Mary Mary

I have always loved strong female characters, having cut my reading teeth on Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Vicki Barr, the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, and Cherry Ames, just to name a few. As an adult reader of mysteries, two of my favorite series are Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series (simply the best) and Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series (also a gem of a series); primarily because I love the characters of Amelia and Meg both so very much. They are both fiercely intelligent women with a very dry sense of humor, and are the kind of strong women that everyone around them comes to depend on for support–and droll wit. The death of Dr. Barbara Mertz (who wrote as Peters AND as Barbara Michaels) ended the Peabody series forever, much to my heartbreak; the Meg Langslow series is going strong still, so I am hopeful that I will have years and years of reading pleasure yet to come from Donna.

And then, last year I discovered Mary Russell.

The envelope slapped down onto the desk ten inches from my much-abused eyes, instantly obscuring the black lines of Hebrew letters that had begun to quiver an hour before. With the shock of the sudden change, my vision stuttered, attempted a valiant rally, then slid into complete rebellion and would not focus at all.

I leant back into my chair with an ill-stifled groan, peeled my wire-rimmed spectacles from my ears and dropped tjem onto the stack of notes, and sat for a long minute with the heels of both hands pressed into my eye sockets.

I was already a fan of Laurie R. King from her brilliant Kate Martinelli series, about a lesbian police detective. (If you’ve not read that series, you need to–it’s one of the best of the last thirty years.) I was reluctant to read the Mary Russell series, as Constant Reader may remember from my previous posts about earlier books in this series; for any number of reasons, but primarily not ever really getting into the Sherlock Holmes/Conan Doyle stories. This shifted and changed when I was asked to contribute a Sherlock story to Narrelle Harris’ The Only One in the World anthology; this required me to go back and do some reading of Doyle, and having worked with Laurie R. King on the MWA board, I decided to give her feminist take on Sherlock a go.

And I have not regretted that decision once.

Mary has stepped up to replace Amelia Peabody as one of my favorite on-going series; I love the character–a strong-minded, fiercely independent woman of no small intelligence who is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Mr. Holmes. Theirs is, despite the age difference, a true partnership of equals; I love that Holmes, in King’s interpretation of him, isn’t quite so misogynistic or incapable of feeling–which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a male-written version. I like King’s Holmes; the strong female character who is his equal was the perfect solution to whatever misogynistic issues I may have had with other interpretations. I also love that Russell is also pursuing a life of the mind; her studies into theology at Oxford are not just asides to add color and flavor to the character but are just as important to whom she is as a character as the love interest/relationship with Holmes. As I also have an amateur’s curiosity into the history of Christianity and how the faith changed and developed throughout the centuries following the New Testament stories…how that was shaped and influenced by men with not the purest of motives…is something I’ve always been interested in.

I think the first book that challenged Christian orthodoxy in a fictional form that I read–the first time I became aware of the possibilities that the BIble wasn’t actually the pure word of God and had been edited and revised repeatedly in the centuries since Christ ostensibly lived, died and was resurrected–was, of all things, a book by Irving Wallace called The Word (Wallace isn’t really remembered much today, but he wrote enormous books of great length that were huge bestsellers, and the subject matter and style of the books was essentially that they were very bery long thrillers: The Prize was about the maneuvering to win a Nobel; The Plot was about an international conspiracy to kill JFK; The Second Lady was about a Soviet plan to kidnap the First Lady and replace her with a lookalike who was a Soviet agent; etc etc etc). The premise of The Word is simply that a new testament, a document hidden away for centuries in a monastery in Greece, claims that not only did Jesus not die on the cross but went on to live for many decades, preaching his own ministry and even visiting Rome. This, of course, is a cataclysmic document–it would change everything everyone had ever known and believed…if it is indeed authentic.

I’ve always loved a good thriller with a base in theology, ever since; and A Letter of Mary is just that, even if more of a mystery than a thriller. The role of Mary Magdalen has been questioned a lot in the last few decades–not the least reason of which is Holy Blood Holy Grail–an interesting concept if one that has been proven to based in a falsehood in the times since (or was THAT part of the Vatican’s plot?)–which inevitably led to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I don’t find the idea that the Magdalen was a beloved disciple of Jesus–and that she may have been his favorite–a reach; likewise, there’s nothing I’ve ever seen in the actual New Testament that essentially says she was a prostitute, a “fallen woman.”

This book begins with Russell despairing over her research only to receive a letter that she and Holmes are going to be receiving a visitor–someone they met during their time in the Holy Land some time earlier–glossed over in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice but apparently explored more deeply in O Jerusalem! The visitor, an older heiress of no small means who is fascinated with archaeology and has been funding digs in the Holy Land, presents the pair with a gift as well as an ancient letter, unauthenticated, which is ostensibly a letter from Mary Magdalen some years after the death of Christ, written to a sister as the city of Jerusalem falls under seige by the Romans during the Jewish Wars, around 70 AD, that saw the sack of the city and the start of the diaspora; which makes it very clear that, if authentic, the Magdalen was one of the disciples and heavily involved in the ministry of the Christian church. Their guest returns to London, and is killed when she is stuck by a car the following day. Holmes and Russell sniff around the crime scene and find evidence that the old woman was murdered…but by whom? Why? Is this about the letter from Mary?

King always tells a great story–you never can go wrong with one of her books, really–and the characters are so well-defined, so real, that even if she didn’t tell a great story, you want to read about those characters more, get to know them better, and cheer them on to their successes and sympathize with their failures. Her writing style is also a joy to read; the Mary Russell voice is so different and so clearly distinct from Kate Martinelli that you can’t not marvel at her mastery.

The next book in the series is The Moor, and I am really looking forward to it.

Starlight

And so now it’s Sunday.

I won’t lie; I’ve lost my sense of time and date and day already this weekend and I’m perfectly fine with it. I hope everyone who has the good fortune to have the weekend off–I know there are many who do not–are in the same state of what day is this that I found myself in most of yesterday and when i woke up this morning–I overslept again, which was amazingly lovely, but i really need to stop indulging myself this way–and am now awake, on my first cup of coffee, and ready to get shit done today. I did get shit done yesterday–I cleaned and organized quite a bit (not enough, it’s never enough) and while I do have some little bit of cleaning and a lot of organizing left to get done, at least I made a start on it yesterday. My desk, for example, this morning is clean and clear; which will make writing later much easier.

I finished Little Fires Everywhere yesterday–I blogged about it already, so I won’t repeat anything other than that it’s a fantastic book I encourage you all to read–and started reading The Coyotes of Carthage, which was originally recommended to me by my friend Laura, who was lucky enough to receive an advance copy. It, too, is fantastic and unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and I am really looking forward to getting more into it–I will undoubtedly take a reading break or two at some point today. It seems to be a political thriller about dark money and political consultants in a very rural county in South Carolina, with a Black male protagonist, so I am sure it’s going to be quite interesting to read.

But I really also need to write today; I’ve not looked at the manuscript since last weekend, and this “only writing on the weekends for one day” simply cannot continue to stand, really. I have too much to write, and I need to stop giving into the laziness or the tiredness or self-destructive patterns or whatever the hell it is that keeps me from finishing this damned book. Heavy sigh. I also have any number of short stories I need to wade through to pick out some to work on for submission calls.

Again, I think there’s something to that I am so overwhelmed believing I’ll never get everything done so why bother doing any of it thing.

Repeat after me: SELF-DEFEATING.

While I waited for Paul to finish working on a grant last night I watched, or rather, rewatched (although I didn’t really remember watching it before, and I figured, meh, if I’ve already seen it I can do stuff on my iPad while it’s on in the background) a documentary called Master of Dark Shadows, about Dan Curtis and how the show came about, and its legacy (I’m sure most people don’t remember Curtis also produced and directed the mini-series based on Herman Wouk’s novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). I was one of those kids who watched Dark Shadows only in the summertime, because my elementary school didn’t get out until 3:15; even though we lived only a block away from the school I couldn’t ever get home fast enough to watch even the end. I did love Dark Shadows–our sitter/caregiver, Mrs. Harris, also watched One Life to Live and General Hospital, which were my first exposures to soaps–and it always stuck in my mind; I always give it credit for my interest in horror and the supernatural. I enjoyed watching the documentary (and for the record, I loved the NBC reboot of the series in prime time in the early 1990’s, and was crushed when it was canceled; I rewatched it with Paul and he too was disappointed it ended on its cliff-hanger) and then we started watching a documentary about a double murder in India called Behind Closed Doors, in which the investigation was so incredibly fucked up–I mean, if the primary take-away from all the other true crime documentaries we’ve been watching has been man is our system seriously fucked up, the takeaway from this one is yeah, but ours is clearly better than others.

Which is kind of scary, really.

While I was also bored yesterday waiting for Paul–and only really sort of watching Master of Dark Shadows–I was right, I’d seen it before–I started looking things up on-line; which was an absolutely lovely example of how one can fall into a wormhole on the Internet. As you know, I’ve been having this Cynical 70’s Film Festival, and thinking about the rise, and proliferation of, conspiracy theories in that suspicious, paranoid decade, and one that I hadn’t remembered until yesterday sprang up into my min, completely unbidden, while I was reading about the Bermuda Triangle: Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken. Does anyone else remember von Daniken and his theories, which were based in nothing scientific or archaeological? Von Daniken believed that ancient texts–the Bible, the Code of Hammurabi, etc.–all contained evidence that in Ancient Times the Earth was visited by space aliens–Alien Astronauts, as he called them–who brought knowledge and information with them to the primitive creatures of our planet at the time, and also assisted them in the massive building projects that modern man cannot conceive of them building back then–the pyramids, for one thing, and the lines on the plains of Nazca (which I first read about in the Nancy Drew volume The Clue in the Crossword Cipher)–and those aliens with their vastly superior technology, were seen as gods by the primitives and those visits have come down to us in the form of mythology. It’s an interesting idea for sure–but it was all conjecture, with no proof. I read all of von Daniken’s books back in the day; others included The Gold of the Gods, and were simply further conjectures, but he developed quite a following, and set the stage for what is called the pseudo-science of Graham Hancock, his modern day successor. (I’ve also read some of Hancock’s work; his theory that the Sphinx is far older than we suspect based on water wear on its base is interesting, as is his other theory that the Ark of the Covenant’s final resting place is in Ethiopia; before reading that book I had no idea that Christianity was so firmly entrenched there) So, I spent some time looking up von Daniken’s theories yesterday, as well as some other conspiracy theories of the time–I also did a deep dive into the entire Holy Grail Holy Blood thing which provided the basis for The Da Vinci Code and Dan Brown’s entire career; and of course we certainly cannot forget the apocryphal writings of Hal Lindsay and The Late Great Planet Earth–which, really, is where The Omen came from; we forget how “end times” theory truly began flourishing in the 1970’s.

I’ve always been interested in stories about lost books of the Bible, or lost Biblical theory, along with the end-times prophecies Lindsay wrote about; Irving Wallace’s The Word, which was built around the rediscovery of a lost testament of Jesus which would revolutionize and make-over the Christian theology was one of the first novels of this type I read; it was also made into a mini-series, which made me aware of it in the first place (Irving Wallace isn’t really remembered much today, but he was a huge bestseller back in the day, and he wrote incredibly thick novels, mostly about international conspiracies or legal issues–The Seven Minutes, for example, was about censorship and “blue laws”; The Second Lady was about a Soviet conspiracy to replace the First Lady with a lookalike imposter who was a Soviet spy; The Prize was about the machinations around how the Nobel Prize was given out; etc etc etc). The Da Vinci Code fits clearly into this category, as does The Gemini Contenders by Robert Ludlum and The Fourth Secret by Steve Berry (which is about the fourth secret Our Lady of Lourdes–or was it Fatima?–revealed to either Bernadette or the peasant children; Irving Wallace also covered this in The Miracle); Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also kind of fit here, as both films are about the search for Biblical relics. I’ve always, always, wanted to write one of these. Years ago I had the idea for one, in which there was a secret document or testament hidden in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople for years, and that part of the reason the 4th Crusade sacked the city was the Pope’s desire to get his hands on those documents, which were thus smuggled out of the city by the Patriarch and lost forever…this is the idea I always come around to for a Colin stand-alone (I also realize I could do Colin stand-alones set at various times throughout the last twenty years or so of Scotty books, as he is gone a lot of the time on missions), and the working title for it always is Star of Irene, because the Byzantine Empress Irene–contemporary of Charlemagne–has always fascinated me.

But I will never write a Colin stand-alone, or series, unless I get this fucking book finished, so I suppose it’s time for me to head back into the spice mines.

Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

We Got a Love Thang

Vacation, all I ever wanted…vacation have to get away!

But in fairness, I dread being in the car for nearly twenty-four hours over the course of five days.

Shudder.

And there’s so much to do before I leave.

I fixed our front door last night. Paul’s key got stuck in the front door lock and wouldn’t come out. I just shrugged and said I’ll just take the deadbolt apart, fetched a screwdriver, and did precisely that. I not only got the key out of the lock but I also reassembled the deadbolt, fixing what had gone wrong with its mechanism. Once I was finished, I was a little amused; I certainly never would have dreamed I’d ever be that handy. I wish I were handier; I wish I knew how to change the oil in my car and how to rewire things. I am, in fact, very uneducated about how my current car works, and I’ve had it for almost two years. I really do need to read the manual.

I am thinking about working on Bury Me in Satin today, after I run my errands and before the LSU game this evening. I also think the last two chapters have been incredibly difficult because I am having to make it up as I go. I have this amorphous idea of a story, but am not entirely sure I know how I am going to tell it; hence the problems I’ve had with the last two chapters. What I need to do is some planning; some brainstorming on the characters and who they are and what they want, and perhaps even some plotting and outlining. I also wonder if I am simply, in reaction to having such a hard time writing the last two chapters, coming up with excuses for not actually doing any writing (“well, there’s really no point in even trying to write anything since I don’t know this and this and this”) which could in reality be some kind of self-sabotage crossed with Imposter Syndrome with perhaps just a pinch of my tendency to procrastination and shameless laziness.

And, just for fun, there’s the distinct possibility that all of it is true.

This is why writers drink.

I slept incredibly deeply and well. I stayed up later than I’d wanted to because I chose to wash the bed linens last night, rather than today, and the dryer struggled with the blankets–it does this sometimes, with no rhyme or reason to it–and finally rolled into bed just past twelve last night. I got up at nine this morning; it really makes a significant difference to wake up organically, rather than be untimely ripped from the arms of sleep by the brutality of an alarm.

I started watching a series on Netflix called Knightfall last night–well, I’d started it one night in the last week when Paul was late getting home, and it’s interesting. I don’t care about the historical inaccuracies; whenever I watch historical fiction I generally do unless it’s so glaring it cannot be ignored. It’s about the last of the Knights Templar, and borrows somewhat from The DaVinci Code, which of course borrowed heavily from Holy Grail Holy Blood, which was a rather lengthy non-fiction tome built around a conspiracy theory (the authors went on to write two more books, following the same theme; their primary source was later revealed to be a liar). I read Holy Grail Holy Blood back in the 1980’s, when it was newly in paperback; I read it again in the 1990’s, primarily because I was interested in the sections on the Cathar heresy in the south of France and the Albigensian Crusade that wiped them out. Thus, the ‘big reveal’ in The DaVinci Code  wasn’t really a big reveal to me; as soon as it became clear that the plot had to do with the Knights Templar and Priory of Sion, I knew what it was.

Anyway, I digress.

Knightfall is about the Knights Templar, and is set in France during the reign of Philip IV, the Fair (which meant handsome and had nothing to do with justice). Now, I know Philip IV, conniving with Pope Clement, eradicated and wiped out the Templars; but Clement’s predecessor Boniface is in this–and he is working with the Templars. The basic plot of the story (thus far) is that the Templars once had possession of the Holy Grail in the Levantine city of Acre; but as they escaped the city before the armies of the Arabs, the ship it was on sank. Fast forward a few years, and something is going on within and without the Templar order; we found out last night that the actual Grail isn’t at the bottom of the harbor at Acre but somehow made it to France.

This is actually a deeply fascinating period in French history; Philip IV, who is not particularly well known (we as Americans are not particularly knowledgeable about French history; which is to be expected as former colonies of the British, and French histories/biographies written in English by either British or American historians are few and far between–unless they are about Louis XIV, the French Revolution, or Napoleon), reigned over a particularly turbulent era in French history. The eradication of the Templars–to whom he owed an obscene amount of money–was part of a carefully laid plan he executed with the assistance of Pope Clement, who was basically a tool of the French throne. Philip had come into conflict with Pope Boniface, had taken him prisoner, and basically forced Clement down the throat of the cardinals. The Papal court was then moved from Rome to Avignon in the south of France (the Papal period known as the Babylonian Captivity), and Clement appointed enough French cardinals to outnumber the rest, ensuring the popes would continue to be French and would stay in Avignon. (This eventually led to the great schism, with two different popes–at times, there were more than two–competing for power and the obedience of kings and their subjects, excommunicating anyone who followed a different pope, and degrading the Catholic Church–which eventually led to the Protestant reformation….so yes, Philip the Fair was actually the father of the reformation), and the Templars were rounded up, convicted of heresy in trumped up trials, and burned at the stake. The last Grand Master, Jacques de Moray, was convicted of heresy and burned. The King, the Pope, and the King’s great minister were present when the Grand Master issued a curse from the flames, calling them all to account for their crimes before God within a year. (Whether this actually happened or not is up for debate.) But within a year, all three men were dead. Philip’s three sons all died without sons, following each other on the throne successively; when the last one died, his daugher’s son, Edward III of England, claimed the French throne through his mother as the closest male heir to Philip IV and his sons; the nobility gave the crown to a cousin who became Philip VI, and thus the Hundred Years War began.

The fourteenth century is fascinating. An excellent history of it is Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror. French novelist Maurice Druon wrote an entire series of fictional books about the dying out of the main line of the French royal house, the destruction of the Templars, and all the scandals that plagued the children of Philip IV, beginning with The Iron King; new editions have been published in English due to the popularity of Game of Thrones, and the books have introductions by George R. R. Martin–because he read them and they helped inspire Game of Thrones. I read this series of books–The Iron King, The Strangled Queen, The Poisoned Crown, The Royal SuccessionThe She-Wolf of France, The Lily and the Lion, and The King Without a Kingdom–collectively known as The Accursed Kings, when I was a teen. Druon opens the series with the breaking up of the Knights Templar and Moray’s curse…and then proceeds to show how the curse worked on France and its royalty for decades.

Anyway, I am enjoying Knightfall. It’s a truly fun romp, and the main character is played by the very handsomely bearded Tom Cullen. It’s apparently a History Channel show, and has been renewed for a second season.

I also found a French show, Maximilian and Marie de Bourgogne, which looks very promising; about the marriage between Maximilian of Austria and Mary of Burgundy in the late fifteen century; a marriage that was, frankly, the root cause of every major European war from 1476 to 1914. It is in French, which means subtitles, but I am slowly but surely getting over my aversion to subtitles as my hearing gets worse–I tend to turn on the subtitles on even English language movies and television shows because I can’t understand what they’re saying; particularly if it’s British made. It might be something interesting to watch and explore while I am in Kentucky next week.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Saturday, everyone.

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If She Knew What She Wants

Paul got home last night, later than expected, as there were delays in Dallas due to inclement weather–which I kind of figured would happen. I went to bed shortly after he got home as I was falling asleep in my easy chair–I’d rewatched Batman v. Superman, and was watching a really bad documentary called Aliens in Egypt, which was one of those wonderfully tacky documentaries about how the Egyptians didn’t build the pyramids, the Sphinx is actually much older than anyone thinks it is, etc. etc. etc. A tell in these things is that no one is ever attributed to anything; “some archaeologists believe” or “according to a prominent Egyptologist”. Don’t get me wrong–the theory of ancient aliens influencing the rise of Egypt is fascinating to me; when I was a kid I read all of Erich von Daniken’s books, from Chariots of the Gods on, and there are always points made that seem consistent with the theory; but there are also other points where it is obvious some stretching was made to have facts fit the theory. I’ve also read some of Graham Hancock’s books–I have a copy of his book about the age of the Sphinx somewhere, but I read the one that theorizes that the Ark of the Covenant is actually in Ethiopia and has been for millennia, and greatly enjoyed it.

I also greatly enjoyed Holy Grail Holy Blood, the book that attempted to prove that Jesus married Mary Magdalen and their bloodline still exists in France–even though I saw many holes in their logic and many logical leaps to make the whole thing hang together. (This theory was the basis, of course, for Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, so I wasn’t surprised the way so many of its readers were.)

I wound up not reading Tomato Red yesterday as I had originally planned, I did some light cleaning after I got home, and was, for some reason, really tired. I repaired to my easy chair and, feeling a little mentally fatigued, watched some television before deciding to look for something to watch, finally settling on a rewatch of Batman v. Superman. I enjoyed the movie the first time I saw it, in the theater, but I also liked Man of Steel, which seems to be a minority position. While I grew up a fan of comic books, and have gone back to them at various times in my adulthood, I am also not a fanatic, and I am always interested in seeing the characters I grew up with taken in new directions. I also love Henry Cavill; have since The Tudors, and enjoy seeing him. I also like Amy Adams’ take on Lois Lane, and found Ben Affleck to be less offensive as Batman as I feared he would be. The movie is grim, of course, a bit grim for a Superman movie; Superman the character was always about hope, and there was little to none of that in this film (Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is all about heroism and hope; which is why it resonated so much more than this one did–and I am hoping that DC Films take the hint and go more in this direction in the future).

So, what am I up to today? Well, in a moment I am going to take the recycling out, and then I am going to make another cup of coffee and repair to my easy chair so I can finish reading Tomato Red and a Faulkner short story I started reading yesterday (Faulkner wrote some mystery short stories; collected in a book called Knight’s Gambit, that I’ve always meant to read; Tomato Red has inspired me to dip back into the Southern Gothic well). Once I am finished with these, I am going to come back to my desk and finish writing the first draft of “For All Tomorrow’s Lies” and (maybe) another rewrite of “Death and the Handmaidens,” which I’ve actually renamed “This Thing of Darkness.” This, by the way, is a complete rewrite; I am retaining some of the characters, but changing everything about the story outside of the shell–a hotel bar, a gathering of people who don’t see each other frequently, and a murder victim that everyone would like to see dead. I think the reason the story never worked was the details I filled into that framework didn’t work, and I know I didn’t delve deeply enough into the main character and who she was. The revision idea I have is pretty good, I think, so I am going to try that. I also have another story I’d like to revise, called “Cold Beer No Flies”, that I think could be really good.

And so, Constant Reader, it is time for me to depart. Here is a lovely shot of one Henry Cavill, to get your day off to a nice start.

 

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