Always

I always learned from reading–which is probably why I was so bad at math, now that I think about it.

And while I’ve certainly read more than my fair share from reading non-fiction (history and biographies), I’ve also learned a lot from fiction (while admitting as an adult that some of what I’ve learned from reading fiction should be viewed with a much more critical eye)–the so-called “travelogue” books in the kids’ series, like Nancy Drew’s The Clue in the Crossword Cipher or the Hardy Boys’ The Mystery at Devil’s Paw was often how I learned obscure facts that frequently come in handy when watching Jeopardy or playing Trivial Pursuit (example: The Clue in the Crossword Cipher was where I learned that the Inca language is called quechua, and I also learned about the Nasca Lines and Macchu Picchu from that book). I love reading books that, through the course of the story, expose me to information about a culture or a society or country that I don’t know much about–I’ve generally heard of it, but don’t have any other knowledge and let’s face it, there’s only so much time in every day and it’s hard enough to keep the plates spinning as is–which is why I love fiction that tells me an entertaining story while at the same time teaching me something.

Julia Dahl’s debut novel, Invisible City, is one of those.

I was in Chinatown when they called me about the body in Brooklyn.

“They just pulled a woman out of a scrap pile in Gowanus,” says Mike, my editor.

“Lovely,” I say. “So I’m off the school?” I’ve spent the past two days pacing in front of a middle school, trying to get publishable quotes from preteens or their parents about the brothel the cops busted in the back of an Internet cafĂ© around the corner.

“You’re off,” says Mike.

The rest of the press is on the scene when I arrive at the gas station across from the scrap yard. Pete Calloway from the Ledger is baring his crooked teeth at the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, or as reporters call him, DCPI. DCPI is six inches taller and seventy pounds heavier than Pete. It’s barely twenty degrees out and Pete’s got his hoodie up, his shoulders hunched against the cold, but DCPI is hatless, scarfless, gloveless, coatless. His uniform jacket collar is pulled up, two inches of starched wool-blend against the icy wind.

“We’re hearing she was found without clothes,” says Pete. “Can you confirm that?”

Again, I am late to the Julia Dahl party. This book was an Edgar finalist for Best First Novel, and any number of my colleagues and friends in the mystery/crime community have raved to me about Dahl’s strong gift for writing. Invisible City was the final selection for me to take with me on last week’s trip, and it was a wonderful companion for me on my three and a half hour flight from Boston back to New Orleans. I was so deeply engrossed in the novel that–other than being interrupted by the flight staff to give me a bag of pretzels and a can of Pepsi, and then to collect my garbage–the plane could have caught fire for all I knew or cared; I just wanted to get to the bottom of the murder of the naked woman whose body discovery kicks off this well-written and very fast-paced mystery story.

Our main character here is Rebekah Roberts, and what a gift to the crime world she is! Well rounded, fully developed, and absolutely real, Rebekah is one of the most fascinating and complex series characters I’ve come across in quite a while. Dahl, like all great writers, lets us see Rebekah in all of her glory–with all of her flaws, her personality issues, her raw emotion–and while sometimes she might seem to an outsider as a bit brash or even much as I hate to say it, bitchy–Rebekah’s rawness and vulnerability makes her someone you not only enjoy spending time with as a reader, but you hate to stop spending time with her at the end. She’s fairly young, recently out of the University of Central Florida, and now living in New York trying to make ends meet (as well as build a journalism career) while working as a stringer for a tabloid paper in the big city. She’s not making a lot of money, and her small circle of friends are also terrifically rounded out as fully dimensional characters–and I hope, as the series progresses, we get to know them even better.

The case obviously begins with Rebekah going to cover the discovery of a nude woman’s body at a scrap yard in the dead of winter. But…the scrapyard is owned by Hasidic Jews, and the body is quickly taken away by a Hasidic funeral parlor rather than the medical examiner’s office, which strikes Rebekah as not only strange but not legal.

And this is where Dahl’s genius as a creator kicks in: Rebekah’s mother was Hasidic, questioned her faith, met Rebekah’s father and ran away with him. They were never married, but she gave birth to Rebekah, but the pull of her faith and her old life proved far too strong for her, and so she abandoned father and baby when Rebekah was six months old. She grew up without a mother, her father slowly changing the story of what happened to her mother as he deemed she was old enough and mature enough to handle the truth–from dead to gone to abandoned–and this, naturally, has caused some deep emotional issues for Rebekah to deal with. She hates her mother while longing to meet her and confront her–and gobbles anti-anxiety medication on the regular as she begins digging into the murder of this unfortunate Hasidic wife and mother, having to confront her own conflicted feelings about being not only half-Hasidic herself, but her own issues with that faith and way of life which she feels robbed her of her mother.

Dahl also does a magnificent job of exploring the Hasidic way of life–how alien it appears to the very much modern Rebekah, who cannot grasp why anyone in the modern day would choose such an archaic, ancient way of life, but as Rebekah learns more about why the Hasidim choose to live the way they do, my own understanding grew. The way she brings these Hasidic characters to life, refusing to simply turn them into stereotypical, one dimensional freaks and humanizing them instead, is a gift to her readers. I may not be able to comprehend living that kind of life, but I came away from this book with an understanding and empathy for them; why they self-isolate and remove themselves from the goyim in a way I don’t think I could have without Dahl unlocking that world in such a compassionate, empathetic manner.

And it’s a corker of a mystery too. I couldn’t put it down, and I am very excited to continue reading more in the series. Rebekah is an amazing heroine, destined to be ranked up there with the other great female crime series characters, and I look forward to watching Dahl continue to grow and flex her muscles as a writer–which are already, from this debut, clearly well-trained already.

Read this book. You can thank me later.

Mama’s Pearl

I’ve never much cared for the term domestic suspense, because, as someone whose mind works primarily in playing around with words, it has always seemed to me that the inverse would be international suspense, which, to me, sounds like downplaying the work of women and its importance, since books primarily given this”domestic suspense” label generally are women. (Although one can make an argument that men cannot, or do not, write domestic suspense because they traditionally are more involved outside the home and family? Interesting premise there…)

I know there has been debate over the years about the differences between crime fiction written by men or by women, and that women’s crime fiction isn’t always taken quite as seriously as that written by men. I’ve tried puzzling this out, and have made my own brain hurt trying to come up with reasons for why this injustice has always been perpetrated on women crime writers; it’s almost as though the ideation is that women’s fiction is somehow more internal and more contained and almost smaller; the themes of their work being about relationships and family rather than big universal save-the-world themes in male-written fiction. That might have a small kernel of truth to it, as a starting point for a much broader discussion that should be held by those with bigger brains and more knowledge of our genre than my limited knowledge and experience; I just know that while I can occasionally enjoy one of those BIG style books about saving the world with lots of action and gunplay and danger, I prefer as a general rule the stories where the crime story comes from the fracturing of relationships and the emotional damage inflicted by personal cruelty and thoughtlessness from those we know intimately.

Alison Gaylin has, in the slightly more than a decade and a half since she published her first book, Hide Your Eyes (which is absolutely delightful), has become one of the best in what I suppose would be classified as “domestic suspense.” Her If I Die Tonight won an Edgar Award; she was nominated three or four times before, and her What Remains of Me remains one of my favorite reads of the last decade. She writes about mothers and their children; how families can disintegrate in the face of criminal tragedy, or how the scars from a long ago tragedy can continue to break open and bleed in the present.

But with her latest, The Collective, she has somehow managed to kick it up into another gear.

The ceremony starts in twenty minutes. I’m climbing out of the subway tunnel, a thousand unwanted smells in my hair. I’m not used to being around this many people–the stink of them, the heat, the noise. The noise especially. I just shared a subway car with a group of high school girls, and their laughter still swirls in my ears. I probably should have driven, but it’s been hard for me to drive long distances since Emily’s death. My thoughts start spinning along with the wheels, memories of road trips, of carpools and radio sing-alongs and petty arguments and before I know it, I am aiming straight for the divider.

The venue is just three blocks away. I walk slowly, slower than everyone around me, trying to catch my breath, to still my thoughts, to think of nothing but the sidewalk and the cold night air and where I need to be.

From half a block away, I recognize the Brayburn Club. I know it from the photo I found online. It’s located in a Gramercy Park brownstone with leaded windows and wide, majestic steps. It’s a week past New Year’s. but the Brayburn Club is still decorated for the holiday season, a lush wreath filling the front door, icicle lights dripping from the window sills like fresh beads of sweat.

I pass a group of young women smoking last-minute cigarettes–friends of his, maybe?–and I think back to the time I caught Emily smoking weed with her friend Fiona. She must have been fourteen, always a little old for her years and bored of our small Hudson Valley town. I got so angry with her. Grounded her for two months. Her dad thought it excessive. We smoked pot when we were that age, Matt said, missing the point. Yes, we smoked pot when we were fourteen, but Emily wasn’t us. She was better than us.

I won’t do it again, Mom. I promise. Her voice in my head is as clear an real as the shrieking laughter of the girls on the train. I want to lose myself in it and never come back.

It isn’t until I’m at the top of the stairs, after I’ve handed the boy at the door my invitation and I’m in line for the coat check that Emily’s voice quiets and I remember where I am and why I’m here.

The book focuses on a web designed in the Hudson valley named Camille whose life–and family–has been disrupted by a horrible tragedy; the death of her daughter Emily. Her overwhelming and all-encompassing grief has ended her marriage (her ex-husband has moved far away and remarried; finding solace in alternative spirituality), and made her friends very uncomfortable to be around her so they slowly have dropped away…leaving Camille alone with her anger, her bitterness, and her memories. Unable to handle her grief, she focuses on the boy responsible for Emily’s death–who has gone on to academic success and great popularity at his college–with the end result that she crashes an award ceremony for him, creates a scene, and winds up in jail. After she gets out, a woman who was also present at the ceremony and was sympathetic to her presses a business card with the word Niobe on it (not a spoiler here–anyone who knows Greek mythology will recognize the name of the proud woman with twelve children who dared to compare herself favorably to Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis; the twin gods who then slay Niobe’s children in front of her). Camille’s actions have gone viral–someone recorded the scene she created at the ceremony, and not the good kind of viral where everyone is outraged at her suffering and goes after the young man who essentially killed her daughter.

Soon, she is lured into the dark web world of Niobe, a collective of women who are all grieving mothers, their children all killed through the misadventures or deliberate acts of others who then got away with it. The collective all work together to make sure that justice–vengeance–is done; it’s actually very clever how it all comes together (no spoilers here) but Camille is assigned tasks to do. She has no idea why, or what they are for, or how they all act in concert with simple chores or errands done by any number of other women, but all together the end result is vengeance.

Or justice, depending on your point of view.

But the further Camille ventures into this exhilarating, if questionable, world, the more questions arise in her head: is this actually justice? The other women she comes into contact with–who can she ask questions of, who can she trust? And of course, the first rule of the Collective is that you don’t ask questions or talk about the Collective…

Camille is a deeply flawed woman, and yet Gaylin taps into the character so deeply that even as you think to yourself, oh no girl don’t do that this will not end well, the reader can also connect with the unsurmountable grief she feels; the wonderful feeling of doing something, even if it’s not legal or moral–there really is nothing worse than that helpless feeling–and you can’t help but root for her as she gets more and more deeply involved…and the suspense! Gaylin is a master of building suspense to the point you cannot stop reading–and resent even having to stop for a bathroom break.

I do recommend this very highly. It’s exceptional, and a master of the form firing on all cylinders.

Mr. Disco

Ah, Friday, and the weekend looms on the horizon.

Last night was odd; there was some sort of power problem in our neighborhood–a problem I’ve never experienced anything like before. The living room had power; everything in there worked fine. The upstairs lights? Flickering, and out most of the time. Same with the kitchen and the laundry room; the refrigerator was barely on, and the HVAC wasn’t working at all; and this was only affecting our block. So, so weird–and then around eleven thirty we got all the voltage we could possibly want. I’ve never experienced “low” power before; didn’t even know it was a thing, to be honest. But at least nothing in the refrigerator spoiled–always a plus.

The Edgars went smoothly yesterday, and there were some lovely surprises. All the nominees were deserving–they always are–and it’s always fun to see the excitement of those who get the statue. Obviously, it’s way more fun in person–fingers crossed for next year–and yesterday morning as I made condom packs and broke down expired test kits for biohazard disposal (seriously, my life is just a non-stop thrill ride) I remembered past Edgar ceremonies I attended and deeply enjoyed. I inevitably drink too much–it’s the free wine, always a danger for one Gregalicious–but my favorite ceremony remains the very first one I attended, when I wore a kilt and then took the train with friends the following morning to Washington for Malice Domestic. As I have mentioned before, my memory–once sterling and dependable–is now in tatters, so am trying to remember that first ceremony and evening and am finding it difficult, to be completely honest. I think that was the year Charlaine Harris was MWA president, and Carolyn Hart and Robert Crais were named grand masters, but I could be wrong. I also don’t remember which year Stephen King won for best novel–but it was the year Sara Paretsky was president of MWA, because I have a great picture of the two of them together from the cocktail reception before the ceremony. The third and final time I went–I think I’ve only attended three times–was the year my friend William J. Mann won for Best Fact Crime for Tinseltown. I always enjoy the Edgars and Edgar week activities; missing out on a ceremony the last two years was disappointing. I am hopeful next year we will be able to have it in person again.

Fingers crossed!

I also managed to get deeper into the revision of the book last evening before Paul got home and we settled in for three episodes of season 4 of Line of Duty–and Acorn loaded the fifth season yesterday as well.So, that’s the weekend pretty sorted. I also want to spend some time with The Butcher’s Boy, perhaps even finishing it–so I can dive into my next Mary Russell adventure. I am also currently reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmerman Telegram–and it occurs to me that all the espionage and so forth that went on before the American entry into the first World War between the Germans and Mexico (trying to keep the US occupied and distracted from what was going on in Europe, as well as disrupting the supplying of the Allies) could make for a wonderful “Holmes in New Orleans” story. New Orleans was a major port (still is, actually) and fairly close to Mexico…hmmm. I was also thinking about the banana intrigues–seriously, that is one of the most fascinating times in New Orleans history!

We really are enjoying Line of Duty, which is an interesting take on your typical crime show. The heroes of the stories–each season is relatively self-contained, although there was an over-all arc that tied all the first three seasons together–are an anti-corruption division; so the good guys are cops, but so are the bad guys. It is chilling to see how easy it is for the cops (at least in the show; I don’t know enough to comment on reality) to corrupt and divert an investigation; falsify evidence and so forth; with no concept of how deep and how high up the corruption actually runs. Thandie Newton is the dirty cop in season four, and like the previous villains/guest stars of previous seasons, she is terrific in the role. Can’t wait to see how this one turns out.

Yesterday afternoon as I made condom packs, I watched North Dallas Forty. This is a 1979 film starring Nick Note and Mac Davis (!), and was adapted from Peter Gent’s novel. I had read the novel, but had never seen the movie; it came up on Twitter a week or so ago when someone asked people for the best sports movie (I said Brian’s Song, and stand by my answer). Laura Lippman brought up North Dallas Forty, which made me think of Semi-Tough, another pro football novel and movie from the same period (remember? I tried to reread it and the blatant racism was so horrific I put it in the donate box after rereading the first page?). I’d like to reread the Gent novel–it was very dark; painkillers and drugs and alcohol and rapes and sexual assaults and racism and all kinds of horrible behavior–but unlike Semi-Tough, the Gent took those issues seriously and didn’t try to play them for laughs. The movie takes the same tone as the book–dark–and Nolte is really good as the wide receiver whose years playing have battered and broken his body and left him needing painkilling shots to play and swallowing pain killers to get through the day, and the alcohol and drug abuse. Mac Davis is surprisingly good as his best friend, the quarterback–who eventually betrays him in the end to keep his own contract alive. The game scenes are particularly funny; even in the 1970’s professional football stadiums were better than where these scenes were filmed; the “stadiums” they play in look like high school football fields–and not even the better ones. It definitely fits into the Cynical 70’s Film Festival–it exposes the “team as a family” mentality as the crock that it is, and that the players are all just cogs in a money-making machine for the owners, and the coaches don’t give two shits about their players, either.

I still stick with Brian’s Song as the best sports movie, though.

And on that note, this data isn’t going to enter itself nor are these condoms going pack themselves, so it’s off to the spice mines with me.

The Him

Another wretched and vile Monday morning has yet to dawn as I sit here swilling my morning cappuccino.

The day did not get off to a great start, with me putting my glasses down while I washed my face and brushed my teeth and then spent ten minutes looking for them–think Velma on Scooby Doo Where Are You?–but I did finally find them, and all was again right in my world–at least for then. I feel a bit out of sorts this morning–misplacing my glasses is not an auspicious start to the day, ever, on any level–but feel relatively confident this day will sort itself out accordingly as it continues.

We didn’t watch the Academy Awards last night, choosing instead to finish the second season of Line of Duty, which is one of the best-plotted crime series I’ve seen in quite a while; full of twists and turns and constant surprises as it follows the Anti-corruption division of a police department in Wales. The firsts season was amazing, the second was even better than the first (a stunning performance by Keeley Hawes of It’s a Sin has a lot to do with that), and I do recommend this if you have Acorn. We’re looking forward to diving into season three tonight.

Yesterday was a lovely kind of day, really. I spent the morning getting the kitchen under control, and then went to the gym, which was a lovely feeling. It was a simply gorgeous day yesterday in New Orleans; the weather has been rather marvelous since that five day stretch of non-stop rain we had week before last, so the walk to and from the gym was rather nice. I then worked on getting even more organized–it’s really a non-stop process, actually–and while I didn’t get everything finished the way I had hoped (didn’t tackle the inbox, which is still stacked high with mail and folders and loose paper), it was a nice start. We get paid again on Wednesday–this is the paycheck when almost everything is due, so the money will go into the account and go right back out again–and then it’s May. YIKES. I need to start working on inputting the edits and corrections and changes to this manuscript tonight when I get home from work; with an eye to getting it all finished by Saturday so it can go back to my editor. I need to focus most of my energies on getting this done, obviously; but that doesn’t mean I can’t actually plan out Chlorine or scribble notes down in my journal.

I also started reading Thomas Perry’s Edgar winning debut from 1982, The Butcher’s Boy, yesterday afternoon. After writing about how I tend to not read a lot of crime fiction (or fiction in general) from straight white men, I started feeling a bit, well, guilty about making such a bald statement. There are, as a matter of fact, any number of straight white male crime writers whose work I really enjoy: Ace Atkins, Michael Koryta, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Chris Holm, Lou Berney…it’s actually quite an extensive list. I will say, though, that a lot of the stuff published between the 1950’s and 1980’s I didn’t care much for, with some notable exceptions. But I had gotten a copy of the Perry after reading about it on one of those Crimereads list articles; I don’t remember what the list was about, and how this tied in with the other books on the list, but it’s been sitting on my TBR pile for quite some time and I thought, in my guilt-ridden state yesterday, why not give it a try? It did, after all, win an Edgar. And I am enjoying it–it appears to be about the investigation into a paid assassin/hit man; so far the point of view characters are a woman agent for the Department of Justice, for whom this is her first field gig, and the unnamed hitman. The book opens with a successful hit in Ventura, California; there is also a powerful senator who most likely is the next target. Am really looking forward to getting further into this one.

And on that note….. hello, spice mines!

Shame of the Nation

There are few pricklier subjects in urban areas than the concept of gentrification.

It’s happening in New Orleans now–has been, really, ever since we moved here, but it seems to have truly accelerated in the sixteen (!) years since Hurricane Katrina. You see it everywhere–the condos for sale for outrageous prices in targeted Facebook ads; the insanely high rents in targeted Facebook ads; the insane asking prices for houses up for sale, again in targeted Facebook ads. I also get email alerts and notifications from a few local realtors; I had to sign up for their mailing lists in order to view the interior of houses and condos and apartments (this began because a house in the Garden District I’d always wanted to see the inside of was up for sale and I went to the realtors’ website to see the interior; I’d been thinking about setting a book–a ghost story–inside that house so I wanted to see the layout and interior design) and I am amazed, on an almost daily basis, on what condos, houses and apartments are going for these days in a city not known for having the economic base to support such high monthly payments.

When Paul and I first moved here, the friends we had who already lived here told us that crime was an issue in the city, but it really didn’t matter where you lived–it was that omnipresent and inescapable. We rented an apartment on Camp Street–mainly because it was gorgeous, had gated secure off-street parking, and there was a park across the street. Our rent was, I think, $600 for almost 1200 square feet, enormous windows, hardwood floors, high ceilings and enormous windows. Our apartment had both a front door (which opened onto the front porch) and a back door that led out to the parking area; there was also a coin-operated laundry (two of each) in a shed in the back of the building. What we didn’t know was that the house next door housed a drug dealer; that the lights in Coliseum Square had been shot out and never replaced, and it was a late night place for people to hang out and do drugs–we could look out into the parking lot and see the pipes being lit out there in the park. The park was surrounded by big, beautiful decaying houses; the former on-ramp to the highway was still out in the neutral ground on the next block downriver on the neutral ground between Camp and Coliseum streets; I always called it “the on-ramp to nowhere” because it literally still went up for about a block and then….nothing. The Coliseum Theater–best known for being the movie theater Brad Pitt playing Louis in Interview with the Vampire exited after seeing Tequila Sunrise (at the time the film was shot it was still a functioning on-ramp)–was still there; closed, but still there. (It would burn to the ground a few years later in what I am absolutely certain was an insurance fire.) But within that first year after we moved there, two of the big houses on the other side of the park were sold and the renovations started. Utne Reader declared the Lower Garden District as the “coolest neighborhood in the country”, and the gentrification began. Houses were sold and became construction sites. Rents started going up. The St. Thomas Projects, a few blocks away, were closed and the residents relocated; new businesses began opening on Magazine, and suddenly…gradually…it was no longer the same neighborhood that it once was.

And the city has dramatically shifted since Katrina, of course.

I actually go back and forth about the gentrification thing in New Orleans, to be honest. I hate that a city that once had a high percentage of African-American home ownership and inheritance is seeing those numbers go down, and once vibrant historically Black neighborhoods–which birthed so much of what makes New Orleans so special–on the decline. I’ve wanted to write something about gentrification for quite some time….and then here comes Alyssa Cole with an absolutely superb take on it, creating a new subgenre that I am calling gentrification noir.

History is fucking wild.

Last fall, on a night when my ass was getting well acquainted with the uncomfortable guest chair in Mommy’s hospital room, I’d numbly tapped and swiped my way to an article about a place called Black America. Not the label politicians use to place our concerns into a neat box full of worries they don’t have to attend to immediately or ever, but an actual, tangible place–a slavery theme park that’d opened in Brooklyn at the end of the nineteenth century.

Slavery. Fucking. Theme park.

Black America, the theme park, was billed as “an opportunity to become familiar with plantation life for those of the North who belong to a general to which the word slavery has but an indefinite and hazy meaning.” This was, like, twenty years after slavery ended, mind you. I mean, I too get nostalgic when an eighties ham starts playing on the radio, but these motherfuckers really needed to reminisce about owning humans?

Alyssa Cole has written in several different genres, including both romance and science fiction, but this–what think may be her first thriller?–is an exceptional and extraordinary work written by a master novelist. Her two point of view characters–a Black woman named Sydney who lives in her mother’s house in a Brooklyn neighborhood being taken over by gentrifying racists (there’s no other way to describe them) and is also researching the history of the neighborhood for a walking tour she plans to do, and a white Johnny-come-lately to the neighborhood named Theo, trapped in a dying relationship after going in on a house with a wealthy white girl named Kim who now not only wants him out but plans to screw him out of the money he put into the house–both have deeply distinct voices that clearly delineate them as individuals, both of whom are more than slightly unreliable and have secrets of their own, and are two new and original voices to this reader in any case. But something awful is going on in this neighborhood–people are disappearing, houses are changing ownership overnight, and Sydney is beginning to wonder, as she bonds with unemployed Theo as he helps her with research for the tour, if maybe she isn’t being paranoid because what her mind is piecing together based on what she has seen and what she has researched…but sometimes paranoia is your sub-conscience warning you.

And it’s not like primarily Black neighborhoods haven’t been cleared out so white people could come in and make money before.

Claiborne Avenue here in New Orleans used to be a prime Black business district…until the powers-that-be decided to build the elevated I-10 highway over it, destroyed the district and Claiborne’s viability as a business district. There’s certainly a book in that story, for sure.

I cannot recommend this book nearly enough. The characters, despite their secrets and flaws, are highly likable, so you can identify with them and root for them. The suspense and tension builds–I could not put this down once I got past page 100–and I am going to be looking for more of Alyssa Cole’s work.

LOVED it.

Primitive Notion

Another good night’s sleep, only to wake up to a frigid forty degree morning here in the Lost Apartment. I have my cappuccino prepared, the space heater is blowing warm air in my general direction, and the ceiling fans are most definitely turned off. The kitchen is clean this morning, which is lovely–there’s a load of dishes in the dishwasher needing to be put away, but that can wait till after work–but it was marvelous to come down to a cleaned up and organized kitchen this morning.

Paul was working last evening, so I did the same. I got another two chapters of the book polished and revised; and hopefully will keep that momentum going this evening. I also started reading Jess Lourey’s Edgar finalist Unspeakable Things, and that voice! It’s quite good thus far, and I am really looking forward to getting further into it this evening after going to the gym. Yes, I have to go workout this evening; my shoulder is finally no longer sore from last week’s inoculation (hallelujah) and it has been nearly a week since I last went to the gym. My muscles and joints will no doubt protest and creak a bit as I put them through their rusty paces this evening, but I really have to get back into the swing of the regular workouts…and I also have been missing them. This is a good thing, and I am very pleased that my natural inclination of blowing off the gym has become, at least currently, a thing of the past; a former behavior, if you will.

I’ve also concluded that there are so many wonderful notes in my journals that when I am not actually writing on the book, I should start going through the journals yet again and pull ideas out of there, actually creating electronic files and folders to track the stories. I have written at least six or seven hundred words in my journal on “The Sound of Snow Falling,” and I need to convert that into a Word document as soon as I can so I can really start writing the story. I also can’t believe I allowed myself to go so long without keeping a journal; I believe it was 2017 when I started keeping them again, and it’s really been rather nice. While I no longer write for the most part by long hand–primarily to spare myself the ordeal of transcribing–I do find that brainstorming while scribbling has a restorative, creative effect; the journals were enormously helpful when writing both Royal Street Reveillon and Bury Me in Shadows–and there are an awful lot of helpful notes and brainstorming in them about the Kansas book, which are certainly coming in handy as I write the book. It has evolved so much over the decades since I started writing it all those years ago, and so much that I wrote in it originally has come in helpful over the years, being pirated and plundered for other books and stories. I am very deeply ensconced inside this manuscript now–to the point where I haven’t been thought about Chlorine since I started this deep dive into this final edit. This is unusual; earlier in my career I would become immersed in a manuscript the way I am now; but over the years it inevitably got to the point where I would always be thinking about–and wanting to work on–the next one while rushing to get through the current. I also think having this razor sharp focus is making the book better than it might have been.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?

I also was thinking about “The Rosary of Broken Promises” yesterday for some reason, as well as “To Sacrifice a Pawn”–two other stories I think I started writing in December; yes, December, because the idea was to write something for a last minute Christmas anthology Gabino Iglesias was pulling together (it’s always interesting to me how I will write a story for a submission call of some sort, but the story rarely ever gets published by the market I wrote it for; take “The Snow Globe” for instance. That started out being written for a Halloween anthology HWA was doing; I never finished it and the deadline passed. I turned it into a Christmas story for another anthology call; it was rejected, but now I have sold it somewhere else entirely), but of course I was in the weeds with Bury Me in Shadows and never finished it; I think the most likely thing that’s going to happen is I will spend March planning out Chlorine while finishing some of these other stories and getting them out for submission. I think I still have two or three stories in anthologies that will be coming out this year at some point; I am really looking forward to seeing the finished books. And at some point soon, I will have enough stories for another single-author collection of my own, which is very exciting.

But the sun is rising over the West Bank with pinks and reds and pale blues staining the sky; and I must start putting together today’s lunch, packing my backpack, and getting into the shower to face down yet another day of clients and work at the office. I’m also going to need to start pulling together my tax information (yay); which I’m also kind of dreading…but I can do that after I finish the book, really. No rush there at all–which is a good thing; there are few things I hate more than prepping my taxes for the accountant.

And so I shall go ahead and bid you adieu for yet another morning, Constant Reader, and hope your Tuesday is as marvelous as you deserve.

As It Is When It Was

And another Monday has rolled around and here I am yet again awake before the sunrise and trying to get it together for yet another work week.

I got some terrific work done on the book yesterday, which quite naturally was most pleasing to me. I made it through the intro pieces and the first two chapters, which were very messy–I was, frankly, a little taken aback by just how sloppily written those two chapters were. Especially since they were around the seventh or so drafts of those chapters–I have been working on this book, off and on, since the summer of 2015–but I never really had quite grasped how to write the book in any of those earlier drafts, nor did I know what the plot and story were missing; which I do now. I got up rather early yesterday, feeling refreshed and well-rested (which was quite lovely) and spent the morning cleaning the kitchen and doing some more organizing. I also spent some time in the morning getting further into Alyssa Cole’s marvelous Edgar finalist, When No One Is Watching, which I went back to and finished after getting my own work done. I absolutely loved this book, and it will definitely be getting its own entry at some point. I cannot recommend it enough Anyway, around finishing reading this book I managed to get a couple of chapters revised and rewritten, and hope to get a few more done this evening after work. The deadline looms, of course–and now I am going to have to buckle down and focus for the month of February in order to get it finished. I also worked a little bit on my short story “The Sound of Snow Falling”– also handwriting the story in my journal rather than typing on the computer. I think it’s going to be a good story; here’s hoping at any rate.

We also got caught up on the The Stand last night–we were two weeks behind, and somehow one or both of us always manages to forget we are watching it–and…I am enjoying it, and it is telling the story Stephen King wrote forty years ago, and I do admire the changes in how the story is being told…but I am also emotionally resistant to those changes at the same time, simply because I am so devoted to the book. The original mini-series from the early 1990’s followed the book’s narrative pretty closely; this new version chose to skip over a lot of the end of the world and everyone’s journey to Boulder. I do think that cutting all that backstory was perhaps a mistake; without it, we don’t really understand why everyone is so devoted to Mother Abagail, or the relationship between Larry and Harold, which I also thought was an integral key to the story. So I am enjoying it at the same time I am a little disappointed by it? I am not dismissing it straight out of hand, like some King purists, but I am not overly thrilled by the choices they are making as show-runners and writers. But it’s different, and whether that difference is good or bad remains to be seen. I suspect there is only one episode left, perhaps two–I will be curious to see how it all ends and what differences there are between the original story and the finished product of this adaptation.

It’s cold this morning in New Orleans, and even with the sun rising in the east over the West Bank (that will never cease to amuse me, really) it’s very cold and gray looking outside. I can see one of the few remaining trees next door moving in the wind, and the sky is covered with a layer of gray-looking clouds. It’s less than fifty degrees out there right now, which is a bit chilly, and I would imagine, from the looks of the cloud cover, that it’s likely to rain for most of the day, or at least the morning. I have my space heater going–the warm air blowing against my sweat-panted legs feels quite lovely–and I am drinking my first cappuccino of two for the morning. I don’t feel tired this morning, but rather well-rested, which is nice…not to mention I only have about another week or so before my vaccine kicks into gear. My left shoulder is still a bit sore this morning–now it just feels like a bruise–so I am going to most likely sip the gym one more time and go tomorrow evening. (I’ll see how the shoulder feels tonight when I get home from the office, to be honest–but I also don’t want to get out of the routine again. I’ve been doing so well, and as I have noted, my boy’s shape and size is shifting, which is quite nice)

I also have a lot of work to get done this week. Oh, so much work to get done this week! But there’s naught to do but to get it done–it’s not going away, and the longer before I get to it, the harder it will be to go ahead and do it.

And on that note, as the gray light becomes steadily a little gray outside my windows (but remains, nevertheless, gray) I am going to head back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader–and if you’re in the path of the massive blizzard up north, stay inside and stay warm and safe!

Hypnosis

Tuesday after the Edgar nominations were released–which is always one of my favorite days of the year. I love seeing how excited everyone–especially those who make the short-lists–always is. It’s also three weeks until Mardi Gras; which is going to be weird and kind of sad. It’s a bit of a shame, since last year’s was so cursed with bad energy almost from the very beginning. I’m glad I don’t have to plan my life around the parade schedule this year–that is quite nice–but it’s still kind of sad.

Insomnia returned last night, and this morning I am already feeling tired and worn out. The cappuccino is waking me up, but I feel very tired and drained and my eyes are all messed up; burning and watering from lack of sleep. It is most unpleasant, actually, particularly since I was planning on going to the gym after work tonight. I have a sneaking suspicion that may not happen; we’ll have to see how I feel when I get off work today and get home. Although I will say the shower really helped, and I think the caffeine is starting to take effect in my system as well. I have about a gazillion emails to answer today–yikes–and I really need to start working on the book at some point now that time is running out on the deadline.

Nothing like a deadline to kick your ass into gear.

We finished watching Flack last night and it is truly amazing. Anna Paquin is riveting as a spin doctor, who has an almost frightening ability to rationalize anything and excuse everything and come up with some absolutely insane ideas to protect her clients’ careers and reputations–with little to no care about how it impacts other people or the others in her clients’ lives. The primary problem is she has adapted what works for her in her day job into her private life–spinning merrily away and damaging her romantic relationship as well as those with the people she is close to–and most especially, her sister. It’s an exceptional performance–everyone in the cast is excellent, and all the roles are well written. But it’s Sophie Okenodo as the woman who runs the firm that steals the show–her ruthlessly ambitious executive has the best lines, and Okenodo plays it to the hilt. There’s a scene between her and a lowly intern in the season finale that alone should get Okenodo an Emmy; but since it’s on Prime who knows? Tonight we are starting the second season of Servant, M. Night Shyamalan’s fever dream of a nightmare series for Apple Plus; Lauren Ambrose is amazing–again, the entire cast is great–and it’s very cleverly written and creepy as all get out. I hope the second season is as good as the first.

I also am looking forward to reading more of Alyssa Cole’s When No One is Watching–which is an Edgar finalist for Best Paperback Original. I can certainly see why; the first few chapters I’ve read already are extremely well-written with a strong voice for the main character. There are a lot of terrific books on the Edgar shortlists; more books I may never get around to reading, alas.

Ah, I see what kind of day this is going to be–ebb and flow with energy. I just had a bit of a low, but now I am wired again. So bizarre, really. But I am just going to have to power through the low energy cognitive function and see what I can do about getting everything caught up. It would be amazing to get caught up on a day when I am not functioning at anything remotely close to 100%, wouldn’t it? But I keep looking at my emails and not having the energy or courage to even open one to read, let alone answer. But they won’t go away and the longer I go without answering some of these the worse off I will be in the long run, and let’s not forget–more will just keep coming in, like Sisyphus pushing the boulder.

Heavy heaving sigh.

I did notice yesterday that my body is changing–the regular working out is reshaping my body again, and while I doubt I am ever going to fit into size 29 pants again (I doubt i will ever go lower than 31, and even that would be miracle) it is nice to see that the workouts I am doing are having an effect–even if I think most of the time that my workouts are pretty wimpy; I have a really good base of muscle underneath the layers of fat, and even the little bit of exercise I am doing is having an effect. My posture is improving and my chest/shoulders/upper back are looking nice and bigger, which is having the desired effect of making my waist look smaller. I was in the bathroom yesterday washing my hands and happened to glance up into the mirror and was like, hey, when did that change occur? It was a most pleasant surprise, and I was quite delighted to see it. Probably at the end of February I am going to change from a full-body workout to a targeted body part program; it will mean the return of the much-loathed Leg Day, but that’s the most effective kind of program…I am hoping my body can handle it by the beginning of March.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you again tomorrow morning.

Half of My Heart

And now it’s Friday. It’s hard to imagine that it’s almost Thanksgiving already, but the initial pandemic shutdown also seems like it was more than a million years ago–when dinosaurs roamed the earth–rather than a mere eight months or so ago. Eight months we’ve been dealing with this; even though it seems more like eight fucking decades. But I’ve noticed that time has sped up lately–for the longest time it felt like time was dragging and was taking forever to pass, but now…now time is flying.

I suspect it’s the looming deadlines and being behind on everything, quite frankly.

The sun is bright this morning in my eyes and I cannot find my baseball cap–it’s probably stashed somewhere I thought I’d remember where it was–so I’ve had to move my chair and I am writing this while sitting at a weird angle to my desk. I’m working at home again today, and will be walking to the gym for today’s workout when I am finished with this afternoon’s work. Yesterday for the Cynical 70’s Film Festival I watched The Boys from Brazil and The Towering Inferno–more on those later–and I think that for today I might just dip back into some more Halloween horror. We also started streaming Mr. Mercedes, which is now available on Peacock for free–I am actually impressed with everything they are offering; it’s very similar to HBO MAX, but am still not willing to pay for another premium service yet–and I have to say, I am enjoying this adaptation. It’s fairly true to the books–at least as I remember, although I don’t remember the neighbor Ida, played by the amazing Holland Taylor–and I have to say, the three Bill Hodges novels (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch) have been my favorite Kings of this century thus far; Mr. Mercedes very deservedly won the Edgar for Best Novel some years back, and as much as I loved the books, I was very sad when I reached the end. King himself was an executive producer, and the television series adaptation was written by David E. Kelley, who has also been responsible for a lot of good television over the years, including Big Little Lies and The Undoing, which we are greatly enjoying as well. There are three seasons of this adaptation, and I assume each season covers one of the books.

The Boys from Brazil is an interesting film, and very much of its time. Based on the novel by Ira Levin, both book and film were very much of the 1970’s, and also encapsulated that cynicism and paranoia of the decade perfectly. It was also one of those stories that permeated the zeitgeist; everyone knew what”the boys from Brazil” were without reading the book or seeing the movie. The movie is a very close adaptation of the book–Ira Levin was known for his brevity as a writer, so rarely did things need to be cut out of the books for the screenplay. The Boys from Brazil was actually Levin’s longest novel–I could be wrong, but I don’t think so–and the film has some impressive star power, with Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, and James Mason in leading roles, and an incredibly impressive supporting cast, including Rosemary Harris, Anne Meara, and Uta Hagen. The film also opens with a focus on a young character played by an extremely beautiful young Steve Guttenberg (whatever happened to him? He was a big deal in the 1980’s and then just kind of faded away) as a young Jewish-American man who goes Nazi hunting in Paraguay, and is actually the one whose investigation tips off the big Nazi hunter played by Laurence Olivier about what’s going on and kicks the film into gear before he is, of course, caught and murdered by the Nazis.

It’s hard to imagine now that the 1970’s were forty years or so ago now; the world has changed so much…but the 1970’s were also only a few decades removed from the second world war and Nazi war criminals were still being hunted down worldwide by the Israeli secret police. (The Germans were also hunting them down for trials; the Israelis were killing them.) The Lieberman character played by Olivier (he got an Oscar nomination; ironically, he also got one for playing an escaped Nazi war criminal in Marathon. Man a few years earlier) was based on Simon Weisenthal; does anyone even remember Weisenthal today? (Weisenthal was one of the people who helped track down Eichmann.) It’s no secret that many Nazis escaped to South America after Berlin fell, and Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay in particular; so much so that it was so much a part of the zeitgeist that everyone knew and a casual reference was easily picked up on. Levin took that, decided to make Josef Mengele, the escaped Nazi “angel of death”, and put him at the center of the story. And the scene where Leibermann finally realizes what Mengele’s plans are–that is the scene that earned Olivier the Oscar nomination. The film doesn’t pack the same emotional wallop that the book does–probably because by the time the film was released, most people knew what the title referenced and what it was about (Levin was a master of the huge surprise twist), which killed some of the suspense. Gregory Peck isn’t very good as Mengele, either; paired with his listless performance in The Omen, Peck was clearly phoning it in for the most part in the 70’s and cashing the checks.

And as I always say, you can never go wrong with Nazis as your villains. The two best Indiana Jones movies have him fighting Nazis; you just can’t come up with better villains–having the opposition be Nazis alone immediately makes your hero pure of heart and decent and makes you root for him. (The Vatican, however, is an excellent fallback choice.)

There’s also an excellent essay to be written about The Boys from Brazil, comparing and contrasting it to Robert Ludlum’s The Holcroft Covenant, which is also about an attempt to resurrect the Third Reich, with the the seeds planted in the waning days of the war.

The Towering Inferno was part of the big wave of disaster movies that was a thing in the 1970’s, spawned by the huge success of Airport and The Poseidon Adventure. Like all disaster films, it boasted an all-star cast chock full of award winners and household names–Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Jennifer Jones, Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner, Susan Blakely, and Richard Chamberlain, to name a few–and a terrible script that was focused more on the adventure than the actual characters. (It’s also jarring to see O J. Simpson in a supporting role; and to remember he had a fledgling acting career before he murdered two people) Disaster movies inevitably fit into the Cynical 70’s Film Festival because they are always about preventable disasters that wind up happening because of greed and people in positions of power that invariably shouldn’t be; there’s always one scene where the person in charge of cleaning up the mess and solving the problem sanctimoniously lectures the person they feel is responsible for it: in this case, fire chief Steve McQueen lectures architect Paul Newman about the irresponsibility of building skyscrapers from a firefighter’s point of view (and having witnessed 9/11….yeah, watching the scene made me squirm more than a little bit)–but Newman, you see, is the hero; the fire and the building’s failure to be properly prepared isn’t his fault; construction manager Richard Chamberlain cut corners on the electrical wiring and so forth to stay on schedule and under budget to please building owner (also his father-in-law) William Holden. I watched the movie for the first time several years ago–and couldn’t make it all the way through on a rewatch. The acting is too bad, the writing too awful, and the story not compelling enough. It was nominated for like seven Oscars, including Best Picture–which should give you an idea of what a bad year that was for film. It was based on two novels, published around the same time, that covered the same ground–a fire in a new skyscrape–so the rights to both had to be secured to prevent lawsuits: The Tower by Richard Martin Stern, and The Glass Inferno, by by Thomas Scotia and Frank Robinson, with their titles blended into The Towering Inferno.

Around the time I originally watched The Towering Inferno I rewatched three other big disaster movies of the time–Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake–and none of them really hold up. There were scores of other disaster movies of the time too–several Airport sequels, a movie about killer bees, etc.–but if the BEST of the time don’t hold up, the ones that weren’t considered good at the time must be really horrific.

And on that note, it is back into the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader, and I’ll catch you tomorrow.

New York City Boy

I really miss New York.

As I’ve gotten older and more set in my ways, I’ve grown to abhor travel for the most part. I have trouble sleeping in hotel beds, for one thing–and by the time I am finally used to the bed, it’s the last night of the trip and I inevitably will have to get up early the next morning, ensuring exhaustion when I arrive at Armstrong International here in New Orleans. I don’t like working on laptops anymore–my eyes have gotten so bad the small screen is a pain in the ass, and the difference in keyboard from my desktops (home and work) is too much of an adaptation, so getting writing done when I travel has become next to impossible as well; now when I travel I just try to keep up with deleting junk emails from my various inboxes to make catching up on those easier when I get back home.

New York always exhausts me when I visit; it seems like I catch the pace of the city and am constantly running from one meeting to another, grabbing lunch sometime and a coffee here and there. But I love it there, and every trip up to there always makes me feel kind of like a kid again. When I was a kid I used to dream about being an author and going to New York for authorial business; I always feel like an author when I am there–because I am always there primarily for writing or publishing business. Business trips to New York! That was the kind of glamour I dreamed about when I was a kid, both in the suburbs of Chicago and out in the small rural town in Kansas I grew up in, where the seeds of my writing dreams were planted and germinated. Part of the reason I agreed to become Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America was because that meant a minimum of two business trips up there per year–one in January for the annual board meeting, and another in late April/early May for all the Edgar Award festivities. The pandemic, of course, cancelled all those plans for this year and probably next; I wouldn’t be surprised if I am not able to get to New York again until January 2022.

There’s obviously no time frame on when this pandemic will end, or when i will become comfortable with traveling again. I generally don’t travel much, even though conferences and so forth are tax deductions for me; I generally make it to Bouchercon and that’s about it for my year. I was hoping to go to more events over the next few years–not the least of which would be related to trying to be more visible as an MWA executive, trying to meet as many members as possible and engaging with them about the organization. The position is a lot of work, and trying to keep as many plates spinning as possible at the same time, hoping against hope none of those plates will go crashing to the floor. My personality is this bizarre combination of Type A and laziness; probably has more to do with mood swings and possible manic phases than anything else, really. I never seem to be able to say no, for one thing, and so I always wind up with more plates spinning than need to be going at the same time. It’s also hard to prioritize plates–which ones matter more than others?–and inevitably, for some reason or another (subconscious self-destructive patterns, perhaps?) wind up prioritizing the ones that don’t matter as much and won’t make me any money.

But I miss New York so much. I have so many friends there that my short visits never allow me to see everyone that I would like to see–as much as I would love to cram as many people in as I can, of course, I barely have time to get everything done that needs to be done up there, and I am always tired from the hotel-induced insomnia as it is. I miss taking the subway. I miss Grand Central Station. I miss drinking dirty vodka martinis with extra olives with my friends; for some reason martinis always makes me feel posh and authorial; I think it’s because all the people in the 1950’s and 1960’s movies that firmly fixed the city in my imagination drank martinis. I marvel at the energy required to live there, the crowds of people on the streets and the subways, in the stores and the coffee shops, and the joys of going shopping–when I have the time. I had intended to visit the New York Public Library–just to look around–the next time I came up; I’ve always wanted to go inside and have a look around.

I already have resigned myself to the bitter reality that there will be no board meeting in New York in January, and probably no Edgar ceremony in May, either.

But someday, New York, someday.