Don’t Toss Us Away

Edgar Allan Poe is credited with inventing the detective story, or so the lore of our genre goes, which is why the Mystery Writers of America named their awards for excellence in the field after him. The private detective has gradually evolved over the years from the times of Poe’s Auguste Dupin (“Murders in the Rue Morgue”–which Constant Reader should recognize as the source for my Chanse titles, beginning with Murder in the Rue Dauphine) through Conan Doyle’s terrific Sherlock Holmes to the twentieth century masters of crime-solving: Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, etc. The 1970’s served as a bridge for the post-war detective to the dawning of a new age–which was necessary because by the early 1980’s the genre had become a bit stagnant, repetitive, overloaded with tropes that were deeply misogynistic.

In the 1980’s, three women–Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller–breathed new life into the genre by introducing three hard-boiled women private eyes; tough women who could hold their own with their male counterparts and were also incredibly well-developed and extremely well written. All three women were named Grand Masters by the Mystery Writers of America in their turn; alas, only Paretsky is still publishing, and we still mourn the loss of Grafton to cancer several years ago, before she finished her alphabet series featuring Kinsey Millhone.

And while there is still great private eye work being produced today by both men and women, it’s also very exciting now to be on the verge of yet another re-invigorization of the private eye novel–and crime fiction in general–with new takes on old tropes, subversion of those tropes, and the exciting arrival of writers of color and queer writers. The passing of Sue Grafton was a great tragedy, but her publisher, Putnam, partnered with Mystery Writers of America to create an award to honor her and her work; by celebrating the series private eye novels with women firmly centered as the investigator. The first Grafton Prize, awarded last year, went to Sara Paretsky for Shell Game; this year there are six finalists: Linda Castillo (Shamed); Tracy Clark (Borrowed Time); Edwin Hill (The Missing Ones); Sujata Massey (The Satapur Moonstone); Gigi Pandian  (The Alchemist’s Illusion), and Marcie R. Rendon (Girl Gone Missing)–all books I am looking forward to reading,

Ironically, I had already arranged to interview Tracy Clark for the Sisters in Crime quarterly column I do, “The Conversation Continues”–so I had already obtained copies of all her works.

Yesterday I  finished reading the first Cass Raines mystery, Broken Places.

broken places

Chicago cops had to be on the lookout for any number of nefarious mopes eager to take a potshot, but this morning my biggest enemy was turning out to be the scorching rays of the summer sun. I slid into the driver’s seat of the unmarked car and cranked the windows down, balancing a rapidly melting iced tea, extra ice, between my thighs. A few feet away, my partner, Detective Ben Mickerson, stood in front of the Dairy Queen basking in the hellfire. “Vitamin D,” he said, ruddy face pointed skyward. “Soak in that Vitamin D.”

“You say Vitamin D, I say skin cancer,” I groused, The hot vinyl seats nearly seared through my blazer and pants–and they were both summer weight. I checked myself in the rearview. The little makeup I’d started the day with was long gone now, melted away by flop sweat. I flicked at the sweaty ringlets at the nape of my neck and wiggled uncomfortably in my bulletproof vest, my breasts pressed flat, as though squeezed between the hot plates of a waffle iron.  I looked like I’d gone through a car wash, and it was just ten AM. No great loss, though. Five mintues tops was all I ever invested in primping. I didn’t have the patience for it, and in the long run it seemed rather silly. Thugs and killers didn’t care what I looked like. They spotted the cop car, they ran, then I had to run after them. I’d be thirty-five in the spring. Eyeliner and blush weren’t going to make the running any easier.

“The sun is going to kill you,” I yelled out the window.

Cass Raines, Clark’s private eye, is actually a cop when the book opens; and she and her partner are tracking a problem kid, a gangbanger who killed four members of a rival gang, starting a war of attrition and revenge. They chase him down to a rooftop, and Cass almost has him talked down when another douchebag of an officer–protected by powerful political connections–ruins the situation and she ends up having to shoot the kid. She resigns from the force, haunted by the kid she killed, and become a private eye. This backstory plays out over the first several chapters, and then we flash forward two years to the present day. Cass is a complicated young woman–her mother died when she was young; her father took off and she was raised by her grandparents, whose home she inherited–and she is very solitary. This, her first case, kicks off when her father figure, a local priest (she’s lapsed) hires her to find out who is following and harassing him; but before she can even get truly started on her investigation Pops (as she calls Father Ray Heaton of St. Brendan’s) is found dead in the confessional booth, with the gun in his hand, an apparent suicide–and there’s another body in the church, a young Latino gangbanger named Cesar. The police–including her nemesis, the douchebag who ruined her attempt to bring the kid in several years earlier–are very quick to rule it a murder-suicide, but Cass doesn’t believe it for a minute, and begins her own investigation.

The case itself is full of surprising twists and turns, and Cass takes quite a beating as she tries to find out the true story of what happened that night at St. Brendan’s–and her personal life also starts to grow a little complicated, with the return of her birth father and the introduction of a possible love interest police detective for her. Well written, Cass is the kind of character you love to get behind and root for; she has, like all the best private eyes in fiction, a strong moral code of her own that turns her into a complex and fascinating character, one you can’t help but like even when she maybe isn’t behaving at her best. Clark has done a fantastic job of breathing life, not only into Cass, but into her supporting characters and the people she comes across throughout the course of the case.

Clark also makes Chicago into a very real place. I spent eight years of my childhood growing up on the south side, and she brings Chicago to life, with all of its problems and charms, with a loving but critical eye. It’s not the same Chicago we see through the eyes of Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, but it’s to Clark’s credit that she doesn’t try to imitate the queen of Chicago crime, but rather emulate her.

An impressive debut, and I am looking forward to reading further adventures of Cass Raines.

He Can Put His Shoes Under My Bed Anytime

As Constant Reader might remember–or if you don’t, here’s the reminder–I’ve been tasked with writing a Sherlock Holmes short story. Being quite mercenary–I rarely turn down opportunities to make money–I of course said yes; I am not a Sherlockian by any means, but it was precisely this lack of knowledge regarding perhaps the greatest private detective in the history of crime fiction (along with the offer of payment) that also was part of my inspiration to respond to the querying email with a most enthusiastic yes, of course I would love tofor there is also nothing such as the combination of payment AND a challenge to my writing skill and ability that I will welcome most gratefully.

Which, of course, was immediately followed by what the fuck were you thinking?

Now, I read most of the Holmes stories when I was in junior high, and they never really took with me. I enjoyed them, don’t get me wrong, but I never became what I call a “Sherlockian”; an enormous fan who devours any and all Holmes-related materials, whether they were written by Doyle himself, or the pastiches/homages, or any of the scholarship. I’ve watched some of the films, yes, and enjoyed both Sherlock and Elementary, even though we gradually lost interest in the latter and stopped watching. I also read the Nicholas Meyer “new cases” published in the 1970’s, The Seven Per Cent Solution and The West End Horror (I believe he’s published yet another one, as well). And a few years ago I bought the definitive annotated Holmes two volume set on eBay. So I figured I could reread some of the original stories, ask some of my friends who are deep into Sherlockiana to help if I needed it (both said yes, because writers are often very kind and generous people–side-eye at Romance Writers of America), and then I remembered a story I meant to read for last year’s Short Story Project, “The Case of Colonel Warburton’s Madness,” by Lyndsay Faye, which was a Sherlock Holmes story originally published in an anthology called Sherlock Holmes in America, and reprinted in The Best American Mystery Stories 2010, edited by Lee Child. I got the book down from the shelves yesterday and started reading.

My friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes, while possessed of one of the most vigorous minds of our generation, and while capable of displaying tremendous feats of physical activity when the situation required it, could nevertheless remain in his armchair perfectly motionless longer than any human being I had ever encountered.  This skill passed entirely unnoticed by its owner. I do not believe he held any intentions to impress me so, nor do I think the exercise was, for him, a strenuous one. Still I maintain the belief that when a man has held the same pose for a period exceeding three hours, and when that man is undoubtedly awake, that same man has accomplished an unnatural feat.

I turned away from my task of organizing a set of old journals that lead-grey afternoon to observe Holmes perched with one-leg curled beneath him, firelight burnishing the edges of his dressing gown as he sat with his head in his hand, a long-abandoned book on the carpet. It was with a view to ascertain that my friend was still alive that I went so far against my habits as to interrupt his reverie.

Isn’t that a wonderful start? And very Doyle-ish, yet uniquely Lyndsay Faye’s style. Lyndsay is a dear friend–and one of the people who agreed to advise me on my story–and we’ve known each other for years. I first saw her at the first Edgar banquet I attended; she was a finalist for Best Novel for The Gods of Gotham, which was fantastic and you should read it–and again more recently for her novel Jane Steele. We later were both on a judging panel for the Edgar for Best Short Story and became friends; I later recruited her for the Mystery Writers of America board of directors, and we’ve been buds ever since.

The story is truly fantastic, and as I read it–it’s a reminiscent story, in which Watson recounts an old story to Holmes from his days traveling in the United States, and this story is set in San Francisco. Colonel Warburton was a war veteran of both the Mexican War and the Civil War who’d made a fortune and built himself a mansion in San Francisco. But now in his latter years he fears he is losing his mind, having flashbacks to his war days, and Watson never really quite figured out what was going on in the Warburton mansion–but in relating his story and observations, he delivers the missing piece to solve the puzzle to Holmes’ brilliant deductive mind.

And thus, I realized that my fears–ever-present, of course–of imposter syndrome and so forth, which had been swirling around in my head about writing this story, began to disappear. I also grabbed one of the annotated volumes and started reading another Holmes story–and the idea that I had, “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy”, began to take even better shape in my head…and I decided that today, as part of my writing, I would attempt to start writing the story. Which is very exciting, I might add.

Yesterday was a most productive day here in the Lost Apartment. I got a really good night’s sleep Froday night, and woke up aflame to get shit done yesterday. I cleaned, I organized, I filed, I did laundry, I cleaned the floors, I did the dishes and I read and I wrote and I did all kinds of things that made me feel quite accomplished by the time I plopped down in my easy chair to relax for the evening and watch television. Paul had gone into the office for the afternoon, and went out for the evening with friends, so I was pretty much alone all day yesterday and was able to accomplish a lot–not having an LSU football game to get stressed over was a big part of my getting so much done. The Saints are playing Minnesota today in the play-offs; I’m debating whether I should watch with my full attention, or stay here in the kitchen writing, checking in on the score periodically. I should, of course, stay in here writing. I need to get further along with Bury Me in Shadows, of course, and of course there’s the Sherlock story, and some website writing I agreed to do by a week from Monday.

So, on that note, I need to head back into the spice mines. I didn’t sleep as deeply last night as I did on Friday night, but it’s okay; I’m neither tired, nor exhausted; I actually feel rested if not completely awake this morning. Perhaps once I finish my second cup of coffee, and sort through my emails, I’ll be more awake.

So, it is off to the spice mines with me now, Constant Reader. Have a lovely Sunday!

53063626_2500889266606528_4900311205152817152_n