U Got the Look

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oriental-looking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the Way (I Like It)

Friday and we have made it to the end of the week, Constant Reader!

I am most pleased, and am even more pleased that I woke up before my alarm this morning. This, as you can imagine, doesn’t happen as often as I would like, and I was not only awake but functional, so I went ahead and got up. The kitchen is a mess this morning, primarily because I made dinner last night after cleaning when I got home yesterday afternoon, so I should probably do something about that before I leave for my half-day this morning. I am hoping to run to Costco after work today, and then come home to my usual Friday chores–primarily washing the bed linens–and perhaps getting back on track with writing. I really need to get back into the habit of writing some fiction every day. I do have other errands to run this weekend–making groceries being the most important of those–and I absolutely have to clean the Lost Apartment. I’ve not done the floors in forever, and the kitchen windows are filthy, absolutely filthy.

I also would love to finish reading Jamie Mason’s quite marvelous The Hidden Things this weekend. This is Jamie’s third novel; her first, Three Graves Full, was quite a stunning and brilliant debut, but I’ve been holding on to her second until she’d published another so I would always have one of her books that I’ve not read on deck. It really is quite odd that I do this; but I never want to run out of authors I enjoy’s books. (I’m still holding back on some Mary Stewarts, Daphne du Mauriers, and Charlotte Armstrongs)

I’ve also had a strong breakthrough on my short story “And the Walls Came Down,” which I reread this week, and think I can fashion with another revision into something quite marvelous. So, that’s also on the agenda for the weekend–and I’ve decided that each week I am picking one of my short stories for a reread and a final revise. At one story per week, it’s going to probably take me the rest of the  year to get them all done–I had no idea precisely how many short stories I have that are in some sort of progress–but at some point I am also going to have to finish the ones I’ve started and never finished the initial draft for–I also need to go through my journals and start digging out the short story ideas I’ve jotted down over the last year, because there were quite a few of those as well.

Paul and I watched the first season–there were only seven episodes–of a Netflix show called Bonding–which was actually quite funny at times and rather clever. The premise of the show is two former close friends from high school run into each other as adults; she is now a dominatrix and he’s an aspiring stand-up comedian who has too much stage fright to ever actually get up and do his act. He winds up working as her assistant, and they begin to bond and learn from each other while negotiating their own hang-ups and possible new relationships. I’m not entirely certain this is an accurate depiction of the BDSM community, or even of what a dom is like; but it was clever and cute and funny; and up till the last episode, we greatly enjoyed it. (The last episode got kind of weird.)

I also got some new books in the mail yesterday: They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall; Miracle Creek by Angie Kim; A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab; and Upon a Burning Throne by Ashok Banker. I’ve bumped Rachel’s book to the “on-deck” position on my TBR pile; so I am hopeful I can get Jamie’s book finished this weekend so I can dig into Rachel’s.

I am also bound and determined to get caught up on the WIP this weekend, so I can start writing new chapters next week.

Or…I might just be a slug and lay around and not do a goddamned thing all weekend. It happens.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Friday, everyone.

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If You Leave Me Now

One of my favorite writers when I was a kid was Charlotte Armstrong.

Armstrong was astonishing, really. The first book of hers I read was The Witch’s House. My parents had allowed me to join the Mystery Guild and I, of course, one month failed to do my duty and send the order card back declining that month’s selections. It was probably one of the best mistakes I’d ever made through my instinct for procrastination; I wound up getting a three volume omnibus of Armstrong called The Charlotte Armstrong Reader, and Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie. I shelved the Christie and forgot about it until years later–when I’d started reading Christie–but The Witch’s House sounded interesting to me; it had “witch” in the title and I’ve always been drawn to witches, for some reason, and I was at the age when I was still reading my kids’ mystery series but was slowly beginning to transition to books for adults. I was enthralled by The Witch’s House, and read it very quickly, and followed it up by reading the next, Mischief, which I liked even better. But the local library didn’t have any Armstrong novels in stock–which surprises me even more now than it did then–and so I didn’t continue reading Armstrong until years later. Armstrong is one of my favorite writers, even if the books might seem a bit dated today; whenever I read another one of her novels I greatly enjoy it. Armstrong’s books were–I don’t know how to put this, but I am going to give it a try–were dark without darkness; there was always a sense of optimism in her books no matter how dark they got (there’s one particular scene in The Gift Shop that to this day rattles me when I think about it) and I do think she is overdue for a renaissance. It was the combined work of Jeffrey Marks and Sarah Weinman that reminded me of Armstrong and got me to go back and try to finish reading her canon; they also introduced me to Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar (among others).

The point is, women have always been some of the greatest writers in the crime genre, and societal and cultural sexism have gone a very long way to ensuring that the men who wrote in the same period as these ladies are now lauded as giants of the genre and must-reads, while the women–who won just as many awards and critical laurels and big sales–faded away into obscurity. Mary Higgins Clark was the bridge from these great women of the past to the modern women who write domestic suspense–and really, has there ever been a greater concept for a domestic suspense novel than Where are the Children?–but the second wave of major women crime writers primarily focused on private eye fiction (Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky).

But what the great Sarah Weinman calls “domestic suspense” never faded away; and nowadays we have some truly terrific women writing truly terrific novels in this subgenre–Lori Rader-Day, Catriona McPherson, Carol Goodman, Wendy Corsi Staub, Alafair Burke, and so many others–and it’s really become one of my absolute favorite subgenres, primarily because of the work these women are doing. It’s extraordinary; I cannot urge you enough to check out these women’s books, Constant Reader.

I could go on and on about these women and domestic suspense forever; but I’ll spare you and cut to the chase.

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“It was the girl.” The old man leaned forward, bracing against the worn-out armchair as though he were trying to escape its grasp. “April Cooper. She was the real killer.”

Quentin Garrison watched his face. He was very good at describing people, a skill he used all the time in his true crime podcasts. Later, recording the narration segments with his coproducer Summer Hawkins, Quentin would paint the picture for his listeners–the leathery skin, the white eyebrows wispy as cobwebs, the eyes, cerulean in 1976 but now the color of worn denim, and with so much pain bottled up behind them, as though he were constantly hovering on the brink of tears.

The man was named Reg Sharkey, and on June 20, 1976 , he’d watched his four-year-old daughter Kimmy die instantly of a gunshot wound to the chest–the youngest victim of April Cooper and Gabriel Allen LeRoy, aka the Inland Empire Killers. Two weeks later, his wife, Clara, had decided her own grief was too much to bear and committed suicide, after which Reg Sharkey had apparently given up on caring about anything or anyone.

Quentin said, “Wasn’t it LeRoy who pulled the trigger?”

Alison Gaylin has been nominated for the Edgar four times (Best First for Hide Your Eyes, Best PBO for both Into the Dark and If I Die Tonight, Best Novel for What Remains of Me)  and claimed the prize, just this past week, for If I Die Tonight. Her novels encompass a wide variety of subgenres; her first series featured an amateur sleuth; she then wrote two brilliant crime novels built around the entertainment industry; and then did the Brenna Spector trilogy: private eye novels that were, by and large, quite superb. All of her novels were superb, but once the Brenna trilogy was completed she moved on to stand-alones of psychological suspense that also crossover into the domestic suspense category; explorations of families and the dysfunction that leads to damaged people and possibly crimes. What Remains of Me was a throwback to  her earlier stand alone novels about the entertainment industry; only delving more deeply into the friendships and family relationships with the insightful eye of an artist. What Remains of Me juggled two time-lines and two murders; one committed in 1979 and another committed in the present–both linked and connected to the same woman, the same cast of characters, and the big reveal was stunning. If I Die Tonight was all set in the present day, but Gaylin’s family relationships in this novel are just as fractured and dysfunctional on every level; the concept Gaylin explored in this novel was public face private truth–the singular kernel of truth in this book being that things are so rarely what they appear to be in public, whereas the actual truth is far more complicated, far more complex, and far too often not what anyone actually wants to know.

Never Look Back also, like What Remains of Me, juggles two timelines; one in the past, which is expressed and explored through letters a teenaged girl writes to her future child, the other, a present where the aftermath of a brutal killing spree decades earlier by the teenaged girl writing the letters and the “boyfriend” who took her along for the ride; the notorious Inland Empire Killers. In the present day, a happily married gay man whose own childhood and family was actually shattered by the Inland Empire Killers, now works as an adult as a coproducer of true crime podcasts. The book opens with him confronting the father of the youngest victim of the killers–who also happens to be his grandfather, whom he doesn’t know. The interview ends badly, with bitterness and shouting and recriminations; Quentin blames his grandfather for his mother’s tragic, drug addicted, and wasted life, which in turn made his own childhood a mess. Quentin is now happily married…but driven by an obsession to get to the bottom of the killings so many decades ago.

And then comes the tip that April Cooper, the young girl writing the letters and the “Bonnie” to Gabriel LeRoy’s “Clyde”–might not have died in the fire which everyone believed killed them both; that she might actually be still alive and living in the Hudson Valley of New York.

This is a terrific premise, and Gaylin delivers in ways the reader cannot imagine as they ride the rollercoaster of suspense and emotion along with her characters. It’s an enormously satisfying read, with lots of juggled subplots and clues being left in the most casual of ways, so that the careful reader might even be able to figure out the truth long before the characters. Quentin is a terrific character, and so is Robin Diamond, the website  columnist whose mother might–or might not–hold the key to the answers Quentin is so driven to learn. The suspense and the twists are stunning, but the ending is powerful and enormously satisfying…and there’s not a single loose plot thread left behind.

Charlotte Armstrong was dubbed the Queen of Suspense by critics and reviewers during her lifetime; Alison Gaylin is a worthy heir to that title.

The book is available for preorder now; I’d advise you to do yourself a favor and preorder now. You aren’t going to want to miss this one.

Ride Like the Wind

Yesterday I felt fantastic. Yes, I overslept, not getting out of bed until a disgraceful almost ten am, had a couple of cups of coffee while checking social media and writing yesterday’s blog entry, and then buckled down to clean, organize and write. I got about 2400 words down on Chapter Ten of the WIP–which I originally thought was Chapter Nine but I had already written that chapter so this was ten, which means the first draft is over halfway done. How marvelous is that?

Pretty mother-fucking marvelous, if I do say so myself.

I slept well again last night, but set the alarm so I wouldn’t stay in bed as late. As it is, I set it for eight and hit snooze repeatedly, not to sleep more, but rather because I felt so relaxed and comfortable in the bed I didn’t want to get up. But I still have some laundry to do, a grocery store run to make (KING CAKE!), and I want to spend the day cleaning and editing a hard copy of the Scotty book. (Yes, I do my original edits on a paper copy. SUE ME.) I also want to finish rereading The Shining so I can move on to Pet Sematary. I am not reading as quickly as I used to, which is aggravating. Once I finish these two rereads, I am going to dive into reading for the Diversity Project, and I also want to get back into the Short Story Project. I also need to clean the apartment more thoroughly–I spent most of the day yesterday organizing and filing, as well as purging books. But I need to get the floors done today, and finish the laundry. This is my first full week of work since before Christmas, and I am hoping if I can focus on getting to bed at a decent hour on the nights before I have to get up early, I can get things done and not wear myself out too terribly along the way. I am not going to try the gym this week, as I need to get a handle on my work schedule and see how I can make that work, with plans to make it back to the gym this coming Friday or Saturday. There’s also no Saints game today, which makes today easier. One of the things that was amazing to me yesterday was how much time I had…it’s amazing how that works. No LSU or college football, and the day is suddenly wild and free. Go figure.

And yesterday was Twelfth Night, so it’s now officially Carnival. Hurray! The city will soon be festooned in purple, gold and green; the bleachers will be going up on Lee Circle and St. Charles Avenue on the downtown side of the circle; King cakes will have their own enormous display table at the grocery store; and that sense of anticipation of the coming madness can be felt in the air. It’s going to be weird not going to work on Parade Days, but it will also make life a little bit more interesting. I’m obviously hoping to get a lot done on those days, but we shall see how that all works out, shan’t we?

I also need to do some cooking today; trying to get food for the week ready and for our lunches. Which means making a mess in the kitchen and something else to do for the day; cleaning the mess. But I don’t like going into the week with a messy apartment; it gets messy enough during the work week when I don’t have the time or energy to keep up with it (or the filing, for that matter). So, there’s some touching up I need to do on my office space, and I can vacuum and so forth while I am editing.

Last night we started watching Homecoming on Prime. What an amazing cast–Julia Roberts, Bobby Canavale, Sissy Spacek, and Dermot Mulroney, just for starters. The plot is also interesting–we’re about half-way through. and will probably finish this evening. We may go see The Favourite  next weekend, which is kind of exciting. I can’t remember the last time we saw a non-popcorn movie in the theater. I’m sure the film is rife with historical inaccuracies–what historical films aren’t–but my knowledge of Queen Anne is fairly limited; I’ve not even read the Jean Plaidy historical fiction about her, so perhaps that won’t be too much of issue to keep me from enjoying it (I’ll watch the new Mary Queen of Scots movie when I can stream it for free; every film biography of Mary Stuart is rife with license and inaccuracy; but it’s always a great opportunity for two great actresses to chew the scenery. The 1971 version with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson is probably, in my opinion, the best; I always picture Glenda Jackson whenever I think of Queen Elizabeth). I did know that Queen Anne had seventeen children that all died; she didn’t particularly want to be queen, and she had female ‘favorites’–it wasn’t common, but several English kings and queens had same-sex favorites, including Edward II, James I, and Queen Anne. Histories and biographies and encyclopedia entries would mention this, but gloss it over….it wasn’t until my late teens that I began putting together the coding and realized these monarchs were queer.

Yup, queers have been systematically erased from history, glossed over and forgotten, for centuries. Yay.

Part of the research/reading I am doing into New Orleans history is precisely to try to uncover the city’s queer past; trying to find the clues and coded language in books as we are glossed over and hidden from incurious minds. Every once in a while I’d find a glimmer of a hint in Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin, for example, that there were gay male prostitutes working in Storyville, and I kind of want to write about that. As I’ve said a million times before, New Orleans history is rife with terrific stories that would make for great fictions. One of the reasons I am so bitter about the Great Data Disaster of 2018 is not only because of the time spent reconstructing things but because it so completely broke my momentum and totally derailed me. I’m not sure how to get back on that streetcar (see what I did there?) but I’m going to have to relatively soon. But i’ve also been so focused on the Scotty and the new WIP that I’ve gotten away from it. I think diving back into The French Quarter by Herbert Asbury will help.

I also bought some cheap ebooks on sale yesterday, including Sophie’s Choice by Williamt Styron and Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. When I was checking the Kindle app on my iPad to make sure they downloaded properly, much to my horror I discovered that I have almost 400 books in that app–which doesn’t include the ones I have in iBooks or the Barnes & Noble app. YIKES. Clearly, I don’t need to take any books with me when I travel, because there are plenty in my iPad. I also have a ridiculous amount of anthologies and single author short story collections loaded in there…so yes, the Short Story Project will be continuing for quite some time, I suspect. There are also some terrific books in there I’d like to read, or reread, as the case may be…I have almost all of Mary Stewart’s novels on Kindle, for example, and a lot of Phyllis Whitney’s. I also have a Charlotte Armstrong I’ve not read, The Seventeen Widows of San Souci, and on and on and on….I really am a book hoarder, aren’t I?

Ah, well, life does go on.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me.

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This Used To Be My Playground

GEAUX TIGERS!

I watched the Auburn-Washington game yesterday while I cleaned the downstairs. I did a lot of chores and errands yesterday; and also did some reorganizing and cleaning so the living room doesn’t look quite so…book hoarder-ish. 

I’m getting better about it. I’ve realized that the true value, for me, of the ebook is that if I read a book I really like and think I’ll want to hang on to for one reason or another, I can donate the hardcopy and buy the ebook; if I’m patient enough and pay enough attention to email alerts and so forth, I can usually get it at a much discounted price. I don’t feel quite so bad about buying ebooks at low sale prices as I would had I not paid full price already for a print version. So, I’m really buying the book twice.

(I also find myself taking advantages of sales on ebooks by a particular author whose books I loved and would love to revisit sometime. I have the entire canon of Mary Stewart on my iPad, and a shit ton of Phyllis Whitneys. I’m also occasionally finding books by Dorothy B. Hughes and Charlotte Armstrong and Dorothy Salisbury Davis, which is lovely; I’ve also managed to get some of Susan Howatch’s lengthy family sagas, like Penmarric, The Wheel of Fortune, and Cashelmara. There are many treasures to be found through e-retailers.)

And I also find that, once I’ve let go of the hard copy, I’m not usually all that anxious to buy the e-version. Most of the books I want to keep is because I think it might be something I’d want to write about in a broader, nonfiction sense; like a book about the Gothic romances of the 1960’s thru the 1980’s, what they were inspired by, and how they were books about women’s fears; yes, there was romance involved, but they were also about the dark side of romance. Or a lengthy essay or study about how gay men are portrayed in crime novels written by authors who aren’t gay men, like the rampant homophobia in James Ellroy’s Clandestine or the male/male relationship in James M. Cain’s Serenade or any number of gay male portrayals over the decades of American crime fiction. Then there are, of course, the nonfiction tomes, about periods of history that interest me that I hold onto because I may need them as research for a book or story idea that I have.

I also keep copies of books by my friends, and whenever a friend has an ebook sale I will always grab a copy if I can.

I still haven’t really shifted from reading hard copies to reading electronically, but I am slowly but surely getting there. Anthologies are really helpful in that way; short stories are, of course, self-contained and by definition can usually be completed in one sitting.

I also finished reading James Ziskin’s wonderful Cast the First Stone, and am now eighty percent of the way finished with my Bouchercon homework.

cast the first stone

Monday, February 5, 1962

Sitting at the head of runway 31R at Idlewild, the jet hummed patiently, its four turbines spinning, almost whining. The captain’s voice crackled over the public-address system to inform us that we were next in line for takeoff. I’d noticed him earlier leaning against the doorframe of the cockpit, greeting passengers as we boarded the plane. He’d given me a thorough once-over–a hungry leer I know all too well–and I averted my gaze like the good girl that I’m not.

“Welcome aboard, miss,” he’d said, compelling me to look him in the eye. He winked and flashed me a bright smile. “I hope to give you a comfortable ride.”

I surely blushed.

Now, just moments after the handsome pilot had assured us of our imminent departure, the engines roared to life, and the aircraft lurched forward from its standstill. Juddering at first as it began to move, the plane rumbled down the runway, gathering speed as it barreled toward takeoff. I craned my neck to see better through the window,  holding my breath as I gripped the armrest of my seat and grinned like a fool. I sensed the man seated next to me was rolling his eyes, but I didn’t care. Of course I’d flown before–a regional flight from LaGuardia to Albany on Mohawk Airlines, and a couple of quick hops in a single-engine Cessna with a man who was trying to impress me with his derring-do. Alas, his derring-didn’t. But this was my first-ever flight on a jet plane.

This is a terrific start to a terrific novel. The fifth book in James W. Ziskin’s highly acclaimed and award-winning Ellie Stone series, it is, alas, the first Ellie Stone I’ve read. I met the author at a Bouchercon some time back (I don’t recall which one) and of course, I’ve been aware of the awards and the acclaim, and have been accumulating the books in his series for my TBR pile, but just haven’t gotten to them yet, much to my chagrin. So while I am not a fan of reading books out of order in a series (a crime I committed earlier in my Bouchercon homework with Nadine Nettman’s wine series), I certainly didn’t have the time to go back and read the first four.

Now, of course, I am going to have to–and what a delightful prospect this is.

Ellie is a delight, for one thing. The book/series is set in 1962/early 1960’s; and Ellie is a report for the New Holland Republic, not taken terribly seriously by the men she works with or for (with the sole exception her direct editor), even though she is the best reporter and the best writer on her paper. (It kind of reminds me of Mad Men in that way.) The opening is terrific; Ziskin captures that excitement of your first jet flight in a time period where it wasn’t terribly common to fly beautifully, and using that experience to not only showcase how adventurous Ellie is but to introduce her to the new reader as well as give some of her background. She is flying out to Los Angeles to interview a local boy who’s gone out to Hollywood to be a movie star, and has recently been cast as the second male lead in one of those ubiquitous beach movies the 60’s were known for, Twistin’ at the Beach. But he hasn’t shown up for his first day of shooting on the Paramount lot, placing his job in jeopardy, and soon the producer has been murdered…and the deeper Ellie gets into her story and her search for Tony Eberle soon has her digging through the seaming, tawdrier side of the Hollywood dream and system. Saying much more would be giving away spoilers, but Ziskin’s depiction of the secretive side of Hollywood, what studios were willing to do back in the day to protect bankable stars, and what that meant to those on the seamier side of the business is heart-wrenching and heartbreaking, and sympathetically written.

I can’t wait to read more about Ellie Stone.

And now I have moved on to Thomas Pluck’s Bad Boy Boogie, the last part of my homework. LSU plays tonight (GEAUX TIGERS!), and I want to go to the gym, do some more cleaning, and do some more writing today.

So it’s back to the spice mines with me.

Nikita

I read a terrific piece about Mary Higgins Clark the other day; about how her books are really, at the barest bone, about how women cannot even truly trust men. It’s a terrific read, and I do think everyone should read this piece–draw your own conclusions. The brilliant Sarah Weinman then tweeted the piece, positing that she considers Clark the bridge between the domestic suspense thrillers of the past (writers like Dorothy B. Hughes, Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and scores of others) to the modern day women who are killing it in the crime fiction world. On that tweet thread, someone (I think Jeff Abbott?) brought up Phyllis A. Whitney.

Now, Phyllis A. Whitney is one of my favorite writers of all time. I first read her children’s/young adult mysteries (the first being The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye, which I checked out from the library at Eli Whitney Elementary School, after which I started tearing through them. Some were available through the Scholastic Book Club, others I got from the library. I loved them all because they were always set in far off places I wanted to visit–Tiger’s Eye taught me about South Africa and apartheid; The Mystery of the Hidden Hand taught me about Greece and the black market for antiquities, etc.

My mom let me join the Mystery Guild when I was eleven, and I was very thrilled and excited to see as one of the choices, a book by Phyllis A. Whitney, Listen for the Whisperer, and I added it to my choices, filling in the little white box with the correct item number. I was also, at this same time, going through my Hollywood period, reading biographies of movie stars and producers and histories of the film industry. So, you can imagine my thrill to discover that Listen for the Whisperer also was sort of about the film industry; the main character’s biological mother, had been a major Hollywood star, even winning an Oscar, when a scandal destroyed her career; her director was murdered one night on the film set of what would ultimately be her last film, a Gothic black-and-white suspense film called The Whisperer.

It was amazing. A romance and a thriller and a murder mystery, with a lot of Hollywood background to it, it’s remained one of my favorite books of all time, and always makes any list I make of books that were important and/or formative to me.

I soon began tearing through her backlist: Thunder Heights, Seven Tears for Apollo, Blue Fire, Black Amber, Skye Cameron, The Trembling Hills, Silverhill, The Winter People, The Quicksilver Pool, Lost Island, The Moonflower, Sea Jade, Columbella, and Hunter’s Green. Mrs. Whitney continued producing work for almost another twenty years, and I read those books as they were released in paperback, later getting them as they were originally released in hardcover: Snowfire, The Turquoise Mask, The Golden Unicorn, The Glass Flame, Spindrift, Rainbow in the Mist, Woman without a Past, and Vermilion, among many others. Like her teen books, the adult novels also were often set in exotic places which Mrs. Whitney described perfectly, and you learned a little something about the places as you read about them. I also began to realize that when Mrs. Whitney went on one of her research trips, she often wrote two books set there–one for kids, and another for adults.

But the primary difference, I think, between Mary Higgins Clark and Phyllis Whitney is this: if, as the article I read (and linked to) is correct, Ms. Clark’s message is a woman can’t trust any man, then Mrs. Whitney’s was a woman can’t trust anyone, ESPECIALLY not family.

Mrs. Whitney’s books were often, not always, about a young woman trying to either obtain closure (like meeting the birth mother she never knew in Listen for the Whisperer, or confronting her estranged husband who finally wants a divorce after several years of separation in Hunter’s Green, or seeking a relationship with the child she gave up in Lost Island) or trying to get to know a family she’s never met or knew existed (Silverhill, Woman without a Past, Thunder Heights, Sea Jade). 

You couldn’t trust anyone in a Whitney novel; sometimes her killers were actually women.

A common trope in Whitney’s work was also the bad girl, who was often either married to, or engaged to, the love interest for the main character; and frequently, particularly in her earlier works, the bad girl wound up as the murder victim (Columbella, Lost Island). There was almost always a “bad girl” archetype in these books; a beautiful, sexually free woman who refused to be a submissive wife, and was sometimes, quite frankly, a nasty bitch to the main character (The Turquoise Mask, Vermilion) but eventually came over the heroine’s side and thus survived the story.

Here’s a list of all her novels (you can see, she was very prolific and her career lasted over fifty years; often publishing more than one book per year–and remember, she had to use a typewriter):

  • A Place for Ann (1941)
  • A Star for Ginny (1942)
  • A Window for Julie (1943)
  • Red is for Murder (1943), Reissued as The Red Carnelian (1965)
  • The Silver Inkwell (1945)
  • Writing Juvenile Fiction (1947)
  • Willow Hill (1947)
  • Ever After (1948)
  • The Mystery of the Gulls (1949)
  • Linda’s Homecoming (1950)
  • The Island of Dark Woods (1951), Reissued as Mystery of the Strange Traveler (1967)
  • Love Me, Love Me Not (1952)
  • Step to the Music (1953)
  • Mystery of the Black Diamonds (1954)
  • A Long Time Coming (1954)
  • Mystery on the Isle of Skye (1955)
  • The Quicksilver Pool (1955)
  • The Fire and the Gold (1956)
  • The Highest Dream (1956)
  • The Trembling Hills (1956)
  • Mystery of the Green Cat (1957)
  • Skye Cameron (1957)
  • Secret of the Samurai Sword (1958)
  • The Moonflower (1958)
  • Creole Holiday (1959)
  • Mystery of the Haunted Pool (1960)
  • Thunder Heights (1960)
  • Secret of the Tiger’s Eye (1961)
  • Blue Fire (1961)
  • Mystery of the Golden Horn (1962)
  • Window on the Square (1962)
  • Mystery of the Hidden Hand (1963)
  • Seven Tears for Apollo (1963)
  • Secret of the Emerald Star (1964)
  • Black Amber (1964)
  • Mystery of the Angry Idol (1965)
  • Sea Jade (1965)
  • Columbella (1966)
  • Secret of the Spotted Shell (1967)
  • Silverhill (1967)
  • Hunter’s Green (1968)
  • Secret of Goblin Glen (1969)
  • The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost (1969)
  • The Winter People (1969)
  • Secret of the Missing Footprint (1969)
  • Lost Island (1970)
  • The Vanishing Scarecrow (1971)
  • Nobody Likes Trina (1972)
  • Listen for the Whisperer (1972)
  • Mystery of the Scowling Boy (1973)
  • Snowfire (1973)
  • The Turquoise Mask (1974)
  • Secret of Haunted Mesa (1975)
  • Spindrift (1975)
  • The Golden Unicorn (1976)
  • Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels (1976)
  • Secret of the Stone Face (1977)
  • The Stone Bull (1977)
  • The Glass Flame (1978)
  • Domino (1979)
  • Poinciana (1980)
  • Vermilion (1981)
  • Guide to Fiction Writing (1982)
  • Emerald (1983)
  • Rainsong (1984)
  • Dream of Orchids (1985)
  • Flaming Tree (1986)
  • Silversword (1987)
  • Feather on the Moon (1988)
  • Rainbow in the Mist (1989)
  • The Singing Stones (1990)
  • Woman Without a Past (1991)
  • The Ebony Swan (1992)
  • Star Flight (1993)
  • Daughter of the Stars (1994)
  • Amethyst Dreams (1997)

She won two Edgars for her mysteries for children, and was eventually named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

I did sometimes get frustrated with her heroines for being more wimpy than they needed to be; usually, though, the course of the novel allowed her heroines to become more confident in themselves as well as to work through whatever neuroses they had at the start of the novel. And like I said, a common theme was damaged families. Her books, along with those of Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, were labelled as romantic suspense, but I think female noir is actually a better label for them; and as an adult, I really don’t think Stewart’s books actually are romantic suspense…but that’s a topic for another time.

And now, back to the spice mines.

freddie stroma

Major Tom (Coming Home)

Tuesday morning.

I made an enormous decision regarding the point-of-view in the WIP; one that I should have made a long time ago: instead of third person point of view, I am going to revise and rewrite it in the first person. It makes more sense; I don’t know why I didn’t do it that way in the first place when I wrote the first draft; but that was so fucking long ago who knows why I did anything back then? I revised the first chapter yesterday, and it seems much more real, much more immediate, and much more involving than it did before. I think this was, indeed, a wise decision–at least until next week, when I am pounding my head against the wall again and wondering why the hell I decided to do it this way?

Why am I a writer again? Because I clearly hate myself.

Sunday Paul and I binge-watched It’s the End of the F**king World, a Netflix original series, and were quite taken with it. We wound up watching the entire season Sunday night–the episodes are only about twenty-one minutes long–and the two young kids who play the leads, Alyssa and James, are really quite appealing. James lives alone with his father and is a self-diagnosed psychopath; when Alyssa first crossed his path in the school cafeteria, he decides she’s interesting and he decides to kill her. He’s been killing animals for a while now, and has decided to move on to people, and she’s as good a victim as anyone. Alyssa lives with her mother and her perfectly awful stepfather, who have two kids of their own, and it’s obvious Alyssa isn’t wanted there, and her mother is too dominated by her new husband to stand up to him or for her. As a result, Alyssa has a bit of an anger issue. She also hasn’t seen her father since she was eight and he left her mother–but even though he doesn’t see her he sends her a birthday card every year. These two oddballs decide to steal James’ father’s car and run away together…but it continues its dark path. James and Alyssa are, if nothing else, oddly compelling and you can’t help but root for them to find some kind of a happy ending, although the events that keep happening to them make that virtually impossible; their crimes gradually get worse and worse, and I couldn’t help but think of them in terms of Bonnie and Clyde (no doubt because I am still reading Pictures at a Revolution) and Natural Born Killers; they didn’t mean to start committing crimes but once they did, they had no choice but to keep committing crimes. It’s all kind of noirish and charming; funny yet disturbing, and incredibly original. We also get to know the two–as they grow closer to each other and start to truly care about each other, they start sharing their childhood traumas and frankly, with all that scar tissue it’s no wonder they didn’t fit in anywhere.

I’ll be very curious to see how the second season turns out.

I also have two more short stories to discuss.

First up, I returned to Lawrence Block’s In Sunlight or in Shadow for Stephen King’s “The Music Room”:

The Enderbys were in their music room–so they called it, although it was really just the spare bedroom. Once they had thought it would be little James or Jill Enderby’s nursery, but after ten years of trying, it seemed increasingly unlikely that a Baby Dear would arrive out of the Nowhere and into the Here. They had made their peace with childlessness. AT least they had work, which was a blessing in a year when men were still standing in bread lines. There were fallow periods, it was true, but when the job was on, they could afford to think of nothing else, and they both liked it that way.

Mr. Enderby was reading The New York Journal-American,  a new daily not even halfway through its first year of publication. It was sort of a tabloid and sort of not. He usually began with the comics, but when they were on the job he turned to the city news first, scanning through the stories quickly, especially the police blotter.

This short story is one of the creepiest things I’ve read during this edition of the Short Story Project. King is always good for creepy stories, but the casual, calm matter of fact way the Enderbys go about their ‘business’ is what sets this story apart. The fact that they sit around and chat, quite normally, about the ‘business’ as though they were talking about nothing more important than the weather is very chilling; the kind of thing that would make a lovely episode of Twilight Zone. Very well done, very creepy.

Next I read “The Splintered Monday,” by Charlotte Armstrong, which Sarah Weinman included in her terrific anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives. This story was originally publishing in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and was a nominee for the Best Short Story Edgar.

Mrs. Sarah Brady awakened in the guest room of her nephew Jeff’s house, and for a moment or two was simply glad for the clean page of a new day. Then she found her bookmark between the past and the future. Oh, yes. Her sister, Alice, had died on Monday, been buried on Wednesday. (Poor Alice.) This was Saturday. Mrs. Brady’s daughter, Del, was coming, late today, to drive her mother back home tomorrow.

Now that she knew where she was, Mrs. Brady cast a brief prayer into time and space, then put her lean old feet to the floor.

The house was very still. For days now it has seemed muffled, everyone moving in a quiet gloom, sweetened by mutually considerate behavior. Mrs. Brady had a feeling that her own departure would signal a lift of some kind in the atmosphere. And she did not particularly like the idea.

I first discovered Charlotte Armstrong when I was in junior high school; she was still alive and still being published, and was still rather popular. I got a Charlotte Armstrong Omnibus from the Mystery Guild; the novels included were The Witch’s House, Mischief, and The Dream Walker. I read and greatly enjoyed the first two–Mischief was made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe, retitled Don’t Bother to Knock–and they weren’t like anything I’d ever read up to that point. I did read some more of her books back then, and I never forgot her. I was quite pleased when Sarah, along with Jeffrey Marks, began shining a light on Ms. Armstrong and bringing her back to her proper place in the history of the genre.

“The Splintered Monday” is a great example of Ms. Armstrong’s gifts as a writer. The premise, as seen above in the opening paragraphs that set the stage for the story, is quite simple. A woman, who was a hypochondriac but also ill–she was, as we learn as the story progresses, a narcissist as well who insisted on being at the center of everything, and everything was all about her–has died. Her sister was visiting and her sister is quite aware of what the deceased Alice was like. But something is off, something is wrong, and Mrs. Brady can’t quite put her finger on it…so she decides to find out for herself. At first, she doesn’t learn anything useful; and it’s more along the lines that everyone is coddling her, protecting her from the truth about her sister’s death for ‘her own good’ which annoys the crap out of her. But someone in the house has a very good reason for keeping things from Mrs. Brady…because if Mrs. Brady knows everything, she’ll put the truth together and will catch a very clever killer. Armstrong’s mastery is evident in every paragraph; there is a sweetness to her writing and a sweetness to her main characters, but there’s also a very strong sense of right and wrong, of common sense, and a heroic purpose to their investigations. This is why I love Armstrong so much…and was thrilled to read this story.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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