Jeopardy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t that an incredible opening?

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

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

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

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

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

And now back to the spice mines.

 

She Works Hard for the Money

Tuesday.

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

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

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

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

Heavy heaving sigh.

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

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

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Come on Eileen

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

I can dream, at any rate.

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

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

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

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Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

Tuesday morning, and my windows are covered in condensation. Nothing new there, of course, but at least I can see blue sky and sunshine through the beads of water. Perhaps today will be our first day this summer without rain? Stranger things have, of course, happened.

I got quite a bit done on the line edit yesterday; at some point I am going to have to input all of this work into the e-document, and I will be very curious to see how much I wind up cutting. As I go through the manuscript, line by line, I am amazed at how often I repeat myself, or how often an entire paragraph is simply a series of sentences saying the same thing only in different words. A very strong push this week, and I might actually have the entire line edit finished by the end of the weekend. It’s not very likely to happen, but there’s always a possibility. My friend Lisa will be in town later this week, and I am going to try to see her for at least a drink and perhaps dinner. I don’t see her enough as it is.

I also got some work done on the Scotty book yesterday as well. The story is starting to take shape in my mind, and I need to get a strong first chapter together before I can get going on the rest. I am trying to take what I can from the several different versions of a first chapter I’ve already started; I think I can make the whole thing come together–at any rate, that’s my goal for today. I hope to get at least two more chapters finished this week, if not more. I also want to revise a short story. It will, I suppose, depend on how much energy and how much time I have.

I am still processing Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, “The Spoils of War,” and I also can’t stop thinking about Owen Matthews’ The Fixes. There’s an essay I’d like to write, about straight people writing gay characters that reading this book put into my mind, but it’s not really taking form and I am not really sure if it will–the curse of a creative imagination; too many ideas. But The Fixes is so incredibly well written and well done you’d never know that Owen Matthews himself isn’t gay; but really, if you have any experience whatsoever with alienation, you should be able to write believable gay characters; alienation is the key, now that I think about more deeply, and I wish I had thought of that before I taught my character building workshop at SinC Into Good Writing last September here in New Orleans.

Alienation, in fact, is a constant theme in Harlan Ellison’s oh-so-brilliant work.

Paul and I are thinking about going to see Dunkirk this weekend; whether we actually do or not remains to be seen. I have to work on Saturday, and as such my weekend shall be Sunday and Monday; having a Monday off will actually be rather lovely.

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines before I head into the office.

Here’s a Tuesday hunk for you, Constant Reader:

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Maniac

Monday morning in New Orleans, after a crazy kind of weekend that included insane street flooding and torrential rains. My neighborhood doesn’t flood quite as bad as others–we’ve had high water on our street, but it rarely lasts for long–because two blocks from the house is Coliseum Square, which is much lower (as is Camp Street on the far side of it) and serves as a kind of flood basin for the neighborhood (which was WAY fun when we lived on Camp Street; my car flooded once and we got water all the way up to the top step–of six–outside out front door). I didn’t work much on the line edit (read: not at all) because I was too busy reading, first Lyndsay Faye’s brilliant The Gods of Gotham, then Owen Matthew’s epic The Fixes, and then I started reading Eric Ambler’s Journey Into Fear. (I’ve not read Ambler before) We also got caught up on Orphan Black, and continue to muddle along with The Last Tycoon, which is quite visually stunning but more than a little dull. (And just HOW do you make 1930’s Hollywood dull? Nicely done, F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

Game of Thrones was just EPIC last night. Oh my God, was it ever epic. I won’t post spoilers for those who may not have seen it yet, but all I will say is finally. I’ve been waiting for that episode ALL SEASON. Huz-fucking-ZAH.

So, I read Owen Matthews’ The Fixes yesterday. Owen Matthews is the name Owen Laukkanen uses to write young adult fiction (his first was How to Win at High School, which I have but is still in the TBR pile), and as Owen Laukkanen he wrote one of my favorite books of last year, The Watcher in the Wall (I may have read it this year; my memory has truly become a sieve). Owen and I are on a panel at Toronto Bouchercon this year–while the schedule hasn’t been posted yet, I was curious as to why Owen was on a panel called “Reading the Rainbow”; but I haven’t read all of his work as of yet. The panel moderator and I were talking the other day and I brought that up, at which point I was told he does write gay characters, and in fact, one of the main characters in The Fixes is gay. I moved the book to the top of the TBR pile, and tore through it yesterday afternoon: it is a quick read, and moves really fast.

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This is a story about a boy’s first crush, and how it blew up in his face.

And all of its explosive consequences.

(You know what? Forget it.)

Let’s start over.

Let me tell you why E set off that bomb.

Eric, or E, as he comes to be called by his friends over the course of the novel, is the son of a state senator, the grandson of yet another politician, and has been raised to understand that he isn’t just anyone; he is a CONNELLY MAN and he has to live up to the family name–maybe even so far as eventually running for president. Eric has given up a lot to live up to his father’s expectations, and is more than a little resentful. As a sophomore, Eric had dated Paige but soon realized he was more attracted to guys than girls…which as a CONNELLY MAN could prove problematic. His future is laid out for him completely, and he is giving up the summer before he starts college to intern at a legal firm his father used to work for. And then, a chance encounter in the office at his high school with Jordan Grant, the gorgeous son of a wealthy filmmaker, derails his entire summer….and possibly his future as well.

Soon, Eric (E, as Jordan likes to call him) has a full blown crush on Jordan, even though he seems to be involved loosely with Haley. All four of these kids–they live in a Malibu-like, affluent wealthy town called Capilano–have some damage: Paige’s father is going to be tried for embezzling and misleading investment clients (a la Madoff); Haley’s mother is a model who idealizes her eldest daughter, a successful model, and is always putting Haley down and making her feel bad about herself, which led to an eating disorder and a stay in a hospital; E himself is struggled against the life path his father has chosen for him; and Jordan is…well, what exactly is Jordan’s damage?

I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that the group becomes involved in ‘fixing’ things around Capilano; injustices they step up to correct. And as E becomes more deeply involved in the fixes, as his own life path begins to spin out of control and he falls deeper and deeper under Jordan’s spell..the book continues racing along at a frenetic, insane pace that makes it impossible to put down until it’s finished.

It was also lovely to see a novel, published by a mainstream press and written by a non-gay author, that so carefully, conscientiously, and sympathetically explored the struggle and complexity of coming to terms with a sexuality that does not jibe with family expectations, as well as the emotional grappling with how can I not be my true self for the rest of my life?; not to mention the emotional complexity of falling in love for the first time.

The story is intricate as well; this is a fine example of young adult noir, the kind the amazing Jay Bennett used to write.

Highly recommended, and really looking forward to reading How to Win at High School.

 

Billie Jean

So, I didn’t get any writing done yesterday because I sat down with Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham at long last, intending to read only one chapter–and then the next thing I knew it was time to make dinner and I was on page 100. Reluctantly I put the book down and made dinner; after which we watched Orphan Black, Game of Thrones, and the first episode of Amazon Prime’s The Last Tycoon before repairing to bed for the evening. Lyndsay’s book is extraordinary and exceptional; I’m both sorry and glad that I waited so long to read it–glad because I am clearly going to love every word of it; sorry that I could have savored it so much sooner. Heavy sigh.

So many books, so little time.

I am greatly enjoying this season of Game of Thrones, and am very curious as to how it is all going to shape up. Last night’s episode was terrific; when the credits started rolling I was like, “it’s over already?” That’s always a good sign, frankly; and Dame Diana Rigg’s final line as Lady Tyrell was just absolutely perfect.

We then switched over to Amazon Prime to try out The Last Tycoon. I’ve never read the Fitzgerald novel because, frankly, it was unfinished, and God knows I’d never want anyone to read anything of mine after I die that was unfinished. But I was curious to see this, as a sucker for old Hollywood. The show is set during the era of the big studios and their star system; where the studios crafted very careful images of their stars and turned out movie after movie after movie. My fascination with this time began when I was a kid and read Bob Thomas’ biography Selznick; I went on to read Tracy and Hepburn, biographies of stars like Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Clark Gable, amongst many others; histories of Hollywood, and so forth. I’ve always wanted to write about that period; it’s really a great time for noir and crime, but again–research. Anyway, I was curious to see how the show was, and I was more than a little impressed. Fitzgerald had first-hand experience with Hollywood and the old studio system, and clearly the character played by Matt Bomer (who is just breathtakingly beautiful, and would be stunning in black and white) is based on Irving Thalberg; the genius producer with a heart problem who is aching to make the perfect film before he dies. Kelsey Grammer is also good, as always, as the studio boss, and the rest of the cast, none of whom I really recognized, are all good in their parts. There was also a big plot twist at the end of the first episode that I didn’t see coming, so kudos to that! It’s also filmed beautifully; the sets and costumes are spot on and everyone looks like they just stepped off the set of a 30’s movie. I am really looking forward to seeing more. I hope it’s not disappointing!

All right, back to the spice mines. Here’s a Monday hunk to get your week off to a great start!

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You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep (If You Can’t Sleep)

So, Ozark.

It was really the perfect thing to watch at this time, given my revived interest in Southern Gothic (Harry Crews’ A Feast of Snakes notwithstanding; I just need to find better examples of Southern Gothic to read, and every once in a while I’m going to come across something I don’t like; it’s just the odds, really).

But Ozark hit all the right notes, and combining great writing and storytelling with stunning cinematography, terrific acting in complex, multi-layered characters, and complicated relationships between those characters, and you get an amazing show. Ozark is just that; and I do hope it will be renewed.

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Ozark is the latest in a series of television programs focusing on people who could be your friends or neighbors and are actually criminals. There were times when it reminded me of Weeds; I’ve heard other comparisons, like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos  as well. Marty Byrde, our main character, played perfectly by Jason Bateman (and back in the 80’s, who thought Jason Bateman would be the biggest star in that family?), is a numbers guy; he’s a partner in a very successful Chicago financial investment firm; he’s more of a look at the numbers and do the math kind of guy, while his partner is more of a dude bro salesguy; he makes the sales, but Marty is the one who takes care of the clients’ money and investments. In the very first episode, a Mexican drug lord, Dell, shows up with guns and goons, takes everyone in the firm hostage, and starts threatening them for stealing; everyone is killed–but Marty thinks quickly, promises to replace the money that was stolen, and launder it all; he decides to leave Chicago and set up shop at Lake of the Ozarks. His wife, played by the SUPERB Laura Linney (who makes everything better by just showing up), is having an affair and isn’t sure she wants to escape with Marty. Of course, Dell is having her watched as well–and alerts Marty to the fact she’s emptied their accounts and headed over to her lover’s apartment…the end result is her lover is thrown off the high balcony, literally landing at Marty’s feet when he arrives, and the Byrdes flee to Missouri to set up a money laundering business for the drug cartel in Lake of the Ozarks.

The writing is so crisp, the dialogue so real, and the characters are beautifully rendered and portrayed by the cast. Once they are at the lake, the Byrdes run afoul of some locals–the morally challenged Langmores, headed by teenaged Ruth; a star-making role for her portrayer, Julia Garner. Ruth is smart, battered by life, and mean–she wants to get her and her family out of the trailers they live in and into a better life; the developing relationship between her, her cousins, and the Byrdes is one of the strongest prongs of the show. There’s also a gay FBI agent, whose partner was also his partner in their private life but they are no longer together, which makes working together for them a challenge; Agent Roy Petty is one of the more unlikable characters on the show, and it’s very interesting to see such a developed, unlikable gay character on television. He’s also part of one of the most clever and original gay subplots I’ve ever seen; but saying any more than that would give away spoilers.

The plot is so intricate, there are so many twists and turns, ups and downs, changes in direction that you cannot stop watching, nor can you let your mind wander–something small and seemingly insignificant in one episode can turn out to be really important later.

And the cinematography! Lake of the Ozarks, the surrounding forests and topography, are lovingly shot; and it’s also shot through a slightly darker lens, to make it all more beautiful and brooding.

I loved this show, was sorry to see the end of the first season, and can’t wait for it to come back.