People on the High Line

Several years ago–I have no concept of how long ago; time and its passing literally have no meaning to me anymore–I started what I called “the Short Story Project.” I wanted to become a better short story writer; it’s a form I’ve always struggled with, and it always seemed to my hypercritical self that whenever I was successful in writing a short story, it was more of an accident than anything I had planned when I embarked on writing the story. I’ve also become a little bit easier on myself on that score–sometimes, not every idea will work as a short story, and writing isn’t something that can ever be forced without it showing to the reader–and I did have a wonderful period of productivity with short stories after setting course for the Project–which not only entailed writing them but reading as many of them as I could. After all, what better way to improve my own short story writing skills than by reading good stories? I have, over the years, collected any number of single-author collections as well as anthologies, and yet, with few notable exceptions prior to the start of the Project, had rarely ever cracked their spines. Lately, as I have struggled with time and focus while I’ve been working on this revision of the Kansas book (aka #shedeservedit) I find myself unable to focus much on reading novels; my mind inevitably wanders, or I will set it down and not get back to it for days. So, this morning I decided, before getting in my work on the book for the day, to read some short stories over my coffee this morning, and I wound up reading four of them; all of them marvelous in their own unique, distinctive ways. The stories I read this morning were, in order: “Better Days’ by Art Taylor, from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; “Mischief in Mesopotamia” by Dana Cameron, also from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; “Hop-frog” by Edgar Allan Poe; and finally, “To Build a Fire” by Jack London.

Maybe I wasn’t the only one on our stretch of the North Carolina coast who picked up the Washington Post on a regular basis, but I doubt anyone else it like I did–scanning the bylines, measuring the thickness of the paper and the heft of it, stifling the envy.

So begins Art Taylor’s “Better Days’, which won the Macavity Award for Best Short Story and was a finalist for both the Agatha and the Anthony Awards. Art is one of crime’s best short story writers (and one of my favorite people), and it’s easy to see why he has won every award under the sun for crime short stories. Art’s stories are always tightly written, with characters so real and honest and human that you can’t help but care about them, as well as having a bit of an edge to them. He manages to capture the resigned despair someone whose career path didn’t quite go the way he wanted perfectly; the former Washington Post journalist downsized and back in coastal North Carolina, working for the local paper while still thinking about his past with an uneasy regret. The story focuses on a love triangle between the main character, the local bar owner he’s been seeing, and a newly arrived tourist on a yacht with money to burn. This story tightly plotted, flows perfectly, and the characters are people I wouldn’t mind spending some more time with. In some ways it kind of reminded me of John D. Macdonald; maybe it’s the sea and boats and so forth that put me in mind of Travis McGee. Highly recommended.

I sat across from a row of decapitated kings, gods, and heroes waiting for them to speak to me. I didn’t know a word of their language, and they’d been dead–their monuments erected, sanctified, and decaying–long before anyone speaking my language was born. Still, I waited, if not as patiently as they did.

That’s the opening paragraph of Dana Cameron’s “Mischief in Mesopotamia,” originally published in the November 2012 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and it went on to win both the Agatha and Anthony awards for Best Short Story the following year. (I initially met Dana the weekend she won the Agatha; she’s been a constant source of joy for me ever since.) The story features her series character Emma Fielding, and reading the story is my first encounter with her–and now I am going to have to go back and read the entire series of novels with Emma (you may also know her from the television films made from some of the books in the series, with Melrose Place alumnus Courtney Thorne-Smith playing Emma). Set on a tour of museums and archaeological sites in southeast Turkey, Emma and her group happen to be on-site when a museum robbery occurs–and Emma solves the crime through her keen observations of her fellow tour group members. The voice is delightful, as is Emma–there’s a hint of my fiction goddess Amelia Peabody about her–and the story is enormously satisfying.

I never knew anyone so keenly alive to a joke as the King was. He seemed to live only for joking. To tell a good story of the joke kin, and to tell it well, was the surest road to his favor. Thus it happened that his seven ministers were all noted for their accomplishments as jokers. They all took after the king, too, in being large, corpulent, oily men, as well as inimitable jokers. Whether people from fat by joking, or whether there is something in fat itself which predisposes to a joke, I have never been quite able to determine; but certain it is that a lean doer us a rare Avis in terris.

Yes, that first paragraph made me squirm a bit as I started reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-frog,” which I suppose can be held up as an example of how things don’t age well (the notion that overweight people are jolly, as evidenced here). The story itself, which is about a court jester who is also a little person (“dwarf”) and crippled at a royal court, mocked and laughed at and the butt of the jokes of the King and his advisors, along with another female who is also there for their entertainment–whom Hop-frog appears to love, eventually reaches his own breaking point when they mock him one time too many and when the female begs them to stop, the King throws wine in her face and humiliates her. There is a costume ball coming up, and Hop-frog chooses this for his revenge, convincing them all to dress up as “ourang-outangs”, which will require covering themselves with tar and pitch and fake fur….and they waltz right into his punishment, as they are set aflame and are burned alive. This is based in actual history–Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror details the “the dance of the burning fools,” where King Charles VI of France and some of his buddies costumed themselves in such a manner with the same outcome–some of them caught fire and were burned to death, although the King was not one of the victims. When I was rereading that book in the early pandemic days, I came across this true story and thought it might make for an interesting short story; doing further research, I discovered that Poe had written a story based on this actual event, and bookmarked it to read later. As with everything classic, my education in Poe is limited; but all the earmarks of a Poe’s story’s justice are here: justice is meted out to the foolish king and his cruel advisers…but it’s not one of his better efforts, which is why, undoubtedly, it’s not as well known.

Day had dawned cold and gray when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail. He climbed the high earth-bank where a little-traveled trail led east through the pine forest. It was a high ban, and he paused to breathe at the top. He excused the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock in the morning. There was no sun or promise of sun, although there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day. However, there seemed to be an indescribable darkness over the face of things. That was because the sun was absent from the sky. This fact did not worry the man. He was not alarmed by the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun.

I originally read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” in high school. It was assigned for us to read when we were studying short stories and fiction; it was assigned as an example of the theme “man v. nature.” I’ve never forgotten the story–I loathe the cold, as Constant Reader is aware, and London does an amazing job of getting that frigid climate across to the reader. The man is never given a name–his name doesn’t matter–and neither does the wolf-dog by his side have a name; their names don’t matter. This story is about human hubris–he isn’t worried about the cold, despite being warned about it, and he wants to get back to his camp. His job was to go upstream and see if its possible for logs to be floated downstream when the temperature is warmer and the waters of streams and rivers and creeks not frozen solid. His mission accomplished, he is heading back to his actual camp, with some food stored under his shirt next to his body and a pack of matches in case he needs to start a fire. The dread in this story builds slowly and smoothly as he begins to suspect he made an error in not respecting the cold for its ability to kill him; occasionally London goes into the perspective of the animal who is also beginning to sense the man–food and fire provider, nothing more–is out of his depth. Eventually he succumbs to the cold, after a series of misadventures that come about because he isn’t paying enough attention and is careless. Whether that is because the cold has affected his ability to think and reason clearly is never part of the story or his own consideration. Even now, after all these years, the story has the ability to make me wince and shiver and think yikes, there’s no fucking way I’d ever go outside when it was 75 degrees below zero, let alone make a trip of many miles through wilderness on foot.

And on that note, now I am finished with my morning and its back to the spice mines with me,

You Are In Love

Wednesday, and technically the last day of my vacation; even though tomorrow I am working from home before a three day weekend–so at least tomorrow I won’t have to leave the house, other than getting my first COVID-19 vaccination, with another to come 28 days later. That’s a good reason to leave the house, frankly–I can’t think of a better one, to be honest. I’m incredibly lucky to have not gotten it already, frankly–still not entirely convinced I didn’t have it back when I was sick last spring, but the test was negative. I will continue to wear a mask whenever I am out in public–don’t want to set a bad example–and besides, as I have noted before, I haven’t even caught a cold this winter thus far; and that’s a rarity and clearly a benefit of the mask. I may wear one during cold-and-flu season from now on.

Yesterday was an utter waste of time, thanks again to Apple Support. I wanted to print out the latest chapters I’d finished and reread them before I moved on to yesterday’s writing–but when I tried to open one of the files from the Cloud my piece of shit MacBook Air told me that Word was “damaged” and thus couldn’t be opened. I had to delete it from my computer and then re-download it…and guess what? NOT ENOUGH FUCKING STORAGE AGAIN. Um, it was JUST on my computer, but now there’s no room for it? So yes, I spent the entire afternoon fucking with Apple support; eventually having to take my computer back to factory settings and start it over like it was brand new. Hurray! I could download Word again! But the Cloud? Ha ha ha ha! Oh, how cute you are to think that this would help my computer to function. Just like when I bought it, I could not access the Cloud through my Finder window–I mean, I could, but the Finder window kept telling me THERE WAS NOTHING STORED THERE. I even manually went to the iCloud website to sign in–yep, there it all was. So back to working with Apple support. After forty-five minutes of waiting for “Iselda” or whatever the fuck her name was to figure out how to fix it….to no avail, and often telling me to try things I already had done, etc–she had the nerve to say, “Well, maybe it’s still syncing and everything will show up later.” Yeah, thanks for nothing, you incompetent bitch. So, looks like I’ll be taking the piece of shit to the Apple Store in Metairie.

I really do NOT understand why this has to be so hard, you know?

Yeah, I’m bitter. You would be, too. Now I have to try to play catch up.

But I did stop by the library yesterday to pick up Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans by Howard Philips Smith, and wow! It must weigh five to ten pounds; it’s enormous. I may have to eventually get my own copy, simply because as a resource it is simply too good to not always have on hand. It has all the histories of the gay krewes and balls, pictures going back decades–and details about gay clubs and not-gay-clubs that gays hung out in; and so many pictures! It was also fun seeing people I know (or knew) pictured within its pages. I really wish I had kept a better diary/journal back in the days when we first moved here; so many friends and acquaintances have come and gone since then. Looking through the book was quite a lovely trip down Memory Lane for me–remembering people I’ve not seen or thought about in years, some of whom I simply knew from the bars and who knew? Some of them were major players in the queer rights movement here in New Orleans. This book is definitely going to come in handy for me with writing fiction about the gay New Orleans past.

It looks like it’s going to be another beautiful day here in New Orleans. I am going to be going to the gym later this morning, and then I am taking Paul to work–we’re stopping at Office Depot to get supplies for his office, and I need paper and an ink cartridge for my printer–and he has a book for me at his office, and then it’s back home to desperately try to get caught up on the book. Gah, yesterday was so damned frustrating.

I was also thinking back over the year (not as effective as one might think, as my memory has really declined over the last few years), trying to remember things that gave me pleasure in 2020. There was an awful lot of good television programs we watched, and of course I have enjoyed the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, which will be rolling over into the new year. I know I read some wonderful books over the course of the year–and I also reread some that I greatly enjoyed and seemed new to me. I also recall reading a lot of pandemic literature in the early days of the shutdown; histories of the Black Death and the Spanish flu, short stories and novels about epidemics…I finally got around to reading Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”, along with a reread of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse Pale Rider,” but I don’t think I got around to Richard Matheson’s classic I Am Legend…but really should have. I also didn’t reread Stephen King’s The Stand, but once I get my own writing needs under control around here, maybe I’ll give the abridged, originally published version a go.

I know I also started writing a pandemic story that I never managed to finish: “The Flagellants,” and finishing it is at the top of my list of things to get done once this book is finished. I kind of also have to go directly into the next book, without much of a break between, but once it is finished on March 1 and turned in, I’ll have some breathing space for a moment or two before I need to get going on Chlorine. I’d really like to have a good working first draft of Chlorine finished by May 1. My main characters is starting to come to me in bits and pieces–he served in the Navy, he escaped Kansas into the Navy when he was eighteen; he comes to Hollywood after he musters out to become a movie star, which is when he meets his “starmaker” agent, and while he is very good-looking and charismatic…he’s not especially talented as an actor, and so gets some supporting roles in A-list movies and leads in B-list movies, but his”star” never really takes off. His agent is of course inspired by Henry Willson; and the plot of the book revolves around blackmail, murder, and survival.

And on that note, I should get back into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

Wonderland

I see it’s time for all of the “end of the year” lists, from the best of’s to the worst of’s, and literally, I had to scroll back through my blog to find my “favorite” short story of the year to reply to a tweet in order to enter a giveaway–and it was such a confounding year that I just posted the first one I came to, whether it was the best or not–“The Day I Died” by Cornell Woolrich, and immediately after I hit send, I thought, “that wasn’t even my favorite Woolrich story I read last year; that was ‘It Had to Be Murder’ (filmed as Rear Window)”. But that’s indicative of the kind of year this 2020 has been, not just for me but for others: I can’t remember shit. I can’t remember what I read and when I read it; was the Diversity Project this year or last? When did I started the Reread Project? And the Short Story Project certainly didn’t het much traction here on the blog this past year. This year now blends with other years in my memory, and I am not sure when I read things or what I liked or what movies I watched or television shows I enjoyed–and there were a lot; but was this year the year we started watching foreign language shows like Elite and Dark? I know I watched a lot of films for the Cynical 70’s Film Festival–still have a lot to go on that, for that matter–but as for reading….I know I read some books this past year, and I know I started the Reread Project–not just to revisit books I’d enjoyed, but to get back into reading because the pandemic shutdown–and the basic state of the world in chaos–made it hard for me to focus.

Even more maddening, the lack of focus also hurt my writing schedule (which really needed no assistance–I can not write all by myself without assistance from outside influences, thank you very much), and I cannot keep track or remember what I wrote and what I sold and so forth. I know I wrote my first ever Sherlock Holmes pastiche this past year, and it will be out in the new year–“The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” (and I am so glad to finally get that title used; although, in fairness, the title I had lying around forever was The Purloined Stripper; I was originally thinking to parody Poe titles with the Chanse series, hence Murder in the Rue Dauphine. But the publisher (Alyson Books) wanted to brand them with the Murder in the titles, and once I made Scotty a stripper and wrote about him, I revised the plot and made Chanse’s boyfriend a former gay-interest video wrestler and that book became Murder in the Rue St. Ann instead)–and I also sold some other stories, like “The Snow Globe” and “Night Follows Night”–but it also seems like I sold more stories than that? I think this was the year “The Silky Veils of Ardor” came out in Josh Pachter’s The Beat of Black Wings, and of course “The Carriage House” came out in Mystery Tribune this year. Was this also the year of “The Dreadful Scott Decision” and The Faking of the President? I think that may be the case.

I do know I spent most of the year trying to get Bury Me in Shadows finished and ready to go–it’s still not completely finished–and I also started researching Chlorine. I kind of am feeling a bit discombobulated lately–no idea what day it is; I really had to stop and think this morning before recognizing that it’s actually Sunday. Crazy, right? I went shopping yesterday to make groceries and get the mail and air up the car tires again–the ‘tires are out of balance’ light came on the other day, which means they are low in air–and then I came home. I spent some time trying to locate my copy of Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets, which I may have read already and donated; the library also didn’t have it, so rather than going through the storage space I ordered the ebook, which was only $7.99. I spent some time with it yesterday reading it–it’s a period that always fascinates me; my interest in Hollywood begins to die out in the 1980’s, and beyond 1990 my interest wanes considerably.

Last night we watched two movies: 1917 and Bombshell, neither of which proved to be very involving. Both movies were very well done, but…I really didn’t feel any emotional involvement with either. Bombshell was probably the more interesting of the two–primarily anchored by Charlize Theron’s terrifyingly spot-on performance as Megyn Kelly, which really dominated the film, and I’m glad there’s a film sort of documenting the crazy goings-on at Fox before the 2016 election; in all honesty I’d pretty much forgotten many of the pertinent details about Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly’s departures from Fox News, but once the movie had finished all I really thought–I’m a really terrible person, I admit it–was that while the working environment at Fox was indeed terrible for women….it also wasn’t a big surprise to me? Why would anyone think that a network that was so definitively anti-women would be a nurturing environment for women? But as we saw with the “#metoo” movement…men have been abusing their power and victimizing women over whom they have power–whether real or perceived–since the beginning of time, and that cuts across the political divide. And while there was some reckoning, there wasn’t nearly enough–and I am sure it is still going on in companies and businesses and corporations today.

But again, Charlize Theron was eerily perfect as Megyn Kelly; I’m sure Kelly didn’t care for it, and she has since proven that she’s still a garbage human being despite everything that happened and everything she experienced; she’s still anti-feminist, still homophobic, still racist—now she just spews her bile on Twitter instead of in front of a camera. Same with Gretchen Carlson–and I am willing to bet that both of them learned nothing from their own experience and still question women bringing charges against men.

I know that S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland was one of the best books I read last year, along with The Coyotes of Carthage. Elizabeth Little’s Pretty As a Picture was also a favorite. I think this year included my first-ever read of Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right (is there a more hard-boiled, noir setting than a convent in the Pyrenees?), and I also enjoyed Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat (although I recently read a review which suggested the book would have been much more interesting as told by the other doppelganger’s point of view, which is a very interesting suggestion). I know I reread several of Stewart’s books, including Airs Above the Ground, The Moon-spinners, and This Rough Magic, and in the case of the latter two, I remembered so little of them from my original read it was like reading something new. I also read a lot of histories of New Orleans and Louisiana, which was a lot of fun as well–and of course, my Chlorine research led me to reading some gay Hollywood histories–as well as some basic Hollywood histories. I know I also greatly enjoyed Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths.

Highlights of my television viewing have to include at the very top two of the best comedies ever done on television, Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso. Both shows were both funny and tender and heartwarming, and one of the great pleasures of 2020 has been watching other people discover how magic and wonderful both shows are. Paul and I also got into foreign language television at long last, thoroughly enjoying shows like Dark Desire, The Club, White Lines, and several others, but two of the best were Elite (from Spain) and Dark (from Germany), but Babylon Berlin was probably my favorite watch of the year. We also thoroughly enjoyed The Morning Show, Little Fires Everywhere (the book was also pretty spectacular), and of course, The Mandalorian. I also would be remiss without shout-outs to two of my favorite trashy binge-watches, Outer Banks and Tiny Pretty Things. Ozark continues to be terrific, as was the second season of Castle Rock and HBO’s The Outsider. We also saw Mr. Mercedes‘s first season on Peacock, and liked it a lot as well.

I still miss Game of Thrones, disappointing final season notwithstanding.

As for movies….I spent most of my time with my Cynical 70’s Film Festival, which included some rewatches (Cabaret, which I love more every time I see it) as well as first time watches of films like The Candidate, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The French Connection, and Chinatown; all of which served as an interesting re-education into the decade that was the 1970s, and probably one of the more formative decades of my life. There are still some 70’s films I need to see for this–I really want to rewatch The Last Picture Show, which I’ve not seen in years, as well as The Sting, What’s Up Doc, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Woman Under the Influence, Starting Over, An Unmarried Woman, Saturday Night Fever, and so many others. It was such an interesting decade for film…but of the rewatched films, the ones I have always loved–Don’t Look Now, Cabaret, Chinatown–I appreciated even more than I have on previous watches, if that makes any sense. Of the ones I hadn’t seen before, I think my favorite would have to be The Conversation, which was simply brilliant, and a perfect illustration of what the 1970’s were really about on many different levels.

There are a lot of books coming out in the new year that I am excited for; new novels from Alison Gaylin and Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott at the top of the list, of course, and so many others! There’s never enough time to read everything I want to read or watch everything I want to watch, let alone write everything I want to write….which sounds like an excellent place to wrap this up and head back into the spice mines.

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!

Okie from Muskogee

Thursday morning, and I am working from home today; or taking a mental health day–I’m not sure which it will be as of yet. This week has been fraught, to say the least, and by the time I got home yesterday I was exhausted and literally just collapsed into my easy chair for cat cuddles and mindless Youtube viewing. I don’t precisely remember what led me down that particular rabbit hole, but I at one point found myself listening/watching music videos of the Archies, Josie and the Pussycats, the Monkees, and the Partridge Family. (Hanna-Barbara animation, by the way, wasn’t very good–and the voices! My God, the speaking voices of the characters was like fingernails on a blackboard.) We also continue to watch The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and seriously–if you’re home, have Netflix, and are looking for something really fun to binge, you can’t go wrong with Sabrina.

I think what is making this week particularly hard is knowing that this weekend was when the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival/Saints & Sinners was supposed to be taking place; I was looking forward to seeing friends and making new ones, hanging out in the Quarter, staying in our posh suite at the Monteleone while coming home from time to time to keep Scooter company, and then launching into the next week energized and ready to get back to writing. Instead, I am physically and emotionally drained; the weather is spectacular (although I would imagine those from up north would consider this too hot–it is much warmer than it usually is in late March), and who knows what fresh hell tomorrow will bring? This morning I woke up at seven, but stayed in bed almost another two hours simply because I didn’t want to face my emails or whatever the new reality for today was going to be. But I can’t, in fact, stay in bed all day–no matter how much I want to–so I finally rolled out of bed and am now on my first cup of coffee and thinking already about how best to make use of the day.

I did read “The Masque of the Red Death” again finally last evening; I found a pdf on-line free for download (thank you, public domain!) so I downloaded and printed it out and read it while a cat purred in my lap. As I was reading it–it’s really more of a fable or fairy tale than an actual story; there’s no real characters, and the only one who has a name–Prince Prospero–is never developed into anything remotely human or three dimensional; as I said, it’s more of a fable illustrating the futility of trying to escape from death than an actual short story. And yet–yet it still resonated with me more than “Death in Venice”, which, though, I am still thinking about a few days later, which means it affected me probably more than I originally thought.

Either that, or all these stories–linked by plagues and Venice, in some ways; it was easy to imagine Prospero’s palace being on the Grand Canal–are linking and fusing together in my mind somehow; so perhaps the essay I am thinking about isn’t so far-fetched and out of touch with reality as perhaps I may have originally thought. I am going to spend some time today reading du Maurier’s “Death in Venice” pastiche, “Ganymede”, and I will let you know how that goes. I still don’t seem to be able to commit to a full-length novel, but I also do remember that I did read an awful lot in the aftermath of Katrina–in fact, I remember rereading All the President’s Men as well as a book about the criminal conduct of Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew–and so am thinking I might be best off turning to my non-fiction reading. I am still reading Jason Berry’s City of a Million Dreams, and I am thinking about getting down my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and rereading her chapters about the bubonic plague’s first, and most deadly, visits to Europe.

I made a post on Facebook yesterday, a little annoyed, about how the condos being built on my street two lots over is continuing despite the shelter-in-place order, essentially saying so glad the condo construction going on two lots over from my house is considered essential. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the guys are working and getting paid; these are scary times, particularly for those living paycheck to paycheck, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone getting paid-, but I can’t help but think about their safety, and I also can’t help but wonder who in the hell is going to buy a condo in this economic climate? As of yesterday Louisiana had 1,795 confirmed cases and 65 deaths, most of them in Orleans Parish, but it’s spreading gradually to the outer parishes, who are even less equipped to deal with a pandemic than Orleans. Anyway, this led to an idea for a noir short story called “Condos For Sale or Rent”, and I actually scribbled down the opening to the story last night…and it also kind of made me think about, as is my wont, quarantine/pandemic fiction. I wonder what post-flood New Orleans fiction would be like; now I wonder about how this whole pandemic/quarantine event will impact not just crime fiction, but fiction in general.

And here I am, already thinking about a pandemic short story, and even last night, before switching on Sabrina (that’s how the Youtube wormhole started; I was thinking about Sabrina, and how she was originally a character on Archie–so I looked for the old show on Youtube, found the video for “Sugar Sugar”, which featured Sabrina working a kissing booth, and then I got sucked in), I was thinking about a Scotty book during the pandemic/quarantine. Obviously such a book cannot be written now–without knowing what’s going to happen with COVID-19, you cannot tell the entire story–but it’s not a bad idea to take notes and come up with thoughts about it.

I also just remembered Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse Pale Rider is set during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918; perhaps I should read it again. Not a huge fan of Porter, either, to be honest; I read The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (I was looking for “Miss Brill,” not realizing at the time that was written by Katherine Mansfield rather than Porter) and was underwhelmed by them. Maybe I should give it another whirl? Maybe my tastes have matured and deepened enough by now for me to develop an appreciation for Porter. I should probably take another run at Hemingway–I only read The Old Man and the Sea and A Farewell to Arms, both of which were required for a lit class in high school and I hated them both–although Hemingway is precisely the kind of writer I’d hate if I knew in real life.

And on that note I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and do whatever you need to in order to keep yourself safe and uninfected.

Chris-Mears

Don’t Toss Us Away

Edgar Allan Poe is credited with inventing the detective story, or so the lore of our genre goes, which is why the Mystery Writers of America named their awards for excellence in the field after him. The private detective has gradually evolved over the years from the times of Poe’s Auguste Dupin (“Murders in the Rue Morgue”–which Constant Reader should recognize as the source for my Chanse titles, beginning with Murder in the Rue Dauphine) through Conan Doyle’s terrific Sherlock Holmes to the twentieth century masters of crime-solving: Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, etc. The 1970’s served as a bridge for the post-war detective to the dawning of a new age–which was necessary because by the early 1980’s the genre had become a bit stagnant, repetitive, overloaded with tropes that were deeply misogynistic.

In the 1980’s, three women–Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller–breathed new life into the genre by introducing three hard-boiled women private eyes; tough women who could hold their own with their male counterparts and were also incredibly well-developed and extremely well written. All three women were named Grand Masters by the Mystery Writers of America in their turn; alas, only Paretsky is still publishing, and we still mourn the loss of Grafton to cancer several years ago, before she finished her alphabet series featuring Kinsey Millhone.

And while there is still great private eye work being produced today by both men and women, it’s also very exciting now to be on the verge of yet another re-invigorization of the private eye novel–and crime fiction in general–with new takes on old tropes, subversion of those tropes, and the exciting arrival of writers of color and queer writers. The passing of Sue Grafton was a great tragedy, but her publisher, Putnam, partnered with Mystery Writers of America to create an award to honor her and her work; by celebrating the series private eye novels with women firmly centered as the investigator. The first Grafton Prize, awarded last year, went to Sara Paretsky for Shell Game; this year there are six finalists: Linda Castillo (Shamed); Tracy Clark (Borrowed Time); Edwin Hill (The Missing Ones); Sujata Massey (The Satapur Moonstone); Gigi Pandian  (The Alchemist’s Illusion), and Marcie R. Rendon (Girl Gone Missing)–all books I am looking forward to reading,

Ironically, I had already arranged to interview Tracy Clark for the Sisters in Crime quarterly column I do, “The Conversation Continues”–so I had already obtained copies of all her works.

Yesterday I  finished reading the first Cass Raines mystery, Broken Places.

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Chicago cops had to be on the lookout for any number of nefarious mopes eager to take a potshot, but this morning my biggest enemy was turning out to be the scorching rays of the summer sun. I slid into the driver’s seat of the unmarked car and cranked the windows down, balancing a rapidly melting iced tea, extra ice, between my thighs. A few feet away, my partner, Detective Ben Mickerson, stood in front of the Dairy Queen basking in the hellfire. “Vitamin D,” he said, ruddy face pointed skyward. “Soak in that Vitamin D.”

“You say Vitamin D, I say skin cancer,” I groused, The hot vinyl seats nearly seared through my blazer and pants–and they were both summer weight. I checked myself in the rearview. The little makeup I’d started the day with was long gone now, melted away by flop sweat. I flicked at the sweaty ringlets at the nape of my neck and wiggled uncomfortably in my bulletproof vest, my breasts pressed flat, as though squeezed between the hot plates of a waffle iron.  I looked like I’d gone through a car wash, and it was just ten AM. No great loss, though. Five mintues tops was all I ever invested in primping. I didn’t have the patience for it, and in the long run it seemed rather silly. Thugs and killers didn’t care what I looked like. They spotted the cop car, they ran, then I had to run after them. I’d be thirty-five in the spring. Eyeliner and blush weren’t going to make the running any easier.

“The sun is going to kill you,” I yelled out the window.

Cass Raines, Clark’s private eye, is actually a cop when the book opens; and she and her partner are tracking a problem kid, a gangbanger who killed four members of a rival gang, starting a war of attrition and revenge. They chase him down to a rooftop, and Cass almost has him talked down when another douchebag of an officer–protected by powerful political connections–ruins the situation and she ends up having to shoot the kid. She resigns from the force, haunted by the kid she killed, and become a private eye. This backstory plays out over the first several chapters, and then we flash forward two years to the present day. Cass is a complicated young woman–her mother died when she was young; her father took off and she was raised by her grandparents, whose home she inherited–and she is very solitary. This, her first case, kicks off when her father figure, a local priest (she’s lapsed) hires her to find out who is following and harassing him; but before she can even get truly started on her investigation Pops (as she calls Father Ray Heaton of St. Brendan’s) is found dead in the confessional booth, with the gun in his hand, an apparent suicide–and there’s another body in the church, a young Latino gangbanger named Cesar. The police–including her nemesis, the douchebag who ruined her attempt to bring the kid in several years earlier–are very quick to rule it a murder-suicide, but Cass doesn’t believe it for a minute, and begins her own investigation.

The case itself is full of surprising twists and turns, and Cass takes quite a beating as she tries to find out the true story of what happened that night at St. Brendan’s–and her personal life also starts to grow a little complicated, with the return of her birth father and the introduction of a possible love interest police detective for her. Well written, Cass is the kind of character you love to get behind and root for; she has, like all the best private eyes in fiction, a strong moral code of her own that turns her into a complex and fascinating character, one you can’t help but like even when she maybe isn’t behaving at her best. Clark has done a fantastic job of breathing life, not only into Cass, but into her supporting characters and the people she comes across throughout the course of the case.

Clark also makes Chicago into a very real place. I spent eight years of my childhood growing up on the south side, and she brings Chicago to life, with all of its problems and charms, with a loving but critical eye. It’s not the same Chicago we see through the eyes of Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, but it’s to Clark’s credit that she doesn’t try to imitate the queen of Chicago crime, but rather emulate her.

An impressive debut, and I am looking forward to reading further adventures of Cass Raines.

Rhythm is a Dancer

Christ, it’s the Friday before Halloween. The Quarter is going to be full of gays from all over the country all weekend, most of them costumed for at least part of the time.

And 90% of them will have costumes that include either sexy or slutty in the official name: “Sexy Sailor,” “Slutty Nurse,” etc etc.

Boy, do I feel old–because even as recently as ten years ago I would be chomping at the bit to get down there, have a good time, ogle some pretty boys, and have a good time. Instead, I’ll be hunkered down here in the Lost Apartment all weekend, proofing and editing and revising and copy-editing. I also have some reading to do, and there’s this week’s Riverdale–I seriously don’t know why I still watch, other than the really attractive and charismatic cast, because the plots do not make any sense–so yeah, I probably won’t be setting foot outside the house until Monday.

Ah, my first New Orleans Halloween.

It was 1994, and I hadn’t met Paul yet. I had just started my new exercise and diet regimen in late August, and I had never been to anything like the New Orleans Halloween weekend before. I have always had a contentious relationship with my body, and this Halloween was going to be the first time I ever dared to wear a slutty Halloween costume; granted, I was simply going as an ancient Egyptian, which meant, of course, being shirtless. This was a big step for me–I was going to go out in public without a shirt on; and it was a big gay Halloween costume ball. I even bought a headdress to go with the little skirt I had made for the event, and did my eyes with mascara and drew a thick line around my eyes and out to the side with eyeliner. My eyes looked huge. 

I also stupidly wore gold glitter. I never made the glitter mistake again.

I had such a lovely time that weekend. It was, I think, one of the first and best times I ever had as an out gay man–how sad that it took to age thirty-three for that to happen; but it did take me a very long time to deprogram myself from everything I learned growing up. (I’m still finding, from time to time, that I’ve not made as much progress as I would have liked, or hoped, to have made by now) But it was one of the first times that I felt like I was actually a part of the gay community; and I’ve tried, over the years, to write about the sense of belonging one gets when one in is in a sea of gay men dancing to great music and everyone just wants to have a good time; a blessed respite from the dangers and horrors of the every day world. I also distinctly remember being out on the dance floor in the midst of all these happy men dancing (the song was “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys) and thinking, we are finding joy behind locked doors, forgetting everything that goes on outside and creating an oasis, kind of like in “The Masque of the Red Death.”

I wrote a story in my journal the next morning–while recovering over coffee–that was basically that; a gay adaptation of the Poe story. I’ve never revisited that story, but I just might, now that I am thinking about pulling together a collection of personal essays called Gay Porn Writer: The Fictions of My Life. So, yes, that’s yet another book I am currently working on. I have Bourbon Street Blues to proof, Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories to go over, Royal Street Reveillon to finish, and my second short story collection, Once a Tiger and Other Stories, also in progress.

And I am also planning yet another collection, Monsters of New Orleans.

And there’s also the WIP.

This. Is. Fucking. INSANE.

Nothing like some creative ADHD, is there?

I have so much writing work to get done this weekend. And once again, I am having an attack of the lazies this morning. I even did laundry and some cleaning last night to free myself up for today’s work…and yet here I sit, lingering over coffee and social media and not really feeling particularly interested in getting to work.

And on that note, I should probably return to the spice mines.

Have a lovely Saturday, everyone.

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