I’ll Be Good To You

Well, wasn’t yesterday an amazing day for one Gregalicious? Not only was it payday, but I stopped and got the mail on my way to the office (there was a check!), and then right around the time I got to the office my phone (which was in my pocket) made the sound of breaking glass, indicating I’d gotten a notification from Facebook; I pulled it out of my pocket on my way up the stairs and lo! The Anthony Award short-lists had been announced, and I’d been tagged in the post. This usually means one thing and one thing only–a nomination–but I thought, no, that can’t be. But sure enough I clicked on the notification, scrolled down the list, and there I was, nominated for Best Short Story for “Cold Beer No Flies” from Florida Happens…along with four other amazing writers–Art Taylor, S. A. Crosby, Barb Goffman, and Holly West!

Wow.

It’s really lovely to be nominated for awards, and I know I’m luckier than so many others–who can go their entire careers without ever getting any award recognition. This is my second time up for an Anthony (I won, in Toronto, for Best Anthology for Blood on the Bayou), and came as an incredibly pleasant surprise; the decision to not have a Best Anthology Anthony for Dallas Bouchercon was, I thought, the death knell of any shot I might ever have at possibly getting another Anthony nomination. I certainly never dreamed I’d somehow make the short-list for Best Short Story for my contribution to Florida Happens, “Cold Beer No Flies,” a story that’s been hanging out in my files in various different forms since the late 1980’s. But I am also pleased that it’s a story about a young gay man trapped in a small, conservative Florida panhandle town who has big dreams to get out of there–and isn’t afraid to break the law in order to make those dreams come true. This is also my second time nominated for a Short Story award from the mainstream mystery community–the first was the Macavity in Toronto, and the nod was for “Survivor’s Guilt” from Blood on the Bayou–and I also can’t even begin to tell you how thrilling it is to be nominated for a short story in the mainstream; but “Cold Beer No Flies” is, as I said before, a story with gay character/themes…and it might be the first time such a story has been nominated. (John Copenhaver is also nominated for Best First Novel, for Dodging and Burning–still in the TBR pile–and he’s also an openly gay writer of a book with gay characters and themes; I think it’s possible the two of us may have made history with our nominations as the first time this has happened; I could be wrong.)

This is especially thrilling when I take into consideration the fact that my writing self-esteem (never high in any discipline) is particularly low when it comes to short stories, as Constant Reader is undoubtedly aware. I love them, and I love the challenge of writing them, but…I’ve never had much luck with selling or placing them in places, but sometimes I do catch lightning in a bottle and the story works.

I spent most of yesterday trying to keep up with the congratulatory posts, comments, tweets and emails yesterday but failing miserably; I woke up this morning to a lot more of them and I suspect a lot of my free time today will be spent making sure I thank everyone.

Which is, frankly, kind of a lovely problem to have, amirite? I mean, I’d certainly rather spend a day basking in the glow of warm congratulatory messages/posts/tweets/comments than pretty much anything else, to be honest. Who woudn’t?

And to be on a short-list with talented writers like Art, Barb, Holly, and Shawn? Very very cool, quite frankly, and just the kind of flattering ego-stroke I needed at this moment as I struggle with the WIP (which I didn’t touch yesterday, for obvious reasons) but I am hoping to get back to today because things will, I am sure, be settling down somewhat. What’s interesting is that Holly is also nominated for her Florida Happens story; Barb also has a story in Florida Happens but is nominated for another work; and Art was the person who got me involved in working on Bouchercon anthologies in the first place. I met Shawn briefly in St. Petersburg at this last Bouchercon, and I am certain at some point in the future we’ll have a professional connection of some sort like these others–I certainly hope that’s the case, at any rate.

And now it’s back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Thursday, everyone, and thank you!

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Fading Fast

When I started looking over the lyrics to the three Go-Go’s songs I was given to choose from as my inspiration for a story–as you well know, I settled on “This Town”–I was amazed, as I have said before in previous entries about these stories in this anthology, at how dark the lyrics actually were when removed from the context of the upbeat music and the cheerful singing voice of Belinda Carlisle.

Needless to say, the songs definitely loaned themselves to serving as inspiration from crime stories.

And Sarah M. Chen wrote perhaps one of the darkest stories I’ve read in a long time, inspired by “Fading Fast.”

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The guttural meow of a feral cat pierced the still night, making Sherry yelp. She stumbled on the gravel road and smacked into Justin, who crept silently in front of her.

“Jesus, what’s with you?” Justin whispered, spinning around. He held a finger up to his lips as if she needed to be reminded that they were supposed to be “stealth-like.” Jus- tin’s exact words because this was all his plan. He didn’t even want her here, but no way was she letting him do this without her.

“Sorry. Damn cat.” She hated cats. Mostly because that’s how they sounded late at night outside her window. Howling in that creepy, blood-curdling way.

His stern look softened into concern. “It’s not too late to back out, babe. Let me handle it.” His eyes traveled down to her bulging belly.

Sherry instinctively put her hand on her round tummy. She shook her head. “No, this is my thing.”

Their eyes locked in the darkness, illuminated by the full moon and the flickering streetlight behind them.

“It’s our thing.” Justin smiled and grabbed her hand. Gave it a squeeze. She squeezed back, and he motioned to the trailer about twenty feet ahead of them. “Ready?”

She nodded. Their footsteps crunched on the gravel as they closed in on the gray aluminum mobile home with the sagging bottom frame. The chilly night seemed to penetrate her bones, as if she weren’t wearing two sweatshirts and a windbreaker. Or maybe it was her nerves. She shivered.

Justin climbed the creaky steps and tried the front door. It was locked, as Sherry knew it would be. Justin pulled out a flathead screwdriver and went to work. Ernie didn’t bother with the deadbolt. Figured the few neighbors around knew better than to screw with him. Tonight, he was wrong.

The story opens with Justin and Sherry breaking into the trailer of Ernie; she is heavily pregnant, so immediately the mind runs to why would a pregnant woman be doing this? But as the story progresses, Chen deftly shows us precisely why a pregnant woman would take such a monumental risk, and why she is so driven. A powerful story about abuse, the damage that results from it, and how that damage can carry on to another generation unless someone breaks the cycle is handled quite expertly here; and the way the story ends is quite a punch in the mouth. Chen is quite gifted, and this is my first experience with reading her work…and it won’t be the last.

Well done!

Blades

Reading these stories, and revisiting the music, has drawn me into something I rarely do: reminisce and think about the past. I generally try not to think too much about the past; it’s the past and there’s nothing to be done about it, after all. Sometimes, though, when writing, I try to draw on my past and my own experience.

The 1980’s were a difficult decade for me, but one of the things I remember fondly about that decade was always the music. I’ve always had a soft spot for 1980’s music, and it was a weird, transitory time for it. MTV changed everything; exposing Americans and young people to new music and bands and artists they might not have ever heard, and the visual medium of the new “music television” channel also allowed us all to experience music visually, and there’s no question that interesting video presentation helped artists like Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, and many others to an even greater success than might have otherwise been possible for them.

The Go-Go’s videos were almost always very simplistic; probably “Vacation” was the most complicated video they ever made. Rewatching their videos recently kind of made me laugh–“Head over Heels”, for example, looks like it cost $20 to produce–and I’m not certain if this was because they didn’t care, or the record company thought they were big enough to not need the push from a terrific video.

The next story up in Murder-a-Go-Go’s is “Blades,” by Steve Weddle.

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He was on his fifth Tequila Sunrise when his head hit the table.

“Everything, guys. Everything.”

We’d talked Nick into coming for drinks because he hadn’t been out of his apartment since twenty-nine days back when he and Laura had called it off. We had to get him out. Even without the wedding, the three of us considered ourselves his groomsmen. Until death do us all part, it seemed. Though another few drinks might take care of that.

The Thursday night crowd at Wingin’ It was worried more about the Cowboys-Eagles game than about the four of us concussing ourselves on a table.

Raphael slid the emptied tumblers away from Nick’s head. “She didn’t take every- thing, man.” Raph was the jokester among us, the one we sent in to cause a scene if we needed it, the one thinking he was just one prank away from going viral. When we’d go to games, he was the one who would sneak us in a diaper bag full of White Russians in baby bottles “You’ve still got your health,” he told Nick, pulling a coaster from the side of Nick’s face. “And that nasty cold sore.”

Truth be told, Nick was a bit of a late bloomer. We were all in our late thirties, but he hadn’t even gotten through his first marriage, yet. And with Laura dumping him a month before the wedding, he was even further behind us.

“Look,” Sam said, “if it wasn’t meant to be, it’s best you know now. The two of you can move on, find new people. It’s good news to find out now.”

“We’re still registered,” he said.

Ralph, Sam, and I looked at each other, then back to Nick.

“Sure,” Sam said, “I’m sure she didn’t even think about it. Probably moved on. You should too, man.”

“At Target,” Nick continued, ignoring Sam. “I checked. Target still thinks the wedding is going to happen. On the nineteenth. That’s next weekend.” He’d raised his head, apparently just he could drop it, rattling on the table again. “Next weekend.”

Sam said he’d get the next round, then walked across the room to the bar.

This story is different from the preceding ones in that the crime committed during the course of this story isn’t a felony; and the crime itself, while the driving force behind the story, isn’t really the focus of the story. The story is about friendship, and the things guys do to help out their friends, whether it’s a smart thing or not, and the ending of the story might be a little dark–the story itself is dark, emotionally–but it also leaves the reader with a strong sense of satisfaction; justice, of a sort, has been done, and everyone feels better about things. It’s about male bonding and male friendship, and not done in a way that feels non-relatable to not-straight men.

Quite good, and I loved the change of pace.

And now back to the spice mines.

It’s Everything But Party Time

Since adding Spotify to my life this week, I’ve been having a great time listening to albums I love, and of course the Go-Go’s are on that list. I’d forgotten how much I love having music on while I do things around the Lost Apartment–whether it’s cleaning or editing or writing; music always makes things better, quite frankly.

It certainly makes the time go by a lot faster.

Next up in Murder-a-Go-Go’s is Lisa Alber’s “It’s Everything But Party Time”:

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It’s my humble opinion that nothing says “boondoggle” like a bunch of oddballs running around a hotel dressed in fursuits. Wolves, raccoons, polar bears, and kittens sitting around the Paradise Arms Hotel lounge munching on appetizers and scratching each oth- er’s backs below a banner announcing “Furtopia—Welcome to Party Time!” didn’t bode well for the investigation.

My partner Mac skidded to a halt. “Sully? What the blazing fuck is this? You don’t warn me?”

“Nope. Hotel fully booked for a furry conference.”

The previous morning, paramedics had carted away a guy from room 306. Apparent heart attack. Only, the M.E. cut him open, cried “homicide,” and now here we stood, a day late to the investigation, surrounded by animal wannabes.

“So that lazy turd Weaver screwed up the initial investigation,” Mac said.

“Yep, settled for face value—natural causes. Didn’t lock down the scene properly. I’d probably have done the same thing.”

Mac punched me in the arm, too hard. “Not with me around.”

MacKenzie MacDougal, also known as Double-Mac-and-Cheese, Two-Mac, and Mac Attack, sports an unfortunate name to go with a fortunate tendency to rock her retro pantsuits. Ever more the professional than I, she perused the lobby area with its antique Italian marble, plaster ornamentation, and wrought iron fixtures straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Era and jotted a few notes.

Lisa Alber is another new-to-me author, which is one of the great things about anthologies; the exposure to writers you’ve not read before. She’s published four novels, including the County Clare mystery series.

“It’s Everything But Party Time” is particularly clever in that it’s set at a furry convention hotel, where the only guest not attending the convention died–originally presumed to be from natural causes, but the autopsy turned up peculiarities. This is a fun police procedural, with an interesting homicide detective team in Los Angeles; what makes this more unusual is that the woman is the better detective, the male isn’t threatened by her expertise, and they work very well together. This story is witty and clever and fun, and I had a great time reading it!

This Town

As I have mentioned before, I kind of invited myself to contribute to this anthology. It’s probably the single most brazen thing I’ve ever done as a writer. I’m not sure how it happened, exactly; I just saw it on Twitter or something and shamelessly contacted Holly West, who–rather than saying who the fuck are you? HELL FUCKING NO, was quite gracious and said, “By all means! I have a spot for you!”

The songs I got to choose from were three of my favorites, but I eventually decided on “This Town,” after reviewing the lyrics:

We all know the chosen toys 
Of catty girls and pretty boys 
Make up that face 
Jump in the race 
Life’s a kick in this town 
Life’s a kick in this town
This town is our town 
It is so glamorous 
Bet you’d live here if you could 
And be one of us
Change the lines that were said before 
We’re all dreamers – we’re all whores 
Discarded stars 
Like worn out cars 
Litter the streets of this town 
Litter the streets of this town
This town is our town 
It is so glamorous 
Bet you’d live here if you could 
And be one of us

 

 “We’re all dreamers–we’re all whores”–that was the line that sold me; this was the song I was going to use.

But despite the fact that was the line that convinced me, these lines:

Bet you’d live here if you could 
And be one of us

were the ones that actually inspired my story.

cover-west-murder-go-gos-frontOur IDs were fake, but no one seemed to care. Even when a burly bouncer asked to see them, his bare meaty arms adorned with tattoos, his bored eyes just flicked over the lami- nate before waving us inside. Celia was right about that, like she was right about every- thing. She could always find someone with coke to share or sell, or who was happy to share their blunt with us. She was a golden girl, the kind I used to think only existed in books or movies, the girl that’s too perfect to exist, the one every other girl wants to be friends with, wants to be. The one all the guys notice first, their eyes wide open and their jaws gone slack.

She always had the trendiest new make-up, the first to try out a daring new look we were too cowardly to try but quick to copy, always the first, the one everyone else imitat- ed. She seemed to glow from inside, drawing everyone’s eyes to her effortlessly, and she somehow managed to always look perfect, even when she was drunk, even after dancing for hours when our make-up ran down our cheeks and perspiration dampened our arm- pits. Her skirts were just the tiniest bit shorter than everyone else’s, her tops seemed to fit her in a way they didn’t fit anyone else, her hair thicker and shinier and bouncier. She pulled in guys like night insects to a white light, caught up in her magic. They only no- ticed the rest of us once she’d turned her attention elsewhere. We didn’t mind taking sec- ond place because it seemed like the natural order of things. She always knew the right thing to say—whether kind or insulting—and we all gravitated to her. She was our pledge class president, organized, efficient, determined we be the best pledge class our Omega Psi chapter had ever seen. Even the sisters seemed to be a little in awe of her, grateful she’d picked Omega Psi out of all the offers she’d had—every sorority had offered her a bid, I’d overheard one sister telling another at Monday night dinner, her voice awed as she went on to say that had never happened in the history of the Greek system at Tulane.

And she made us all feel special, whispering “Sisters” to us as we hooked our pinkie fingers and whispered the word back to her, committing to a lifelong bond with her.

She was Celia, and we were better for knowing her, special for being her sisters, like she’d selected us to be pledges and not the actives.

She somehow even knew the best places to catch the parades at our first Mardi Gras and wasn’t from New Orleans.

Haven’t we all known a girl like Celia, the one who somehow always knows what the next thing is, who always wears new styles and fashions before anyone else, who always seems to know where the best parties are, where to find the cute guys, the one everyone is drawn to, who draws the eye, who is the center of attention?

I was in a fraternity in college, and another trope that pops up regularly in my fiction is college Greeks–fraternities and sororities. Chanse was an alum of an LSU fraternity (I have an in-progress short story where Chanse deals with the current day members of his old fraternity after a suspicious death on Big Brother Night, “Once a Tiger”), and of course there are the Todd Gregory fraternity novels. Sororities fascinated me back then, and they still do today; they were a lot stricter than their male counterparts back when I was in college, and still seemed stuck, rules and tradition-wise, in the 1950’s.

Anyway, one day during Carnival last year I was standing under the balcony in front of the praline shop during a Saturday afternoon parade–Iris, I think it was–when a gaggle of sorority girls passed by in front of me. The clear leader of the pack was a beautiful young woman the others were clearly trying to please and impress; the alpha to their betas. They all paused right next to me so the leader could light a cigarette. As she put her cigarette in her purse three men of varying ages immediately stepped up to light her cigarette for her–one was in his fifties, one was slightly older than the girls, and another who might have been in his thirties–and I remembered another golden girl from a sorority back when I was in college…and I wondered what it would be like to be, not the alpha girl, but one of the betas, caught up in her thrall, and what you might be willing to do  for your alpha. Is it peer pressure, is it desire to please, what precisely is it that keeps you in thrall and makes you do things against your nature?

And that night, I started writing “This Town.”

The great irony, of course, was that after I’d written the story and Holly graciously agreed to use it in her anthology, I was reading William J. Mann’s Edgar-winning Tinseltown and realized that “this town” has a specific connotation, one that makes the song itself make even greater sense: “this town” is how people in Los Angeles refer to show business, i.e. “you’ll never eat lunch in this town again.” I’d even know that, from years of reading biographies and memoirs and histories of Hollywood and the studio system, but…my mind and my memory is a sieve these days.

But I’m very proud of my story, and I hope that you will like it, too, when you get a chance to read it.

You Thought

One of the things I loved about Go-Go’s music was it was high energy and danceable; and it didn’t matter if you had no rhythm, didn’t know how to dance, or were clumsy and awkward. Go-Go’s music was so good that it just didn’t matter–people who would never think about getting out on the dance floor would just dash out there and start bouncing around once the deejay put one of their records on the turntable.

When I basically invited myself to be a part of this anthology, many of the songs were already taken, but editor Holly West gave me a list of three to choose from. I looked up the lyrics of each…and one thing that struck me, right between the eyes, was how dark the lyrics were. The songs, played with a bouncy, danceable beat and catchy, ear-wormy lyrics with Belinda Carlisle’s oh-so-cheery voice and the lovely harmonies, were really, if anything, kind of noir…all those years of dancing and singing along with the records, I’d never really paid attention to what the lyrics were saying.

I don’t know that I’ll ever look at the songs in quite the same way again, frankly–but that’s not a bad thing; the songs have much greater depth than I’d ever thought, which is my failing, not the Go-Go’s.

Susanna Calkins’ story is the next up in Murder-a-Go-Go’s. Serendipity brought Susie into my life in 2018; her story “Postcard for the Dead” was selected for Florida Happens (and has also made the Agatha shortlist for Best Short Story) and we also worked together on another project. We met in person at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, and I hope that 2018 was the start of a terrific new friendship with this talent.

Her story is “You Thought.”

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Alison tightened her hand on her husband’s arm as they followed their real estate agent up the stone path to the 1920’s Craftsman bungalow. They’d waited so long to be shown a decent house within their limited budget. Finally, this one had come along and Sheila, clad today in an impossibly bubble-gum pink pantsuit, had reassured them it was a mustsee. “Perfect for a young couple,” she’d promised. “A steal at this price. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

Now, they gazed at the house in front of them. “Oh, Charlie,” Alison said, a catch in her voice. “Look at the front porch. We could sit outside after dinner. Enjoy the sunsets.”

Overhearing, Sheila smiled over her shoulder at them. “The house is charming, isn’t it? Did I mention there’s a basement? Just look at the yard! What a lovely place for children to play.”

Alison glanced up at her husband. Children! Perhaps that could happen now since they were finally settling down. After seven apartments in as many years, she could barely stomach the thought of another impermanent home. But she didn’t want to press him on that dream, at least not yet. “The begonias are beautiful, don’t you think?” she said instead, pointing at the pinkish-orange flowers in front of the house. “We could have a garden!”

There is nothing quite as stressful as making a major purchase that’s a lengthy commitment. I bought a brand new car in 2017, and I cannot even begin to tell you, Constant Reader, the agonies of indecision that went on for the weeks before I finally decided to bite the bullet and head to the dealership. I cannot even begin to imagine the stress involved with buying a home–particularly for the first time.

That is the beating heart at the center of this tale; Alison and Charlie are buying their first-ever house after seven years of marriage and seven years of moving from apartment to apartment; Alison falls in love with this house being shown to them by their realtor, Sheila. They end up in a bidding war that ends with them paying more than they can afford for the house, and once they move in…they soon learn that their realtor wasn’t really to be trusted.

I love the way Susanna takes the American Dream of home ownership and digs into it, exploring how home ownership can also be a trap as well as an investment into the future, and how financial distress can drive people to extreme measures.

Our Lips are Sealed

As Constant Reader is already aware (primarily because I can’t stop talking about it), I have a story in the upcoming anthology Murder-a-Go-Go’s, edited by the sublime Holly West and featuring an intro by the fabulous Jane Weidlin. As a huge fan of the Go-Go’s from the very first time I heard “Our Lips Are Sealed” on the radio of my car (I immediately bought their first album, Beauty and the Beat, on my next pay-day; it remains one of my all-time favorite albums. I also liked Vacation, just not as much…but Talk Show is also brilliant.

Another thing that is exciting for me about being in Murder-a-Go-Go’s is who I am sharing the table of contents with! Some of the best writers in the genre today! Woo-hoo!

And first up in the table of contents is Lori Rader-Day. Lori is currently an Edgar Award finalist for her Under a Dark Sky, and she was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark award for her first three novels (The Black Hour, Pretty Little Things, The Day I Died); winning for Pretty Little Things. She has won the Anthony Award twice, and been a finalist for the Macavity and the Barry Awards. A most impressive resume, particularly given there are only four novels to her credit thus far. I personally enjoy Lori’s work; which probably would be best classified as domestic suspense, but I’m not sure that’s an accurate classification. Her works are, like Megan Abbott’s, about the darkness inside women and their friendships.

And her story was inspired by “Our Lips Are Sealed”!

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When the credits for the movie the girls weren’t supposed to be watching started to roll, Colbie went to check that her mother was asleep, stamping down on the hand of her sister, Alexa, on the way out. Alexa sat up and sniffled into her fist but kept silent with effort. On the floor, Jane and Patricia picked white flecks of popcorn out of the kernels left at the bottom of the bowl. Nori slipped into the bathroom with her pajamas balled up in her fist.

Jane watched her go. “I usually sleep naked.”

“Bullshit,” Patricia said. Jane was older, by almost a full year, already thirteen. But Patricia was taller. If she needed to, she would hold Jane down and force her to say she was a liar.

Colbie returned to the doorway with a six-pack of soda cradled in her arms. “My mom’s either dead or she took one of her pills. Where’s Nori?”

“Peeing,” Jane said. She picked at the chipped blue nail polish on her big toe, leaving a patch of paint on the pink carpet of Colbie’s room.

“Why didn’t you invite boys over? I went to a boy-girl sleepover when I was at my old school—”

Patricia snorted. “For church? That doesn’t count.”

“Let’s do something else,” Colbie said.

“Not a lock-in, bitch,” Jane said. “A sleepover. With boys.”

Patricia rolled her eyes at Colbie. Everything seemed to have already happened to Jane, but out of sight, at her old school, in her old town. She sometimes wanted to ask Jane why she didn’t just go back if everything was so great there. She was sure Jane would say she couldn’t because she was a kid. Which, for once, would be the truth. They were all stuck where they were, being who they were. Patricia turned to Colbie. “What should we do?”

Nori opened the bathroom door an inch. “You guys?”

And seriously, is there anything more noir than a tween girls sleepover? Lori does an excellent job here playing with the power dynamics in a group of girls; girls who are just starting to become women and how they deal with the changes in their bodies and how they relate to each other.

Definitely a great start to the book!