U Got the Look

This week, The CW debuted a new version of Nancy Drew. I sort of watched it Thursday night, and will probably watch again so I can pay better attention. It’s definitely a reboot, with a lot of changes–Nancy’s mom died much later in her life, for example, and there’s no Bess. The story is also set in Horseshoe Bay rather than River Heights, and Nancy has hung up her sleuthing cap since her mother’s death and is now working as a waitress in a diner. George Fayne isn’t a close friend but now her boss, and they don’t get along–I expect that to change. Ned Nickerson is not white–a change I liked a lot–and prefers to go by Nick. It’s also a bit more in the vein of Riverdale than the classic Nancy Drew stories, but let’s face it–the real Nancy as originally written is kind of insufferable–bit more on that later.

I’m also sure these changes will enrage the Nancy Drew fanbase–anything other than the way she was originally written by a lot of ghostwriters generally sets them off. I am not such a purist–I recognize that changes have to be made for a different medium, for one thing, and for another–as I said earlier, Nancy was a bit insufferable as originally written.

I did enjoy the movie a few years ago with Emma Roberts (it might be the only time I’ve ever actually enjoyed an Emma Roberts performance, frankly); a lot was changed from the books to the series.

Nancy Drew and I go back to my fifth grade year at Eli Whitney Elementary in Chicago. I was already reading as many mysteries as I could get my hands on–those Scholastic Book Fairs were my favorite part of school–and I was checking out as many mysteries from the library as I could. (This was also the period of time when I discovered Phyllis Whitney’s mysteries for children; the first I read was The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye.) My fifth grade teacher had a big table in the back of the room with books for kids on them; we were on the honor system. We could borrow a book but we were supposed to return it when we finished reading it. The first day of school I wandered back there and looked at the books on the table; the first title to jump out at me was The Secret of Red Gate Farm. Above the title was NANCY DREW MYSTERY SERIES, and on the cover was a picture of a girl with wavy blonde hair, wearing a sweater and a long skirt, hiding behind a tree and looking, her mouth wide open in shock, fear or surprise, staring at the entrance to a cave  as some strangely robed figures entered it. I took it back to my desk, and started reading it.

red gate farm

“That Oriental-looking clerk in the perfume shop certainly acted mysterious, ” Bess Marvin declared, as she and her two friends ended their shopping trip and hurried down the street to the railroad station.

“Yes,” Nancy Drew answered thoughtfully. “I wonder why she didn’t want you to buy that bottle of Blue Jade?”

“The price would have discouraged me,” spoke up Bess’ cousin, dark-haired George Fayne. Her boyish name fitted her slim build and straight-forward, breezy manner. “Twenty dollars an ounce!”

“Oriental-looking.”

Sigh. The great irony is that both the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series were rewritten and revised to remove racist stereotypes and language…

Anyway, The Secret of Red Gate Farm enthralled me, as Nancy and her friends tried to help a young girl and her grandmother save Red Gate Farm from mortgage foreclosure while also trying to expose a ring of counterfeiters. There was a list of intriguing-sounding Nancy Drew titles on the back of the book, and back on the table in my fifth grade classroom there were three more titles: The Mystery at Lilac Inn, The Haunted Showboat, and The Clue of the Leaning Chimney. As I scoped around, there was another series novel, but it wasn’t Nancy Drew; it was the Dana Girls The Secret of the Old Well, allegedly written by the same person: Carolyn Keene.

Nancy Drew introduced me to the world of Grosset & Dunlap series–which were actually all produced, for the most part, by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. I eventually found myself reading–and collecting–many of those series, including the Hardy Boys, Dana Girls, Ken Holt, Rick Brant, Biff Brewster, Chip Hilton, and Judy Bolton, among others–I also wound up collecting Trixie Belden and the Three Investigators, too.

I always wanted to write a series like these when I was a kid; I even came up with a list of about forty titles I could use. I wrote one, actually, when I was in the fifth grade–called The Secret of the Haunted Mansion–which, to the best of my recollection, might be the first fiction I ever wrote; alas, it is lost in the mists of time. Periodically, I come back to the thought of writing such a series, but I don’t know that there’s a market for them anymore. Most of the series have gone out of print, with only Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, as far as I know, still available; Trixie Belden might be but I’m not sure. I still collect the books–it really pleases my OCD to have the series completed. I’m still missing a few from some of the harder to find series–like Biff Brewster and Ken Holt, and I do think I am missing a couple of Judy Boltons and Dana Girls as well–but I’ve stopped scouring eBay over the last few years because, well, money.

But at some point, I imagine I will go back and try to complete the series.

I do credit these series with a lot of my devotion to the world of crime and crime writing; while I always loved mysteries, it’s entirely possible I would have moved on to something else had I not discovered, and become addicted, to these series. These series led me eventually to Agatha Christie, Mary Stewart, Charlotte Armstrong, and Ellery Queen; and those authors eventually led me to others…and wanting to write crime fiction of my own.

So, thank you, Nancy Drew. It’s kind of your fault.

The Twelfth of Never

God, what a year for crime fiction, and what a year for crime fiction by women. The women are killing it this year–but then, they pretty much kill it every year, and have killed it every year since Agatha Christie’s first novel was released. I’ve read so many amazing crime novels by women this year that I can’t even begin to remember them all; I know there’s been terrific novels by Alafair Burke, Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Lori Roy, Jamie Mason, Steph Cha, Angie Kim and so many, many others that I couldn’t being to name them all or possibly be expected to remember them all, either. (This is in no small part, of course, due to the fact that my memory works about as well as my desktop computer since the Mojave update.) There are so many others as well that I’ve not gotten to read yet–I am way behind on my reading of Catriona McPherson, for example, and Lori Rader-Day–and I’ve also been trying read more diverse books this year as well.

And just this past week, I finished reading Lisa Lutz’ amazing The Swallows.

the swallows

Some teachers have a calling. I’m not one of them.

I don’t hate teaching. I don’t love it either. That’s also my general stance on adolescents. I understand that one day they will rule the world and we’ll all have to live with the consequences. But there’s only so much I’m willing to do to mitigate that outcome. You’ll never catch me leaping atop my desk, quoting Browning, Shakespeare or Jay-Z. I don’t offer my students sage advice or hard-won wisdom. I don’t dive into the weeds of their personal lives, parsing the muck of their hormone-addled brains. And I sure as hell never learned as much from them as they learned from me.

It’s just a job, like any other. It has a litany of downsides, starting with money and ending with money, and a host of other drawbacks in between. There are a few perks. I like having summers off; I like winter and spring breaks; I like not having a boss breathing over my shoulder; I like books and talking about books and occasionally meeting a student who makes me see the world sideways. But I don’t get attached. I don’t get involved. That was the plan, at least.

The Swallows is set at a second-tier elite boarding school in New England called Stonebridge. Alexandra “Alex” Witt has been hired to teach Lit there after leaving her previous teaching job under a cloud of some sort. The daughter of a failed literary writer who has taken to writing crime novels under a pseudonym and an Eastern European fencing Olympic medalist, Alex is a bit of a mess but also has a strong character and equally strong sense of self. The job at Stonebridge is given to her by a friend of her father’s, who is the headmaster, and when she arrives she refuses to live in the dorms and takes up residence in a crappy cabin near campus without power or phone or much along the lines of creature comforts. Alex is the primary point of view character–there are others, including another teacher/writer named Finn Ford (who is writing a book based on the school and what goes on there); a nerd boy who is on the edges of the popular kids, “The Ten”; Gemma, an orphan whose actions primarily drive the story (she is also one of The Ten), and several others. There’s also a dark secret at Stonebridge–a secret website that only a select few have access to, where the boys try to get the girls to give them blowjobs after which the boys score them…with an eye to winning what they call the Dulcinea Prize, awarded to the best blowjob performer at Stonebridge. Gemma has found out about this, and wants to do something about it–and her desire to get back at the boys who–in the most eye-opening and honest statement I’ve ever read, “see the girls as things rather than humans.” The horror of that realization drives the story, which grows darker and more complex and awful with every page.

The book is also darkly witty–there were a few times when its macabre humor made me laugh out loud–and the characters are absolutely, positively real; Lutz has created complicated people who do things that might not make sense on the surface, but that conduct and behavior only adds to their layers and complexity. It’s hard not to root for both Alex and Gemma to bring the rotten boys down, exposing their crimes to the world and the sunlight so they will shrivel up and die. The twists and turns of the story are all earned, all realistic, and all startling. The book is masterfully written, and never has a second-rate boarding school been brought to life in such a vivid fashion.

It reminded me, in some ways, of both Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction, in the best possible way. I enjoyed both of those books, but not in the same way that I enjoyed this one; I think because Lutz’ story is more cohesive and her characters are somewhat likable and believable despite their flaws.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading more of Lisa Lutz’ canon.

Thunder Island

As Constant Reader already is aware, I’ve been trying to diversify my reading this year. The Diversity Project, as I’ve been calling it, has been revelatory for me; I’ve been reading books and authors I should have been reading all along, but somehow, despite having bought the books, they’ve collected dust and cobwebs in my TBR pile as I somehow always manage to reach for something else when it’s time to read something new. But it has been, as I said, revelatory to me; and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of the ride. My endgame, as it were, is that when I finish this “project”, any subconscious bias I might have in deciding on what to read will have been ripped out, root and stem, and it will simply fade away into something I won’t need to call attention to because I’ve bested the worst biases in my psyche–and aren’t the ones we aren’t aware of the worst?

Yes, they are.

So over the last week I read Rachel Howzell Hall’s wonderful They All Fall Down.

they all fall down

The Los Angeles International Airport was the worst place to lose your mind in post-9/11 America. Especially if you perspired like Kobe Bryant in Game 7 of the NBA finals. Especially if you popped Valium twice a day to combat anxiety. And there I was, standing in the TSA security clearance line at LAX, a sweaty, anxious black woman wearing sweaty green silk, sipping air and blinking away tears.

Miriam, keep it together. They’re gonna pull you out of line if you keep on. Calm down. But “calm” was slipping further away, an iceberg on a quick current being pushed by a pod of enthusiastic killer whales.

And so I closed my eyes and I prayed again. God, don’t let them kick me out of LAX today. Please help me stay calm.

“Next.”

In my mind, I said, “Amen,” then opened my eyes. I forced myself to smile at the gray-eyed TSA agent seated behind the little podium, and hoped that she thought I was a slow blinker and not a terrorist praying one last time before setting one off.

The agent flicked her hand at me and said, “ID and boarding pass, please.”

I’m not sure how I became aware of Rachel Howzell Hall, but I think it was while I was serving on the board of directors for Mystery Writers of America and I was chairing the committee to recruit new board members; we were determined to diversify the board and I think the wondrous Margery Flax suggested her to me as a possible, viable candidate. We had a lovely email exchange and I bought one of her books, Land of Shadows, which went into the TBR pile and never came out of it. I’d heard lots of good things about They All Fall Down, so I got a copy, and decided to read it next.

And am I glad I did!

Sometimes I talk about Agatha Christie, but it’s been years since I’ve read any of her books (I did reread a favorite, Endless Night, a few years back; it’s the most noir of Christie’s novels, which are all, frankly, much darker than she gets credit for) but one cannot deny Christie’s rightful place as the greatest mystery writer of all time; she did it all, and she did it first. One of my absolute favorites of hers is And Then There Were None, which was groundbreaking and highly original and has been copied numerous times: the set up of taking a group of people somewhere remote, stranding them without chance of rescue or escape, and setting a murderer loose amongst them. Margaret Millar, for example, used this set-up for Fire Will Freeze; and it’s been the basis for many slasher movies, etc. I thought about doing my own version of this a few years ago–because the set-up is so classic and enduring, I wanted to give it my own spin–but the problem was how to strand a group of people without cell phone service or the Internet or even satellite phones, without using Christie’s “send them to a remote island” trope.

Let’s face it, though–the remote island is the perfect set-up.

They All Fall Down has been compared to And Then There Were None, and it’s apparent, almost from the first: a group of people have been invited to Mictlan Island, a remote location somewhere in the Sea of Cortez; all with different understandings of why they’ve been invited. Miriam Macy, Hall’s main character, believes she’s been invited to join the cast of a Survivor type reality television show; she’s hoping to win and use the prize money to reboot her shattered life. Hall only doles out information about Miriam slowly, over the course of the novel, but it’s a testament to her skill as a writer that there are two mysteries going on at the same time–the mystery of Miriam’s past, and the mystery of who is killing people on the island. The book is full of surprises and twists, the cast of characters is diverse, and the themes Hall explores are original, or given enough of a new spin to make them seem fresh and new.

But the real revelation of the book is the character of Miriam Macy, and the way Hall breathes life into this complicated woman who has done something horrible and yet continues to justify what she did rather than accepting any culpability for it. You can’t help but root for Miriam, an unreliable narrator if there ever was one, and the brilliance of Hall’s talent is that you keep rooting for Miriam as the story goes on, even after you find out the full story and her history, because her experience on the island is helping her to grow and see the darkness she has denied for years.

This book is an extraordinary accomplishment, and I can’t wait to read more of Hall’s work. Buy it, read it, and love it.

Typical Male

The male gaze.

Per Wikipedia (which isn’t always accurate):  In feminist theory, the male gaze is the act of depicting women and the world, in the visual arts and literature, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer.

Or, as Laura Lippman likes to quip about crime fiction written by men: A beautiful woman is dead and a man feels bad about it.

Lippman is joking, sort of; much of male-centered crime fiction can be boiled down to that sentence. The sexualization of women in crime fiction, particularly in hard-boiled fiction or noir, has been a thing since the early pulp days; classic English crime fiction, like that written by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers and their other contemporaries, probably didn’t sexualize their women characters…although I do seem to recall that Arlene Marshall in Christie’s Evil Under the Sun was not only sexualized, but also highly misunderstood; it isn’t until Poirot solves the crime at the end of the book that we finally begin to understand Arlene as something other than a sex object who devours men like a praying mantis; the Christie version of a femme fatale being softened, as it were, in the final reel.

It is surprising to read books published in prior decades with their attitudes towards women–sometimes my jaw literally drops at how writers used to describe women, reducing them to their sexuality and their sex appeal; older, or less attractive, women, are written about in an almost contemptuous manner. This still pops up from time to time in modern fiction, but it’s not nearly as common as it used to be.

I was sitting at a literary luncheon, for example, while the speaker was talking about his admiration for John D. MacDonald–an admiration I share–and in particular, about MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. I was nodding and smiling when a female author friend leaned over and whispered to me, “I wonder if he’ll mention McGee’s magic wand.”

I was startled at first, and then I stifled a laugh–it wasn’t the appropriate time in the talk to laugh–but the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. One of the major things about Travis McGee, and the novels written about him, was how he ‘sexually healed’ the damaged women he was assisting during the course of the book; even his friend and cohort often referred to him as a ‘knight-errant coming to the rescue of the lady.’ It never really dawned on me, when I was reading the books–either the first time or any of the successive times I’ve reread them–that he was actually fucking them back to good emotional and mental and physical health; I always thought, since it usually involved them going sailing on his houseboat and fishing and doing the mindless, physical work while relaxing and getting tan and enjoying life away from the worries and problems of the world and day-to-day life.

I missed the bit about the magic wand because I’m gay and it never crossed my mind.

Which is doubly ironic, considering how much MacDonald and McGee influenced my Chanse MacLeod character and the series I wrote about him; but despite the influence in the creation of the character/series, my series was dramatically different from MacDonald’s.

Being a gay crime writer, while limiting in many ways, is incredibly freeing in others. I fully acknowledge that my books are firmly centered in the gay male gaze; that when I write either Chanse or Scotty, I often devolve in description of male characters the way male writers used to/sometimes still do write about women; their looks, their sex appeal, their fuck-ability factor. Sometimes I wonder if that’s what people mean when they talk about my books being all about sex; because Chanse and Scotty view men as sexual beings and that is something readers aren’t accustomed to seeing?

Perhaps.

Something to ponder.

Today’s short story is “Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson, from  The Best of Richard Matheson collection:

X–This day when it had light mother called me retch. You retch she said. I saw in her eyes the anger. I wonder what it is a retch.

This day it had water falling from upstairs. It fell all around. I saw that. The ground of the back I watched from the little window. The ground it sucked up the water like thirsty lips. It drank too much and it got sick and runny brown. I didn’t like it.

Mother is a pretty I know. In my bed place with cold walls around I have paper things that was behind the furnace. It says on it SCREENSTARS. I see in the pictures faces like of mother and father. Father says they are pretty. Once he said it.

And also mother he said. Mother so pretty and me decent enough. Look at you he said and didn’t have the nice face. I touched his arm and said it it alright father. He shook and pulled away where I couldnt reach. Today mother let me off the chain a little so I could look out the little window. Thats how I saw the water falling from upstairs.

Richard Matheson isn’t as well known as he should be; he is a giant in the horror community and deservedly so, but he should also be highly acclaimed as one of the great writers of any genre from the twentieth century. His novels were filmed frequently–so even if you don’t think you know his work, you do. SOme of the films based on his novels include The Incredible Shrinking Man, Legend of Hell House, I Am Legend (The Omega Man), Somewhere in Time, Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come, and countless others. His short stories were often adapted for episodes of Twilight Zone or Night Gallery–probably the most famous being “Nightmare at 50,000 Feet.” Just a creative genius.

This story is chilling, absolutely chilling. We never really know much about the poor young man (or woman) chained in the basement of this family’s home; other than he was born of their union and something went terribly wrong. He is treated terribly and not educated well and they feed him, but they also are so repulsed and horrified by him that they beat and abuse him and keep him chained against the wall…but as the story progresses his pathetic need for love and company turns.

And it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the rest of his family…who are about to become his victims.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Greatest Love of All

So, today I am very pleased to announce that my short story, “This Town”–which I’ve shared the opening to with you already, Constant Reader, will be published in the Murder-a-Go-Go’s anthology, edited by Holly West! Watch this space for more news about the anthology as publication date approaches!

getPart

Pretty cool, huh? I’ve loved the Go-Go’s for going on nearly forty years now, and so it’s kind of cool to be in anthology of crime stories inspired by their music. And editors–if you ever do such a volume based on the music of Fleetwood Mac and don’t include me, I can’t be held legally responsible for what happens. Just sayin’.

And so many awesome people to share the pages of the anthology with!

Jane Wiedlin is writing the introduction! Eeeeeeeeeeeee!

So, yesterday I continued to work on revising the WIP and shifting the POV/tense, which isn’t as easy as it may appear on its face; it’s very easy to miss instances where past tense is used and needs to be switched to present. It’s also an excellent exercise for me, anyway, because I almost always use the past tense in my writing. (I think I’ve maybe used the present tense once, in a short story.) I also realized another short story I’m working on–“Burning Crosses”–would work better in the present tense, so I revised it into the present tense and revised it as well. I think it’s ready to be read aloud this weekend, which is pretty flippin’ cool.

And one more tweak, and my short story collection is ready to be turned in to my  publisher. Huzzah!

Last night, I reread Agatha Christie’s short story, “Philomel Cottage,” from her collection Witness for the Prosecution:

“Good-bye, darling.”

“Good-bye, sweetheart.”

Alix Martin stood leaning over the small rustic gate, watching the retreating figure of her husband, as he walked down the road in the direction of the village.

Presently he turned around a bend and was lost to sight, but Alix still stayed in the same position, absent-mindedly smoothing a lock of the rich brown hair which had blown across her face, her eyes far-away and dreamy.  Alix Martin was not beautiful, nor even, strictly speaking, pretty. But her face, the face of a woman no longer in her first youth, was irradiated and softened until her former colleagues of the old office days would hardly have recognized her. Miss Alix King has been a trim business-like young woman, efficient, slightly brusque in manner, obviously capable and matter-of-fact.

I loved this story when I first read it, when I was either eleven or twelve; it’s a classic domestic suspense tale: young married couple lives in a remote location, they married very quickly after meeting–after the woman inherited some money–and, in fact, she’d been rather in love with someone else but her husband just swept her off her feet. This day, after her husband goes off, she has a chat with her gardener…who mentions that he’d come early (on a Wednesday rather than his usual Friday) because he wanted to ask her about the garden trim “and since they were going off to London the next day” (sic) he wanted to check with her before she left. She laughs, and responds that they aren’t going to London; but he is insistent that her husband had told her that. He then also mentions that the former owner of the cottage, which they bought for three thousand pounds, had only wanted two. As she put up two to her husband’s one…she’s certain he must be mistaken. But in a masterpiece of paranoia and psychological suspense, Alix then begins to wonder, and starts putting together the errant pieces of strange behavior from her husband–each individual instance nothing, but when put together make it very much seem like he married her for her money and is planning to kill her…and she keeps finding more and more evidence to convince her she is right.

And the ending is stunningly perfect.

Christie, such a master of suspense and crime!

And now, back to the spice mines.

Careless Whisper

So, for those of you who are keeping score, I rewrote/revised/edited /redid whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it-Chapter-One of the new Scotty last night and you know what? I found Scotty’s voice again. I don’t know, but when I opened the word document for this next attempt to write this book, I knew what the first sentence was going to be, and when I typed it: I love Christmas…somehow Scotty was there again; I could hear his voice, get into his head, everything I need to do in order to write a Scotty book. My God, I might actually get this thing finished.

Huzzah!

I also made it to the gym yesterday morning before work; without complaining, without once trying to think of a reason or rationale to not go. I just got up, had a couple of cups of coffee, did my morning toilette, and when it was time, I put on my sweats and went out the front door. It’s amazing how much better I feel; how much more energy I have,  I’ve not been sleeping as great as I would like this week–not sure what that’s all about–but maybe I just don’t need as much sleep as I used to? A possibility, no doubt. I’m seeing my doctor again next month; perhaps I can discuss it with her then. I know she’ll be pleased I’m working out more regularly.

I also did some things I’ve been procrastinating about–made an eye appointment, called AT&T because I am paying for cellular service on my iPad and not getting it, called my doctor for a prescription refill, cancelled a digital newspaper subscription–and so I am feeling rather proud of myself.  Yay, me!

I also read some Agatha Christie short stories, from her collection The Golden Ball and Other Stories. I originally read, and enjoyed, these stories when I was a teenager; and they were originally published in the 1920’s. To be honest, while I still enjoyed them, on some levels they bothered me. I’ve actually read criticism of Agatha Christie for being, among other things, classist in her writings; this can be problematic in a present-day reading (I didn’t notice when I originally read her). I also had some other issues with these stories that I didn’t originally; Christie, not only in her short stories but her novels, enjoyed romantic happy endings, which happens in a couple of these stories even though they aren’t a real pay-off and kind of clumsily tacked on.

Listen at me, criticizing Agatha Christie! Some nerve, huh?

The first story in the collection is “The Listerdale Mystery”:

Mrs. St. Vincent was adding up figures. Once or twice she sighed, and her hand stole to her aching forehead. She had always disliked arithmetic. It was unfortunate that nowadays her life seemed to be composed entirely of one particular kind of sum, the ceaseless adding together of small necessary items of expenditure making a total that never failed to surprise and alarm her.

Who hasn’t been there? The St. Vincents are what Christie calls “poor gentlefolk,” essentially, people who used to have money or are technically part of the upper classes but no longer have the funds to live the way they are used to, and are pretty much living hand-to-mouth. Her daughter has prospects–a young man with money–but they are living in shabby place they can’t even afford anymore which won’t “show her off properly.” Mrs. St. Vincent stumbles on a rental advertisement in the paper that seems too good to be true–servants the tenants won’t have to pay; a lovely home with rent so cheap there has to be a catch–but it’s only for the ‘right sort of tenant.’ The St. Vincents qualify; they move in, and everything is wonderful. The daughter, having a proper home that shows her off in the right way, gets engaged to her young man with money. But the son, Rupert, is certain something is wrong about the place and wrong with the deal. The owner, Lord Listerdale, has not been seen nor heard from in quite a while, and Rupert starts looking into things. The ending isn’t quite as sinister as one might think if this were a Stephen King short story, but it’s a pleasant little story. But you see what I mean about the classism; “the right sort of people”…and “poor gentlefolk who suffer in silence” as opposed to the working poor who aren’t the right sort of people and apparently suffer loudly?

“The Girl in the Train” is also quite fun; but again–our main character is a young man whose wealthy uncle has become irritated with him, fired him from his employ, and cut him off financially (shades of Wodehouse!). Our young hero takes this all in stride, and isn’t sure what to do with himself, so he gets on a train to a town that bears the family name: Rowland’s Castle. But before the train pulls out of the station a beautiful young woman leaps into his compartment, begs for help, and dives under the other seat. Thus begins a kind of fun adventure which inadvertently gets him involved not only with the possible kidnapping of an heiress, but with a Scotland Yard investigation into a gang of spies! It’s a fun tale, and all works out in the end….and it very much reminded me of Wodehouse, whom I love.

“The Manhood of Edward Robinson” is also quite fun–if dated. Edward has a good job, good prospects, and everything he could wish for–even if he is a little henpecked by his fiancee who wants to wait several years to get married, which is more sensible. He has won a contest with a prize of 500 pounds–and in a bit of rebelliousness against his fiancee, buys a sportscar, and then lies to her and goes driving out of London one night. He winds up on quite an adventure involving a stolen diamond necklace and a car switch (he winds up with someone else’s car–wouldn’t happen today, but could back then). He comes out of the whole adventure with a whole new outlook on life, and again, the end is quite satisfying.

The fourth, “Jane is Search of a Job,” is perhaps my favorite of the bunch. Jane is poor, needs a job, and finds an interesting advertisement, which she answers and soon finds herself body doubling for eastern European royalty. But all is not what it seems with Jane’s new high paying job, and soon she is off on an adventure all of her own. What makes this story work–along with other Christie novels of the time, like The Man in the Brown Suit–is the female character, who is quite realistic, doesn’t ever get hysterical or lose her head, and greets each new twist in the tale with determination, grit, and a very practical, level-headed  “okay, how do I get out of this” attitude. A very fun read, even if at the end she winds up riding off into the sunset with a man she’s just met and who has fallen madly in love with her. Farfetched as that may seem, though, it is a charming end to the story of Jane’s financial woes–although the message “have a wealthy man fall in love with you” isn’t the most practical of advice.

And now,  back to the spice mines.

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Dancing in the Sheets

The sun is shining, and the temperature has climbed to 49 degrees. The boil-water advisory ended finally last evening–it’s just not a crisis in New Orleans unless we have a boil-water advisory!–and here I sit this morning, ensconced at my desk with a cup of coffee, a load of laundry tumbling in the dryer, with great expectations of the day. I went to the gym last evening after work, and my muscles, while a bit tired, still feel stretched and worked and supple, if that makes sense. Probably the best thing about rededicating myself to physical exercise again is how much better I feel; I don’t ache or feel tired the way I did just last week, and the stretching and the treadmill are also making me feel ever so much better. Today, I am going to clean (if it’s Saturday I must be cleaning) but I am also going to write, edit and read today. Paul is going into the office to work (it’s that time of year again) and so I have the day to myself. I want to finish the first draft of “The Trouble with Autofill” and I want to edit “Cold Beer No Flies.”

Among many other things; my to-do list is ridiculous, quite frankly. But the only way to make progress is not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the list but rather to keep plugging away at it.

I finished reading Miami by Joan Didion earlier this week, and it was quite good. Didion’s writing style is quite amazing, actually, and while the story of the book might seem, at first glance, to be rather dated; the truth is it is still very much appropriate to our modern times. Miami is a look at the Cuban exiles in the city, how they relate to each other, and how they impact south Florida politically; and to a lesser extent, the relationship between the US government with them as well as with Castro’s Cuba. During the Cold War Cuba was a much more terrifying apparition, close as it was to Florida, and it’s amazing how people do not realize the political clout, as a result of their sheer numbers, that the Cuban immigrants weld in that part of the state, and in the entire state as well. The importance of Florida as a swing state cannot be discounted; and therefore the Cuban-American community’s influence on national politics is something that has to always be considered. (A present day comparison would be the Puerto Ricans moving to Florida today in great numbers as a result of the hurricane destruction of their island; the difference being those Puerto Ricans are already American citizens who can register to vote and can impact 2018 already.) Didion’s look at Miami in the 1980’s, as a Caribbean city on the mainland, is also reminiscent of descriptions of New Orleans as the northernmost Caribbean city; the thing I love the most about Didion’s work is how she makes you think. Reading Miami made me want to write about Miami; I’ve been wanting to write about Florida for a long time, as Constant Reader already knows. Something to ponder.

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I also started reading Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, which is a look at the film industry through the lens of the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967, and how they were made. Harris’ thesis is that was the year that bridged the gap between old and new Hollywood; and the five Best Picture nominees illustrated that perfectly: an expensive musical flop (Doctor Dolittle); two old style Hollywood pictures about race (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night), and two films that illustrated new Hollywood and its influence by European filmmakers like Truffaut and Fellini and Antonioni (Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate). I, of course, have always been fascinated by Hollywood history and have been ever since I read Garson Kanin’s Tracy and Hepburn and Bob Thomas’ Selznick as a kid; this book is right up my alley, and since it’s been awhile since I’ve read any Hollywood history, I am looking forward to reading this (and his Five Came Back–I’ve already watched the documentary based on it).

The Short Story Project also moves apace; I am frequently surprised as I look through my shelves for something to read how many single author collections and anthologies dot them. My Ipad also has quite a few loaded onto the Kindle app; I often buy them when they are either free or reduced in price, and so my Kindle app is filled with books I’ve not yet read, primarily because I don’t like to read on it (which I realize is nothing more than stubbornness; if I can watch movies or television programs on it, why resist reading books there?) Yesterday I found my battered old Dell paperback of Agatha Christie’s The Golden Ball and Other Stories, which I remember loving as a child. I was looking for my copy of Lawrence Block’s first anthology inspired by paintings–those of Edward Hopper– In Sunlight or in Shadow, which I would have sworn I’d purchased in hardcover; yet it wasn’t anywhere on the shelves or in any of the TBR piles, before remembering I’d bought it as an ebook when the Macavity nominations come out; Block’s story “Autumn at the Automat” was a finalist, along with mine (I still can’t believe it) and I wanted to read all the other nominated stories for an entry, so the immediacy of the need required buying the ebook. It is a handsome volume, though, so I’ll need to buy a hard copy to pair with the new one. (New bucket list item: write a story for one of these anthologies by Lawrence Block)

Once I’d located it on the iPad, I scoured the table of contents and landed on a Joyce Carol Oates story, “The Woman in the Window.” I have to confess I’ve not read much of Ms. Oates; I am not even remotely familiar with what she writes. But she, too, was a Macavity finalist last year, for her story “The Crawl Space” (which also won the Stoker Award), and that story creeped me the fuck out. I know she’s been a Stoker finalist before, but I also think she tends to write across genre a lot and therefore isn’t pigeon-holed in one way or the other.

Beneath the cushion of the plush blue chair she has hidden it.

Almost shyly her fingers grope for it, then recoil as if it were burning-hot.

No! None of this will happen, don’t be ridiculous!

It is eleven A.M. He has promised to meet her in this room in which it is always eleven A.M.

This story, frankly, isn’t as strong as “The Crawl Space,” but it’s an interesting exercise in how thin the line between lust and loathing is; the woman of the title is a secretary having an affair with a much wealthier man, and as she gets older and older she is feeling more and more trapped in the relationship; he is married and he often has to break plans with her for his wife. There is also a shift occasionally to his point of view, and he’s not so fond of her anymore, either. Passion has cooled but habit has set in; and the way those lines can get crossed is chilling–and how destructive such a relationship can be to both parties, emotionally and mentally, is explored in great detail yet sparse language by Ms. Oates. The story’s not as creepy, as I said, as the other; but the end–which she leaves kind of hanging–you do feel that something awful is going to happen; maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.

I’ve not read Joe Hill before, and there are several reasons for that; none of which would make any sense to anyone who is not me; I am nothing if not aware of my own eccentricities, which is why I generally don’t share them with people; I don’t need someone else to point out that something doesn’t make sense. But I do have a copy of his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, which I spied on the shelves as I looked for my copy of the Block anthology. Aha, I thought, perfect. I can read a Joe Hill story for the Short Story Project. So, I curled up under a blanket in my easy chair, waited for Scooter to get settled in my lap, and started reading “Best New Horror.”

A month before his deadline, Eddie Carroll ripped open a manila envelope, and a magazine called The True North Literary Review slipped out into his hands. Carroll was used to getting magazines in the mail, although most of them had titles like Cemetery Dance and specialized in horror fiction. People sent him their books, too. Piles of them cluttered his Brookline townhouse, a heap on the couch in his office, a stack by the coffee maker. Books of horror stories, all of them.

No one had time to read them all, although once–when he was in his early thirties and just starting out as the editor of America’s Best New Horror–he had made a conscientious effort to try. Carroll had guided sixteen volumes of Best New Horror to press, had been working on the series for over a third of his life now. It added up to thousands of hours of reading and proofing and letter-writing, thousands of hours he could never have back.

He had come to hate the magazines especially. So many of them used the cheapest ink, and he had learned to loathe the way it came off on his fingers, the harsh stink of it.

I did not mention the elephant in the room; said elephant, of course, being that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. (The Kings are a very literary family; Mr. King’s wife Tabitha is a poet and a novelist; their other son Owen also writes, as does Owen’s wife, Kelly Braffet; I read a novel by Ms. Braffet sometime in the last couple of years–not aware of the King connection–and greatly enjoyed it.)

But simply based on a reading of “Best New Horror,” I have to say Joe Hill is also a terrific writer. And while it, like some of his father’s work, bears a strong resemblance to something I would have read in an Tales from the Crypt or House of Mystery comic book–that is not a criticism. I loved those comics, and the stories I read in them; they had a deep influence on me not only as a writer but as a reader. “Best New Horror”, as you can tell by the opening, tells the tale of Eddie Carroll, a writing teacher and a long-time editor of the Best New Horror series, a chore he has learned to loathe and, basically, phone in every year for the money. This resonated with me; as an anthology editor myself, one of the reasons I stepped away from editing them–or took a break from doing it–was because it was becoming rote; a chore rather than something I found joy in doing. Eddie is an example of why I stopped–I didn’t want to become like him; embittered by the experience and tired of not finding anything fresh or new (unlike Eddie, I was able to keep the experience fresh because each anthology I did was a new topic; if I had done twenty anthologies with the same theme I would have gone on a killing spree). But in the mail comes a story from a new writer that is simply brilliant; original and fresh and resonant and horrifying in its reality; the story reinvigorates Eddie and makes the editing job no longer a chore; he has to have this story, and will do whatever he has to in order to track the writer down…but as with any horror  tale of obsession, it’s not going to end well. But Hill brilliantly keeps stringing the reader along, and the ending is just absolutely brilliant and clever. I am really looking forward to reading more of these stories.

And now, I must get back to the spice mines. There are clothes to fold, dishes to wash, floors to clean, stories to write and edit; I am probably coming back here for another entry later as I am trying to get caught up on posting the stories I’ve read–but I make no promises. I have another story to write as a call for submissions crossed my computer screen on Thursday; I have an unfinished story that I can repurpose, but I also need to get a first draft done so I can work the story out.

Until later, Constant Reader.