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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I Still Can’t Get Over Loving You

Wednesday, and Day 4 of Facebook Jail. You know something? I wonder if they’ve heard of unintended consequences over at the Facebook Community Standards department. I usually spend far too much time scrolling through my Facebook feed and interacting with friends. So far this week, instead of doing that, I’ve revised a short story, worked on an outline, read a book (a wonderful history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted), read several short stories, and gotten some other things done. As this thirty day sentence continues, I will probably visit Facebook less and less–it’s kind of frustrating being able to see things and not respond to them–and by the end of the sentence, probably will be completely broken of the need to go there, and hopefully my attention span will have snapped back to what it was in the days before social media. I’m also liking Tumblr, INstagram and Twitter–you don’t wind up spending nearly as much time there, at least don’t, at any rate. Once I get used to not being on Facebook and having all this free time…look out.

I also read Lois Duncan’s young adult novel Ransom. Originally published in 1967 as Five Were Missing, it’s clear to see why Duncan was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America shortly before her death. I’ve not read all of Duncan’s work–I’m working my way through them all–but her novels were startlingly original and fresh, particularly when you consider when they were originally published. Ransom, inspired by a true crime in northern California where a school bus was hijacked and the students kidnapped, reads very quickly. The five students on the bus all are fully developed and fleshed out beautifully; and Duncan uses the kidnapping as a way of getting inside the heads of the characters and exposing them for what they are; the golden boy with dark secrets and feet of lead; the spoiled cheerleader who dislikes and resents her stepfather, only to learn that the father she idolizes is unworthy of her love; the military brat, deeply intelligent, who is the first to realize the truth of their situation and finds depths of bravery she never knew she had; the younger brother of the golden boy who realizes his own identity, and finds he has levels of potential strength his brother can only aspire to; and the orphan, being raised by his bachelor uncle with scars of his own to hide who finds out that self-pity only keeps him from enjoying his life. The dialogue is a little stilted and old-fashioned, but as I said, it reads very quickly.

Duncan was definitely a master.

Speaking of masters, I read a short story by Patricia Highsmith yesterday as well, “The Heroine,” which is the lead off story in Sarah Weinman’s Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives; a brilliant anthology of stories written by women crime writers from the 1940’s thru the 1950’s, a time when women dominated the industry and many of these wonderful writers are sadly, overlooked and forgotten.

troubled daughters twisted wives

The girl was so sure she would get the job, she had unabashedly come out to Westchester with her suitcase. She sat in a comfortable chair in the living room of the Christiansens’ house, looking in her navy blue coat and beret even younger than 21, and replied earnestly to their questions.

“Have you worked as a governess before?” Mr. Christianen asked. He sat beside his wife on the sofa, his elbows on the knees of his gray flannel slacks and his hands clasped. “Any references, I mean?”

“I was a maid at Mrs. Dwight Howell’s home in New York for the last seven months.” Lucille looked at him with suddenly wide gray eyes. “I could get a reference from there if you like…But when I saw your advertisement this morning I didn’t want to wait. I’ve always wanted a place where there were children.”

I love Patricia Highsmith, and I have an enormous volume that contains all of her short stories. It’s really criminal that I, like so many other people, don’t read more short stories (hence my short story project, which I might make a year-long thing rather than just a few months), and it deeply shames me that I’ve had Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives sitting on my shelf collecting dust all this time without taking it down and reading it. This Highsmith story, “The Heroine,” is genius, absolute genius, in the cold, slightly detached way that Highsmith uses as her point of view, which makes her stories and novels so much more chilling. It’s very clear, almost from the start–ah, that foreshadowing–that the Christiansens are probably making a terrible mistake in not checking on Lucille’s references. And how the story develops is so much more chilling than you think it is when you get that uh oh feeling in your stomach when Mrs. Christiansen charmingly says she won’t check Lucille’s references. Highsmith’s authorial voice is so distant, so cold and matter-of-fact, and her word choice is always simple and spare…but she always gets that feeling of suspense, of oh my god what is going to happen that you feel amping up as you finish reading each sentence…and her denouements never disappoint.

Weinman has done an excellent job curating this collection; she also did a two-volume collection of novels by these writers called Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940’s and 1950s: A Library of America Boxed Set. Some of the novels included in that gorgeous set I’ve already read–Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, Margaret Millar’s Beast in View, Vera Caspary’s Laura–but I am definitely going to have to get that set down from the shelf and read the others as well. Weinman is also pretty expert on the crime genre in general; very well read, fiercely intelligent and deeply perceptive, her newsletter The Crime Lady is amazing, and I read it every week for her thoughts on true crimes, the books she’s read and recommends…you can sign up for it here. You can thank for me for it later. She’s also writing a true crime of her own right now that I can’t wait to read.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Our House

..in the middle of our street.

We will not be discussing the embarrassment that was last night’s LSU “game.”

Friends are in town, and we had lunch with them at Commander’s Palace yesterday, which was lovely. I didn’t read the menu carefully and got something that had fried eggs on the top–which ran with yolk when you broke it; shudder–but I simply pushed them away with my fork and ate everything else. I was very tired after that, and came home, worked for a little while, and then curled up with Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret. I had read Big Little Lies concurrently with watching the HBO series, and enjoyed both the book and the show, so wanted to read another one of her novels. I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting with this one–the jacket blurb mentioned that a wife finds a sealed envelope addressed to her from her husband, with the words To be opened only in the event of my death.

I would have opened it immediately, of course.

the husband's secret

It was all because of the Berlin Wall.

If it weren’t for the Berline Wall, Cecilia would never have found the letter, and then she wouldn’t be sitting here, at the kitchen table, willing herself not to rip it open.

The envelope was gray with a fine layer of dust. The words on the front were written in a scratchy blue ballpoint pen, the handwriting as familiar as her own. She turned it over. It was sealed with a yellowing piece of sticky tape. When was it written? It felt old, like it was written years ago, but there was no way  of knowing for sure.

She wasn’t going to open it. It was absolutely clear that she should not open it. She was the most decisive person she knew, and she’d already decided not to open the letter, so there was nothing more to think about.

Although, honestly, if she did open it, what would be the big deal? Any woman would open it like a shot. She listed all her friends and what their responses would be if she were to ring them up right now and ask what they thought.

Liane Moriarty is compulsively readable. And that’s not a quality in an author that should be dismissed lightlyAs I mentioned the other day with Louise Penny, it’s hard to classify Moriarty’s work; there’s a crime involved, but is it really crime fiction? I’m not sure it’s marketed that way; this book has a jacket blurb from Anne Lamott, for example, rather than Sue Grafton or Sara Paretsky. She is an enormous bestseller; which is no small feat for an Australian writer to accomplish in the United States, particularly when she is writing about Australia (although Colleen McCullough was quite successful in the US with The Thorn Birds, before she turned to ancient Rome). She structures her books around three women as the main characters; and she writes about the issues that concern women–I suppose, in a way, her novels could be classified as modern domestic suspense. Like the previous masters of domestic suspense (a classification title I am still not entirely convinced I like), she writes about every day women thrust into extraordinary situations, and she also shoehorns in some brilliant social commentary along with social issues, like Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong and Dorothy B. Hughes did. The books are, as I said, compulsively readable and hard to set aside until you’ve reached the end.

Women writers, no matter their success, are rarely taken as seriously as male writers. I’m not sure if it’s because women writers tend to focus on women and issues that affect them while men, in theory, tackle larger themes. Male characters written by men are off saving the world in genre fiction, bedding fabulous babes and getting into fistfights, surviving by their skills or because their masculinity is superior to that of the bad guys. Or the male characters are finding dissatisfaction and misery in their maleness (I’m looking at you, literary fiction), prisoners of societal expectations of manliness and resenting putting aside their fantasy of what their life should be and having to settle for something that is less than that fantasy. Rarely do you find male characters (I’m not saying they don’t exist, so don’t come after me; I am fully cognizant of the fact that these are all incredibly broad generalizations) who are struggling with the work/home balance, juggling having to have a career and an income with finding time to be participants in their children’s lives or even, for that matter, simply helping around the house.

Men do not drive the story in Liane Moriarty’s novels, but they do impact it. They serve as catalysts for her stories, but her books are about the women whose lives are impacted by the men in them.

The Husband’s Secret,  like Big Little Lies, tells the story of three women whose lives intersect due to a private grammar school, St. Agatha’s in Sydney. Rachel is the aging part-time school secretary, widowed and haunted by the unsolved murder of her teenaged daughter many years before. The loss of her daughter has embittered her, and the only thing she basically has to live for is her grandson. Her story is set into motion when the perfect daughter-in-law she doesn’t much like and her son tell her that Lauren, the daughter-in-law, is being sent by her company to New York for two years, taking the only thing in her life she cares about–the grandson–away from her; just as her daughter was taken from her some twenty-five years or so earlier.

Tess’ world has just been ripped apart by the announcement by her husband and her best friend/first cousin that they are in love and want to be together–but out of respect for her having consummated the relationship. Her cousin, Felicity, is like a sister to her; their mothers were twins and they were born within days of each other. Felicity also used to be overweight; over the past year she has lost weight and become beautiful. Tess, betrayed and hurt, uses her mother’s recent accident in which she broke her ankle as an excuse to grab her son Liam and leave Melbourne, returning to Sydney to sort out her life and her future–enrolling young Liam in St. Agatha’s.

Cecilia, the third woman, is like Madeline in Big Little Lies; married, highly competent and efficient, the organizer that winds up running everything and basically being Supermom. She married a handsome rich man, and they have three daughters together. She’s hardly as confident as she seems; it’s a veneer to protect her and hide her own insecurities as she ruthlessly organizes her life and tries to put the world in order–one of those people who are basically exhausting to talk to; who leave you tired and drained when you finish speaking with them and you aren’t sure why.

Their lives intersect primarily because of the letter Cecilia finds in her attic, although Tess is less involved with the other two women, only peripherally floating into their orbit through the school, but the book’s theme is grief and motherhood and how these three different and incredibly complex women deal with both. What sacrifices do mothers have to make for their children, and what do they owe themselves? What is too far, too much, and where do you draw the line? Rachel’s life was decimated by her daughter’s murder and the lack of a conclusion to the story; to the extent that she walled herself up away from the rest of her family, and her relationship with her son has suffered–it is only through the events of this book that she finally realizes that her son is suffering not only from the loss of his sister and the loss of his father but from the loss of his mother. What does Tess owe to her young son in the wake of the apparent end of her marriage, and the horrific betrayal by her husband and her cousin? Does she try to ride out this love affair, rise above her own hurt and anger and put her child first? Is it better for Liam if she ends the marriage or tries to get past everything and forgive him, if that’s the option? She also is forced to take a long hard look at her own life at who she is and who has become as a person, and who does she want to become?

Cecilia’s journey is, of course, the most shattering. Her husband’s secret, contained in the letter, turns her world upside down and inside out; nothing is what she thought it was, what she believed, and she too is faced with a horrible choice: any decision she makes is going to be incredibly difficult to live with–but what can she live with for the sake of her daughters?

There is some reader manipulation; it’s important for the narrative that Cecilia not read the letter until a certain point, and when she does, the chapter ends with her starting to read–which felt unfair, particularly as the book shifted to another viewpoint in the next chapter. It would have been just as effective, I thought, for the text of the letter to appear and not show Cecilia’s reaction before shifting to the other viewpoint; that’s the editorial and/or authorial I would have made. It just kind of felt manipulative.

The book is very clever, certainly smart–I enjoy the way Moriarty writes, and she has a great way of finding the word rhythm that works, slightly altering those patterns as she shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint to give the reader a stronger sense of the character and their voice; a nice hat trick which is not easy to pull off. The decisions the women make–all affected by the letter Cecilia finds–may not be happily ever afters, but are all things they can, they find, live with. They can go on, they can endure, they can survive.

And maybe that is a happily ever after, after all.

After finishing this, I started reading Lisa Unger’s In the Blood, which immediately grabbed my interest; it was hard to put it down in order to get sleep.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Allentown

I was so tired last night when I got home from work–and I worked a short day! After work yesterday, a friend and I went to lunch to a place on the corner of Tulane and Carrollton called Namese, and I had an enormous  bowl of beef pho, which was absolutely delicious. I was in the mood for noodles, and having never actually had pho before, was quite thrilled to try it, and it was amazing. I’ve been wanting to try pho since seeing a show on our local PBS channel, WYES, about the big Vietnamese community in New Orleans, and one of the things they talked about on the documentary was pho. I’d been wanting to try it ever since, and got my chance.

DAMN THAT WAS GOOD.

I’d known we have a big Vietnamese community in New Orleans for quite some time–most of them live in New Orleans East, and were devastated by the flooding after the levees failed back in 2005. Poppy Z. Brite wrote about that community in his brilliant (and deeply disturbing) Exquisite Corpse, doing it so well I never had the nerve to try to write about it myself. (Our first, and only,  Congressman from Orleans Parish was a Vietnamese; Joseph Cao, who defeated “Dollar Bill” Jefferson in the post-Katrina scandal created by the fifty thousand dollars in cash he had stored in his home freezer. Cao was born in Ho Chi Minh City (then called Saigon), and only served one term in Congress–but I liked Congressman Cao; he put New Orleans ahead of party, and I was sorry to see him go.

I have an idea for a noir involving the Vietnamese communities of the Gulf Coast that I hope to write some day. I’ve also been toying with an old idea for a horror novel that’s been dancing in my head for the last thirty years or so–I can tell that I am writing another book; my creativity always spikes when I am writing a book.

Honestly. One would think I could get that under control.

Anyway, I also finished reading Margaret Millar’s Do Evil in Return last night. It wasn’t the below edition I read, but rather one of the volumes of The Collected Millar; this volume also contains Fire Will Freeze, Experiment in Springtime, The Cannibal Heart, and Rose’s Last Summer. But I rather like that Gothic-style cover.

millar-do-evil-in-return-lancer

The afternoon was still hot but the wind carried a threat of fog to come in the night. It slid in through the open window and with curious, insinuating fingers it pried into the corners of the reception room and lifted the skirt of Miss Schiller’s white uniform and explored the dark hair of the girl sitting by the door. The girl held a magazine in her lap but she wasn’t reading it; she was pleating the corners of the pages one by one.

“I don’t know if Dr. Keating will be able to see you,” Miss Schiller said. “It’s quite late.”

The girl coughed nervously. “I couldn’t get here any sooner. I–couldn’t find the office.”

“Oh. You’re a stranger in town?”

“Yes.”

“Were you referred to Dr. Keating by anyone?”

“Referred?”

“Did anyone send you?”

Margaret Millar is a treasure, and her work, despite now being dated because of societal and social changes, are worthy of not only being read by modern audiences but also deserving of study. She, along with Dorothy B. Hughes and Charlotte Armstrong, formed a triumvirate of strong women writing suspense novels featuring women protagonists that were the equal of anything written by male contemporaries; there were numerous other women doing the same, but these three had longer careers and are now being rediscovered, in part thanks to the diligent work of Sarah Weinman and Jeffrey Marks. Library of America has released a two-volume collection of works by great women writers of the time; Soho Crime is releasing thick volumes collecting all of Millar’s work, which I am happily acquiring. I read Armstrong when I was young, and loved her; I am in the process of working my way through the canons of both Millar and Hughes, as well as two other great women writers of the same period, the incomparable Patricia Highsmith and my personal hero, Daphne du Maurier.

Do Evil in Return, originally published in 1950, is ultimately a novel about how society and its hypocritical misogynistic treatment of women can destroy them. The main character of the novel, Dr. Charlotte Keating, is a strong, independent woman with a successful practice in a small California coastal town. She is both single and hard-working; owns her own car and her own home–no small feat for a woman in 1950–and the book opens with a young woman coming to her for help. The woman, Violet O’Gorman, is only twenty and married, but finds herself with a particular problem; estranged from her husband, she had a one-night stand with a married man which has left her pregnant, and she is desperate for an abortion, which of course was illegal in 1950. Dr. Keating–Charley to her friends–refuses to break the law and perform this service, but her heart goes out to her patient and wants to help her, but while distracted by a phone call doesn’t notice the girl slipping out of her office. With a local address her only clue as to how to find Violet, she goes looking for her…and soon finds herself wrapped up in a terrible string of events beyond control, a noose tightening around her own neck. For, like her patient, Charley herself is involved in a love affair with a married man–a platonic one, to be sure, for she refuses to become intimate with him as he is married–and the similarities she sees between herself and young Violet is part of what drives her. The following morning, Violet’s body washes ashore, an apparent suicide, according to the police but Charley herself isn’t so sure.

And of course, she is right.

Millar’s particular genius lies in how casually she lays out her cards; she never tells her reader straight out what’s going on, but allows it to unfurl naturally, leaving it to her reader to figure it out. When we meet Charley’s platonic lover, there is no mention of his being married–Millar simply talks about the stifling existence he has at home with Gwen. As the story continues the reader slowly realizes that Gwen is actually his wife, and she is also one of Charley’s patients. Charley has tried to foist Gwen off on other doctors, but hypochondriac Gwen refuses to see anyone else–and is incredibly needy, ringing Charley for help at all hours of the day or night. Charley’s own feelings for Gwen’s husband also aren’t that simple; and in 1950 divorces weren’t as easy to obtain as they are today.

Perhaps the strongest part of the book is how Millar clearly depicts how claustrophobic a woman’s world was in 1950, and the delicate balance a single, independent professional woman had to maintain. Exposure of the relationship would ruin Charley, both personally and professionally; just as Violet’s unexpected pregnancy has ruined her. Society’s expectations of women, and their sexuality, are the true villains, the true evil in this novel; and the realization that this world Millar so brilliantly depicts was only sixty-seven years ago is truly chilling.

I think this book would be excellent reading for a Women’s Studies course; to let young women know how truly awful and misogynistic society was not so long ago, as a reminder to everyone today how far women have come in a short period of time, and how hard they fought to get to where they are today.