Last Train to Clarksville

Tuesday and I have survived yet another Monday, which I am putting in the “win” column.

It was a grim, gray, rainy Monday yesterday in New Orleans, and all I wanted to do was curl up under a blanket and nap. But I managed to get quite a bit done yesterday, which is always a joy–I actually had my email inbox down to almost completely empty at one point–and didn’t start getting sleepy until after lunch, when the caffeine from my morning cappuccinos wore off.

Meh, it happens.

It’s raining again–it started last night while I was sort of sleeping (yes, another one of those nights again)–and parts of the city are in a flood warning; eastern New Orleans, which I assume means the East (but then again, compass directions are so completely useless here) and frankly I’m really not looking forward to going out to the car this morning, or the drive to work; rain makes the horrible New Orleans drivers even worse than they normally are…which is pretty fucking bad. I’m also having dinner with a friend in from out of town tonight after work–hoping it doesn’t get canceled because of this weather–but on the bright side, my car will look pretty clean thanks to this non-stop downpour.

We got caught up on Mare of Easttown last night, and my, what an intense and twisty episode this was! Certain shifts and twists we certainly didn’t see coming; and then it was over, all too soon. Kate Winslet and Jean Smart are killing it in this (Smart is also killing it in Hacks, I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to predict two Emmy nominations for Smart, one for each show; she could quite easily win both as well–although the actress who played Liza in Halston is going to be hard to beat), and the writing is quite extraordinary. It’s the best crime show I’ve seen in quite some time that isn’t based on a novel.

Speaking of writing, I’ve not been doing any lately of note. I think I’ve started a couple of short stories, as well as a personal essay about being a sixty-year-old Swiftie; but there’s simply no motivation there. It’s entirely possible I’ve fried my writing machine by writing two books back to back; I also know there are more revisions to come on Bury Me in Shadows as well as the initial ones for the Kansas book, so perhaps my subconscious knows better than for me to get going or involved in writing something else before those are completely out of the way. But it’s frustrating as well as worrisome; although I did at least get the outline of the first act of Chlorine written last week. I know I won’t get any writing done while on my trip this week–hopefully From Here to Eternity will engage my mind and keep me entertained; I think I am going to take the iPad with me as well so I have access to all the ebooks I own in case I either hate the book so much I stop reading, or it engages me so much that I tear through it till the end. I’d rather not take another hard copy with me on the trip, but I’ll probably end up doing so because I always need options for reading when I travel. The question is what to take? I certainly don’t want to be at the mercy of the airport bookshops.

Oh yes–Stephen King’s Fever, his latest work for Hard Case Crime. That should do nicely; and I’ve not read any King since I finished the Hodges Trilogy, which is kind of strange for someone who is such a big fan of King’s. I’ve somehow managed to fall way behind on his books–still buying copies, of course–but they are so big and long and daunting I’ve not been able to face one of his big books with my addled, short attention span brain lately–and most of his books are extremely long these days. Perhaps I should make getting caught up on King a project for the summer; after all,. reading King is always inspiring to me; I love how he creates characters and relationships; I don’t think I have ever been bored reading a King book–because he just draws me into the world he creates so easily and effortlessly.

Last night as I was lying in bed with my eyes closed in the dark listening to the rain, my brain dredged up yet another memory of a horrible writing experience I had in college–it really is astonishing how little I was encouraged, and how hard my writing professors tried to extinguish the desire to write in me. I took the basic English course all incoming students take my first semester; it was an hour and a half every Tuesday and Thursday. On the first day, we had to do one of those incredibly tedious writing assignments: if you had to spend the rest of your life on a desert island, what three things would you take with you? or something along those lines. I don’t remember what three things I took; but I can assume they included music and books–because quite frankly I could easily go the rest of my life without human contact if I had both of those and a computer (there were no computers in 1978, obviously, so that wasn’t one of my three things). When I went back to class on Thursday, the professor pulled me aside and told me the assignment was really for him to assess our writing abilities, our grasp of grammar and paragraph construction, etc. etc. etc., and that my skills were too advanced (at sixteen!) for his class and he feared it wouldn’t challenge me enough; he had talked to an Honors English professor, showed her my essay, and she agreed to allow me to enroll in her class late. So after class, he and I walked to the Admin building and effected the shifting of classes, and you can imagine how thrilled I was at this turn of events–a college professor thought I was a good writer!

Unfortunately for me, I was not to experience that feeling again for many years–at least, that was the way I remembered it….

The Honors English class wasn’t hard, but the professor was horrible, absolutely horrible. There were only ten of us in the class, and we all bonded over how awful we thought she was. She had no sense of humor, and we had to construct our essays only in the way she believed essays must be written; she was constantly assigning us to read boring, uninteresting essays “so (we) could learn how to properly write one.” She never gave me higher than a C on anything I wrote for her, and she seemed to take particular relish in ripping my essays apart in class as an example of what not to do for the others. Lord, I despised that woman. The other students would often grab me after class for a soda or coffee or something and try to make me feel better; that is how awful she was. I was just grateful to get out of that class alive with a passing grade, but alas…the second semester of Freshman Honors English wasn’t much better. The professor was much nicer than the first, but she had absolutely no qualms with letting me know how bad of a writer I was–and clearly felt there was nothing to be done about it. Towards the end of the semester, as we had one final paper to do for the class, she called me into her office and told me she was regretfully going to have to fail me. “The only way you can pass this course is if you get an A on your final paper, and frankly, I don’t believe you can do that. But if you retake the class in the fall, it will erase your F for this semester–or I will sign off on you dropping the class.” I had already selected Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes as the subject for my paper, so I told her I was willing to take my chances and write the paper anyway. She was clearly not happy–I will give her credit, she clearly hated failing people and didn’t want to fail me–but I was determined.

I wish I still had a copy of that paper. It was brilliant, if I do say so myself. I had read a biography of Bette Davis (Mother Goddam), and the author actually used her films as a way to write her biography and even gave her the opportunity to comment on her performances. It was a great biography–I’ve always thought that was the best way to do one of a film star, if the star was still alive and able and willing to participate–and Davis had played Regina in the film version of the play (and was nominated for an Oscar). I had never seen the film, but I had read the play and the biography, and Davis’ insights into who Regina was served as the launching pad for my essay.

I got an A on the paper, and the professor actually wrote on it, “Well, I’ll be damned if you didn’t pull this off. Congratulations.”

But given this past history, and my psyche’s uncanny ability to keep the negative and not remember the positive, is it any wonder I have little to no confidence about writing essays? But now I do remember that I finished Honors English with an impressive triumph–the highest grade in the class on the final paper–and with that knowledge, perhaps I will be a little less hard on myself when it comes to writing essays in the future.

And on that note, I need to take a shower and head for the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader!

Touched by the Hand of God

Sunday morning, and I am swilling coffee and eating coffee cake and trying to wake up. I slept very well again last night, and am starting to feel more…normal, whatever that means for me, since I am anything but normal. I have things to get done today, but the apartment is starting to feel like home again for the first time in a while (since everything went haywire week before last). The laundry room is mostly reassembled, and the book shelves in there look neat and tidy and organized, which rather pleases me. The living room is….well, the living room. I am always going to have too many books in my house (even typing that a voice inside my head was shrieking you can never have too many books what are you talking about?); but I am developing a certain heartlessness as I continue to fill boxes with books for the library sale. At some point, I am going to have to start going through the boxes of books on top of the kitchen cabinets and the ones in the storage attic, and my goal is to have cleaned out not only the attic but the storage unit I’ve rented for far too long.

We finished the first season of Very Scary People on HBO last night, concluding with the two-parter on Jim Jones (we skipped Gacy–have seen enough of him lately already–and Aileen Wuornos, because we watched one on her already recently) and will be moving on to season two probably this evening. I am way behind on Superman and Lois–mainly because it’s something I started watching without Paul and so, rather than trying to get him caught up, I am just going to continue watching without him (I always, inevitably, have to fill him in on super-hero backstory and so forth anyway in most cases, though I think he knows enough Superman lore–doesn’t everyone, really–that he wouldn’t need explanations in this case).

I’ve started–sort of–working on Chlorine this weekend, mostly free hand and mostly in my journal, mapping out backstory and so forth for the main character, and I’ve also started working on the backstory for the body in the surf, and the plot–which was kind of amorphously planned in my head, but yesterday I started nailing down specifics in the plot. It’s going to be kind of fun to write, I think–I always think that going into a manuscript; ever the optimist–and while it’s very tempting to use real people as characters, I think I will make the ones who actually are on the page and participating in the story fictional, but mention others–Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, etc.–in passing. I know the studio is going to be fictional–tempted as I am to use Fox or MGM–and I also know I need to sprinkle in some of the conservatism that reigned then, as everyone was afraid of Communists and having to testify in front of HUAC in Washington; it was the time of ‘the lavender scare” (also the title of a terrific history of the period and this very thing, by David Johnson; I highly recommend it) and so homosexuality was also driven even further underground because we were seen as security risks, particularly if we worked in government since it put us at risk for blackmail by Communists (I touched on this briefly in my story “The Weight of a Feather”, collected in Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories).

I also worked on getting organized yesterday. I did a lot of filing, and took a lot of books off my desk and replaced them with ones I’ll be using for research and background for this book. I kind of feel like I already know my main character (even though I couldn’t remember his name yesterday as I wrote notes in my journal); he grew up in Kansas, was caught by his father in a “compromising position” with his high school basketball coach in the tiny little town he grew up in and was forced to enter the military at age 17–going into the Navy and serving in the South Pacific, where he found other men like himself, and thus became familiar with the underground gay community within the military, as well as in Honolulu and Los Angeles (on leaves). After mustering out in 1946 he comes to LA to become a movie star, is discovered by a Henry Willson type agent, and at the start of the story his seven year control with Pacific Pictures is coming to an end, they aren’t going to renew his contract, and he is in fact being sacrificed to a tabloid in order to protect another client, a rising star the tabloid was going to out–loosely based on how Henry Willson sold out Rory Calhoun and Tab Hunter to Confidential to save Rock Hudson; but unlike them, my character’s agent has a plan for him: a long-term contract to work with an Italian film company making sword-and-sandal epics.

It’s a great set-up, and one that I hope to not let down…right now I am feeling confident that I can write this and it will be amazing; of course, once I start the doubts and imposter syndrome will start creeping in and I will spend most of my time wondering what the hell I was thinking to try to write such a thing in the first place.

I couldn’t have picked a better career path for a neurotic, could I?

I also lined up all the potential short story calls I am interested in submitting to, matched them up with an in-progress story that fits their call (or at least what does in my mind; I am really not that great a judge of these things, in all honesty) and need to plan out when to reread and when to rewrite. It’s very strange; now that I am coming out of the exhaustion from the writing of the two books back to back I am amazed at how light I feel; I don’t feel that oppressive burden nor the stress that comes from carrying it. I know both manuscripts need work and I need to revise and rework and edit one last time with each, and there’s a deadline for the first for sure–but I am going to put that off until next weekend, when I have the time to sit and go through Bury Me in Shadows from beginning to end, making notes, making corrections, and so on and so forth to get it polished into a diamond…or as close to one as I can get one of my books.

So, I am going to spend the rest of this morning swilling coffee and trying to finish reading The Russia House. I love LeCarré; he is such a terrific writer I can get lost in his sentences and paragraphs forever–but I find myself not loving the plot or the characters in this one, which is why it’s taking me so long to get through this one, I think. He also does an excellent job of taking me back into that 1980’s world/mentality of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union–that halcyon time when the fear of nuclear annihilation began to fade somewhat but at the same time the worry of what would fill the vacuum created by that collapse was almost nearly as intense (it didn’t take long for conservatives to replace Communists with Muslims as the scary other from another part of the world determined to destroy us); not to mention the wondering if glasnost and perestroika weren’t real or sincerely meant; LeCarré does an absolutely amazing job with that cold intelligence paranoia.

And then, for something similar yet completely different, I am going to reread Dorothy Gilman’s The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.

I also would like to get back to the gym today; it looks absolutely lovely outside, and the walk will be lovely.

Until tomorrow, Constant Reader. Have a lovely Sunday!

Santa Baby

A gazillion years ago I edited a queer Christmas anthology, Upon A Midnight Clear. Back when I was new to the business and wanted to change the world (oh, how I miss that youthful naivete and optimism–even though I was in my early forties), one of the things I had noticed–in my limited experience and knowledge of all things publishing, including the queer side of things–that there weren’t many Christmas stories from a queer perspective or with a gay man as the center of the story. (A major exception to this was Jim Grimsley’s beautiful novel Comfort and Joy, which is still one of my favorite gay novels; he also published a short story excerpted from the book that was published in one of the Men on Men anthologies–the story was also called “Comfort and Joy”. When I signed the contract for the Christmas anthology, you can best be sure I immediately emailed Jim and asked for reprint rights, which he very graciously granted.) So I decided to combat this by doing a Christmas-themed anthology for gay men, by and about and for gay men. I later found out that there had been a previous one (edited by Lawrence Schimel, if I am remembering correctly), and there have been some books and stories and novellas since then.

As is my wont, I tend to forget about Upon a Midnight Clear–it was, after all, pre-Katrina and pre-Incident–but every once in a while I remember it and think about it….and it’s usually because I opened the introduction by quoting Bette Davis as Margo in All About Eve: “I detest cheap sentimentality”–it’s a favorite quote of mine, and it pops into my head all the time, and I used it in this instance to express how annoyingly sappy most fiction–be it short stories, novels, television shows, or films–can be when it centers Christmas. It was a labor of love in some ways–for me especially, trying to reinvent my own feelings about the season–and it might be time for me (or preferably, someone else) to take another run at another gay Christmas anthology; Upon a Midnight Clear has been out of print since 2007, and while i know there have been others in the years since, I kind of would love to do another one…or perhaps one of Christmas noir.

Ooooh, I really like the sound of that.

I made some good progress on Chapter 18 yesterday, and fully intend to finally wrap that chapter up tonight and perhaps begin Chapter 19. It’s very cold again this morning in the Lost Apartment, but I have solved that issue–someone suggested to me on Facebook (I believe it was Carolyn Haines) that I buy electric blankets, and it was literally one of those moments when you think duh, how fucking stupid am I, really? In my own defense, I’ve never owned an electric blanket and we never had any when i was growing up, so I have no experience with them and it probably would have never occurred to me to get one. I ordered two from Macy’s, they arrived last week, and Paul and I broke them out last night while we were watching The Hardy Boys (which I am really enjoying much more than I ever thought I would), and yes, game changer. I am sitting at my desk right now wearing sweats, a ski cap (purple and gold LSU of course) and my electric blanket is covering my lap and it is MARVELOUS, just as it was last night.

And Scooter was absolutely in heaven last night with the electric blankets.

Today I am working from home and slept amazingly well last night; I also stayed up longer than I had intended to, which also had something to do with it. I had some writing to complete for a website–due yesterday-but the materials I needed to write about never arrived so yesterday I spent some time coming up with a work around, which I think wound up working splendidly. The writing I did yesterday also went swimmingly well; I believe my main character is really taking shape and so is the story, and I am very excited about getting this book out there for everyone to read. I am nervous about it, of course, just like always; but I am taking some risks with this book and I am pushing myself creatively. The more I work on this book, though, the further away another Scotty book seems. I had an interesting conversation on Twitter the other day (other week? who the hell knows? Time literally has no meaning anymore) about private eye novels, and I expressed that while there are certainly still good ones being written, the subgenre feels a little on the stale side to me these days; and I also confessed that this could have everything to do with my already having written fifteen of them. The stand alones I started writing and publishing in 2009 (or 2010; see earlier comment about time having no meaning) gave me enough of a break from writing the private eye novels so that I always came back to them feeling fresh and invigorated, much as how alternating between Chanse (serious) and Scotty (more silly) used to help me stay fresh with both series. I feel like Royal Street Reveillon was probably the best Scotty I’ve written in a long time; I was very pleased with how the book turned out, and from time to time I think well, that one turned out so well that might be a good place to stop–and then I remember I left Scotty’s personal story on a cliffhanger, and I probably need to get that wrapped up at some point. But once I finish these two contracted novels, I want to work on Chlorine, and there’s another paranormal New Orleans novel bouncing around in my head–Voices in an Empty Room–but I might be able to put that aside to work on another Scotty–although I have to admit there’s also a Colin stand alone bouncing around inside my head as well.

But then maybe my brain is just overloaded at the moment.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!

London

I’ve always wanted to go to London, and hopefully, one day before I die I’ll be in that former capitol of world empire; visit the Egyptian exhibit at the British Museum; see the jewels in the Tower of London and the spot where Anne Boleyn died; stand at the side of the Thames and acknowledge all the history that sailed from its banks. I do love me some history, after all, and after I’d become incredibly familiar with American history I moved on to English, and eventually European (primarily French, to be honest); it was the time that PBS was airing first The Six Wives of Henry VIII, with Keith Michell, and later Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson (who is whom I always picture when I think about Elizabeth I, with due apologies to both Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett); plus, the establishment of the Atlantic coastal colonies was directly, obviously, tied to English history. I read about the Wars of the Roses and the family split that led to them in Thomas B. Costain’s The Last Plantagenets, bought at a flea market for a dime; I eventually read his entire “Pageant of England” series: The Conquering Family, The Magnificent Century, and The Three Edwards; The Last Plantagenets was the final volume of that series (Costain also wrote terrific historical fiction, which I ate up with a spoon), and thus, Costain is responsible for my fascination with two of the most interesting women in English history–Eleanor of Aquitaine (total badass) and Isabella, aka the She-wolf of France; she who overthrew and murdered her husband Edward II, with the help of her lover…only to eventually have her lover murdered by her son’s adherents and wind up banished to Castle Rising for the rest of her life.

Someday, London. I know you’re waiting for me over there to come.

Yesterday was a good day as far as work was concerned; I managed to write almost three thousand words on the Secret Project (maybe even more, since i also revised the first chapter) and I’m feeling a lot more confident about it. I knew I would, once I dove back into work on it, but just wish I hadn’t pushed it off for so long; I could be done with it by now if I’d not wasted so much time, which is highly annoying, but also kind of par for the course, really.

But…there it is, you know? Why waste time with regrets?

White Lines continues to entertain us highly; I swear, people, if you’re not watching shows from Netflix Spain, you are missing out on some seriously bonkers drama. First Toy Boy, now this? A crime drama set on Ibiza, with feuding club families, cocaine and Ecstasy everywhere, and murder? I’m telling you, it’s like Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon got together and created a show–and it’s oddly compelling, for all of that (as was Toy Boy).

Tuesday and a short week staring us all down. I already feel off; as though my hard-won equilibrium has been stripped away somehow and I’m not even remotely sure where I am at and what I need to do.

Ah, well, back to the spice mines with me.

The Letter

It sometimes catches me off-guard when it turns out a favorite movie was adapted from a short story or novel. Many of my favorite writers had their books turned into film more frequently than I think (or knew, or remembered); and more films were based on books and short stories than people remember or think. I knew, for example, that Now Voyager was a novel before a film; so were Stella Dallas, Flamingo Road, Laura, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and so forth. I also know W. Somerset Maugham had written Of Human Bondage (the film of which made Bette Davis a star) and the short story “Rain” (filmed with first Gloria Swanson and remade with Joan Crawford). I’d never read Maugham, but I know of his work; it was only recently, however, that I discovered that one of my favorite Bette Davis films, The Letter, was a Maugham short story he himself adapted into a play. Leslie Crosbie is one of Davis’ best performances, opening on a Malaysian rubber plantation with the sound of gunshots, as a man staggers down the front steps of a bungalow-style plantation house, with Bette Davis grimly following, gun in hand, and when he collapses onto the ground, she stands over him and fires four more bullets into his prone body at her feet. It’s an incredible opening, and a remarkable scene for Davis to play. The determination, the anger, the you so deserve worse than this look on her face–yes, she earned an Oscar nomination for that scene alone.

And once I knew (or was reminded; I may have known at one time it was a Maugham story and simply forgotten), I had to read the story.

The_Letter_poster

Outside on the quay the sun beat fiercely. A stream of motors, lorries and buses, private cars and hirelings, sped up and down the crowded thoroughfare, and every chauffeur blew his horn; rickshaws threaded their nimble path amid the throng, and the panting coolies found breath to yell at one another; coolies, carrying heavy bales, sidled along with their quick jog-trot and shouted to the passer-by to make way; itinerant vendors proclaimed their wares. Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones. But inside the office of Messrs. Ripley, Joyce and Naylor it was pleasantly cool; it was dark after the dusty glitter of the street and agreeably quiet after its unceasing din. Mr. Joyce sat in his private room, at the table, with an electric fan turned full on him. He was leaning back, his elbows on the arms of the chair, with the tips of the outstretched fingers of one hand resting neatly against the tips of the outstretched fingers of the other. His gaze rested on the battered volumes of the Law Reports which stood on a long shelf in front of him. On the top of a cupboard were square boxes of japanned tin, on which were painted the names of various clients.

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in.”

A Chinese clerk, very neat in his white ducks, opened it.

“Mr. Crosbie is here, sir.”

He spoke beautiful English, accenting each word with precision, and Mr. Joyce had often wondered at the extent of his vocabulary. Ong Chi Seng was a Cantonese, and he had studied law at Gray’s Inn. He was spending a year or two with Messrs. Ripley, Joyce and Naylor in order to prepare himself for practice on his own account. He was industrious, obliging, and of exemplary character.

“Show him in,” said Mr. Joyce.

He rose to shake hands with his visitor and asked him to sit down. The light fell on him as he did so. The face of Mr. Joyce remained in shadow. He was by nature a silent man, and now he looked at Robert Crosbie for quite a minute without speaking. Crosbie was a big fellow, well over six feet high, with broad shoulders, and muscular. He was a rubber-planter, hard with the constant exercise of walking over the estate, and with the tennis which was his relaxation when the day’s work was over. He was deeply sunburned. His hairy hands, his feet in clumsy boots were enormous, and Mr. Joyce found himself thinking that a blow of that great fist would easily kill the fragile Tamil. But there was no fierceness in his blue eyes; they were confiding and gentle; and his face, with its big, undistinguished features, was open, frank and honest. But at this moment it bore a look of deep distress. It was drawn and haggard.

“You look as though you hadn’t had much sleep the last night or two,” said Mr. Joyce.

“I haven’t.”

Mr. Joyce noticed now the old felt hat, with its broad double brim, which Crosbie had placed on the table; and then his eyes travelled to the khaki shorts he wore, showing his red hairy thighs, the tennis shirt open at the neck, without a tie, and the dirty khaki jacket with the ends of the sleeves turned up. He looked as though he had just come in from a long tramp among the rubber trees. Mr. Joyce gave a slight frown.

“You must pull yourself together, you know. You must keep your head.”

“Oh, I’m all right.”

“Have you seen your wife to-day?”

“No, I’m to see her this afternoon. You know, it is a damned shame that they should have arrested her.”

“I think they had to do that,” Mr. Joyce answered in his level, soft tone.

“I should have thought they’d have let her out on bail.”

“It’s a very serious charge.”

“It is damnable. She did what any decent woman would do in her place. Only, nine women out of ten wouldn’t have the pluck. Leslie’s the best woman in the world. She wouldn’t hurt a fly. Why, hang it all, man, I’ve been married to her for twelve years, do you think I don’t know her? God, if I’d got hold of the man I’d have wrung his neck, I’d have killed him without a moment’s hesitation. So would you.”

“My dear fellow, everybody’s on your side. No one has a good word to say for Hammond. We’re going to get her off. I don’t suppose either the assessors or the judge will go into court without having already made up their minds to bring in a verdict of not guilty.”

As you may have noted, Constant Reader, this story was written during a time when casual racism was not only accepted but was par for the course. Maugham wrote during the first half of the twentieth century primarily; “The Letter” was certainly set during the time of decline for the worldwide British Empire (“the sun never sets on the British empire”); an empire that was built on the backs of its enslaved and conquered peoples, and justified its abuses and colonialism and exploitation with the typical white supremacy. The Empire didn’t survive the second World War–the Japanese in particular shattered the Empire’s Asiatic pretensions–but all the worst of British racism and classism and misogyny is there on display in this story (this sentence: Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones–in particular), and really is terribly dated in that regard. The story is also problematic in that it also upholds the standard misogynist trope that a woman will easily and without qualm accuse a man of rape to cover up her own crimes. So, it’s easy to see how such a story could spring from the mind of a gay man in that time period; my gay brothers can make the worst misogynists, I’m ashamed to say, and written during a period when misogyny was so incredibly rampant…yes, I can see it.

The story is vastly different from the film. The film obviously centers Bette Davis; it’s one of her finer performances, and the character of Leslie Crosbie; the story itself is entirely told from the perspective of her attorney, Mr. Joyce. But the bottom line of the story and film are the same: Leslie Crosbie murdered Geoff Hammond; the question is why? Mrs. Crosbie’s story is that he showed up at her door late at night and tried to rape her, and she killed him in self-defense, protecting her honor. The only problem is that she fired four more bullets into his corpse when he was already dead, from close range; this doesn’t sound like self-defense. Mrs. Crosbie herself claims she doesn’t remember any of that; and given that she’s a white woman, her story is she was defending her honor against a rapist, and the victim had taken up with a Chinese woman and was no longer received by honorable people (oh, the racism!), Mr. Joyce has no doubt that Mrs. Crosbie will neither hang nor go to jail; popular opinion in the ruling class is heavily on her side. But it turns out there’s a letter in existence, in her handwriting; begging Geoff Hammond to come see her at her home while her husband was away. Leslie explains this away quickly; in the hubbub of the shooting and its aftermath, she’d quite forgotten she’d invited him over to help her buy a gun as a gift for her husband, and once she hadn’t told the police, and remembered, she couldn’t tell them without making herself look bad. The Chinese woman Hammond was sleeping with has the letter; and wants money for it. Mr. Joyce explains to Mr. Crosbie…who comes up with the money, and then bitterly says to Me. Joyce: “the reason I was away was because I had gone to buy myself a new gun.”

Leslie had lied about her reasons for inviting Hammond over; what else has she lied about? But once the letter has been destroyed, and the jury sets her free–Mr. Joyce asks her one more question–and Leslie explains her truth: she’d been having an affair for years with Hammond, but the Chinese woman–whom he had loved when he was younger–had come back to his life and he no longer wanted anything to do with Leslie. Leslie was furious–bad enough to be thrown over, but for a Chinese woman? She deliberately invited him over that night; he told her he hated her and wanted nothing to do with him, and to her–this justified not only killing him, but her desire to get away with murdering her lover…and, because of racism and misogyny and class, she does.

It was an interesting–if dated–read, and while I winced away from the horrific racism (much worse than the misogyny of how courts always treated upper crust white ladies with such gentility, allowing them to get away with their crimes, and even cheering lustily their acquittals), I’m glad I read the story. I’ll probably read more of Maugham–I’d read Of Human Bondage when I was a teenager and hated it; I should probably reread it through the lens of Waugham’s homosexuality and how that main character’s relationship with toxic Mildred was undoubtedly shaped by his own denial of his sexuality; I’d probably enjoy that more now–and most definitely want to read “Rain”, to see how Sadie Thompson fares in her creator’s words, as well as to see how misogynistic Maugham was in creating her…it seems to me, in the works of his I’ve read, that his female characters were a lot darker and definitely more noir, than I might have thought before.

It might be interesting to retell “The Letter” entirely from Leslie’s point of view. Hmm, now there’s a thought.

Closer to Heaven

Yesterday was Friday, and I was tired.

Really, really tired.

I slept for ten hours last night and woke up still exhausted this morning–bleary-eyed and bone-tired. It makes me a bit nervous, as the last time I was able to sleep so much, or do deeply, only to still be tired, was when I was sick this last time, and whatever that was, I sure as hell don’t want to see it return again. I just feel what we used to say down south–“bone tired”. (Hmm, that’s not a bad title.) So, while I have things to do today–we need to swing by the Cat Practice to get Scooter another bag of food, for one, and I definitely need to do some writing and cleaning and organizing around here, if I have the energy–and in a worst case scenario, I can always simply curl up with some books or short stories. I did manage to do some reorganizing/rearranging of the books last night–out Netflix app on the Apple TV is all fucked up; I’m probably going to have to delete and download it again, which is an enormous pain in the ass. Our wireless was also running ridiculously  slow the last few days, so I rebooted the cable box and the wireless router yesterday, which signed me out of everything fucking thing and I just was too tired to deal with that shit last night. We wound up watching an incredibly bad gay movie on Amazon Prime–I won’t name it out of respect for the effort, time and money that went into it, plus I don’t like dumping on gay creators–during which both Paul and I dozed off here and there, before it was over and I finally retired to bed. I was also too tired last night to focus on doing any reading–which was definitely a lost opportunity, and one that I deeply regret. I’d like to finish reading Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin this weekend; it’s really quite wonderful, and I’d like to move on to his We Disappear once I finish it. I’ve also got a lot of short stories to read–not the least of which is W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter,” and I simply love that it’s the source material for one of my favorite Bette Davis movies, of the same name–and there’s another one, by Mark Twain, about an incident that happened at the court of Charles VI in France (I stumbled on this story somehow; the true story it’s based on is detailed in Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, which is starting to seem like a really great inspiration for me, almost Biblical in its inspiration). Plus I have, as I noticed last night as I reorganized the books, The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor and the latest Lawrence Block anthology–Mr. Block does some seriously excellent anthologies, for the record–and so there’s all kinds of good reading on hand should I have the mental acuity to focus on some reading today.

It’s also not a bad idea to read the stories I am currently readying for submission by the end of the month. Perhaps I should spend the day in my easy chair with print outs of stories and perhaps spend some time with some of my favorite short story writers. It’s also not a bad idea to revisit Bury Me in Shadows, which I have decided to completely overhaul–the problem is the main character’s age, but because I envisioned it originally as being about a teenager, I was stubbornly clinging to that idea, and it actually works better if I advance his age to having just graduated Pre-Law from college and readying to attend law school in the fall; this having a free place to live in the summer and a paying job that is relatively easy makes more sense for the character to agree to what he’s doing; plus it eliminates the entire what is his mother thinking in letting him do this? It will also require me to do some other tweaking (not that kind of tweaking, those days are long in my past, thank you very much), but I also think it’ll be stronger and a better story for it.

Which is always a plus.

I would like to do some work this weekend on other stories that are currently hanging in stasis right now, not the least of which is my pandemic story, “The Flagellants.” I’m not certain why that story is nagging at me; I don’t know what it’s going to be or how its going to end; so I guess it’s one of those stories that will reveal itself to me as I write it, which is madness, really.

Recently someone–I think Gabino Iglesias? I could be wrong–tweeted asking writers to stop talking about how much they hate writing, and his tweets really resonated with me. I don’t hate writing, but it would be easy to assume that I do from reading what I post, tweet and blog about writing. I do love writing; I love everything about it, even the frustrations and irritations–which I usually have to express to get out of my system. Publishing is an entire different subject than writing; I reserve the right to always be able to bitch about the publishing industry and its quirks and utter seeming ridiculousness whenever I please, along with the right to complain about being frustrated with the writing process at any time. But I want to make it very clear that I love writing and that’s why I do it. I love writing what I write, even though I am well aware (and if I wasn’t, have been told enough times by my heterosexual colleagues) that there’s not really any money in writing gay crime stories. But I like writing gay crime stories; I like writing gay characters, and I also feel like the full potential for gay crime stories has yet to be tapped. But I’ve dabbled with heterosexual narratives in my short stories, and if I am ever going to write a novel about straight people–or centering the straight point of view–the short stories are an excellent way to practice.

And…every new story I finish writing puts me that much closer to a second collection of stories, which is very exciting to me. I was originally calling the second collection Once a Tiger and Other Stories, but I am thinking about changing it to This Town and Other Stories, primarily because “This Town” is a better story than “Once a Tiger” and secondly, I like the symbolism of “this town” referring to New Orleans–even though that’s not what the Go-Go’s were referring to in their song of the same title, which was the inspiration for my story. (My original collection began as Annunciation Shotgun and Other Stories before metamorphosing into Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories.)

I also started writing a blog entry about my love of The Three Investigators, which will probably go up at some point over this weekend; depends, I suppose, on when I finish it. And there’s a shit ton of emails that need my attention in my inbox as well; but I just can’t face that yet today. Maybe later on, after I get some things done, I can spend some time answering emails (as drafts to send on Monday) as well as writing some that I need to send.

But I just heard the dryer stop, which means I need to go fold some clothes and add another load to the dryer, and my coffee cup is also empty and in dire need of refilling; my stomach is growling as well, so it’s probably time for me to push away from the desk, get more coffee, fold some clothes and then have some Honey-nut Cheerios–which has been my pandemic breakfast of choice these days.

It also looks like a beautiful day outside. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader!

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Did You See Me Coming?

And somehow, just like that, we made it to Wednesday again. Well done, Constant Reader; sometimes it feels like we’re just not going to get there.

So, yesterday morning between screenings, I checked out my iCloud drive to just see what precisely I have in progress at the moment (not counting everything else that has been unfinished for years) and the count is: four novels, four novellas, and at least nineteen short stories. (And y’all wonder why I talk about having creative ADHD. Barbara, please.) Then again, should I get all of these things finished by the end of the year, I would absolutely have another short story collection completed (there are already several unpublished, finished stories I have in my “to submit” folders as well, and three that have been sold–two of which are out now–in The Beat of Black Wings and The Faking of the President; so at some point that second collection will be ready to go within the next year or so*) and so it looks as though the dearth of Gregalicious publications will be solved once he gets off his ass and starts finishing things.

Heavy heaving sigh.

One thing I noticed yesterday as I drove to my essential job (yes, my job is considered essential) is that there was a lot more traffic then usual at that time; and then I remembered driving home Friday night after work in heavier traffic than usual as well. Oh no, I thought, I wondered how long it would be before New Orleanians couldn’t stand the isolation anymore and despaired; but there was so little traffic on my way home from work last night that I managed to play one song on my phone through the car speakers as I pulled onto the highway and it was just finishing as I pulled into a parking space across the street from my house (yes, I managed to hit every light as green once I got off the highway too; I LOVE when that happens), so maybe it’s not so bad after all.

These are such strange and new times, and I’m never really certain what to think about them, you know? Or to try to think ahead; this week is about all I can handle right now, thank you very much and good night.  But I’m also a planner, even if the plans and their timing remains somewhat amorphous all the time; it’s just kind of who I am. I’m also aware that if you don’t plan ahead a bit, you tend to get very surprised along the way and that is never, ever a good thing.

Yesterday I discovered, entirely by accident, that one of my favorite old movies–The Letter, starring Bette Davis, had actually been a short story by W. Somerset Maugham first, before he himself adapted it into a play which then became the basis for the two film versions (the more famous Bette Davis version was actually a remake of the Jeanne Engels version from the previous decade), and it was in the public domain, so I downloaded a copy of it to read for the Short Story Project; it’s a long story, clocking in at over 13,000 words, which in today’s world I suppose would make it a novella. I am, of course, rather excited to read the original source material, and I’m not sure I’ve ever read Maugham before–just another one of those great old white male writers I’ve never read; and it occurs to me just now that one of the things I should reread for the Reread Project is Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I’ve never really gotten Hemingway, and certainly didn’t when I was forced to read him in high school–hating the experience so much I never went back to him–but maybe it wouldn’t hurt to give Papa another turn. Perhaps as a more mature adult and reader I can appreciate him more (although my recent reread of The Great Gatsby made me hate the book even more than I already did); but I certainly didn’t mind reading some other Old White Men over the years, like Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser (I should tackle the massive An American Tragedy sometime; I really liked Sister Carrie when I read it), and I should probably make up one of the greatest gaps in my reading history–The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I’ve never read–but I’ve read a lot of Twain over the years.

It is absolutely insane how many works I have in progress! (I just reread the opening of this entry again) But I do believe that perfectly illustrates my point about my creative ADHD….and there are even more short stories than that, really; those are the ones I’ve worked on at some point over the last few months. And of course, more ideas come to me all the time. Heavy heaving sigh.

And on that note, I need to get ready to face my day. Have a good Wednesday, Constant Reader!

*the third, “The Carriage House”, has been sold to Mystery Tribune, and I’m not sure when it will be released; so stay tuned!

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Free Ride

So, where were we?

I managed to finish that enormous volunteer project, with lots of thanks due to the others who worked on it with me; it’s so lovely to not have to worry about being organized because you are working with the “ur organizer” of all time, frankly.

Whew. I do know some pretty amazing people, you know?

I need to get started revising the Kansas book, but have just been so worn out and tired lately…it’s a big deal to finish a draft, a short story, and an enormous volunteer project all at the same time, you know? I now have to write an essay, a short story, and get to revising this manuscript but at the same time…it’s kind of lovely knowing I got all that other shit done.

I also managed to do something to my back yesterday at work–sitting in my chair wrong–and it’s been aching ever since. I used the heating pad last night (using it again this morning) and it’s horrible, of course–I can’t imagine what I did to make it hurt, but then…this is just another one of those lovely surprises about getting older: new aches and pains every day and you don’t know where they came from or why or what caused it.

But my book comes out in less than a week, so I should probably talk about it some more, right?

As I mentioned yesterday, I pretty much only regularly watch The Real Housewives of New York and Beverly Hills. I do keep up with Atlanta, and will check in on Orange County every now and then. I tried both Dallas and Potomac (I never watched DC or Miami), but didn’t get through the first seasons–but I’ve heard they’ve become more entertaining, so might check them out. I’ve not watched New Jersey in a long time; I really gave up on it after Caroline left the show; I know she was problematic to a lot of viewers and she did get on my nerves from time to time–but when she left and the show centered Teresa, I was down with it. While watching these shows, and having my loyalties and allegiances shift over the seasons, as the producers manipulate story-lines and decide what the audience will and won’t see, has been interesting. I’ve also been interested in watching the cultural phenomena around the Real Housewives, and while I rarely (if ever) agree with Camille Paglia, she is also a Housewives fan, and in an interview, when the shows came up, she compared them to soaps, and in particular, the popular prime time soaps of the 1980’s: Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, etc. It was an interesting comparison, and not one I agreed with immediately, but the more I think about–and the way people talk about the shows–the more I think she was right. The prime time soaps were addictive, considered guilty pleasures no serious viewer would ever watch, and while several of them were driven by strong male leads, the women were centered and usually more interesting. There were never any male characters as interesting as the women on Knots Landing, and Blake might have been the main character on Dynasty, but the real driving force behind the show were the two women main characters, Krystle and Alexis. The housewives appeal to, like the prime time soaps, primarily women and gay male viewers. When I wrote my thesis on daytime soaps in college, one of the cultural impacts I wrote about the shows having was the decline of what was called “women’s pictures”–movies centering women characters and female stars. Whereas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and many other women were big stars of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, it was the 1950’s and the rise of television that not only killed the studio system, but also killed off the popular genre of women’s pictures…and I do think that was not only due to television, but because all of daytime television centered, and was focused on, women. Women no longer had to pay money to go lose themselves in a fantasy world focused on strong women facing difficult situations heroically; they could spend all day watching heroic women facing difficult situations–and situations they could relate to more–Monday through Friday. The decline of soaps–both prime time and daytime–created another vacuum, and Bravo and these shows stepped up to fill that void.

There have been already some terrific books centering reality television; Jessica Knoll’s The Favorite Sister was, like her debut novel Luckiest Girl Alive, absolutely fantastic. But as I said, I thought it would be interesting to write my own version of a murder mystery centered on a reality show filmed in New Orleans. I’m fascinated by these people, who are willing to have their lives and interactions be filmed for the entertainment of the masses, be judged for it on social media and in recap columns, and ripped to shreds on message boards and Facebook groups. Some of them use their reality show to promote not only themselves but their businesses–the most famous of these is Bethenny Frankel, who became rich through her various Skinnygirl enterprises, all of which were boosted by her popularity on reality television, and Lisa Vanderpump, who used her reality fame to promote her restaurants in Los Angeles, even getting a spin-off show centered around the staff at one of her restaurants, Vanderpump Rules, which is even more popular than the housewives (I abandoned that show somewhere after season two). I think the Frankel/Vanderpump model is the golden ticket these women are looking for when they agree to be cast; but not everyone is as smart about controlling their image as those two are–nor have the kind of influence on production as they enjoy.

My fascination with these women, and their shows, and who they are and why they would do such a show, gave birth to the idea that eventually became Royal Street Reveillon. I liked the idea of Scotty being a fan, and interacting with the women on the New Orleans show while trying to get to the bottom of a murder…or two, or three. It was also kind of fun to write, frankly, and the older i get and the more I do this, the more important it is to me to enjoy myself while I am doing it.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader.

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R.O.C.K in the USA

Happy Sunday and a good morning to all y’all.

I didn’t get as much done yesterday as I would have liked; running my errands in the pre-rain humidity literally wore me out, and then when I got going again I started cleaning and doing laundry and well, once I start doing that–as well as going through and trying to organize the books–I am pretty much done for the day….especially after I discovered Burnt Offerings was available for streaming on Prime. Oliver Reed! Karen Black! Bette Davis (who was totally wasted in her role)! I’d seen the movie years ago, I think when it first aired on television after it’s theatrical run, and while it’s still has some moments, it overall doesn’t hold up as well as I would have hoped. I read the book for the first recently in the last few years, and it was wonderful. But watching Burnt Offerings put me in mind of an essay about horror in the 1970’s; the 1970’s was a time when the suburbs really developed because of ‘white flight’ from the cities and desegregation; this was this whole movement of back to the country from the urban centers, and at the same time, there was horror that specifically focused on this phenomenon (without the racism and white flight issues); namely this book, Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon, The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin, and even Stephen King lightly touched on this in ‘salem’s Lot; the dangers of the country to people from the city.

One could even argue that James Dickey’s Deliverance also belongs in this category, and it put me in mind of an essay that I may never write. I also thought up another yesterday while running my errands, after car after car after car violated traffic rules and almost caused me to be in in accident (three times, to be exact; which might be a new record): “Right of Way,” in which I would extrapolate the American contempt for traffic rules and laws for everyone’s safety can be directly correlated to contempt for law and order, the system, taxes, everything. I made some notes, and this is one I may actually write. Essays are fun and I do enjoy writing them but I don’t very often, unless one is requested of me for something, and perhaps that’s the wrong approach.

Today I am going to go to the gym and I am going to start rereading Royal Street Reveillon and make notes for the big revision that is coming. I’m also going to start reading Jackson Square Jazz out loud for copy editing purposes, and I’d also like to work on “A Whisper from the Graveyard” today. I should at some point also work on finished “Never Kiss a Stranger,” which means I should also make a to-do list for everything I want to get done in July.

Hmmm. Perhaps not a bad idea, at that.

I also remembered I have notes on a short story I need to read and decide what revisions I need to be make.

It never truly ends, does it? But I am looking forward to Sharp Objects tonight on HBO; I actually liked this book by Gillian Flynn better than Gone Girl, which of course made her hugely famous and hopefully hugely rich. I still haven’t read her Dark Places, but that’s because I still subscribe to the “if I don’t read all the canon then I still have something by her to read” mentality, which is partly why I still have not read the entire canon of either Daphne du Maurier or Shirley Jackson or Patricia Highsmith.

So, I have a lot to do today–only one more day after today before I return to the office, but at least it’s only a four day work week–and so I should probably get back to the spice mines.

The next story up in Promises in Every Star and Other Stories is “Bloodletting”:

The damp air was thick with the scent of blood.

It had been days since I had last fed, and the desire was gnawing at my insides. I stood up, and my eyes focused on a young man walking a bicycle in front of the cathedral. He was talking on a cell phone, his face animated and agitated. He was wearing a T-shirt that read Who Dat Say They Gonna Beat Dem Saints? and a pair of ratty old paint-spattered jeans cut off at the knees. There was a tattoo of Tweetybird on his right calf, and another indistinguishable one on his left forearm. His hair was dark, combed to a peak in the center of his head, and his face was flushed. He stopped walking, his voice getting louder and louder as his face got darker.

I could smell his blood. I could almost hear his beating heart.

I could see the pulsing vein in his neck, beckoning me forward.

The sun was setting, and the lights around Jackson Square were starting to come on. The tarot card readers were folding up their tables, ready to disappear into the night. The band playing in front of the cathedral was putting their instruments away. The artists who hung their work on the iron fence around the park were long gone, as were the living statues. The square, so teeming with life just a short hour earlier, was emptying of people, and the setting sun was taking the warmth with it as it slowly disappeared in the west. The cold breeze coming from the river ruffled my hair a bit as I watched the young man with the bicycle. He started wheeling the bicycle forward again, still talking on the phone. He reached the concrete ramp leading up to Chartres Street. He stopped just as he reached the street, and I focused my hearing as he became more agitated. What do you want me to say? You’re just being a bitch, and anything I say you’re just going to turn around on me.

I felt the burning inside.

Desire was turning into need.

I knew it was best to satisfy the desire before it became need. I could feel the knots of pain from deprivation forming behind each of my temples and knew it was almost too late. I shouldn’t have let it go this long, but I wanted to test my limits, see how long I could put off the hunger. I’d been taught to feed daily, which would keep the hunger under control and keep me out of danger.

Need was dangerous. Need led a vampire to take risks he wouldn’t take ordinarily. And risks could lead to exposure, to a painful death.

The first lesson I’d learned was to always satiate the hunger while it was still desire, to never ever let it become need.

I had waited too long.

“Bloodletting” is an unusual story for me in that it’s actually a short story that bridges the gap between my novella “Blood on the Moon” and the novel Need; I eventually used it as the book’s first chapter. I have always wanted to give vampire fiction a try; I created an entire world that I first wrote about in the novella “The Nightwatchers,” which I always intended to develop into a series. I still would like to develop that series, and when the opportunity came to write “Blood on the Moon” I realized I could simply still use the world I’d created for “The Nightwatchers” and move on to different characters. The second book in the series, the one that was to follow Need, Desire, was going to tie the two story-lines together but Need didn’t sell as well as the publisher would have liked and so Desire died in the water. I may still go back and write it, of course, but I have no publisher for it and I am not particularly interested in self-publishing that much. But…I never say never. I wrote “Bloodletting” for Blood Sacraments, and only had to change the original concept a little bit; in the original idea Cord, my vampire, was actually sitting on the roof of St. Louis Cathedral watching the crowd for his next victim. I still love that image, and may use it sometime, but I did eventually change it to how it reads now.

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Here Comes the Rain Again

It started raining yesterday, and hasn’t really let up since; and it has brought a biting, bitter cold with it. As such I slept later than I intended to this morning–Wednesdays being one of the days I have the luxury of not needing to use an alarm–but nevertheless, I am not awake,, wearing sweats and swilling coffee.

I finished reading Donna Andrews’ delightful How the Finch Stole Christmas last evening, curled up in my easy chair under a blanket, and started reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Blunderer, which, as always with Highsmith, is enthralling. Highsmith is one of my favorite writers, but I’ve never read her entire oeuvre since there will never be new Highsmith novels to read; this way there’s always more of them I haven’t read yet (I have also done this with Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier); but after I finished the Andrews–which was an absolutely lovely comfort read–I wanted something a bit more biting and snide–and for that, you really can’t go wrong with Highsmith. The Blunderer is one of the novels curated by Sarah Weinman for the Library of America series about terrific women crime writers from the post-war era; Weinman’s ringing endorsement is one that simply should not be overlooked–she’s never wrong. I got several chapters into it last night before going to sleep, and am definitely looking forward to doing the same again this evening.

How the Finch Stole Christmas is a delight from start to finish, as are all of Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series.

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“Shakespeare was right. The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

“I wish I could hear you say that in person,” I said.

“Yeah, over the cell phone you miss all my dramatic gestures.” Michael’s voice sounded more exasperated than angry. And since I knew my husband wasn’t usually prejudiced against the legal profession, I was puzzled instead of worried.

“Are you someplace where you can talk?” he asked.

“I’m not at the theater, if that’s what you mean. Reverend Robyn wanted to see me about something. At the moment, I’m over at Trinity, sitting in her office, waiting for her to solve a Christmas pageant prop emergency, so until she comes back, I’m at your service.”

The other night, I watched All About Eve again for perhaps the thousandth time, with a young friend who’d never seen it before. One of my favorite lines in the film is not one that is quoted regularly; Karen and Margo are sitting in the car, out of gas on their way to the train to take Margo back into the city for the evening performance she is going to miss. Margo turns on the radio, and some maudlin orchestral music plays for a few moments, with the camera focused on Margo’s face, one eyebrow arched. She turns the radio off and says, “I detest cheap sentiment.”

One of my biggest issues with Christmas is precisely that; cheap sentiment. I used that quote as an epigram for my Christmas anthology Upon a Midnight Clear, because I didn’t want to publish stories that were emotionally manipulative, and the stories in the book weren’t. Christmas is nothing if not a holiday rife with cheap, manipulative sentiment, and many carols and shows and movies mine this territory to the point where by the actual day’s arrival, I am so completely over the holiday and the saccharine-sweetness that I am almost afraid to turn on the television.

Donna Andrews, as Constant Reader already knows, or should by now, is one of my favorite writers and her Meg Langslow series is also one of my favorites. This is the fourth Christmas book in the series (following Ducks the Halls, Six Geese a-Slayin’, and The Nightingale Before Christmas), each more charming than the last–which is no easy feat. Andrews’ ability to keep this series fresh with each successive volume–and witty–is the mark of a master. Meg loves Christmas; the charming Virginia hamlet of Caerphilly she calls home feels much the same way–to the point where it has turned into a Christmas tourist destination (in no small part due to Meg’s efforts).

This year, rather than having a staged reading of A Christmas Carol, starring Meg’s husband (a retired actor who now teaches at the local college, and also appeared on a television series that has remained a cult hit for decades), the town has decided to mount a full production,  starring Malcolm Haver, a has-been actor who also starred in a television series back in the 80’s, and has a small but devoted following, as Scrooge. Haver has a drinking problem, can’t remember his blocking and his lines, and is a little on the irascible side…but has an ironclad contract for run of the play. Meg and her friends have managed to ensure that no one in town will sell Haver alcohol–but he is still getting it somewhere; and that’s what kicks this clever whodunnit off.

As always, the charms of the town, the wonderful people that live there, and of course Meg’s own ability to face everything with a “how do I fix this” attitude and a clever line makes this a fine addition to the series, and as ever, all’s well that ends well in this Christmas visit to Caerphilly. A perfect read for the Christmas season.