atlantic to our left, the lighter green of the Gulf of Mexico to the right. The long emptiness of the Seven Mile Bridge was liberating, even with the skeleton of the old railroad bridge beside us.

We made it to Key West late on Sunday afternoon, and after we checked into a bed-and-breakfast on Duval Street, we rented bikes and cycled over to the Southernmost Point, a big marker striped in yellow, orange and black that indicated we’d reached as far as you can go on the US mainland.

“Imagine living down here,” Lester said. “Only ninety miles to Cuba, and nearly twice that back to Miami.”

“I think there’s a kind of person who likes to live at the edge,” I said. “So far from everything else. Like you can leave all the troubles you had wherever behind you and kick back with a margarita and a pair of flip-flops.”

“Thank you, Jimmy Buffett,” Lester said. “Come on, let’s get a picture of us with the marker in the background.”

This is a fun, suspenseful tale about, interestingly enough, what happens when you get photobombed by a stranger and post the picture on social media; a sly commentary, really, about how social media has reduced the size of the world and shows us, sometimes daily, how many degrees of separation we really are all from each other–which isn’t as separated as one might think. Neil does a deft job of keeping the action moving, as well as developing his vacationing gay male couple with just a few quick lines here and there, and their relationship as well through the couple-dialogue speak they share. It’s a fun story, with lots of Key West color, and I’m very glad to have it in the book.

And now, off to the spice mines.

My Loving (No You’re Never Gonna Get It)

Saturday morning, and I am feeling rested and relaxed as I sit here by my windows with my second cup of coffee. It looks very still outside, and there’s no condensation on the glass, so I tend to think (wishfully) that it may not be that humid outside. Of course it’s wishful thinking; when I run to the post office and the grocery store later this morning I will no doubt be slapped in the face by the hot damp.

Hurray?

I didn’t get as much cleaning done yesterday as I would have liked, so I am going to try to focus on getting that done today as well as some short story work. I may even continue my voyage through Royal Street Reveillon, making notes and figuring out how to straighten up and tighten that whole mess.

And I’d love to spend some quality time with James Ziskin’s Cast the First Stone today. Bouchercon is looming on the horizon, and I have to finish it and one more before I am finished with my Bouchercon homework.

So, once I am finished here, it’s time to make a to-do list for the day and get a move on.

I may even make it to the gym today–I know, right? Madness.

Next up in Florida Happens is “The Unidentifieds”, by J. D. Allen.

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J.D. Allen’s Sin City Investigations series launched with 19 Souls earlier this year. She is a Mystery Writers of America Freddie Award-winner. She has short stories in the Anthony Award-winning anthology, Murder under the Oaks as well as Carolina Crimes: 20 Tales of Need, Greed, and Dirty Deeds. She’s the chair of the Bouchercon National Board, a member of MWA, PI Writer’s of America, and president of her local Sisters in Crime chapter. She’s an Ohio State Univ. Alum with a degree in forensic anthropology and a creative writing minor.

J. D. says: I attended The Ohio State University and earned a degree in forensic anthropology and a creative writing minor.

Writing Mysteries was not my first career or my second.

Life’s journey meanders.

I feel it’s never too late to reach for the brass ring. With the publication of the Sin City Investigation Series, my dreams of publishing gritty mysteries have been realized.

I believe in giving back to the writing community that has supported me through the years. I’m a member of the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention National board and president of the Triangle Chapter of Sisters in Crime. I speak on the basics of crime scene investigation, voice, and public speaking.

And here’s the opening to her story:

~Saturday 2 p.m. – The Funeral

For Jim, a funeral was about as appealing as removing his own appendix.  Two funerals in as many weeks had him planning a stop at the liquor store on the way home and a look at his choice of occupation. Jim Bean squinted as the Vegas sun reflected off his cousin’s silver casket. Jim had picked it out the coffin and planned the service. With the recent experiences, he’d learned obituaries should be 75 words, and lives could shatter in a moment.

He now stood over the proceedings. He fought Vegas sweat and tears as Alexis’s casket thumped to the bottom of the rectangular gave. She was the only person left from his old life he still called family. The girl in that box had been shot in the chest and burned to cover the identity of her remains.

Jim glared across the casket as the words meant to soothe and heal drifted over to the deceased. He hoped they helped her.

Andrew Zant stood opposite that death divide. His dark glasses and darker suit complemented the smirk on his pale, pointy face. Jim read victory in that smug look. Maybe it didn’t show his eyes, but it was displayed in his presence. Jim wasn’t surprised to see someone from his organization here to confirm the death. The shock was Zant showed up in person. He even let himself be photographed on the way to the graveside service.

A hum of rage and hostility was ready to bust from Jim’s chest as he openly stared at the Vegas tycoon. The man thought himself superior. Thought he’d gotten away with it.

He thought wrong.

Excellent opening, no?

The main character, Jim Bean, is a private eye in Las Vegas, whose cousin Alexis has become involved with a very dangerous and powerful man–and needs to get away from him, with Jim’s help. So they devise an elaborate ruse. Will they get away with it? Allen carefully builds the suspense to the inevitable yet still surprising ending. Great fun, and terrific suspense. I do look forward to reading more of her work.

And, since my errands flatly refuse to run themselves, I am off to the spice mines.

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.

Go Home

Sunday morning, with lots to do and a long, relaxing day ahead in which to do it all. I woke up relatively early this morning, which was a wonderful and pleasant surprise, and feel rested. I have a short story to work on, a reread of Royal Street Reveillon to get through, and I’d also like to make some progress on my reading of Eryk Pruitt’s What We Reckon. I cleaned and did errands and read yesterday; along with some note taking on various projects as well as filing. This coming week should be interesting, to say the least; I am doing some testing on Monday and Thursday at the Blacks in Government conference at the Riverside Hilton, which will be a lovely change from my ordinary routine, and I have a three day weekend next weekend in honor of my birthday.

Yes, the old man officially turns fifty-seven next weekend; although I always change my age on New Year’s. After this next New Year’s, I’ll be telling people I’m fifty-eight. Age has never mattered  much to me; for the early portion of my life I was always younger than everyone else around me; later on I was always older than everyone else I hung around with. I learned early on that age is a relative concept.

Yesterday was kind of a lovely day for me. It rained off and on most of the day, and there really is nothing lovelier than being inside and dry while it rains outside, and our rain is do torrential and tropical–so lovely to deal with when you’re inside rather than when you’re actually outside dealing with it. As the bed linens agitated in the washing machine and the wool blankets tumbled dry in the laundry room, I was filing and getting my desk area organized, listening to the rain and looking out my windows to see all the leaves outside glistening and wet, and water cascading out of the rain spout on the house next door when a phrase formed in my head, and I scribbled into my journal, standing up at the kitchen counter: It was one of those lovely summer Saturdays New Orleans gets sometimes in August–where thunderstorms roll through the city all day, the dark clouds creating an artificial twilight at three in the afternoon. Perfect for staying inside and cleaning, the washing and drying and folding of clothes. The cat sleeps lazily in the desk chair, waking up every now and then to groom before curling up again into a tight ball of differentiated ginger stripes.

I may never use that in something I write, be it a short story or a novel, but it’s a nice piece of writing nonetheless. My notebooks and journals are filled with such scraps of writing, of ideas and thoughts and fragments and character descriptions or settings.

And next up in Florida Happens, for the Short Story Project is “The Fakahatchee Goonch” by Jack Bates.

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Goonch is just another name for a catfish. A really big catfish.  Sometimes it’s called the Devil Fish or Black Demon because it lurks deep down there in the murkiest part of the Fakahatchee Preserve. Bottom feeders mostly. They eat gator leftovers or anything else that might get tossed into the swamps. Back in the mauve and neonMiami Vice days, legend had it the Everglades was a good place to dispose of a problem quick.  People think that’s how the goonch developed a taste for meat.

Of course, the guys who trawl for catfish say those fish are just as apt to eat water weeds and such if the pickings are slim.  Sometimes they feed on their own.  Had some guys drag in twenty to thirty pounders, about three feet long. That ain’t no fish tale.

Neither is this one. The catfish I’m talking about is an eight-man goonch. Know what that is? That’s when eight grown men stand in a line, shoulder to shoulder, and that goonch lays across all of their extended hands from tip to tail. That’s how big the Fakahatchee goonch was said to be. Had a mouth like the gaping orifice of hell, or so I’m told. I ain’t never seen it, but I know it’s there.

There have been nights when I’m frog hunting where the frog croaking will go quiet and the swamp gets real still. Something big enough to rock my aluminum skiff passes through the water. Up ahead in the dark there’ll be a splash and a few ticks off a clock later my skiff will rock a second time except maybe a little more treacherously on the creature’s return pass. and I’ll have to sit down, clutch the sides so I don’t tip out. Only way I know it’s safe to leave is when the frogs start croaking again.

Sometimes though, a frog will puff its chest and blowout its braggadocio regardless of the danger it’s in.

Jack’s bio reads “Jack Bates writes some pretty good crime fiction from the comfort of his loft office. His stories have appeared all around the web, in various anthologies, and in a few magazines. Three have been finalists for the Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. He’s also written award-winning scripts for stage and screen including a short-lived web series. An incomplete list of his works can be found on his blog http://flashjab.blogspot.com/.   When not writing, he plots or travels or runs errands or chats it up with other old movie buffs on twitter. He pens the Harry Landers, PI, series for Mind Wings Audio Books. He’s also released several ebooks with Untreed Reads which launched the Hack Ward PI series with Monkey See, Monkey Murder. In 2012, his YA Steampunk novel, Colt Buchanan and the Weather Walkers, was released by Red Willow Press.”

This short story is quite fun, and in the classic mold of slightly off, wacky Florida noir. Set in a dive bar on the west coast of Florida in a nothing town on the edge of a swamp, a stranger walks in with a wad of cash and an air of mystery about him; two tough rednecks are playing pool with their girlfriends when the two men decide to win some of the stranger’s money off him–and things continue to spiral downward from there. It reminded me of John D. Macdonald with maybe a dash of Hiassen thrown in for good measure, and is a very fun and satisfying read; one that I’m glad is in the book.

And now, I have spice to mine.

Dreamtime

A rare late night of bar testing has left my day free; I am going to go to the gym, do some cleaning, and maybe even some writing before I head into the office. We’ll see how it goes, shan’t we?

I am still reading Nadine Nettman’s Uncorking a Lie, and am really enjoying it thus far. I have to say, one of the most interesting thing (to me) about this year’s Anthony nominees for Best Paperback Original is how different all the books are–something I will talk about more when I’ve finished reading them all. (I am also making notes of questions to ask each writer as I read their books; best way to prep for moderating a panel!)

Next up for The Short Story Project is the next story in Florida Happens, which happens to be “There’s an Alligator in My Purse” by Paul D. Marks.

The Teaser

She makes a beautiful corpse, doesn’t she?”

“You just kill me.”

“No, I just killed her.”

“You know what they say, live fast, die young and leave a good lookin’ corpse.”

“Or at least a dead one,” I said, with a wink.

I’m a pro. I like to do a competent job. I like to have my marks look presentable, both for themselves and for my clients. It’s good for word of mouth and getting killed is hard enough, on both the mark and their family, so at least they should leave a suitable lasting impression.

I also take a lot of pictures. Much easier in these digital days. Back in the day, it was hard to take pictures of dead bodies to your local photo store to get developed—some of them even called the cops. And I like to add a little art to my work. Give the client a little something extra for their money, so I try to shoot from interesting angles, in low key light, like in an old film noir. I find it works on two levels. It gives me satisfaction and, of course, it gives my clients some kind of closure.

Let me fill you in on some of what led us here. Someone has to tell the story and it might as well be me. I’m probably the only one who can see the big picture. True, I wasn’t there for everything, but I was there for enough of it and I heard about the rest from first person sources. How much of it you should trust, well, that’s another story. You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but I like to think I’m a pretty reliable source. So, this is the tale as best I know it.

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Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-winning mystery-thriller White Heat, which Publishers Weekly calls a “taut crime yarn,” and its sequel Broken Windows (dropping 9/10/18). Publisher’s Weekly says: “Fans of downbeat PI fiction will be satisfied…with Shamus Award winner Marks’s solid sequel to… White Heat.” Though set in the 1990s, both novels deal with issues that are hot and relevant today: racism and immigration, respectively. His short stories appear in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines, among others, and have won or been nominated for many awards, including the Anthony, Derringer and Macavity. His story “Windward,” has been selected for the Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny & Otto Penzler, and has also been nominated for both a 2018 Shamus Award and Macavity Award for Best Short Story.  “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. He is co-editor of the multi-award nominated anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea. You can find him on-line at his website, link right here!

When asked  about how he came up with his story, he replied:

The genesis of my story, “There’s an Alligator in My Purse,” was inspired by the theme of the Bouchercon anthology, which was originally “Sunny Places, Shady People”. So I wanted plenty o’ sun and plenty o’ shady people. I could have gone one of two ways with the story: a serious noirish mystery, which is more what I’m known for…if I’m known. Or, since people seem to make fun of Florida so much the other choice was humor and satire. I chose the latter. I thought it would be fun to get a little crazy. And though I mostly write serious crime stories, I have done some humorous and satirical stories in the past, so it was time for another shot at that.

I started with the title, which just came to me out of nowhere, as these things often do. I thought it was funny. Okay, funny. Now what? Now I have to build a story around it. And hopefully make the rest of the story have at least a chuckle or two. So I had to figure out who would have an alligator in their purse – yes, there really is one! – and why. I just let my mind wander. And had fun with it. This story was a hell of a lot of fun to write and I hope others enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

The story, though he claims otherwise, is both noirish and funny. It’s very clever in the way it takes a classic hard-boiled/noir trope and spins it on its head, while turning it inside out at the same time. It’s also kind of written like a film; there are quick cuts between scenes, so the story flows in a cinematic way, which was a lot of fun. I greatly enjoyed this story–and have enjoyed Paul’s work in the past as well (we were both nominated for the 2017 Macavity for Short Story, which gave me the occasion to read his “Ghosts of Bunker Hill”, which is quite marvelous), and I am looking forward to reading his novel White Heat when it works its way up in my TBR pile.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Baby Love

It’s Friday, and the weekend. New Orleans continues to swelter and drip in the midsummer heat, with August just around the corner. August is usually worse than July; the peak being around Labor Day; after which the temperatures starts to drop a bit and the humidity seems to lessen. But it’s hot everywhere; even the UK is, or was, having an intense heatwave. That’s why I am always puzzled by questions about how I stand the heat in New Orleans in the summer time; it’s hot everywhere. The places that aren’t humid are even hotter–and that oh it’s a dry heat really only means the difference between a sauna and a steam room; and the damp heat is better for your skin.

You don’t need to  use moisturizer if you live in New Orleans.

We continue to enjoy Castle Rock, and why did I never notice, ever before, how insanely beautiful Bill Skarsgard is? The resemblance to his brother is there, of course, but he is quite handsome all on his own. I mean, those eyes…eyes are always, to me, the sexiest feature; I am a sucker for someone with gorgeous eyes.

I slept better last night than I did the night before, but still woke up several times during the night, which means I am going to have to shake up what I do before I go to sleep; I’d been reading in bed for a half hour or so before going to sleep and it looks like I might have to go back to that again. I want to finish Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, which is currently my bedside reading, and I also need to get started reading the Anthony finalists for Best Paperback Original, since I am moderating that panel at Bouchercon.

I am sooooooo behind on my reading.

Also: I am very tired. I had intended to go to the gym tonight after getting home from work, but no…that’s not happening. I think I may even be too tired to read. I think I’ll go watch a documentary.

Yeah, that’s the ticket. What an exciting life I lead.

Have a lovely evening.

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Love Touch

Sunday morning, as I sit here in my cool workspace swilling coffee, trying to wake up and figure out what to do with the rest of my day. I need to go to the grocery store and I should also probably make an attempt to go to the gym; but I can’t seem to find my iPad, which makes doing cardio pointless (I read or watch TV on my iPad while on the treadmill; perhaps not having my iPad is simply an excuse for not going; what if it’s gone, lost, stolen? I am trying not to think that way and am hoping that I simply left it at the office. If not, I am terribly screwed because I don’t know where it is and I currently don’t have the cash on hand to replace it. So, yes, let’s just continue pretending happily that it’s as the office, shall we?)

I could, of course, just go to the gym and do weights. That always feels good, at any rate. Perhaps once I finish swilling this coffee….

I slept late yesterday, and I slept even later today. I spent most of yesterday not only reading but doing chores around the house, on the pretense that today I would not only go to the grocery store and the gym, but I would also spend some time writing today. I need to finish a short story; I need to revise still another, and there’s that new one struggling to take root in my brain that I haven’t really decided what to do with just yet. There are two others swirling around up there in my head, as well as others I’ve not thought about or have forgotten about in the meantime. But now, now as I wake up I feel more confident about running the errands and going to the gym and actually doing some writing today.

I’ve been reading The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, and greatly enjoying it; is there anything quite like well-written non-fiction? It’s why I love Joan Didion and Barbara Tuchman; one of the things I love to do while reading is to learn, and non-fiction fills that need quite beautifully. I also like non-fiction that makes me think; which is why I am looking forward to reading Dead Girls by Alice Bolin. I still would love to do a collection of my own essays, book reviews, and so forth; but egad, what an odious chore pulling all of that together would be. I struggle with essays, but I also think that the writing of essays; the ability to pull thoughts from my head and extrapolate them out to their fullest meaning, is vitally important and a skill-set I wish I had honed more properly. A friend once pointed out to me, as I bemoaned my inability to write essays, that my blog itself is nothing more than years of personal essays. That took me aback, because it was, in many ways, correct; there is definitely some truth to that, but it’s hard for me to take the blog seriously in that fashion, because so much of it is simply written off the top of my head in the morning as I wake up and drink coffee and try to figure out what to do with the rest of my day.

One of the problems for me with personal essays is, ultimately, the issue of self-deprecation, which I’ve addressed in previous blog entries about my writing and my career and my books; who am I to write about this subject? Am I expert enough in this to write about it, or am I simply talking about things that smarter, better-educated people have written about long ago and having the hubristic belief that I am the only person to see this truth for the first time? 

And, in considering myself self-deprecatingly as not that special or particularly smart, I defeat myself and never write the essay.

And of course, there is the problem of all the lies my memory tells me.

But yesterday, I took the afternoon to finish read an ARC of Lou Berney’s new novel, November Road, and was blown away by it.

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Behold! The Big Easy in all its wicked splendor!

Frank Guidry paused at the corner of Toulouse to  bask in the neon furnace glow. He’d lived in New Orleans the better part of his thirty-seven years on earth, but the dirty glitter and sizzle of the French Quarter still hit his bloodstream like a drug. Yokels and locals, muggers and hustlers, fire-eaters and magicians. A go-go girl was draped over the wrought-iron rail of a second floor balcony, one book sprung free from her sequined negligee and swaying like a metronome to the beat of the jazz trio inside. Bass, drums, piano, tearing through “Night and Day.” But that was New Orleans for you. Even the worst band in the crummiest clip joint in the city could swing, man, swing.

A guy came whipping up the street, screaming bloody murder. Hot on his heels–a woman waving a butcher knife, screaming, too,

Guidry soft-shoed out of their way. The beat cop on the corner yawned. The juggler outside the 500 Club didn’t drop a ball. Just another Wednesday night on Bourbon Street.

Lou’s previous novel, The Long and Faraway Gone, won every crime-writing award under the sun that it was eligible for: Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and I don’t know what all; it was the crime publishing equivalent of the EGOT. It was, obviously, an exceptional novel. I met Lou when we were on a panel together at the Raleigh Bouchercon, along with Lori Roy and Liz Milliron; moderated by the amazing Katrina Niidas Holm. It was funny, because the panel topic was, I think, writing about small towns which, in fact, none of us on the panel really did, but we had fun with the topic and I know I brought up Peyton Place at least once and pointed out that suburbs are small towns with the primary difference being suburbs are bedroom communities for cities while small towns aren’t attached in any way to a larger city. It was fun and spirited and I liked Lou, thought he was incredibly smart, as were Liz and Lori. Lori and Lou went on to win Edgars for that year; and I admire their work tremendously. I’ve not had the opportunity to read Liz’ work; but she did have a terrific story in the New Orleans Bouchercon anthology, Blood on the Bayou.

Anyway, I digress.

I’ve been looking forward to November Road since I finished reading The Long and Faraway Gone, but I still need to go back and read Lou’s first two novels, Whiplash River and Gutshot Straight. 

I also have to admit, I was a little hesitant about Lou’s new book; it’s built around the Kennedy assassination in 1963, which always gives me pause (I have yet to immerse myself in Stephen King’s 11/22/63). I’m not sure why I don’t care to read fiction around the Kennedy assassination, but there you have: an insight into my mind. But the Kennedy assassination, while a primary plot device, is just that: a device to set the story in motion. Frank Guidry is involved with a mob boss in New Orleans, and after the Kennedy assassination he is given instructions to fly to Dallas, retrieve a car, and drive it to Houston to dispose of it. While he is doing this, he realizes that he is getting rid of evidence that may be of vital importance to the investigation into the president’s murder–and as such, is a loose end who knows too much and figures out he’s got to disappear now because they’re going to want to kill him. And sure enough, they do send someone after him, Paul Barone, a remorseless killer and tracker. The cat-and-mouse game between them builds suspense throughout the book.

But it’s not just about Frank, and it is a credit to Berney’s talent, creativity and imagination in that he throws in another primary character, constructed carefully in all the facets and layers that make her live and breathe: Charlotte. Charlotte is a wife and mother in a small town in Oklahoma, married to a useless drunk fuck-up with whom she had two daughters, and her salary working for the local town photographer is the primary thing keeping a roof over their heads. Her own ambitions for being a photographer herself are constantly shat upon by her boss, her society and culture and environment: she is a woman, a wife and mother, and in 1963 that so thoroughly defines her that any other ambition she might have throws her identity as wife and mother into question. Trapped, with the walls closing in on her closer every day, Charlotte takes the president’s assassination as a sign for her to run away with the girls and start over. Charlotte is an extraordinary character;  her relationship with her daughters is the strong backbone of this story. You root for her, you want her to make her escape and make her dreams come true.

Frank and Charlotte cross paths in New Mexico, and Frank sees them as his salvation; his murderous pursuers might be thrown off as they are looking for a single man, not one traveling with his wife and kids; the book becomes even stronger and more suspenseful once they are all together. Frank and Charlotte become close, despite not being completely honest with each other; they are both keeping their cards close to their vests, but yet form a loving bond. WIll they escape, or will they not?

November Road reminded me a lot of Laura Lippman’s Sunburn; the same kind of relationship building between a man and a woman where a lot of information, important, information, is held back from each other, and that lack of trust while falling in love is an important theme in both books: women trying to make their best lives, even if it means making morally questionable decisions, while becoming involved with a man who isn’t completely honest with her. Berney’s writing style, and tone, and mood, also put me in mind of Megan Abbott’s brilliant Give Me Your Hand. If you’ve not read yet the Lippman and Abbott novels, I’d recommend getting them and holding on to them until Berney’s book is released in October and reading them all over the course of a long weekend.

Bravo.