I Could Fall in Love with You

I have been saying for years–literally years–that when it comes to crime fiction, the women are killing it.

Literally, in some cases.

There’s always been this weird, misogynistic mentality that women don’t write as dark as men; which is absurd on its face. I could easily name any number of women who’ve written noir that makes your skin crawl with its darkness (Christa Faust’s Money Shot remains a favorite to this day), and even more who explore the darkness of relationships–romantic, friends, family–and go places you can’t imagine in your darkest moments. I am also of the school of thought–trained by being an Edgar judge for Mystery Writers of America–that crime novels, mysteries if you will, are any fiction that is driven by a crime; whether it’s the commission, investigation, cover-up, solving, or the impact of a crime on the characters being explored in the narrative. This greatly broadens the umbrella that is crime fiction (technically, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby count as crime novels under this definition). I often, whenever following an actual criminal investigation or trial in the press/media, find myself wondering about the peripheral characters in these tragedies; how do you go on from there? How does this impact and change the rest of their lives? What if you found out your boyfriend/lover/spouse was a serial killer? What if your best friend was murdered in high school? How does that change you, impact you, influence the decisions you make for the rest of your life?

Jar of Hearts is that kind of novel–and fascinating in its exploration of the story of a woman in just that kind of situation–only even darker.

I didn’t read Jar of Hearts when it was released–I don’t even want to look at the copyright page because seeing how long it took me to get to it will only make me sadder (or angrier at myself) for taking so long to get to it. But I do remember how everyone was buzzing about it everywhere on social media, and I know it won the Thriller Award (among many other recognitions Ms.Hillier deservedly received), and I knew I would eventually get to it.

And when I selected this as part of my reading materials for last week’s trip, I had no idea what a joy-ride I was letting myself in for.

The trial has barely made a dent in the national news. Which is good, because it means less publicity, fewer reporters. But it’s also bad, because just how depraved do crimes have to be nowadays to garner national headlines?

Pretty fucking bad, it seems.

There’s only a brief mention of Calvin James, a.k.a. the Sweetbay Strangler, in the New York Times and on CNN, and his crimes aren’t quite sensational enough to be featured in People magazine of be talked about on The View. But for Pacific Northwesters–people in Washington state, Idaho, and Oregon–the trial of the Sweetbay Strangler is a big deal. The disappearance of Angela Wong fourteen years ago caused a noticeable ripple throughout the Seattle area, as Angela’s father is a bigwig at Microsoft and is a friend of Bill Gates. There were search parties, interviews, a monetary reward that increased with each passing day she didn’t come home. The discovery of the sixteen-year-old’s remains all these years later–only a half mile away from her house–sent shockwaves through the community. The locals remember. #JusticeForAngela was trending on Twitter this morning. It was the ninth or tenth most popular hashtag for only about three hours, but still.

Angela’s parents are present in court. They divorced a year after their daughter was reported missing, her disappearance the last thread in a marriage that had been unraveling for a decade. They sit side by side now, a few rows back from the prosecutor’s table, with their current spouses, united in their grief and desire to see justice served.

Georgina Shaw can’t bring herself to make eye contact with them. Seeing their faces, etched with equal parts heartache and fury, is the worst part of this whole thing. She could have spared them fourteen years of sleepless nights. She could have told them happened the night it actually happened.

Geo could have done a lot of things.

The book opens with Geo testifying at the trial of her ex-boyfriend from when she was in high school. Geo knew that he’d murdered her best friend, helped him cover it up, and never told anyone the truth about what happened to Angela Wong…until her remains turn up in the woods behind Geo’s childhood home, where her father still lives. Sadly, it turns out that Geo’s high school boyfriend not only murdered Angela, but turned out to be a serial killer. This, understandably, derails Geo’s life as a pharmaceutical executive, and sends her to prison for five years.

When Geo and Angela were in school they had a third friend, the third side of the triangle: Kaiser, who is now a cop and is the man who arrests Geo; who hated Geo’s high school boyfriend–who turned out to be a serial killer! Kaiser is having an affair with his partner on the force–married to another cop–but has never really gotten over his (unrequited) feelings for Geo. The book sees Geo through her years in a women’s prison, and then as she returns to her life upon getting out and tries to rebuild her life. The primary issue is that Calvin has escaped from prison (Kaiser is convinced Calvin has been in touch with Geo; Calvin is Kaiser’s great white whale, as it were) and now women are being murdered again, and dismembered–the way Angela was, but none of Kaiser’s other victims were–and they are also being buried near the bodies of young children. Is it Calvin? Is Geo involved?

Kaiser himself is a compelling character that you can’t help but root for–and the flashbacks to when they were teenagers are also so well done that it’s slightly disappointing that there wasn’t more.

Geo also has other secrets, dark secrets she doesn’t want anyone to know–but could prove key to catching the serial killer.

It is to Hillier’s credit that Geo is a compelling and likable character the reader can empathize with; not an easy task for any writer, given the horrible thing Geo did as a teenager, and the reader is so drawn into her world, her psyche, her point of view, that you can’t help rooting for her despite the horrific mistake she made as a young girl. It is also to Hillier’s credit and skill as a writer that the reader is forced to face their own prejudices about people who’ve served time for crimes; should they be shunned, turned away from, avoided as we so often do with them, or should we be sympathetic to their plight? They’ve served their time, paid their debt to society as determined by a court of law; shouldn’t they have a second chance? Who are we to judge them yet again, making them continue to pay that debt? When is forgiveness possible, and is atonement ever successful?

Hillier’s writing style is also exceptional; the reader is drawn in from that opening sentence and the entire books reads like a runaway train–one you not only cannot escape from, but don’t want to.

Jar of Hearts is amazing, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I hate that I was so late to the party–but better late than never.

Every Little Bit o’ You

One of the great joys of being a voracious reader is that moment when you find a new author whose work you absolutely love. One of the great drawbacks of being a voracious reader with a couple of jobs and all kinds of volunteer responsibilities is that you don’t have as much time to read as you would like. When I was a kid, I often wouldn’t do my assigned reading from class or my homework because well, I had a book to read goddamnit!

Strangely enough, that never went over well with either my parents or my teachers. Go figure.

A while back, I discovered the Lou Norton series by the amazing Rachel Howzell Hall. I read the first book in the series and thought, oh, wow, here’s someone I need to add to my must-read authors list (which is ridiculously lengthy), but the following books in the series went into the massive TBR pile (Paul sometimes jokes that it’s where “books go to collect dust and stare out sadly into the world, hoping to get picked up and read at long last”). But when she released her 2019 stand alone thriller, They All Fall Down, it went to the top of the pile and I tore through it in a very short time. It was amazing. I loved how she took Christie’s classic And Then There Were None (which was the title of the edition I read, so it will always be that to me) updated it, fit it into the modern world and made it diverse, and managed to also make it an edge-of-your-seat thriller with a despicable protagonist who did terrible things (or had done terrible things) but made her so real and human you couldn’t help but feel for her. It was definitely one of my favorite reads of that year.

And so, when selecting books to take with me to read during my travels this past week, I decided to take this year’s Hall release rather than last year’s And Now She’s Gone.

And not a bit sorry I did, either.

At that time of night, there was peace. No burbles from the water cooler. No ringing telephone or whooshing copiers. Just her hands scratching against paper envelopes, Just her sweet soprano harmonizing with Ariana Grande’s.

At twenty-three years old, and the most junior on the team, Allison Cagle stuffed envelopes as part of her job. Didn’t matter that she didn’t have a car. Didn’t matter than Jessica, her work best friend and regular ride home, has just called three minutes ago–little Conner had a fever and Jessica needed to drive him to the emergency room. (Watch your back! Don’t wanna stress out over you two!) Didn’t matter that Allison had no idea how the hell she was getting home now. None of that mattered because the annual awards luncheon was tomorrow afternoon and three hundred envelopes–containing drink tickets, table numbers, and for fifty VIP’s, parking validations–needed stuffing.

With smoky-blue eyes and a sleek SoulCycle body, Allison hadn’t anticipated this much office work. Filing, collating and stuffing killed her manicure. She preferred driving around Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, picking up in-kind donations from stores and bakeries. The Lakers, once. She’d expected more wooing donors and taking minutes at important meetings as she brushed blonde tendrils from her heart-shaped face. Flirty work, all in the name of charity and for kids caught between the foster care system and juvenile detention.

Allison Cagel is not the main character of this thriller–that would be Michaela “Mickie” Lambert, who has a fascinating job–she creates digital scrapbooks–memory books; a client pays a (large) fee and then Mickie takes objects and/or pictures, anything that might hold a memory for the client, and then puts it all together into a three-dimensional hologram. You go over the memory with Mickie, who records what you say, and she also does research into the items and/or places etc. so that you can summon the memory up and relive that moment forever.

Allison (spoiler) is about to become a victim, so while she does have a role in the story, we never see her beyond that opening chapter.

Mickie has just broken up with her boss–oh, yeah, landmines everywhere at that company–and moved back into an apartment behind her parents’ home, where she lived before she started dating the boss. That relationship is, frankly, toxic–she’s never met his family or many of his friends (the whole set-up just screams side piece!!!! to me), but he doesn’t want to let her go–nor does he want to make the changes necessary for the relationship to progress and grow. (I hated him almost from the get-go, seriously.) Her newest assignment–as she tries to negotiate the minefield of breaking up with a boss who doesn’t want to let go–is working for Nadia Denham, who runs a bizarre curio shop in a strip mall in a rapidly gentrifying area. Nadia has put aside her treasures for Mickie to record for her, as she is suffering from Alzheimer’s and wants to have reminders of her past to access once her brain can no longer do so. Mickie is taken with Nadia, and her strange shop of curios and collectibles (I kept thinking of Stephen King’s Needful Things), so when Nadia ostensibly commits suicide by wrapping a plastic bag around her head (and why, LAPD, would anyone commit suicide in that way?) Mickie is shaken up, and begins to suspect that maybe, just maybe, Nadia didn’t kill herself after all.

But who would have wanted the harmless old lady dead? Her adoptive daughter, Riley, who is clearly emotionally unstable and works in the shop with her? The greedy developer who wants to tear up the strip mall and gentrify it? The strange homeless man in the parking lot who scares the crap out of Mickie? Her son, with his bankruptcies and financial troubles–and fine body that Mickie can’t help but desire? And someone is stalking Mickie as well–but why? Is it the Dashing Devil serial killer, who, after a long absence, has started killing again? Is her boss the one doing the stalking?

Or is someone even closer to home?

And how is this somehow all connected?

This book is a non-stop thrill ride, and Mickie is one of the most compelling heroines I’ve come across in recent memory. Loved her, cared about her, cared about her family and circle of friends, and couldn’t stop reading because I cared so much about her–and there are some moments of suspense so intense I simply could not stop reading. Hall manages to juggle all these characters, all of these plots and subplots, with such expertise that the reader is never confused, or has to page back to figure out what’s going on, or who someone is. The way the book continues to build–and the darker it becomes the further you get into it–should be studied by anyone who wants to write suspense.

You can never go wrong with Rachel Howzell Hall, and this book is just fantastic.

Looking for a New Love

Hey there, Tuesday! How you doin’?

I’m a bit on the sleepy side; I finally got a good night’s sleep for the first time in a few days, and as such I’m still  a big groggy and loopy this morning. Yesterday was an oddly out of sorts kind of day, during which I didn’t get a lot done but did manage to get some work done on the short story I have due by the end of the month. Kickstarting my writing really needs to become a priority as we wind up this seemingly endless volunteer project–but the end is so nigh it’s almost palpable, as thought I can actually taste the end as it draws near. I feel like this project has sort of sucked the life out of me and the marrow out of my bones, but it’s almost finished and perhaps now everything can sort of go back to some semblance of normalcy around here.

Like that ever happens.

We got caught up on The Righteous Gemstones last night, and I have to say, this show–which is also kind of weird and almost creepy in many ways–is quite enjoyable to watch. I’m not really sure where it’s going, which makes it even more fun, but it’s funny and sad and crazy all at the same time. John Goodman as the family patriarch and head preacher Eli Gemstone is perfect in the role, and pretty much everyone else in the cast is also perfect for their role. I am a little surprised there hasn’t been any nastiness from the evangelical community, but then again, how many  of them watch HBO?

I think tonight we’re going to start Succession, which comes highly recommended by any number of our friends, and one of the previews I saw last night made it look fantastic.

Heavy heaving sigh.

I continue to read Lords of Misrule, and the dark bloody history of this city continues to amaze and enthrall me. I’m shaking my head at myself–my ignorance of New Orleans history certainly gives the lie to the oft-stated notion that I am some sort of expert on New Orleans; I am anything but an expert on this city, particularly of its history. But I am learning, and studying, and I have to tell you, the more I read of New Orleans history the more inspired I am to write about the city.

I will say that I have been invited to contribute a story to an anthology, being done by a publisher in a foreign (yet English speaking) country. I am always excited to be invited to write for an anthology, and usually I see these tasks as challenges–there’s simply nothing more guaranteed to stretch and push your writing as writing to a theme. This one in particular is a strange one for me; it’s a collection of pastiches, where one is to take a particularly famous fictional character and make him a native of another place. You can make any changes to the character–gender, sexuality, age, time period, etc.–as long as, in this case, he isn’t British and the story isn’t set there. I have chosen to make him a New Orleanian during the time around World War I, and the crime he’s to become involved in solving has to do with the secrets of Storyville. I never considered myself to be anything more than a casual fan of this character, and had never considered doing pastiches about him, despite their increasing popularity. SO, I have the idea and I’ve already written the opening paragraph, and I am really looking forward to this challenge.

And I am very well aware that the Short Story Project has primarily taken a backseat to the Diversity Project, which I am taking a respite from in order to read Rob Hart’s novel, before getting back to it.

I do really want to get these other two short story collections finished at some point. But I also need to get some work done on the Kansas book; September is slipping through my fingers and there’s another all consuming project lying in wait for me for October and November–which means December will be spent on the Kansas book, with a goal to turning it into my publisher on January 1.

But we’ll see how that goes, won’t we?

And now back to the spice mines.