Think of Laura

Zulu is passing now; I can hear the drums of the marching bands. It’s a gorgeous morning, the sun is shining and I am betting the crowds up at the Avenue are deep; they certainly were last night for Orpheus. Paul and I both have to work tomorrow, so we’re ending our Carnival early; taking today to rest and recover so we can hit the ground running on Ash Wednesday. I also have a lot of things to do today; emails to answer, things to write, things to edit, things to read, a kitchen to clean. Even though it was abbreviated this year (I was in Alabama for the first weekend of parades), I enjoyed every bit of Carnival this year; and am already melancholy to see it end as always.

I’ve also been enjoying the hell out of the Winter Olympics, and like millions of people worldwide I am–what’s the word kids use now? Oh yes–stanning Adam Rippon. As a long time figure skating fan, I’ve known of Adam long before these games; I remember when he had a mop of floppy curls; when gossip websites were pairing him and Ashley Wagner as a couple (I rolled my eyes every time I saw the photos), and I remember when he came out. I blogged about homophobia in figure skating a while back; when Adam came out while still on the Olympic eligible circuit I thought to myself you’re never going to win anything now; so I was pleasantly surprised to see him win US Nationals and make the world team in 2016; he missed last season with a broken foot, and this season he is full-on out: his short program is to gay club music, and his long program, as everyone saw the other night, is breathtaking. I’m so happy for both him and Mirai Nagasu, who became the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics that same night; they earned bronze medals as part of the team competition, and I couldn’t be happier for both of them–all of the Americans on the team, to be honest. Adam is so funny and refreshingly himself; a big personality and a natural wit he doesn’t try to hold back, and that honesty…I just can’t get enough. I had tears in my eyes when he finished his long program the other night; Paul and I both screamed when Mirai landed the triple axel. Seeing the trashy homophobes on Twitter trashing him or going after him makes my blood boil; I’ve resisted the urge to reply to them He’s got an Olympic medal and you’re a fifth-rate Twitter troll. Congratulations.

So. There’s that.

And in other news of the fabulous, the lucky world of readers can look forward to the upcoming release of a new Laura Lippman novel, Sunburn. I got an ARC at Bouchercon and read it in one sitting on a rainy Saturday back in October.

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It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him. Pink, peeling. The burn is two days old, he gauges. Earned on Friday, painful to the touch yesterday, today an itchy soreness that’s hard not to keep fingering, probing, as she’s doing right now in an absentminded way. The skin has started sloughing off, soon those narrow shoulders won’t be so tender. Why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake?

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that. They’re building a big by-ass so the beach traffic won’t have to slow for the speed trap on the old Main Street. He saw the construction vehicles, idle on Sunday, on his way in. Places like this bar-slash-restaurant, the High-Ho, are probably going to lose what little business they have.

High-Ho. A misprint? Was it supposed to be Heigh-Ho? And if so, was it for the seven dwarfs, heading home from the mines at day’s end, or for the Lone Ranger, riding off into the sunset?  Neither one makes much sense for this place.

Nothing about this makes sense.

Laura Lippman has been one of my favorite writers since I read Baltimore Blues years and years ago. I tore through her Tess Monaghan series, and she very quickly became one of my buy in hardcover authors. I’ve never regretted making that switch, and as she has expanded her skills and pushed herself with her exceptionally brilliant stand alone novels, I’ve never once quibbled but I want another Tess novel! (I do, always, but the stand alones are so fucking fantastic that it doesn’t matter–I really just want a new Lippman, and wish she was on a yearly schedule rather than an eighteen month one.)

Laura’s career trajectory has been most impressive from a writing perspective; because as a writer of stand alones, she has gone from being a literary crime writer to a literary writer about crime, if that makes sense. Each of her stand alones are unique and different from the others; about as far removed from her series as any novels can be and still be by the same author. Each one of these novels are rare pearls, individual and vastly different from the others; different themes, different explorations, different everything. The one common thread that runs through these novels is that they are, for the most part, about women, and what women face in their lives; how they deal with crimes and tragedies that take them out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. Laura also regularly experiments with form and voice and tense; enormous, dangerous risks as a writer that she somehow always manages to pull off, make engaging and enjoyable, and always manages to tell a story that makes a very compelling point.

Sunburn,  her latest, is as different from anything she has done before as it could be unless she decided to write about vampires or a zombie apocalypse; but she also brings her incredibly powerful sense of empathy to this tale of murder, vengeance, and oh-so-careful planning. The book opens with the main character, Polly Costello, walking away from her husband and child on a beach vacation and winding up in the hard-knock town of Belleville; she is being observed by Adam, who is being paid to keep an eye on her, follow her–but not to become obsessed by her, which is what happens. Their story is told in a very limited third person point of view, alternating between them, and as we slowly get to know them, watch their physical attraction expand and develop into something more, the questions remain: why did Polly walk away from her family and child? How could she do such a thing? Who is this enigmatic redheaded bar waitress?

And just how fucking good does Adam’s grilled cheese sandwich taste?

The prose in this book is lean; not an extra word to be found anywhere, and it is an homage of sorts to the kind of lean, tight, dark noir that the great James M. Cain wrote. (Cain is a hero of mine, and I have always wanted to write something that dark and lean and tight…ironically, one of the ideas I had for such a noir–gay, of course–was also titled Sunburn) I’ve seen, in some of the early reviews, comparisons to Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, which seem obvious; there’s an insurance scam buried deep in the plot, it’s set in a bar/diner, it’s about an unexpected, explosive attraction between a man and a woman; there are side plots that end in mysterious deaths… but if anything, I’d say Sunburn is more reminiscent of Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress than anything else.

The book is extraordinary, and probably Laura Lippman’s best work to date; that wisecracking, tight prose; a complicated and complex plot that grows even more complicated as you read another page; fully developed characters you can help but root for, even if their motivations aren’t exactly pure; and ultimately, the book is about a woman with everything stacked against her all of her life, who  never gives up, and makes plans…risky plans; where she gambles everything, including her own happiness and desire, for her future, yet is flexible and smart enough to always adapt.

Polly Costello is a heroine Cain would have been proud to call his own.

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.

 

Maneater

Is there a male version of the term maneater? I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of what it could be; which indicates that the answer to that question is obviously, no. I also would imagine maneater and femme fatale are interchangeable; Phyllis from Double Indemnity is one of the best fictional representations of the type. I’ve always wondered what Phyllis was thinking, and how much more interesting the book would be told from her point of view. There has been a so-called trend in crime fiction lately, where the stories are told from the point of view of the maneater, which has also led to lots of opinion pieces about the rise of unlikable women characters in crime fiction, which strikes me as kind of odd, as those types of characters have been around (male or female) since the very beginning of crime fiction. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is often credited as the book that started the trend, but I think it’s more accurate to say that Flynn’s book was the first major break out bestseller to have an unlikable woman as the focal point of the story.

I made some great progress on reading The Gods of Gotham  last night, and what a marvelous read it is! This is historical crime fiction done right–the last historical crime fiction novel I read that I enjoyed this much was Louis Bayard’s The Black Tower. Lyndsay has somehow managed to weave a tale involving the founding of the New York police department, Irish immigration, religious/ethnic bigotry, racism, politics, and child prostitution; and this world is alive and breathes. It’s really quite an accomplishment, and it’s written with wit and style and compassion; it’s also written in the style of nineteenth century novels but she has also managed to update the style and make it modern; Dickens, as it were, without the cloying over-sentimentality. Faye’s characters are also developed so strongly they all live and breathe and seem absolutely real; the maneater of the book is a madam named Silkie, who is delightful in her scheming and corruption. I intend to read more of the book later today, after I get the errands and chores done, and more of the goddamned line edit. My to-do list for the weekend is rather ambitious, I do confess; perhaps too ambitious to get everything done, but I’d rather overestimate what I can get done than underestimate.

The kitchen is a mess, the apartment is a disaster area, and of course, laundry laundry laundry. Heavy heaving sigh. Paul’s off playing tennis this morning, and I actually woke up feeling rested this morning. So, getting everything done seems like it’s something that’s actually possible. It’s supposed to rain off and on all day; we’ll see. I also made some progress on the Scotty book yesterday. My goal is to try to get a chapter done every day for the next twenty days–which will be, of course, a complete first draft. By that time, the line edit of the WIP should be finished and input–I can only do line edits on hard copies, which is not eco-friendly, but doing it on the computer has proven to not be as effective over the years. I do think this line edit is going well, and making the book even stronger, which is the entire point, right?

I also had a terrific conversation with the moderator of one of my two panels at Bouchercon, and I am very excited about the panel; this is also the first time I’ve been on two panels at Bouchercon–so probably I’ll be lucky to get one on St. Petersburg next year. I am looking forward to the Toronto trip this year; Bouchercon is always one of the highlights of my year.

I am going to read, I think, The Fixes by Owen Matthews (aka Owen Laukkanen) next, once I’ve finished Gods of Gotham.

And on that night, I should probably get back to the spice mines.

Here’s a Saturday hunk for you, Constant Reader:

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MUSIC: Losing My Religion by REM

MOOD: Cheerful