Mary Mary

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

And then, last year I discovered Mary Russell.

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

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

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

And I have not regretted that decision once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superheated

And now it is Sunday in the Lost Apartment. I trust everyone had a most lovely and delightful Saturday? I did; I spent most of it cleaning and reading and watching figure skating and making groceries and running errands and doing all sorts of things that didn’t involve writing. I’m not entirely sure again why I am avoiding writing–yesterday methinks it was primarily due to the hangover of the final push to finish the short story, as well as trying to purge it out of my brain. Part of the joy of being a writer apparently is the absolute guarantee of self-doubt and second guessing everything once you’ve turned the story/manuscript in. I spent way too much time yesterday wondering “maybe I should have done this” and “maybe I should have done that” and on and on it goes–with the occasional second thoughts about the novel I turned in two weeks ago as well. Enormously lovely, you see.

But the figure skating was fun to watch, as always, and congratulations to our national champions (the men’s title will be decided today, with Nathan Chen most likely becoming the first US man to win five consecutive national titles in a row since Dick Button’s post-war dominance, winning seven in a row and two Olympic gold medals (a feat unparalleled until Japan’s Yuzuru Honyu won the last two Olympics). It’s also interesting to me how strong the United States has become in the ice dancing discipline this century, after decades of not being up to international snuff. The Saints also are playing today in the play-offs; playing Tampa Bay and Tom Brady for the third time and hoping to pull off the hat trick.

Today is going to be mostly spent reading and cleaning, methinks; I need to focus on my reread of the Kansas book manuscript and make some decisions about where it’s going to go, how to clean it up, what can be kept and what can be discarded. The manuscript currently sits somewhere around 75000 words, give or take; I need to add some more to it while taking other stuff out; strengthening some bits while underplaying others. I am also still greatly enjoying Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and am looking forward to spending some more time with Mary Russell…although I must confess that I am going to have to be very careful with reading more Sherlockian fiction, whether it’s actually Conan Doyle’s or pastiches, because revisiting the Sherlockian universe makes me want to write some more about my own Sherlockian universe. The period of time in New Orleans history where I have put my Holmes has already been written about by David Fulmer, in his series beginning with Jass, and I may have to revisit those novels–it’s been a long time since I read them, and I also remember enjoying them. Anyway, I am digressing, as always, from the original point: writing that Sherlock story has given me the bug to write about him some more, and as usual, I am thinking not only in terms of a short story but of a novel as well…with the full knowledge that actually Sherlockians will undoubtedly see my own feeble attempts as an abomination and heresy.

I’ve also been reading Gore Vidal’s Lincoln in dribs and drabs. I am enjoying it, but the lovely thing about Vidal’s writing is it isn’t like reading a thriller or a good mystery; you can put it down at any point and walk away from it, not missing it until you pick it up again. I am a fan of Vidal’s, even though he seems as though he would have been a horrible person to know–a snob both intellectually as well as in terms of class–but he also was fiercely intelligent and witty, and he looked at the United States with a jaundiced, unsentimental eye. I don’t think I’ve really read much about Lincoln as an adult–I of course read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals back in the day, but don’t really remember much about it. Yesterday I also started reading through my copy of The Black Death by Phillip Ziegler–I have a vague idea for a murder mystery, most likely a short story, set during the plague years in Florence; I don’t think there is much modern fiction set during that time, so of course I am interested in it. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year reading plague histories and fictions (yet somehow not rereading Stephen King’s The Stand) and I still would like to get back to my story “The Flagellants,” which I was having a lot of fun with last spring.

I’m also seeing conversations on-line about whether authors should include the pandemic in their fictions or not, which seems kind of counter-intuitive; did New York writers pretend 9/11 didn’t happen? Did New Orleans writers pretend Katrina was a near-miss? In both cases the answer is no. You may not want to write fiction set during the pandemic, but we cannot pretend the pandemic didn’t happen–particularly since it’s on-going. It’s hard to write about something–even harder to read about it–when you are still in the midst of it because you don’t know how it’s going to end. By the time I started writing Murder in the Rue Chartres it was already apparent New Orleans was going to come back from the flood, even if what the new city would look like was still being debated, was still uncertain, and up in the air. I’ve never written about Scotty’s experiences with Katrina, rather choosing to pick up his story several years later with the flood, the evacuation and everything else entailed in the destruction of 90% of the city in the rearview mirror. I get that readers might not want to read about and relive this past year plus; but I don’t see how you can write honestly about an America where it never happened. The last four years of this administration–including the sack of the Capitol–also cannot be entirely ignored either. So what to do? I suspect history isn’t going to be terribly kind to the insurrectionists nor the anti-maskers (deservedly so), particularly since they are the ones who politicized public health and safety because they believed the Mammon they’ve worshipped like a cult for so long; their own golden calf, as it were–despite all the warnings in their Bible. Ah, the dilemmas we modern writers face!

I do sometimes wonder if writers during the Civil War wondered if they should write about the war or not in their work.

And on that note, tis time for me to start mining spice here on Kessel, so it’s off into the mines with me. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader!

The B-Side

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

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

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

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

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

I also keep forgetting Monday is a holiday. Huzzah!

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

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

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

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

Land of Confusion

Wednesday, and my body clock  has apparently, finally, after all these years, adjusted back to getting up early the first two days of the week. This morning I woke up again around four, went back to sleep, woke up again around six, and then fell asleep again so that I could wake up just after eight feeling rested and refreshed. Which is cool and lovely, since today is a half-day for me and I can get sort of caught up on things around the Lost Apartment. The kitchen sink is full of dirty dishes, and there are two loads of laundry in some sort of the process of being laundered; the living room is a mess, and so forth. I can also run get the mail after work, and stop at the grocery store for a minor grocery run as well.

Pulling Bury Me in Shadows together is proceeding apace; by the end of this evening I hope to  have over half of it done, with the corrections and additions made that need to be made. This does put me right on schedule for turning it on Monday of next week, which is lovely. It feels good to be producing again, and of course, the whole “Moist Money” thing was really cool this week, too–that’s two short stories I’ve placed over the last few months, which is truly a lovely thing to contemplate. I put some more out for submission earlier this week, too, so hopefully there will be more good news in the future….

..or devastating confirmations of my imposter syndrome. We’ll see how it goes.

Yesterday Facebook memories reminded me that nine years ago was the day we brought Scooter home from the Cat Practice for a two week trial, to see whether we wanted to adopt him or not. He was home with us for exactly two hours before we decided he was a keeper, and went back the next morning to finalize the adoption. It’s so funny; over the years neither Paul nor I had ever had a cat; I’d had roommates with cats, but for the most part they were distant and aloof and rarely seen. Friends had cats, but we were both more dog people, and the sad truth is, we only acquired Skittle when we lived in the carriage house because we had a mouse. Owning Skittle turned us both into cat aficionados; whenever we visit anyone who has a cat, Paul will spend most of the night trying to befriend the cat. Skittle’s untimely demise from cancer was devastating to both of us; Paul was so torn up over it we weren’t sure we’d get another cat. But the Lost Apartment felt so empty without one…when I went back to the Cat Practice to pick up Skittle’s ashes, there was a cat up for adoption in one of the cages behind the front desk–an orange cat whose name was Texas. He was very sweet, and I told Paul that night about him, as Paul was already looking into getting another cat. “Why don’t you go down there and take a look at Texas?” I told him, and so Friday morning before work he walked down there and did, indeed, take a look at Texas. He emailed me when he got to his office and we decided I’d pick Paul up later that afternoon and we’d go get Texas for a trial. I remember letting him out of the carrier, and Scooter immediately, timidly his under the coffee table. He stayed there for a while, with Paul teasingly saying “now, if all you’re going to do is hide under the table we’re not going to keep you.” We turned on the television and started watching….and before long he came out, climbed up onto Paul’s chest, purring and cuddling, and we were his.

And have been, ever since. Nine lovely years. He’s such a sweet cat, too. I finally wrote him into the Scotty series–he’s Taylor’s cat, but Scotty and the boys are all wrapped around Scooter’s paws, the same way we are. It’s always lovely, you know, to come home from a day at work (especially on those shitty days) and have a cat climb into your lap, purring and wanting to cuddle and offering no-strings affection.

We got caught up with The Righteous Gemstones last night, which I am enjoying a lot more than I ever thought I would, and also started watching On Becoming a God in Central Florida–which I’m not so sure about whether we’ll continue watching. The first episode just made me feel incredibly sorry for the main characters, although I didn’t see the shocking death coming. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a comedy–perhaps a dark comedy?–or not, but it didn’t feel funny to me; I don’t like humor where poor people are the butt of the joke , and that’s how it seemed to me…I hate seeing even dark humor where the dreams of poor people to better themselves are mocked or belittled. I don’t care for that, because all I wind up doing is feeling sorry for them. I’ll probably give the show another episode or two, but if that’s all it’s going to be I don’t think we’ll finish watching–but Kirsten Dunst is terrific in the lead role.

I also finished reading “Murder in Basin Street” in Ready to Hang and am now onto the next famous murder, “Juliette and the Kind Doctor,” which seems like an almost perfect story to adapt into a fictional novel. As I read more and more New Orleans history, it’s astonishing to me how dark that history is; almost from the very beginning. I am definitely most likely going to wind up writing historical fiction about New Orleans at some point, I suspect; I see many hours in the archives at the Historic New Orleans Collection, the Williams Center, and the Tulane Louisiana Historical Research Association in my future. There’s just such a rich history to explore and dive headlong into….and as a history addict, I can get lost in such research for years.

Which reminds me, I have been asked to write a story for an interesting anthology; a book of Sherlock Holmes stories where the only requirement is that it can’t be set in England and Holmes/Watson cannot be English. My first thought on reading the email was I can’t write a Holmes story–I haven’t read Doyle since I was a kid and immediately thereafter, Oh, I can set the case in Storyville in the 1910’s and I can use that title I’ve been sitting on for years–“The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy!” 

Naturally, this made me very excited, and now I have to not only do some more research on the time period, but I need to go back and reread some Holmes stories, to get not only a feel for the character that isn’t influenced by either television series (Sherlock with Cumberbatch and Elementary), but it more Doyle-influenced. I’ve never been much of a Sherlockian; I did enjoy reading the stories when I was young, and I read the Nicholas Meyer pastiches in the 1970’s (The Seven Per Cent Solution and The West End Horror), but other than watching the TV series and the occasional film (Spielberg’s Young Sherlock Holmes and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, with Robert Downey Jr, which was really just Holmes as Tony Stark in the nineteenth century), my interest in Holmes and Doyle is fairly minimal. Will writing this story turn me into a Sherlockian? I’ve already recruited some of my avid Sherlockian friends to give me advice and perhaps read early versions, to see if I am getting it right.

And stranger things have happened.

And on that note, I’ve got some emails to answer. Back to the spice mines with me!

622725_10151128943264562_613371184_o