Sugar Walls

Sunday morning. Yesterday wasn’t nearly as productive as I would have hoped; but I am pleased to report that “My Brother’s Keeper” is finished,  and “Don’t Look Down” isn’t nearly as big of a mess as I thought it was before reading it from beginning to end. It needs some serious polishing before I can consider it to be done–or read it aloud–but I think another push on it today and it will be done. I also started writing yet another story yesterday–“This Thing of Darkness”–which is kind of an interesting idea. We’ll see how it goes. My goal for today is to finish “Don’t Look Down” and “Fireflies” today so they are ready for the read-aloud. And, of course, once “Don’t Look Down” is finished, my collection will be as well–which is kind of exciting.

I didn’t work on Scotty yesterday; I am going to hold off on going back to work on him until tomorrow. I want to get this collection finished, and he needs to sit for another day. I may go back and reread what I’ve already written; the first fourteen chapters, so I can figure out where, precisely, this next chapter needs to go.

I also finished reading Megan Abbott’s amazing Give Me Your Hand last night.

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I guess I always knew, in some subterranean way, Diane and I would end up back together.

We were bound, ankle to ankle, a monstrous three-legged race.

Accidental accomplices. Wary conspirators.

Or Siamese twins, fused in some hidden place.

It is powerful, this thing we share. A murky history, its narrative near impenetrable. We keep telling it to ourselves, noting its twists and turns, trying to make sense of it. And hiding it from everyone else.

Sometimes it feels like Diane was a corner of myself broken off and left to roam my body, floating through my blood.

On occasional nights, stumbling to the bathroom after a bad dream, a Diane dream, I avoid the mirror, averting my eyes, leaving the light off, some primitive part of my half-asleep brain certain that if I looked, she might be there. (Cover your mirrors after dark, my great-grandma used to say. Or they trap the dreamer’s wandering soul.)

Megan Abbott has been a favorite of mine, since years ago when I first read Bury Me Deep as a judge for the Hammett Prize. A period noir, set in the early 1980’s and based on a true story, I was blown away by its deceptive simplicity and hidden complexities. It echoed of the great noirs of James M. Cain and great hardboiled women writers, like Margaret Millar and Dorothy B. Hughes; a tale of desperation and love and murder, crime and ruined reputations, as it delved into the complex emotions that could lead a woman to commit a horrifically brutal murder; its exploration of small-town corruption was reminiscent of Hammett’s Red Harvest. Over the years since that first reading, I’ve gone on to read Abbott’s other brilliances: This Song is You, Queenpin, Dare Me, The End of Everything, You Will Know Me. Her women aren’t victims in the classic sense of victims in crime fiction; her women have agency, they make their decisions and they know their own power; a common theme to all of her novels is the discovery of that power and learning to harness it; whether it’s sexual power (The End of Everything), physical power (You Will Know Me), cerebral (Give Me Your Hand), or inner strength (Dare Me).

And somehow, she manages to continue to grow and get better as a novelist, as a writer, with every book.

She is probably the greatest psychological suspense writer of our time; her ability to create complex inner lives for her characters, to explore the duality of weakness and strength we all carry within us, and the delving into the complicated nuances of female friendships, with all their inner rivalries and passions and jealousies and affections, is probably unparalleled. Her books are also incredibly smart and layered; this one has references, both subtle and overt, to both Hamlet and Macbeth seamlessly woven into the text; the dual, competing themes of inertia despite the knowledge of a crime versus unfettered ambition; and what to do when faced with both. How do you decide? And what does your decisions say about you as a person?

Give Me Your Hand is set in the world of research science, which may seem a weird setting for a crime novel…but competition for research funding and positions, for advancement in career, the thin veneer of civility and camaraderie between co-workers angling for plum research assignments, is at its very heart, noir. One of the characters, Alex, says at one point, jokingly, “we’re a nest of vipers”…and it turns out to be very true.

The novel follows the complex friendship between the main character, Kit Owens and Diane Fleming, who first meet as young teens at Science Camp, and again later their senior year of high school. They become friends, with similar interests; Kit and Diane push each other to be their very best. It is the friendship with Diane that sets Kit on the road to  her career as a research scientist; yet their friendship is blown apart by a secret Diane shares with Kit,  and the knowledge of that shared secret haunts both women for the rest of their lives. Their paths cross again years later, working in the same lab and competing for a limited number of spots on a new, important research project having to do with how excessive premenstrual syndrome: premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). The book also offers two timelines: the senior year, with its heavy influence of the Hamlet theme, and the present, which is more on the lines of Macbeth. Blood also is used, repeatedly, brilliantly, as an image; the study is on a disorder caused by menstruation, and of course, blood as in relatives, as a life-force, as a motivator.

The book is slated for a July release; usually when I get advance copies I wait until the release date is imminent for me to blog about these books. But this one couldn’t wait; I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since finishing it late last night.

Preorder the hell out of this, people.

 

One More Night

Thursday. I overslept this morning and thus didn’t make it to the gym–I’ll have to go tomorrow night after work–but I also had a really great night’s sleep and so am taking that as a win; now that I am out of bed my muscles aren’t tired or sore. I’ll do some stretching and my abs this morning before getting in the shower. I also have to get up tomorrow morning and go to the eye doctor; instead of my usual wimpy not complaining and accepting things, I called them and told them I can’t read in my progressive contacts so I need a stronger prescription. So, I am going in tomorrow to get a new trial pair and perhaps order my new glasses and a year’s supply of the contacts; depending on how the new ones feel.

The decisions have been made on the Bouchercon anthology, and all the people who submitted have been duly noted. This weekend I will read the chosen again and put them in order. I am currently waiting to hear back from all the selected authors. I think we’ll make the announcement of the table of contents next week. Huzzah!

Yesterday I also started writing, of all things, a Chanse MacLeod short story. I know, right? I don’t think I’ll ever write another Chanse novel, but there are ideas I had for him that I don’t want to really waste, and hey, why not write short stories about him? I always had in mind to write about him returning to the town of his birth; I also had a story in mind involving his younger brother; another with him dealing with his fraternity past in Baton Rouge–all stories my publishers were never interested in since they weren’t set in New Orleans. As I have said before, I’ve never really known how to write a private eye mystery short story, but all this short story reading I’ve been doing has kind of opened my eyes in that regard; so thank you, Sue Grafton, Ross Macdonald, Laura Lippman, etc. I’ve already realized that the opening doesn’t work, and it’s just extraneous crap I don’t need. But I am going to soldier on, and hopefully today I will finish the first draft. I also have an idea for a short story involving Chanse’s partner, whose name I cannot recall; I’ve always been interested in writing about her–the straight girl who paid for college by stripping on Bourbon Street. I cannot for the life of me think of her name right now, which is annoying, but I always thought she was interesting. I’d even thought about spinning her off, even using Chanse as a supporting character in the books–but then, is there an audience for a series about a female private eye who used to work as a stripper? But I think I can make it work as a short story. We’ll see.

Last night while I was making dinner I reread some of the short stories I have in progress, and was quite pleased with them. I am going to try to get those revisions done as quickly as I can, so I can get them out of my hair so I can focus on getting the new project done.

I’m still behind on the Short Story Project, but I did manage to read Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind” yesterday; someone recently talked about it somewhere on social media as the perfect hard-boiled short story. It had been a while since I’d read Chandler–and I haven’t read all of Chandler, either, something I need to remedy–and so I thought it was a great opportunity to read this story, which I wasn’t familiar with.

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

I was getting one in a flossy new place across the street from the apartment house where I lived. It had been open about a week and it wasn’t doing any business. The kid behind the bar was in his early twenties and looked as if he had never had a drink in his life.

I’ve not read all of Chandler, or his hard-boiled cohorts Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, or noir master James M. Cain. What I have read I’ve greatly enjoyed; as I have greatly enjoyed John D. Macdonald. I think I’ve been influenced by all of them to some degree; and there simply isn’t enough time to read. I’d love to go back and not only finish reading all of their works but to reread the ones I’ve already read; The Maltese Falcon, for example, is way overdue for a reread and so are the Travis McGee novels; The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, and The Lady in the Lake, along with Love’s Lovely Counterfeit and of course, the Archer novels (although I am reading the Archer short stories). Anyway, I’ve always loved these writers and their work, and I do need to go back and reread them, problematic as some of them may be to modern eyes.

“Red Wind” is a really good story, complicated and complex, but still moves relatively easily from A to B to C. It opens with Marlowe stopping in at a bar across the street from where he lives in an apartment building, and a murder occurs right in front of him and the other denizens of the bar. After dealing with the police he heads back to the apartment building where he runs into the proverbial ‘dame’ of these types of stories, she lies to him, of course, but also manages to save his life when the murderer shows up to eliminate the witnesses. But while the mystery of the murder is now cleared up, turns out the victim has left some loose ends behind–involving the dame and some others. He was a blackmailer; the murder had nothing to do with the shooting (a very clever shift by Chandler), and Marlowe is on the case, trying to solve the blackmail cases and dealing with the LAPD. The writing is choice, terse, and all throughout the story the Santa Ana wind plays a role, almost like another character, driving people to do things they might not do under normal weather circumstances.

And now, back to the spice mines; since I didn’t go to the gym I need to get other things done.

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Sunglasses at Night

Sunday morning. Last evening I went to a Christmas party and had an absolutely lovely time; but stayed much longer than was probably warranted and got home much later than I should have. But there were lots of laughter, and I got to hang out with friends that I don’t see nearly enough, and so overall, I would classify it as a win. I also slept beautifully and deeply and restfully after getting home, so that, too, was absolutely lovely.

Today I have to do a lot of writing; I finished a project yesterday, which was also lovely, and managed to get the cleaning of the downstairs finished. Today I will move to the upstairs, doing cleaning and organizing when I take breaks from the writing/editing I have to do. I also will read some more of Donna Andrews’ How the Finch Stole Christmas when I can; hopefully wrapping up reading it this evening as well. I’m not sure what I am going to read next; I am rather torn between a reread of George Baxt’s A Queer Kind of Death, Joan Didion’s Miami, Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse (also a reread), or something else in the pile. I also haven’t done my annual reread of Rebecca, but I think I am going to save that for actual Christmas. There are also some other duMauriers lying around the apartment I haven’t read that I need to (The House on the Strand, The Progress of Julius, The Scapegoat), some Ross MacDonalds, many Margaret Millars, and so many other books by writers I adore and am way behind on–I still have Stephen Kings that are languishing on my shelves, unread–and of course, come January it’s going to be Short Story Month again.

I also have another short story to write that I keep forgetting about, which, of course, is insane. (Note to self: put post-it note up on computer.)

But the good news is I am finally feeling motivated again about writing; this past year hasn’t been, for me, a good one as far as writing is concerned. I had a long conversation with my friend Susan last night about the current Scotty and the problems I’m having with it–and of course, while talking about the problems out loud with her I solved the problem. (It really is amazing, isn’t it, how saying things out loud can make a difference and make you see what’s been missing? The same thing happened with the WIP when I was chatting about it with my friend Wendy in Toronto–as I spoke I could see in my head what I needed to add, and then she put her finger right on the problem and pointed it out just as I was coming to the realization, which confirmed that it was the correct one. Again, it’s all a matter of having the time to make these fixes, but now that I know whatI need to fix, well, that makes it all a lot easier.

I also finished post-it-noting Garden District Gothic yesterday while watching the first half of the SEC championship game, so the Scotty Bible also proceeds apace, which is also lovely.

So much I need to get done this month!

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines.

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You Can’t Hurry Love

I read a lot this weekend! I did work on the writing a little bit, but not nearly as much as I could/should have. I finished reading the Highsmith, reread The Exorcist, and finally got to Ross MacDonald’s The Drowning Pool, which I read yesterday afternoon, and then last night while watching the US Open I started reading Christopher Golden’s Ararat (which is great fun so far; I’m a little less than halfway through and having a great time reading it).

It might interest you to know, Constant Reader, that I’d never read Ross MacDonald until I was on a panel somewhere with Christopher Rice, either in 2002or 2003, and Chris mentioned MacDonald as one of his favorite writers/greatest influences. I’d read John D. MacDonald and Gregory McDonald; but had somehow never gotten around to Ross. I knew of the Lew Archer series, of course, but had never read any of them, nor any of his standalones. Based on Chris’ recommendation, I started reading them, and never looked back–although I have been slowly doling them out, as there is a limited amount of them and no new ones coming anytime soon. I was a little surprised, after finishing The Exorcist, to pick up The Drowning Pool and realize it was one I hadn’t read.

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If you didn’t look at her face she was less than thirty, quick-bodied and slim as a girl. Her clothing drew attention to the fact: a tailored sharkskin suit and high heels that tensed her nylon-shadowed calves. But there was a pull of worry around her eyes and drawing at her mouth. The eyes were deep blue, with a sort of double vision. They saw you clearly, took you in completely, and at the same time looked beyond you. They had years to look back on, and more things to see in the years than a girl’s eyes had. About thirty-five, I thought, and still in the running.

She stood in the doorway without speaking long enough for me to think those things. Her teeth were nibbling the inside of her upper lip, and both of her hands were clutching her black suede bag at the level of her waist. I let the silence stretch out. She had knocked and I had opened the door. Undecided or not, she couldn’t expect me to lift her over the threshold. She was a big girl now, and she had come for a reason. Her stance was awkward with urgency.

“Mr. Archer?” she said at last.

“Yes. Will you come in?”

“Thank you, Forgive me for hanging back. It must make you feel like a dentist.”

“Everybody hates detectives and dentists. We hate them back.”

The Drowning Pool is hard-boiled, borderline noir (based on the fact that Archer works as a private eye), and can’t you imagine the above scene being played, in black-and-white by either Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum, talking to either Gloria Grahame or Ida Lupino or Barbara Stanwyck? The story is simple: Archer is hired by the wealthy-seeming Mrs. Slocum to find out who has written her husband a poison-pen letter accusing her of adultery; back at the time the book was written, adultery was one of the few grounds for divorce recognized in every state. But as Archer begins to investigate, turns out Mrs. Slocum and her husband don’t have money; the money belongs to her mother-in-law, and she keeps them on a tight leash. Her estate is also sitting on a lot of oil, which she refuses to allow anyone to drill for, which would in turn make them even filthier rich. The elder Mrs. Slocum winds up dead in the swimming pool during a party, and soon the case begins twisting and turning left and right–and more bodies continue to pile up as Archer tries to get to the bottom of what is going on at the Slocum estate. It’s a great, fast read–and MacDonald’s grasp of language is extraordinary.

There’s a reason why MacDonald is up there with the greats of crime fiction.

There’s also an interesting subplot–almost a throwaway–about why the second Mrs. Slocum’s marriage is an abject failure. MacDonald doesn’t spend a lot of time on this, but it’s there for the queer reader to pick up on. It would be interesting to compare and contrast this book with MacDonald’s wife, Margaret Millar’s, Beast in View, released a few years later. There’s also an interesting comparison to be made between The Drowning Pool and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, in the character of Mrs. Slocum’s daughter Cathy, and the daughter in Cain’s book; also, an interesting comparison between this book could be made with Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

Maybe someday when I have more time.