Mary Mary

I have always loved strong female characters, having cut my reading teeth on Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Vicki Barr, the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, and Cherry Ames, just to name a few. As an adult reader of mysteries, two of my favorite series are Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series (simply the best) and Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series (also a gem of a series); primarily because I love the characters of Amelia and Meg both so very much. They are both fiercely intelligent women with a very dry sense of humor, and are the kind of strong women that everyone around them comes to depend on for support–and droll wit. The death of Dr. Barbara Mertz (who wrote as Peters AND as Barbara Michaels) ended the Peabody series forever, much to my heartbreak; the Meg Langslow series is going strong still, so I am hopeful that I will have years and years of reading pleasure yet to come from Donna.

And then, last year I discovered Mary Russell.

The envelope slapped down onto the desk ten inches from my much-abused eyes, instantly obscuring the black lines of Hebrew letters that had begun to quiver an hour before. With the shock of the sudden change, my vision stuttered, attempted a valiant rally, then slid into complete rebellion and would not focus at all.

I leant back into my chair with an ill-stifled groan, peeled my wire-rimmed spectacles from my ears and dropped tjem onto the stack of notes, and sat for a long minute with the heels of both hands pressed into my eye sockets.

I was already a fan of Laurie R. King from her brilliant Kate Martinelli series, about a lesbian police detective. (If you’ve not read that series, you need to–it’s one of the best of the last thirty years.) I was reluctant to read the Mary Russell series, as Constant Reader may remember from my previous posts about earlier books in this series; for any number of reasons, but primarily not ever really getting into the Sherlock Holmes/Conan Doyle stories. This shifted and changed when I was asked to contribute a Sherlock story to Narrelle Harris’ The Only One in the World anthology; this required me to go back and do some reading of Doyle, and having worked with Laurie R. King on the MWA board, I decided to give her feminist take on Sherlock a go.

And I have not regretted that decision once.

Mary has stepped up to replace Amelia Peabody as one of my favorite on-going series; I love the character–a strong-minded, fiercely independent woman of no small intelligence who is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Mr. Holmes. Theirs is, despite the age difference, a true partnership of equals; I love that Holmes, in King’s interpretation of him, isn’t quite so misogynistic or incapable of feeling–which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a male-written version. I like King’s Holmes; the strong female character who is his equal was the perfect solution to whatever misogynistic issues I may have had with other interpretations. I also love that Russell is also pursuing a life of the mind; her studies into theology at Oxford are not just asides to add color and flavor to the character but are just as important to whom she is as a character as the love interest/relationship with Holmes. As I also have an amateur’s curiosity into the history of Christianity and how the faith changed and developed throughout the centuries following the New Testament stories…how that was shaped and influenced by men with not the purest of motives…is something I’ve always been interested in.

I think the first book that challenged Christian orthodoxy in a fictional form that I read–the first time I became aware of the possibilities that the BIble wasn’t actually the pure word of God and had been edited and revised repeatedly in the centuries since Christ ostensibly lived, died and was resurrected–was, of all things, a book by Irving Wallace called The Word (Wallace isn’t really remembered much today, but he wrote enormous books of great length that were huge bestsellers, and the subject matter and style of the books was essentially that they were very bery long thrillers: The Prize was about the maneuvering to win a Nobel; The Plot was about an international conspiracy to kill JFK; The Second Lady was about a Soviet plan to kidnap the First Lady and replace her with a lookalike who was a Soviet agent; etc etc etc). The premise of The Word is simply that a new testament, a document hidden away for centuries in a monastery in Greece, claims that not only did Jesus not die on the cross but went on to live for many decades, preaching his own ministry and even visiting Rome. This, of course, is a cataclysmic document–it would change everything everyone had ever known and believed…if it is indeed authentic.

I’ve always loved a good thriller with a base in theology, ever since; and A Letter of Mary is just that, even if more of a mystery than a thriller. The role of Mary Magdalen has been questioned a lot in the last few decades–not the least reason of which is Holy Blood Holy Grail–an interesting concept if one that has been proven to based in a falsehood in the times since (or was THAT part of the Vatican’s plot?)–which inevitably led to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I don’t find the idea that the Magdalen was a beloved disciple of Jesus–and that she may have been his favorite–a reach; likewise, there’s nothing I’ve ever seen in the actual New Testament that essentially says she was a prostitute, a “fallen woman.”

This book begins with Russell despairing over her research only to receive a letter that she and Holmes are going to be receiving a visitor–someone they met during their time in the Holy Land some time earlier–glossed over in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice but apparently explored more deeply in O Jerusalem! The visitor, an older heiress of no small means who is fascinated with archaeology and has been funding digs in the Holy Land, presents the pair with a gift as well as an ancient letter, unauthenticated, which is ostensibly a letter from Mary Magdalen some years after the death of Christ, written to a sister as the city of Jerusalem falls under seige by the Romans during the Jewish Wars, around 70 AD, that saw the sack of the city and the start of the diaspora; which makes it very clear that, if authentic, the Magdalen was one of the disciples and heavily involved in the ministry of the Christian church. Their guest returns to London, and is killed when she is stuck by a car the following day. Holmes and Russell sniff around the crime scene and find evidence that the old woman was murdered…but by whom? Why? Is this about the letter from Mary?

King always tells a great story–you never can go wrong with one of her books, really–and the characters are so well-defined, so real, that even if she didn’t tell a great story, you want to read about those characters more, get to know them better, and cheer them on to their successes and sympathize with their failures. Her writing style is also a joy to read; the Mary Russell voice is so different and so clearly distinct from Kate Martinelli that you can’t not marvel at her mastery.

The next book in the series is The Moor, and I am really looking forward to it.

Salvation Theme

Reading has always been my escape from the realities of the cruel, cold world. As long as I can remember, I found solace in books–I could always open a book and escape from realities I didn’t want to participate in, or when the world became too much, there was always the comfort of a story about other people and another world where I could go to get away from it all.

When I was a kid, I was more interested in stories about women and girls than I was in stories about boys; I couldn’t really relate to boys as easily as I did to girls. This was, I think, a part of the strict gender divide in the society and culture I was born into; there were specific and clear differences between things for boys and things for girls. Girls played at housekeeping and mothering; boys were supposed to be outdoorsy and adventurous and active. I was not an outdoorsy, adventurous, active little boy; all I wanted to do was be left alone with a book–and the more my parents tried to get me interested in boy things the harder I stubbornly resisted. I never understood why it was so wrong that all I ever wanted to do was read.

I think that part of the reason I’ve always preferred books by and about women are because I can relate to them more, if that makes sense. As someone who never became vested in what society viewed as what masculine behavior is, those behaviors–not always necessarily toxic, but certainly steeped in it–inevitably make me lose interest in the character and their story.

Likewise, one of the reasons I preferred Mary Stewart to Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney (still love Holt and Whitney, though) is because her heroines weren’t passive; they didn’t sit still for being victimized or playing the victim but rather took charge of the situation and were just as capable as any man. This is why one of my favorite fictional series characters of all time were those created by the great Elizabeth Peters: Jacqueline Kirby and Vicky Bliss were also take-charge characters who didn’t suffer fools gladly, and of then there’s her creation who may be my favorite series character of all time: Amelia Peabody. God, how I love Amelia Peabody. Peters’ death was a blow for me; knowing there would be no more books with Peabody and Emerson and Ramses and Nofret and Walter and Evelyn and David….

But then I had the enormous good fortune to discover Mary Russell.

I sat back in y chair, jabbed the cap onto my pen, threw it into the drawer, and abandoned myself to the flood of satisfaction, relief, and anticipation that was let loose by that simple action. The satisfaction was for the essay whose last endnote I had just corrected, the distillation of several months’ hard work and my first effort as a mature scholar: It was a solid piece of work, ringing true and clear on the page. The relief I felt was not for the writing, but for the concomitant fact that, thanks to my preoccupation, I had survived the compulsory Christmas revels, a fete which ha reached a fever pitch in this, the last year of my aunts controls of what she saw as the family purse. The anticipation was for the week of freedom before me, one entire week with neither commitments nor responsibilities, leading up to y twenty-first birthday and all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. A small but persistent niggle of trepidation tried to make itself known, but I forestalled it by standing up and going to the chest of drawers for clothing.

My aunt was, strictly speaking, Jewish, but she had long ago abandoned her heritage and claimed with all the enthusiasm of a convert the outward forms of cultural Anglicanism. As a result, her idea of Christmas tended heavily toward the Dickensian and Saxe-Gothan. Her final year as my so-called guardian was coincidentally the first year since the Great War ended to see quantities of unrationed sugar, butter, and meat, which meant the emotional excesses had been compounded by culinary ones. I had begged off most of the revelry, citing the demands of the paper, but with my typewriter fallen silent, I had no choice but crass and immediate flight. I did not have to think about y choice of goals–I should begin at the cottage of my friend and mentor, my tutor, sparring partner and comrade-in-arms, Sherlock Holmes. Hence my anticipation. Hence my trepidation.

I first encountered Mary Russell last year when I read the first of her adventures with Holmes, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which took place over several years and was really a loosely connected series of different stories that showed the growing bond between the teenaged girl and the retired detective. Her wit, her style, her fierce intelligence–and her refusal to be a sidekick or passive made me fall madly in love with her–despite my long-held antipathy towards Sherlock Holmes. (I have since read more of Doyle, and find the antipathy I once felt fading; in no small part, I think, because last year I had to write my own spin on Holmes and Watson, which really changed everything I thought, felt, and believed about them.) I’m not sure what made me select the second Mary Russell to read recently; I do intend to read them all, of course, but there are sixteen or so (!) of them, and then there are King’s stand alones, and I’d also love to revisit her Kate Martinelli series, which is how I first came to read King in the first place. But I digress.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women is, of course, a terrific title; and I knew, of course, the source for it: the tedious Scot religious bigot John Knox’s 1550’s pamphlet primarily attacking Queen Mary I of England (aka Mary Tudor), “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” in which he blamed the sad state of Christendom at the time at the irreligious and unprecedented amount of women in power at that time in Europe–and, as I have said many times before, the sixteenth century had more powerful women running countries than any century before or since (and I’ve always wanted to write a history of that century, focusing on those women, and using that very same title King used here). So, going into the book, and knowing that Mary was studying theology at Oxford in the latter half of the first book, I assumed (correctly) that this book would have religion, and women, at its heart, so I sat down with the book rather eagerly.

It did not disappoint.

The book opens, as noted above, around Christmas time, just before Mary finally achieves her majority and comes into the inheritance her benighted aunt/guardian has been enjoying herself with since Mary’s family perished in an auto accident when she was fourteen. Rather the celebrate the holiday with her aunt and the aunt’s hangers-on, Mary escapes the house and goes in search of her old comrade, Holmes. This leads her to London and an encounter with a friend from earlier in her education at Oxford, which in turn leads her to the New Temple of God and its leader, Margery Childe–charismatic, suffragette, and also a religious mystic. (I was put in mind of Aimee Semple McPherson, who has always fascinated me and I’ve always kind of wanted to write about.) But there’s something unholy going on at the New Temple, and perspicacious Mary can’t quite put her finger on what’s wrong there–but it intrigues her and she gets deeper and deeper into what’s going on there.

There’s also a switch-up in the dynamic between her and Holmes in this book, but it is also to King’s credit that the groundwork for this was laid almost from the very beginning of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and it neither seems out of place or untoward, either for the story or the characters–and despite the awkwardness this change-up creates between the two of them in their all-too-brief encounters in the story (for make no mistake about it; this is clearly Mary’s story, and Holmes no more than a supporting player on this stage), it makes sense and it also answers one of the questions the first book aroused in me; how can King keep writing about this opposite-sex pair through an entire series without the question of chaperoning and so forth not coming up, or them simply remaining good friends while the deep and growing affection between them is so plainly right there on the page?

The writing is masterful and intelligent, and the story–with its interesting twists and turns, along with some exciting ventures along some of the more disreputable sections of London–is so well paced and plotted that you simply cannot put the book down. I was, quite literally, only on chapter three when I picked the book up again yesterday morning; within moments I was a captive of King’s magic and completely incapable of putting the book down–to the point that I resented having to take breaks to get coffee or go to the restroom or feed the cat. I had decided, when I sat down with the book, that I had to stop reading at noon so I could get back to my own manuscript. Noon came and went, and still I kept reading. At one I flipped to the back to see how many more pages were left, and decided that it was ridiculous and incomprehensible to stop reading so close to the end, and I wouldn’t be able to completely focus on my own while I was so worried about how Mary was going to escape the peril in which King had placed her. So…rationalizing if I don’t finish my own editing today I can always finish tomorrow I plowed forward.

And–without spoilers–I will say King did an incredibly accurate and chilling depiction of how drug addiction takes hold of people.

She also explores the question of women’s role in the Christian religion beautifully, weaving these theological questions and issues seamlessly into the narrative. Each chapter begins with a quote about just that–either from the Bible or the great Christian philosophers, exposing the vicious misogyny that has poisoned that faith almost from the very beginning.*

I loved this book, loved loved loved it, and am really looking forward to the next, A Letter of Mary.

If you’ve not yet started this series, wait no more.

*I also made note of these quotes so I can shamelessly use them myself!

Exit

Thursday morning and errands and things to get done this morning. I am giddy this morning because I actually slept deeply and well last night, and finally feel rested in every way–physically, emotionally, and mentally–and Christ, if I could only start every day well-rested like this I could conquer the world. This morning I have to take Paul to Metairie for some medical things–nothing serious, y’all, calm down–and so I scheduled my work hours so I could have the morning off today. It’s also a gorgeous day outside, looks like, so huzzah for that–last week I reached the point where I thought it was never going to stop raining, seriously. Much as I love the heavy rains of New Orleans and our marvelous thunderstorms–five consecutive days can be a bit much.

I was very tired after work yesterday, but I managed to force myself to do things that don’t require much brain power–laundry, two loads of dishes, straightening up, cleaning counters and filing and so forth–to get it out of the way so I don’t have to waste any free time on the weekend doing it. I never am entirely sure how my kitchen gets so out of control between Monday and Wednesday, really, but it does and then I wind up spending time on the weekends getting the house under control, which is irritating. But with me feeling rested today, there’s absolutely no reason I can’t get some reading and writing finished this weekend; when I finish my work-at-home duties today and tomorrow, I can read and work on the apartment–hopefully finishing that all off tonight, so tomorrow night I can just write when I finish with the condom packing–and be nice and rested and ready to go when the weekend rolls around.

We finished watching The Capture last night, and while it didn’t have the ending I wanted it to have, the ending was absolutely and completely believable and realistic; anything else would have felt forced; tacked-on as an audience-pleaser. And while the ending really was cynical…it felt real. The show really dealt incredibly well with the dichotomy of how difficult it can be to keep the population safe from threats–which can sometimes come into conflict with the individual rights and freedoms individuals have from state intrusion. It’s murky; is it okay to trample of individual rights to protect the many? And once you start down that road, isn’t it easy to abuse that power, especially when there is no oversight from the other branches of government? We really enjoyed the show, and I was incredibly glad they didn’t cheat the ending. It also examined these morally complex issues really well, and I also liked that the characters were capable of compromising their own ethics and values when necessary to get the end result they desired. It was a much more complex and cerebral thriller show than most of its contemporaries. I do recommend this highly.

Of course, now that we’ve finished it, now begins the search for something new to watch. Yay.

Well, I never finished writing this yesterday or posted it; something that happens rarely but does sometimes happen. I had to stop to run the errands, and when I got home I had to start working, and since I’d taken the morning off I had to work later last evening than I usually do, so I never got back around to finishing this. Sorry about that, Constant Reader. But it was a good day, overall, and I also got another good night’s sleep last night, which was also quite marvelous. I am working at home al day today–condom packing and some data entry–and on my lunch break I need to run to the bank to deposit a royalty check (huzzah for royalties!) and pick up some things at the grocery. Sleep makes such a difference to my quality of life, seriously. We also got new pillows at Costco yesterday (one of the errands) and they are wonderful, absolutely wonderful. After work today I am going to the gym, and then settling in to continue watching the show we discovered last night on Acorn: Line of Duty, which is a look at the internal operations of a British police station. It’s quite good, and the plot is incredibly interesting; Anti-corruption is looking at a multiple Officer of the Year winner because his case-closing record is a bit too good to not have been manipulated in some way; we see things from the perspective of the award-winning officer (who is, indeed, too good to be true) and the investigator looking into him–who’d recently been sent down from anti-terrorism because of a heinous mistake in which an innocent man was killed–and it’s indeed very well done. There are also four seasons, so we’re set for a few nights, at any rate.

While Paul was seeing his doctors and so forth yesterday I started reading Laurie R. King’s second Mary Russell novel, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and I cannot even begin to tell you, Constant Reader, how much you should be reading this series. It’s so well done, so well written, and the way King brings Mary and Sherlock Holmes and their post World War I world to life is so beautifully done and compelling…give her all the awards, seriously. These novels remind me so much of my beloved Amelia Peabody novels by the deeply missed Elizabeth Peters that I wish I had discovered them earlier. But the lovely news is King has an enormous backlist, and I am looking forward to catching up on the entire series at leisure. I’ve also been appreciating Holmes more these days–mainly because I wrote my own Holmes story last year for the first time, and kind of want to do it again; there really is a book idea in Sherlock Holmes and the Axeman (but the Axeman was never caught, alas), and the case lasted over a year….and since the period I’ve dropped Holmes into is that same period…it would be weird if Holmes wouldn’t insert himself into the Axeman case. It’s such an interesting story, and so New Orleans….but fictionalizing it is the puzzle, isn’t it?

This weekend, I have to get really moving on the revision/final edit of Bury Me in Shadows–it’s due next Saturday, and while I can certainly take next Saturday all day to work on it (I tend to turn things in very very late on the day they are due), I should think I need to get the majority of the work out of the way already. It’s going to be a big week anyway–the Edgars are being awarded on Thursday–but constant juggling and multi-tasking seems to be my stock in trade these days (well, it has been for a long time; sometimes it feels like I am juggling chainsaws), so it’s little wonder I am always worn out and tired.Bury

Plus, my neuroses always wear me out–and there are plenty of them.

I also, while making condom packs yesterday, fell into a new Youtube wormhole, in which this rather cute young straight guy was listening to Taylor Swift for the first time, and it was quite entertaining to see him growing from someone who was vaguely aware of her into a massive fan by the time he’d listened to about six of her songs–by the last video he was a full-fledged Swiftie (to the point where he actually said “I’m not straight or bi or gay or pan, I am a Taylor-sexual” which made me laugh). I must admit I was much the same–someone who was vaguely aware of her, knew she was heavily criticized and her love life was tabloid fodder, and pretty much knew her primarily for her dating life and the Kanye incident(s) ore than anything else. I do remember driving somewhere–I think it was for the Murder in the Magic City event in Birmingham; I’m not entirely sure, but I know I was driving in Alabama–with my iTunes on shuffle when a song started playing that immediately hooked me. I glanced over at the screen on my dashboard and was a little surprised: it was Taylor Swift’s “Red,” which to this day I don’t know why I had down-loaded. I replayed it three times, loving it a little more every time–it’s still one of my favorites of hers–and when I stopped for gas I checked the library on my phone and saw four more songs of hers: “Love Story, “You Belong with Me”, “Mean,” and “Shake It Off.” I recognized the last two, but had no idea what the first two were. I do remember seeing her perform “Mean” on an awards show and downloading it–it’s from the Red album, so I have to assume it was around the same time I downloaded “Red”–but I literally don’t remember those first two. (I do remember one of my co-workers at the Frenchmen Street office had been a fan, and that was how I heard “Shake It Off”).

For the record, her recent releases–including her rerecording of her Fearless album–are really good.

And on that note, tis off to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you again tomorrow.

People on the High Line

Several years ago–I have no concept of how long ago; time and its passing literally have no meaning to me anymore–I started what I called “the Short Story Project.” I wanted to become a better short story writer; it’s a form I’ve always struggled with, and it always seemed to my hypercritical self that whenever I was successful in writing a short story, it was more of an accident than anything I had planned when I embarked on writing the story. I’ve also become a little bit easier on myself on that score–sometimes, not every idea will work as a short story, and writing isn’t something that can ever be forced without it showing to the reader–and I did have a wonderful period of productivity with short stories after setting course for the Project–which not only entailed writing them but reading as many of them as I could. After all, what better way to improve my own short story writing skills than by reading good stories? I have, over the years, collected any number of single-author collections as well as anthologies, and yet, with few notable exceptions prior to the start of the Project, had rarely ever cracked their spines. Lately, as I have struggled with time and focus while I’ve been working on this revision of the Kansas book (aka #shedeservedit) I find myself unable to focus much on reading novels; my mind inevitably wanders, or I will set it down and not get back to it for days. So, this morning I decided, before getting in my work on the book for the day, to read some short stories over my coffee this morning, and I wound up reading four of them; all of them marvelous in their own unique, distinctive ways. The stories I read this morning were, in order: “Better Days’ by Art Taylor, from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; “Mischief in Mesopotamia” by Dana Cameron, also from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; “Hop-frog” by Edgar Allan Poe; and finally, “To Build a Fire” by Jack London.

Maybe I wasn’t the only one on our stretch of the North Carolina coast who picked up the Washington Post on a regular basis, but I doubt anyone else it like I did–scanning the bylines, measuring the thickness of the paper and the heft of it, stifling the envy.

So begins Art Taylor’s “Better Days’, which won the Macavity Award for Best Short Story and was a finalist for both the Agatha and the Anthony Awards. Art is one of crime’s best short story writers (and one of my favorite people), and it’s easy to see why he has won every award under the sun for crime short stories. Art’s stories are always tightly written, with characters so real and honest and human that you can’t help but care about them, as well as having a bit of an edge to them. He manages to capture the resigned despair someone whose career path didn’t quite go the way he wanted perfectly; the former Washington Post journalist downsized and back in coastal North Carolina, working for the local paper while still thinking about his past with an uneasy regret. The story focuses on a love triangle between the main character, the local bar owner he’s been seeing, and a newly arrived tourist on a yacht with money to burn. This story tightly plotted, flows perfectly, and the characters are people I wouldn’t mind spending some more time with. In some ways it kind of reminded me of John D. Macdonald; maybe it’s the sea and boats and so forth that put me in mind of Travis McGee. Highly recommended.

I sat across from a row of decapitated kings, gods, and heroes waiting for them to speak to me. I didn’t know a word of their language, and they’d been dead–their monuments erected, sanctified, and decaying–long before anyone speaking my language was born. Still, I waited, if not as patiently as they did.

That’s the opening paragraph of Dana Cameron’s “Mischief in Mesopotamia,” originally published in the November 2012 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and it went on to win both the Agatha and Anthony awards for Best Short Story the following year. (I initially met Dana the weekend she won the Agatha; she’s been a constant source of joy for me ever since.) The story features her series character Emma Fielding, and reading the story is my first encounter with her–and now I am going to have to go back and read the entire series of novels with Emma (you may also know her from the television films made from some of the books in the series, with Melrose Place alumnus Courtney Thorne-Smith playing Emma). Set on a tour of museums and archaeological sites in southeast Turkey, Emma and her group happen to be on-site when a museum robbery occurs–and Emma solves the crime through her keen observations of her fellow tour group members. The voice is delightful, as is Emma–there’s a hint of my fiction goddess Amelia Peabody about her–and the story is enormously satisfying.

I never knew anyone so keenly alive to a joke as the King was. He seemed to live only for joking. To tell a good story of the joke kin, and to tell it well, was the surest road to his favor. Thus it happened that his seven ministers were all noted for their accomplishments as jokers. They all took after the king, too, in being large, corpulent, oily men, as well as inimitable jokers. Whether people from fat by joking, or whether there is something in fat itself which predisposes to a joke, I have never been quite able to determine; but certain it is that a lean doer us a rare Avis in terris.

Yes, that first paragraph made me squirm a bit as I started reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-frog,” which I suppose can be held up as an example of how things don’t age well (the notion that overweight people are jolly, as evidenced here). The story itself, which is about a court jester who is also a little person (“dwarf”) and crippled at a royal court, mocked and laughed at and the butt of the jokes of the King and his advisors, along with another female who is also there for their entertainment–whom Hop-frog appears to love, eventually reaches his own breaking point when they mock him one time too many and when the female begs them to stop, the King throws wine in her face and humiliates her. There is a costume ball coming up, and Hop-frog chooses this for his revenge, convincing them all to dress up as “ourang-outangs”, which will require covering themselves with tar and pitch and fake fur….and they waltz right into his punishment, as they are set aflame and are burned alive. This is based in actual history–Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror details the “the dance of the burning fools,” where King Charles VI of France and some of his buddies costumed themselves in such a manner with the same outcome–some of them caught fire and were burned to death, although the King was not one of the victims. When I was rereading that book in the early pandemic days, I came across this true story and thought it might make for an interesting short story; doing further research, I discovered that Poe had written a story based on this actual event, and bookmarked it to read later. As with everything classic, my education in Poe is limited; but all the earmarks of a Poe’s story’s justice are here: justice is meted out to the foolish king and his cruel advisers…but it’s not one of his better efforts, which is why, undoubtedly, it’s not as well known.

Day had dawned cold and gray when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail. He climbed the high earth-bank where a little-traveled trail led east through the pine forest. It was a high ban, and he paused to breathe at the top. He excused the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock in the morning. There was no sun or promise of sun, although there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day. However, there seemed to be an indescribable darkness over the face of things. That was because the sun was absent from the sky. This fact did not worry the man. He was not alarmed by the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun.

I originally read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” in high school. It was assigned for us to read when we were studying short stories and fiction; it was assigned as an example of the theme “man v. nature.” I’ve never forgotten the story–I loathe the cold, as Constant Reader is aware, and London does an amazing job of getting that frigid climate across to the reader. The man is never given a name–his name doesn’t matter–and neither does the wolf-dog by his side have a name; their names don’t matter. This story is about human hubris–he isn’t worried about the cold, despite being warned about it, and he wants to get back to his camp. His job was to go upstream and see if its possible for logs to be floated downstream when the temperature is warmer and the waters of streams and rivers and creeks not frozen solid. His mission accomplished, he is heading back to his actual camp, with some food stored under his shirt next to his body and a pack of matches in case he needs to start a fire. The dread in this story builds slowly and smoothly as he begins to suspect he made an error in not respecting the cold for its ability to kill him; occasionally London goes into the perspective of the animal who is also beginning to sense the man–food and fire provider, nothing more–is out of his depth. Eventually he succumbs to the cold, after a series of misadventures that come about because he isn’t paying enough attention and is careless. Whether that is because the cold has affected his ability to think and reason clearly is never part of the story or his own consideration. Even now, after all these years, the story has the ability to make me wince and shiver and think yikes, there’s no fucking way I’d ever go outside when it was 75 degrees below zero, let alone make a trip of many miles through wilderness on foot.

And on that note, now I am finished with my morning and its back to the spice mines with me,

Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)

I am the first to admit that I am a crime writer who was always kind of meh about Sherlock Holmes. I read some of the novels and some of the stories when I was in junior high, and while I enjoyed them somewhat, I was never particularly driven to go on to read the rest. I did read the Nicholas Meyer pastiches in the 1970’s–The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution, The West End Horror–but was never particularly driven to go back to Doyle. I never actually went back to Doyle (until recently; bear with me) but Holmes is so ubiquitous, so part of the crime fiction zeitgeist that it was impossible not to be aware of him and iconic parts of his canon, even the ones I’d not read–Irene Adler, Professor Moriarty, Mary who married Watson–and of course, like many others, I’ve watched a great deal of the Holmes film canon, including Young Sherlock Holmes, and am a big an of the Benedict Cumberbatch interpretation; we even watched the first few seasons of the Americanized Holmes, Elementary. But for the most part I’ve avoided pastiches and the originals, with the exception of a story here and there by one of the modern-day aficionados who worship at the altar of Sherlock.

I have always known that my lack of Sherlockian knowledge was perhaps detrimental to my career as a crime writer. Several years ago, I managed to find a gloriously beautiful hardbound edition of the Baring-Gould The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and I have periodically dipped into it; no more so than when I was tasked to write my own Sherlock story, which became “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy.” Writing the story, putting my own interpretation on someone else’s characters and breathing life into them to try to make them engaging and new while respecting the originals was quite a challenge for me, one at many times I felt I was not equal to bringing to fruition. The story was written and then revised with editorial input, which made the story much stronger (in my opinion) than how I’d originally envisioned it, and it also unlocked potential in my creative brain: I want to, and plan to, return to the New Orleans of 1916 that I created for iteration, and even see how some other historic stories about New Orleans could easily fit into my Sherlock world, could prove to be cases for the great brain residing at 821 B Royal Street in the French Quarter.

I also decided that reading Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series was long overdue.

And seriously, what a treat it was.

Dear Reader,

As both I and the century approach the beginnings of our ninth decades, I have been forced to admit that age is not always a desirable state. The physical, of course, contributes its own flavour to life, but the most vexing problem I have found is that my past, intensely real to me, has begun to fade into the mists of history in the eyes of those around me. The First World War has deteriorated into a handful of quaint songs and sepia images, occasionally powerful but immeasurably distant; there is death in that war, but no blood. The twenties have become a caricature, the clothing we wore is now in museums, and those of us who remember the beginnings of this godforsaken century are beginning to falter. With us will go our memories.

I do not remember when I first realized that the flesh-and-blood Sherlock Holmes I knew so well was to the rest of the world merely a figment of an out-of-work medical doctor’s powerful imagination. What I do remember is how the realisation took my breath away, and how for several days my own self-awareness became slightly detached, tenuous, as if I too were in the process of transmuting into fiction, by contagion with Holmes. My sense of humour provided the pinch that woke me, but it was a very peculiar sensation while it lasted.

Now, the process has become complete: Watson’s stories, those feeble evocations of the compelling personality we both knew, have taken on a life of their own, and the living creature of Sherlock Holmes has become ethereal, dreamy. Fictional.

I first discovered Laurie R. King’s work with her Kate Martinelli series; I received a review copy of Night Work when I was editor of Lambda Book Report. I wasn’t familiar with the series, which caught me off guard–how did I not know about a crime series with a lesbian police detective as the protagonist?–and the book itself caught me completely off-guard. It was brilliant, so strongly written and the characters so real I was quite literally shocked to find out, many years later, that King was not herself a lesbian. I went back and read the entire series, loved each one, and was saddened when King ended the series with Book 5, moving on to a new series with Mary Russell–a series so completely different and disparate from the Martinelli series I didn’t see how it could work…and then add in the fact that it was actually a Holmes pastiche, and well, I wasn’t terribly interested.

It was sometime during the past year while working alongside King on the Mystery Writers of America board of directors (I will never get used to the big names I rub elbows with through my years of volunteering with MWA), and in the wake of my own Sherlockian writing experience, I thought, you love and admire her as a writer AND as a person, you should read her Mary Russell series.

It was quite literally one of the smartest decisions I have ever made.

I finished reading Book One of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and as you can see from the above paragraphs, immediately I was immersed in the story. The voice, the style, everything about the character and the story was as far removed from the more hard-boiled, gritty Martinelli series, but the intelligence and warmth and humor was still there–only in a completely different manne, a completely different way. You could read a Kate book and then a Mary and easily believe it was two different authors, they are so different. This is genius, by the way; the ability to create such completely different worlds, completely different characters, completely different voices? And I was riveted by Mary Russell. By the end of the first chapter I was crazy about her–she reminds me of two of my favorite female series characters of all time, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody and Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow–and her warmth and intelligence and humor…she was more than a match for Holmes, and by seeing Holmes through the eyes of an intelligent, independent woman rather than an admiring doctor also helped greater humanize Holmes himself, something I never got from the Doyle works (but that could also entirely be my own failing; I am going to leisurely revisit Doyle this year methinks), and I also found myself caring about them deeply–not just about the case, but about them as people.

So, if you’re avoiding this series because you aren’t a Sherlockian, you’re being ridiculous because you can have no knowledge of Holmes whatsoever to enjoy this, and I can’t see how you can’t enjoy this if you are a Sherlockian. This is a version of Holmes that deserves to be shared on a screen–television or theater, it doesn’t matter–and I can also see any number of today’s younger actresses playing this role. And while I have only seen the television adaptation of The Alienist, but the young female detective played so brilliantly by Dakota Fanning, Sara Howard, seems to also have a lot in common with Mary Russell.

I cannot wait to read the next A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and not just because of that great title resonating with me (I’ve always wanted to write a history of the 16th century by exploring the many powerful regnant women, pilfering that title from the John Knox tract denouncing the most ‘unChristian’ fact of so many powerful women on the scene at the same time).

Color me a big fan!

The B-Side

So, my maintenance all went well yesterday–my blood pressure was on the high end of okay, but I also had forgotten to take my pills and things yesterday morning, which was probably why. I am being assigned to yet another new doctor (my previous two left the practice as did the wonderful nurse practitioner I saw last summer), and I saw yet again someone different yesterday–another nurse practitioner whom I also liked–so I have my prescriptions all set and hopefully will get a call from the specialist for the routine exam I’ve been needing for quite some time but have yet to get, for one reason or another. Taking better control of my health was one of the goals for last year, which I vaguely remember in those foggy, long distant Before Times. It didn’t happen since this fucking pandemic has made everything so difficult on top of killing far too many others, and I worry all the time that I am an asymptomatic carrier.

Because apparently, despite the many accusations over the years, I am not in fact a sociopath. Who knew?

I also spent some time trying to fix the desktop. I fucked up–I had it in the right mode and in the right place to fix it–I erased the hard drive and was all ready to download the operating system again when I stupidly misread the instructions and restarted the computer before downloading the iOS; and now I can’t seem to get the thing to a place where I can download the iOS again. I think I got there once–and of course, fucked up yet again, and now have to remember what I did to get it to that place again. Ah, well, I am most likely going to keep futzing with it around the working at home today and making condom packs.

I also managed to finish a terribly rough draft of my story, due today, and once it was finished I immediately knew how I could fix it and make it stronger and better, which is always a good thing; I wasn’t really sure how to pull off the ending (stick the landing, as it were) and once I had actually written that ending–I knew I had to go back and tweak the story some more to make it better. I’ll do that this evening in the wake of the condom packing/movie watching.

I also started reading, at last, Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and I am loving it so far. The authorial voice of Mary Russell is superb, and reminds me of one of my other favorite characters in crime series fiction, the unflappable Amelia Peabody. The voices and characters are very similar–fiercely independent and intelligent, no patience with nonsense–and I quite love the way King has developed her character and her version of Holmes and his world; I also love the running digs at Conan Doyle’s version. King has always been one of my favorite authors–her Kate Martinelli series is quite superb–and I admit I’ve been holding off on reading this series primarily because I was never overly interested in Holmes. My mindset regarding Holmes has changed since I wrote my own version of him last year (I cannot wait to see the finished anthology with “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” in it; there are several anthologies I have stories in coming out this year that I am very excited about)–and I know that I am going to probably revisit ny Holmes-in-New-Orleans world again at some point. I already had a period story in progress called “The Blue Before Dawn” which seems like the perfect thing to adapt into a Holmes story; but for now I have to focus on getting this story finished and submitted, and diving into the Kansas book headfirst this weekend. Forcing myself to finish that story yesterday was probably the smartest thing I could have done–forcing myself to write when I don’t want to inevitably is always the smartest thing I could do, which I need to remember since I always seem to forget about it.

I also keep forgetting Monday is a holiday. Huzzah!

I also stopped at the Fresh Market on St. Charles on my way home from the final maintenance appointment, to scope it out as a potential new source for making groceries. It’s nice–I can never get past that it’s in what used to be the Bultman Funeral Parlor–and I picked up a nice California roll for lunch as well as some sliced turkey meat for sandwiches, but yeah, they don’t carry a lot of name brands and it seems very similar to Whole Foods–but easier to access. This weekend I’ll probably scope out the Winn-Dixie on Tchoupitoulas, and maybe, since it’s a long weekend, I can make an exploratory expedition to Trader Joe’s in Metairie.

I also started watching the US Figure Skating Championships on Peacock yesterday, availing myself of the seven day free trial for extra access–and there are some movies on there I want to watch as well that could work with several of the film festivals I have in process. Paul, of course, is very excited that skating is going on and college gymnastics–we of course are big LSU Gymnastics fans–and so his weekend is pretty much set. The second season of Mr. Mercedes is also on there, among some other things that would be fun to watch–I am back to talking about Peacock–and a lot of the Hitchcock movies (I really want to do a Hitchcock Film Festival; while I have seen some of his more famous films, there are even more that I’ve not seen). I wish Rebecca and Suspicion were on there, but one can’t have everything I suppose. I really want to watch Shadow of a Doubt…and any number of the others I’ve not seen. It’s really a shame Hitchcock never directed a version of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I also realized yesterday that my second vaccine is coming up quickly, which is also pretty exciting. It also appears like the car will be paid off this year–thank the Lord–which will alleviate a lot of my financial hardships–or the occasional ones, I should say, and then I can start paying down the rest of the debt with a goal of being debt free by the end of 2022. I think it’s a realistic goal right now; and one that is very pleasing to me. Being burdened with debt is absolutely the worst, frankly–and it’s a burden far too many of us have to carry for far too long.

And on that note, the spice mines are a-calling me. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!

Lonesome Tonight

Lonesome is such a great word. It really doesn’t get used much nowadays, and may be bordering on archaic, but I think it summons up an entirely deeper (and possibly different) emotion than lonely. It was usually used in songs–“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” sounds more effective than “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry”, for example–and for some reason (maybe it was country music, I can’t be certain) I’ve always thought of it as a rural, Southern word. But, as I said, there’s something almost poetic to the word for me, and I really do want to write either a story or a book called Kansas Lonesome, because the prairie in rural Kansas, to me, is truly symbolic of the word; whenever I think about it, I think about a house out in the middle of nowhere and the winter winds howling around it.

It’s cold again this morning, and even now the sky is slowly starting to get lighter. It was pitch dark out there beyond the windows as I made my cappuccino this morning, and it should be a good morning/day. I slept very well last night–I did wake up at four briefly, but as able to fall back asleep for another two hours–and I even got some work done on my story yesterday. The first draft still isn’t finished–I was thinking last night, as I binge-watched news, that I’ve never really recovered from finishing the book, which is why I’ve been so lackadaisical and unable to truly focus; this happens a lot in the aftermath of finishing a book, because I actually need to recharge more than I ever did before–but I have every confidence that I will finish it today. Tomorrow I am taking a personal day, as I have medical appointments and so forth (just routine annual maintenance, nothing to be concerned about) and am hoping that around said appointments that I will be able to get some more work on the story finished. I also just realized the 15th, which is the due date, is actually Friday and not Thursday, so that’s definitely promising; a bit of a reprieve, if you will. This is also a three day weekend, so I can actually have a day of resting and cleaning and errands before diving headfirst into the revisions of #shedeservedit, which is going to require a thorough reread first, and then picking it apart from top to bottom (along with the character names) before stitching the whole thing back together again.

Paul’s been busy working the last two nights, so we’ve not been able to pick up on Bridgerton again, which is a shame as we are both thoroughly enjoying it. I really want to get back to reading; next up is Laurie R. King’s first Mary Russell Sherlockian tale, and just from looking at the opening I can tell already I am going to love it, because Mary’s voice reminds me of that of one of my all-time favorite fictional characters, the inimitable Amelia Peabody. And that reminder also served to remind me of one of the greatest influences on my writing career, one whom I never pay enough homage to and never properly credit: one Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. Reading her works, under either name, is a master class in plot, character, setting and voice; the books are not only entertaining but incredibly smart, and she also had a penchant for some of the best opening lines in crime fiction. The Peters novels all have brilliant first sentences; the Michaels novels incredible opening paragraphs. I’d be hard pressed to select a favorite Peters novel–every Amelia Peabody novel is a joy; same with her stand-clones, Vicky Bliss, and Jacqueline Kirby series–but I can unequivocally state that my favorite Barbara Michaels novel is Ammie Come Home, and her Gothics heavily influenced mine. Bury Me in Shadows and Lake Thirteen are perhaps where the influence are most obvious; I even worried, numerous times, that Shadows was too derivative of Lake Thirteen. I have a New Orleans Gothic in the back of my mind–Voices in an Empty Room–that I may get to sometime over the next few years, but again, I worry that it’s derivative of the earlier ones.

Welcome to the world of the prolific, where you always fear you are recycling plots and characters!

Oh! I got a 12 hour Twitter ban yesterday, and I must say I was enormously disappointed that pundits and right-wingers didn’t immediately rush to defend my freedom of speech. I will admit that I deserved the ban; it’s what I get for being stupid. My standard rule of thumb is whenever I see an incredibly stupid and/or offensive tweet, I allow myself to type out a snarky response. Usually I never finish, thinking better of them before getting to the end and hitting send. Alas, I tried this on my phone yesterday. I’d started typing a truly angry response when I thought, “no, you can’t send that, not cool” and tried to delete the draft but instead accidentally sent it–resulting in an immediate ban. It wasn’t there long enough for someone to report it or for Twitter to actually review it (I am not kidding when I am saying it was immediate), so Twitter is clearly policing itself and what is being allowed on their site. I own it; it was a terrible thing to even think, let alone say in response to someone no matter the provocation, and thus I will not complain about it. I would even go so far as to thank them for reminding me that such angry tweets aren’t cool, and while I am allowed to be angry about the sack of the Capitol, I need to be a better person than I have been lately. So thanks, Twitter.

I’ll do better.

And while perhaps this should have started back in the days of birtherism, I am fine with having such algorithms in place now.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Impeachment Wednesday, everyone, and I will catch you tomorrow.

How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?

Monday and here we are, getting ready to stare down yet another week.

We watched more of Little Fires Everywhere last night, and it really is extremely well done. It really is an interesting look at race and privilege and power; all while using tropes that were staples of soap operas. As the show amps up and starts racing along to its climax, the basis of the majority of the drama of the show is a custody struggle over an adopted baby–a storyline so stale for soap operas that I don’t know that the few left even use it anymore. But with strong writing, excellent production values, and an enormously talented cast, this stale trope not only works in this instance, but works very well. I am curious, though, as to why the book is set in 1997 rather than the present; the reason behind it isn’t apparent, and it feels incredibly current; although the music at school dances and so forth is rather jarring, and it takes a moment to remember that the story is set over twenty years ago. I don’t even notice the lack of smart phones and social media. I’m just sorry that I didn’t get a copy of the book to read along while I watch, which was such a terrific experience with Big Little Lies. 

And Reese Witherspoon certainly has a type of woman that she regularly plays, doesn’t she? Super Karen?

I finished a dreadful first draft of “Falling Bullets” last night, and it is dreadful. Fortunately there are other drafts to be done, and corrections and edits that can be made to it, but at this point I’m just happy I finished a draft–it’s been awhile since I’ve finished something I’ve started. At first I was rather nonplussed because about 1500 of the 2000 words I’d already written–mostly the stuff I’d written Friday evening–didn’t really work anymore; but I went back to the beginning and started tweaking things, and was even able to tweak enough of the 1500 problematic words to save most of them. So, while I am not pleased with the draft and its condition, I am pleased that it is finished, at around 4600 words.

I also finished reading Thunder on the Right yesterday, and had a lovely time with it. I do think it is one of the lesser Mary Stewart novels–but a lesser Mary Stewart is better than  a lesser writer’s best, so there’s also that.

I have decided to take today off from work; I am not feeling as great as I should, and literally cannot face another day of data entry and condom packing. Fortunately I have enough vacation time accrued for me to take yet another day off–although I really need to start letting the time build up again, for when this is all finally over and done with, so I can take an actual vacation, which is something I am going to be in seriously need of–and so am going to stay home, finish some odds and ends, and then get ready to face the rest of the week. I also have to work early tomorrow morning, so will have to get to bed early this evening; and I think we’re going to maybe start slowly opening the STI clinic next week. I am of two minds about this–I am certain we can do it safely, but at the same time I worry whether clients will be willing to come in to get their screenings done. I miss my old life, quite frankly, and like everyone else, long to get back to it. But unlike everyone else, I don’t see the old normal coming back. This situation has changed so much about our lives and how we do things, and in many cases, things that were considered “impossible” before have now been shown to be possible. I can’t imagine, for example, that the expensive old version of the book tour will return now that we have seen it can be done relatively inexpensively virtually. I easily can see publicists cutting expenses at publishers by arranging on-line interviews and readings and Q&A’s and book club meetings rather than spending money for an author to travel. And for authors who can’t foot the cost of their own tours, well–here’s an inexpensive alternative that may actually work.

Next up for the Reread Project is an old favorite of mine by Barbara Michaels, House of Many Shadows. Dr. Barbara Mertz wrote, of course, wonderful mysteries as Elizabeth Peters (if you’ve never read the Amelia Peabody series, you really, really  need to), and wrote suspense novels that may or may not have a supernatural bent to them–Ammie Come Home is, obviously, by far and away my favorite of these–as Barbara Michaels. I rediscovered the Michaels novels in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, and became just as addicted to them as I would to the Elizabeth Peters novels later that decade; House of Many Shadows is one of my favorites of the Michaels novels; The Crying Child is another. The rest are also good without question, but to my mind those three are head-and-shoulders above the others. The Michaels novels also have great, great titles: Wait for What Will Come, Be Buried in the Rain, The Dark on the Other Side, and Witch, to name only a few. And, if I am being complete honest, Bury Me in Shadows was inspired by the Michaels novels; as was Lake Thirteen.

And the humor in the Scotty books probably owes more than a little to the influence of the Elizabeth Peters novels.

I also gave up on rereading Katherine Anne Porter’s long short story about the Spanish flu, “Pale Horse Pale Rider.” I can certainly understand why critics and literary enthusiasts shit themselves over Porter’s writing, but it just doesn’t work for me. I don’t care about her characters or what happens to them, and Porter is definitely one of those authors who–to me–loves the sound of her own voice; what could be said in a sentence or two turns into rambling pages and pages in which she basically says the same thing, over and over again. And she never wastes any time on making the reader care about her characters, or even getting to know them well. I thought, when I first read her Collected Stories years ago and found them to be tedious and boring (as I was rereading “Pale Horse Pale Rider” I could actually hear a Lit professor enthusing about her works in my head), and I thought I’d give them another chance, thinking perhaps I had matured enough as a reader to enjoy them now; that it was my own immaturity as a reader and lover of the written word that kept me from enjoying them in the first place.

I am pleased to report I am wrong, and that I find Porter’s work as constipated and dull as I did the first time, and there’s nothing wrong with not liking her work. I still dislike The Great Gatsby, even after reading it three times, after all; let the literary snobs come for me. I don’t care. Scoff at me all you like, I will never like or admire Porter.

And on that note, I think I’ll go lay back down for a bit. Have a lovely Monday.

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After the Event

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

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

Sorry not sorry.

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

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

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

crocodile on the sandbank

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

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

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

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

My God, that incredible, incredible voice.

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

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

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

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

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

A Man Could Get Arrested

And today I am going back to work. I took a vacation day yesterday–one last gasp, as it were–and actually managed to get some writing done. I got another two thousand (almost three) words done on the Sherlock story; which was great because I was beginning to think I was never going to get back into a writing groove again. They may not be good words, but they are words, and I will take them gladly, thank you very much.

It felt really nice to be writing again, and writing something that I should be writing, instead of all these story fragments and openings that I’ve been working on lately; something I need to be getting finished rather than letting my creative brain ping all over the place uncontrollably, like a pinball. It’s also kind of nice to be going back to work this morning; I am very much a boundary person, and because i am so jealous of my free time, there are definitely boundaries I’ve set up around my job–primarily if you aren’t getting paid don’t spend time on it.

It can be tricky sometimes.

But I’ve been out for over a week now, and as you can imagine, isolating myself entirely from my day job for that amount of time has left me without a clue as to what is going on at the office, and I do have to swing by there today, if not to stay and work (I’m not sure what will be needed or required from me now) or if I have to come back home and do data entry (but there’s something at the office I need in order to continue doing that), so who knows what the day holds for me?

Heavy sigh. These are, after all, strange times in which to be living.

The weather here has cooled off–the cold front that resulted in those dreadful storms across the south on Sunday has lingered; yesterday was actually kind of a lovely day, all things considered–sunny and cool in the low seventies, a beautiful and rare spring day–but alas, my trip to the uptown Rouse’s yesterday did not yield what I needed it to, and am going to have stop at the one in the CBD on the way home from the office to get the other things I need.

Oh! I am also guesting over at Art Taylor’s The First Two Pages today, talking about my story “The Silky Veils of Ardor” in Josh Pachter’s anthology The Beat of Black Wings.

One of the more interesting things about this entire quarantine/shelter-at-home experience with COVID-19 is the behavioral changes I’ve made. I’ve already mentioned that I’ve become a bit addicted to my Kindle app on my iPad, after years of vowing not to read electronically; I’ve actually been using my phone as a phone as well, which is terrifying to consider. I’ve successfully avoided and staved off phone calls for years, other than calling in to board meetings. Who knows, I may even start listening to podcasts. The world has turned upside down.

But I also started a wondrous reread last night: Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandback, which is the first in one of my favorite series of all time, and introduces us to Amelia Peabody, the headstrong spinster heiress who decides to visit Egypt–her father was a classics scholar, while her older brothers married and moved away, she stayed with her father to take care of him and inherited his enormous fortune when he died, and decided to see all the places her father studied–and her wit and charm! Obviously, I loved the Amelia Peabody series, and the characters, but I had forgotten how much. My God, Amelia can make me laugh out loud, and revisiting the book, I remembered how much I loved her–and this book, where she meets the three people (Emerson, Walter, and Evelyn) who are destined to be her created family (along with Abdullah) and when she finally reaches Egypt and falls in love with the country…and that take charge and take no prisoners attitude….well, before I knew it, I was zipping along in the book and was close to being finished with it. Trust me, when I am finished there will definitely be a blog appreciation of Amelia Peabody.

And I should get to work now. Have a lovely day, all, and I’ll see you on the other side of the spice mines.

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