That’s My Impression

Wednesday morning and we’ve somehow survived to the midpoint of yet another week; another hellaciously hot week in July, for those of us here in New Orleans.

I rewatched Mildred Pierce the other night for the first time in years (how much do I love the TCM app on HBO MAX? A LOT) and as I watched–Crawford really was terrific in the part, and the movie is so well done it actually is an enjoyable experience (although I really wish, at the end, as Bert and Mildred walk out of the police station, he would have said to her,”Let’s get stinko!” the way he did in the book; it would have made for a better ending) and it could have easily lapsed into melodrama; in the hands of a lesser writer and director, it undoubtedly would have. But it also struck me, as I watched the film, how markedly different it is from its source material, James M. Cain’s masterful novel, and that most people remember the film more so than the book. Also, it’s incredibly rare for the film version of a novel to veer so drastically from the source material, while both book and film are considered classics (perhaps the other, and best, example of this is Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place, and the marvelous film version directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame; again, enormous changes but both are excellent in and of themselves.)

The most interesting thing to me, at least in recent years, about Mildred Pierce is the character of Veda. Veda is fascinating; the daughter as noir femme fatale, which is a fascinating turn on noir. Ann Blythe does a great job playing her in the film, and it’s been a hot minute since I’ve read the book (in the To Be Reread pile), so I don’t know or remember if in the book there are any explanations as to why Veda was so awful; and I worry that in my mind I’m conflating the film with the book. When I do get around to rereading the book, I am going to pay more attention to Veda. In the movie Bert comments in the beginning, that Mildred puts the children ahead of him as well as complains that Veda is spoiled…the younger daughter, Kay–soon to die tragically from pneumonia–is “worth more than Veda will ever be.” As I have pondered about Veda, I’ve wondered if in the book Mildred favored Kay and Bert favored Veda–which would of course cause resentment in Veda, towards both Mildred and Kay.

I really need to reread that book.

I went to the doctor yesterday–actually, I saw a nurse practitioner, as the new doctor I was assigned to when my old doctor moved to Utah didn’t stay with the practice when it was recently sold (it’s very complicated; I supposedly was sent a letter alerting me to these changes, but I never received it) and when I finally called them last week to try to get the mess straightened out (one of my 2020 goals was to get all my medical stuff handled and under control and to continue, moving forward, staying on top of this and my health–ha ha ha ha, as the old saying goes; man plans and God laughs)–but I was able to see a nurse practitioner yesterday and can I just say, damn? It was the most thorough examination I’ve ever had, she was asked lots of questions, and we talked about a lot of things. Usually, they’d take my vitals, “how you doing” and then boom, out the door. The nurse practitioner actually discussed things–my lengthy illness that came and went, starting at Carnival and ending recently–she had X-rays of my lungs and chest done; got the process started for both my colonoscopy and a mammogram (I have a lump in both pecs; they’ve been there for a long time and have never grown at all–the doctors always just said, “it’s a fatty cyst” and left alone; she was the first to say “well, why don’t we make sure that’s all it is”); I had an EKG done to make sure my heart is operating properly: she felt everywhere for lumps–underarms, groin, throat; checked out ears and nose–I mean, I actually felt like I got my money’s worth out of an exam for once. But my blood pressure was good for once, which was lovely, and after the lengthy discussion about my lengthy illness, she added a different test to my regular bloodwork, to check for septicemia; as some of the symptoms I experienced could have been from an infection of some sort that could still be lurking around.

Hey, I’m all for it. Like I said, my main goal for this year it to take better care of myself and take my health more seriously.

Last night we lost the wifi with eight minutes left of the season two finale of Dark, which, as you can imagine, was enormously frustrating. I cannot rave about this show enough; but the primary problem with talking about it is that it is hard to explain how intricately clever it is without giving away spoilers–and believe me, going in blind and knowing very little about the story is WAY fun. The writing is pinpoint, and as I said, I cannot imagine how much work it is keeping the relationships, the characters, and the storylines all straight because it’s very hard as a viewer. The one thing I can say–without spoiling anything–is there’s a cycle of disappearances of children; every thirty-three years–and so while the show begins primarily set in the present, like Stephen King’s It, eventually it begins to also show what happened thirty-three years before….and you have to remember, everything is always connected. It’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and smart. We’re really enjoying it.

I also took Cottonmouths with me to read while I was waiting at the doctor’s–you inevitably always have to wait, and I prefer to read rather than play on my phone–and it really is quite a wonderfully written novel. Kelly. J. Ford is an excellent writer with a very strong sense of place; and place is always important to me as a reader.

And now back to the spice mines.

Blue

So, Saints & Sinners and the Tennessee Williams Festival were a Jeopardy clue on Friday night; how fricking cool is that? I didn’t see it myself–I was cleaning–but any number of people tagged me on Facebook or on Twitter, so I got to see it, which is cool. The Tennessee Williams Festival has been a clue before, but I think this is the first time Saints & Sinners was–and it’s a queer/LGBTQ festival, so even more cool. Way to go, Jeopardy! There’s a reason why you’ve always been my favorite game show!

Hold up your hand if you didn’t think I’d get everything done yesterday that I’d planned. But it was still a good day, and I wrote some new stuff for the first time in a while. I have these horrible stagnant times, when I don’t get any writing done–and as we’ve already established, I always have to force myself to do it (despite loving doing it) and then when I’ve got my writing for the day finished, I wonder why I have to make myself do something I love–and those stagnant times always make me worry that I’ve lost the spark, the desire, to do it; that this time is the time I won’t be able to get back into it and do it. I worked on the Secret Project for a while yesterday, basically completely rewrote everything I wrote to begin with, and moved onto from the first scene to the next scene, which was also quite lovely.

I did get some organizing done–there’s more to be done today; my iCloud drive is so ridiculously disorganized that it’s almost impossible to use, and I probably should back everything up yet again–and some of the filing; I should be able to get more done this morning before I dive back into the Secret Project. I am also planning on heading to the gym for the first time in a very long time (I prefer not to think about just how long that time has been, frankly), which is my first move in my attempt to live a healthier, better organized, better life. I already am thinking of excuses to get out of going, frankly–which is par for the course, as always–but as long as I don’t tie myself to any particular time table, I should be good. I guess the Super Bowl is also tonight, but I don’t really care about either team–the 49ers or the Chiefs–though I suppose if I had to pick one I’d pick the Chiefs, and that’s mainly because they haven’t won a Super Bowl in forever and I think Kansas City could use the boost. We’ll probably spend the evening getting caught up on shows we watch. We still haven’t finished watching Messiah, are way behind on Dare Me, haven’t started the last season of Schitt’s Creek, and so on.

We haven’t even started HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsider, which is getting rave reviews. Who would have ever guessed The Hogan Family’s Jason Bateman would become one of our finest actors/directors/writers for television? I really can’t wait for Ozark to come back.

I also finally finished and published my blog post about Victoria Holt’s Kirkland Revels, part of my Reread Project; I still need to do The Talented Mr. Ripley–it’s started, but I need to finish it.

I am resisting the urge to read Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble next; I need to start reading Tracy Clark’s canon so I can interview her for Sisters; but I also have to read Lori Rader-Day’s The Lucky One for the panel I’m moderating this year at the Jeopardy clue Tennessee Williams Festival late next month. Decisions, decisions. Probably the smart thing to do is read Tracy Clark’s first book next, then Lori’s, and then back to Tracy again for her second book.

I’ve also reached the final section of Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street, which I am looking forward to finally finishing this month. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the book, which is interesting, well-written, and incredibly informative; it’s going to remain on my desk as an important reference guide for any future New Orleans writing I do–which reminds me, I’ve got to start that Sherlock Holmes story–and probably when I finish the Campanella I’ll probably move on to Jason Berry’s City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Age 300. 

The plan is to get this work on the Secret Project finished this week, get started on the Sherlock story, and then get back to Bury Me in Shadows. I’d like to get Shadows turned in by the end of March, get back to the Kansas book–maybe with some serious focus I can get that finished and turned in by the end of May, and then I can get to work on Chlorine. I’d like to have the first draft of Chlorine finished by the end of summer.

Must stay organized, and must stay focused.

I also finished reading Dorothy B. Hughes’ Dread Journey yesterday.

dread journey

“I’m afraid.”

She had spoken aloud. She hadn’t meant to; she hadn’t wanted those words to come up from her throat to her lips. She hadn’t meant to think them, much less speak them. She didn’t want Gratia to have heard them.

But across the room the girl lifted her eyes from her book.

“What did you say?” she queried.

Dorothy B. Hughes is one of the more unjustly forgotten women writers of the mid to later twentieth century; fortunately Sarah Weinman worked–and has continued to work–tirelessly to bring this women back into the public eye. She wrote the introduction to Dread Journey, and in it she names Hughes as her favorite crime writer of all time. She’s not wrong, frankly; Sarah and my friend Margery are both huge fans of Hughes, and if not for them–and Megan Abbott–I may not have ever started reading Hughes, and for that I shall always be grateful to them. In a Lonely Place and The Expendable Man are both extraordinary; I think, frankly, The Expendable Man should be taught; it’s on my list for the Reread Project, for later in the year. Dread Journey is yet another masterwork by Hughes; I cannot wait to dig my teeth into more of her work.

Dread Journey takes place entirely on a train; the Chief, making its regular run from Los Angeles to Chicago–and you know, at some point, someone really needs to do a book or lengthy essay about crime novels and trains; not only did Hughes write one, but Christie wrote two (the very well known Murder on the Orient Express and the lesser known The Mystery of the Blue Train; as well as others that revolved around trains, like 4:50 from Paddington–called What Mrs. McGillicudy Saw! in the US) and of course, Graham Greene’s wonderful Orient Express comes to mind as well. Trains were part and parcel of the American experience. Trains made travel and connecting the massive distances across this continent much easier in the time before air travel became more commonplace and everyone wasn’t convinced they needed a car; there’s a certain nostalgic romantic element to train travel now, probably a result of these novels. I know that year we lived in Washington, we loved taking the train to Philadelphia and New York, even on to Boston; I’ve always, as I said the other day, wanted to write a book or a story called Murder on the Acela Express, and perhaps someday I will–even though the Acela is more of a commuter train without compartments. One of these days I want to take the City of New Orleans on its twenty-four hour ride to Chicago; it just seems like a lovely thing to do and the reading time! Oh, the reading time.

Anyway, the premise behind Dread Journey revolves around the dysfunctional and borderline abusive relationship between Viv Spender, a self-made Hollywood producer and studio head, and Kitten Agnew, a woman he discovered, became obsessed with, and groomed into a major star–America’s sweetheart, the girl next door. There is a huge difference between Kitten’s public image and who she is–a hard as nails fighter who won’t let go of her stardom in the face of Gratia Shawn, his new obsession, and whom he has decided will replace Kitten as the star of his dream project in the role of Clavdia Chauchat. But Kitten has a contract and isn’t giving up without a fight–and they, along with Viv’s longtime secretary Mike Dana, and several other characters–a journalist returning from the Far East, who drowns his memories of the atrocities and horrors he saw there in alcohol; a snippy, gossipy bandleader; a failed screenwriter returning to New York embittered by his failure; and of course, the car attendant, a man of color named James Cobbett–a decent working man who witnesses almost everything that happens on the car. Will Viv go so far as to kill Kitten to get out of the contract he has signed with her? She’s threatening to sue if she doesn’t play Clavdia; and the tension mounts as the cat-and-mouse game between the two of them slowly draws everyone else in the railroad car in.

It’s a very short read, and a good one. I highly recommend it, and of course, Sarah Weinman’s opening essay is worth the cover price alone.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Reelin’ in the Years

Sunday morning, and times keeps on slippin’, slippin’, into the future.

I slept in this morning–this life of “sorta leisure” is one that I could easily adapt to–and now sit, inside my condensation-covered windows, sipping my morning coffee and reflecting on what the day ahead has in store for me. I finished both interviews yesterday–despite the best attempts of my computer to thwart me, with freezing programs and even an operating system that locked up at one point, requiring me to force-restart the thing–but this morning, it appears to have updated its operating system overnight and is running quite smoothly this morning. I am not, of course, taking this as a sign that this latest update may have removed the bugs from the operating system–this has been a consistent problem since the Mojave update back in December, which created the Great Data Disaster of 2018, from which I still seem to not be completely recovered from–because it’s still early in the day and there’s plenty of time for this thing to malfunction all over the place yet. It did make doing the second interview difficult, but I finally managed to get it saved and emailed off yesterday. I have to do that group thing yet today–I was going to do it  yesterday but after all the functionality problems I was facing, thought it probably best to not try to do the round table and push it off until today. I also need to work on some fiction writing today as well, and of course, I have a toothache again, one of the few molars I have left, and it’s making chewing a bit of a challenge.

Yay, vacation.

I also want to start reading Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake today; alas, while I was watching things on the television yesterday I got sucked into City of Nets–and there’s nothing more distracting for me than Hollywood history. I read about half the book yesterday–sometimes making notes, other times just getting enthralled in the story–and around nine last night I thought, oh, I should be reading Laura’s book but instead couldn’t stop reading about Hollywood corruption and morality. I’ve always been interested in Hollywood history but have never really thought about writing it–I’ve always been reluctant to write much of anything not set in the present day–but I’m slowly coming around to writing recent history. As I said in one of my interviews, I am working on something set in 1994–“Never Kiss a Stranger”–and immersing myself in that period whenever I can, and originally went there for my story “A Whisper from the Graveyard.” As a result I am finding myself vastly interested in writing about the recent past–so much has changed in so quickly a time that it’s really amazing; the 1950’s, for example, might as well have been 1776. (Which, of course, reminds me that my story “The Weight of a Feather” is set in the early 1950’s/late 1940’s; not specifically in any year, but it’s definitely that post-war time.)

But I hope to get my round-table participation finished this morning, and then I am going to work on “Moist Money” for a little while, and then perhaps start Chapter 23 of Bury Me in Shadows. I’d like to get the first draft finished before September 1; and I’d also like to get to work on some other things that are just hanging around. I’ve already been much more productive than I’ve been on any of my previous long weekend vacations, which is a lovely sign, and I absolutely must get moving.

The end of the year will be upon us before we even know it.

I mean, LSU’s first football game is merely a couple of weeks away; and the Saints are already going through their preseason games. Football season is nigh; and shortly behind it will come the cooler weather. This summer hasn’t been that bad–despite the series of heat-advisory days we’ve been dealing with this month–and the river is finally no longer in flood stage, which is lovely and a bit of a relief; when the river is in flood stage there’s always this sense of impending doom hanging over our heads.  I would like it to get cooler, because I do want to spend some time exploring the Quarter–it’s been a hot minute–just to see what down there is different and what has changed; I used to work a block away, for example, from where Scotty lived and I could walk down there and check out his home and the rest of his block from time to time. It’s going to be awhile before I start writing another Scotty novel, and one of the things I do want to address/tackle in the new Scotty is the gentrification/short term rental issue; which will also require bringing back one of the characters from Royal Street Reveillon. (I do this often; bring characters back from previous books to impact the current one. Life kind of does that, too, so it only makes sense from a realistic standpoint to do this periodically.) But I’ll probably write the Chanse before the next Scotty; once I get all these partial novel manuscripts out of the way and submitted I am going to focus on writing Chlorine, then the Chanse, and then the Scotty. So, really, I need to be reading Hollywood history this fall, so I can be prepared to write Chlorine. 

As I love Hollywood history, this is not going to be a horrific chore. I also think I can justify reading James Ellroy’s L. A. Confidential as well for research.

It will also give me an excuse to reread In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, which will always be a pleasure to read. (I also have some other Hughes novels on hand, and the entire canon of Margaret Millar, which I would also like to  finish working my way through)

And on that note, I should probably get back to the spice mines. If I work on the round table for a bit, I can justify spending some time with the new Lippman novel.

Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

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Jeopardy

So, yesterday was my birthday. Fifty-six officially; although I always add a year to my age on New Year’s Day for the sake of simplicity. I had some trouble falling asleep on Saturday night; a combination of restlessness and heartburn. I wound up sleeping in till almost ten; which is late for me but since I didn’t really fall asleep until around three in the morning it wasn’t that much sleep. But I had a lovely day, really. I kind of just laid around and reread In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, rewatched The Philadelphia Story on TCM (Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant were both robbed of Oscars), then watched The Nineties and The History of Comedy on CNN before finally watching last night’s Game of Thrones.  I also thought about the new Scotty some; I have today off from work as my birthday gift to myself, so I plan on doing some writing, line editing, and revising, and thinking about what I’m going to write next before actually sitting down at the computer is always a wise thing to do (although usually I never had the time to do that, thanks to deadlines). There’s a serious moral dilemma coming for Scotty in this book; one that really has been needing to be dealt with in the series for quite some time, but I’ve dodged it and avoided it; this is the book where I am finally going to have to have him face up to it, the way I am bringing it to the forefront so he can no longer avoid it is, if I do say so myself, rather clever.

Or it’s just going to be a steaming pile of shit. There’s no middle ground, really.

It was kind of fun to reread the Hughes novel; it is a masterpiece of noir that has been sadly overlooked for many years. Hughes was an exceptional writer, and I do admit that opinion is based on my having read only two of her novels, this and The Expendable Man (which, sadly, was her last and published in 1962). It’s not easy to find Hughes’ novels. I do feel safe in calling Hughes one of the best writers of her generation, and certainly one of the best noir writers of all time, based on those two books because they are just that good. I do have a copy of her The Blackbirder, which I want to read before the end of the year. In A Lonely Place was also filmed, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame; the film is significantly different from the novel, but it’s also outstanding. The new edition of the novel, from New York Review Books (who also have republished The Expendable Man and The Blackbirder), includes an afterward by the wonderful Megan Abbott, who is not only one of this generations greatest writers but also one of crime fiction’s most knowledgeable critics; her literary criticism is intelligent, thoughtful, incredibly well-written, and certainly puts me in my place whenever I am lucky enough to read some of it; I would love to read her study of literary and film noir, The Street Was Mine. (Whenever I read her criticism, any thoughts I might have about pursuing academic criticism–gay noir, gay representation in crime fiction, the heyday of romantic suspense from the 1950’s till its unfortunate death in the 1980’s–go out the window.)

Her all-too-short essay in the back of this edition alone makes the cover price worthwhile.

hughes.final_hi-res_2048x2048

It was good standing there on the promontory overlooking the evening sea, the fog lifting itself like gauzy veils to touch his face. There was something in it akin to flying; the sense of being lifted high above crawling earth, of being a part of the wildness of air. Something too of being closed within an unknown and strange world of mist and cloud and wind. He’d liked flying at night; he’d missed it after the war had crashed to a finish and dribbled to an end. It wasn’t the same flying a private little crate. He’d tried it; it was like returning to the stone ax after precision tools. He had found nothing yet to take the place of flying wild.

It wasn’t often he could capture any part of that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky. There was a touch of it here, looking down at the ocean rolling endlessly in from the horizon; here  high above the beach road with its crawling traffic, its dotting of lights. The outline of beach houses zigzagged against the sky but did not obscure the pale waste of sand, the dark restless waters beyond.

He didn’t know why he hadn’t come out here before. It wasn’t far. He didn’t even know why he’d come tonight. When he got on the bus, he had no destination. Just the restlessness. And the bus brought him here.

Isn’t that an incredible opening?

Not being an expert in crime fiction–there’s so much of it to read, and there’s more new stuff all the time, so it’s hard to keep up with the new let alone trying to read everything already published–I am unable to place In A Lonely Place into any kind of context as far as the history of crime fiction is concerned, but Abbott does this beautifully in her afterward. But it’s very clear in this opening paragraphs that Hughes is addressing alienation in this book, and toxic masculinity, which may have seen its ultimate pinnacle in the second World War (the alienation of returning veterans, and the difficulty of readjusting from war to peace was also being addressed in films like The Best Years of Our Lives) and by having Dix, her main character, pretend to be writing a novel also took on the glut of post-war war novels that so many returning soldiers were writing; novels that continued to proliferate for several decades beyond the war.

The first time I read the book, having already seen the film, I was more focused on the story itself rather than an examination of how deftly Hughes creates her story, the language and imagery she chooses, and the nuanced way she creates her character. On this read, knowing how it’s going to end, I was able to pay more attention to these things, and was able to marvel at how brilliant the entire package is.

A recurring motif in the novel is fog; Hughes uses the fog as a metaphor for the fog in Dix’s brain; and we are never sure when Dix’s mind changed, making him lethal. He was raised by a puritanical uncle, Fergus, who is currently supporting him while he writes his novel–but there is a limit to the support, and while in our time $250 a month may not seem like much, at the time of the novel it was a fortune, just over $2500 in today’s dollars. Dix’s resentment of the uncle–we never learn what precisely happened to his parents–who is rough on him and has always made him work, even when he was in college at Princeton trying to fit in with the idle rich sons of privilege and then goes into detail how humiliating it all was, doing things for them for ‘tips’ until he could manipulate events to make it look as though he were the wealthy one and the sad unfortunate, unpopular boy he used for money were the dolt. In this way, Hughes also makes a sly commentary about class and privilege (which, in my opinion, she does far better than Fitzgerald did in an entire novel with The Great Gatsby, and she does it only in a few pages). So, there was always some kind of a chip on Dix’s shoulder; the war simply gave him a way to channel that anger and discontent and alienation. Now the way is over, and Dix is having to find a new way to channel those diabolical energies–and he does, in committing murder.

The entire tale is told through Dix’s perspective, which also makes him one of the first unreliable narrators in crime fiction. (It was done before, but never quite so lethally.) So, when we see the other characters–and there are only three: his old war buddy Brub, now a police detective; Brub’s wife Sylvia, whom Dix despises on first sightl and of course, the love interest, Laurel Gray–is she the femme fatale he thinks she is, or is that just a product of his own warped sense of right and wrong? Who is Laurel, of the reddish gold hair and the tempting figure? Is she the hard-as-nails user he thinks she is, or is she an entirely different character altogether?

In  A Lonely Place is a masterpiece of noir, and hopefully, this edition will elevate Hughes to the position both she and the book deserve in the annals of our genre.

And now back to the spice mines.

 

Twilight Zone

Ugh, my dryer is on the fritz, and I just can’t–in the ultimate of bougie problems–I just can’t function without a working washer and dryer. I can’t decide if it’s worth it to get a repair guy out here, or if we should just go ahead and get a new one. I know I called a repairman once for the washing machine–and it was only slightly less expensive than buying a new one. Heavy heaving sigh. I think we’ve already replaced the dryer once before. It’s so infuriating. I wish I were more handy, because I bet it is something that is really easy to fix; but I am not handy like that. I’m so glad my parents were so focused on my future that they wouldn’t let me take Shop or Auto Shop because they were too easy.

Yeah. They just would have saved me thousands of dollars over the years. But hey, those classes weren’t useful for my future.

Heavy heaving sigh.

So, I spent the evening trying to dry clothes in a faulty dryer–eventually they dried–while filing and washing dishes and also finishing reading Eric Ambler’s Journey Into Fear, which was quite fun.

journey into fear

The steamer, Sestri Levante, stood high above the dock side, and the watery sleet, carried on the wind blustening down from the Black Sea had drenched even the small shelter deck. In the after well, the Turkish stevedores, with sacking tied round their shoulders, were still loading cargo.

Graham saw the steward carry his suit-case through a door marked PASSEGGIERI, and turned aside to see if the two men who had shaken hands with him at the foot of the gangway were still there. They had not come aboard lest the the uniform of one of them should draw attention to him. Now they were walking away across the crane lines towards the warehouses and the dock gates beyond. As they reached the shelter of the first shed they looked back. He raised his left arm and saw an answering wave. They walked on out of sight.

For a moment he stood there shivering and staring out of the mist that shrouded the domes and spires of Stamboul. Behind the rumble and clatter of the winches, the Turkish foreman was shouting plaintively in bad Italian to one of the ship’s officers. Graham remembered that he had been told to go to his cabin and stay there until the ship sailed. He followed the steward through the door.

The man was waiting for him at the head of a short flight of stairs. There was no sign of any of the nine other passengers.

Eric Ambler, considered (per his bio) is considered the father of the modern thriller and was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1975. His novels, focused on intrigue, espionage and spying, have been called influences by many writers, including John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum and Len Deighton. (I loved Ludlum, but am ashamed to admit I’ve never read Le Carre or Deighton; but I do have a copy of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold that I need to get around to reading.) I had never read Ambler; although my friend Pat, a huge fan of the crime genre, has recommended A Coffin for Demetrios to me on several different occasions, and usually one of Ambler’s works winds up on those lists of ‘crime novels everyone should read.’ I bought Epitaph for a Spy and several others a few years ago; I finally sat down and pulled Journey Into Fear out of the TBR Mountain and started reading it. It took me longer than it should have; it’s short, for one thing, but very engrossing. It’s also very…for want of a better term, it’s very British.

I love novels where normal, every day people going about their business and minding their own business are suddenly thrust into peril. Ludlum was a master of this, and I call it Hitchcockian; it was also a staple in many of his films. Journey into Fear also falls into this category; Graham, the main character, is a forty year old British man who works for an engineering firm and was sent to Turkey to help work on updating and refitting the Turkish fleet because of the outbreak of World War II. Graham, who is happily married and generally just goes about his business. What Graham, in his unassuming way, doesn’t realize or understand just how valuable he–and his work–are to the Allied forces; he is just doing his job. Then, on his last night in Istanbul, someone is waiting for him in his hotel room and shoots at him. Fortunately, he is only slightly wounded in his hand but this is when Turkish intelligence gets involved. It is a matter of vital Turkish importance to their defense that Graham make it back to England and his work not be interrupted; Graham doesn’t it take it seriously…at first. But once he is on the freighter traveling through the night to Genoa, he finds out just how much danger he is actually in.

The book is very tightly written, and not very long; but it also falls into the classic trope of suspense in a tight, controlled area with a very small cast of characters; like Murder on the Orient Express. This trope is very hard to pull off–even harder nowadays–and Ambler does it beautifully, even adding the element of “no one will believe me if I ask for help.” The other characters on the ship are richly drawn; Ambler is able to create a character with brief sentences that pretty much tell you everything you need to know about that character to make them real.

I am very much looking forward to reading more Ambler. Now I am going to give Dorothy B. Hughes’ sublime In a Lonely Place  a reread.

And now, back to the spice mines.

 

Let’s Dance

I managed, yesterday, to polish off Chapter Two; I wrote 1700 words or so in about an hour and fifteen minutes and voila! The pesky chapter was finished. I also started Chapter Three this morning; alas, maybe about a paragraph was all I was able to get done, but it was a start, and a start is always lovely. This weekend is my birthday; I will officially be fifty-six; but I’ve been saying I’m fifty-six for quite a while now. (I usually add the year after New Year’s; it’s just easier and I don’t really think of my birthday as a big deal, quite frankly). Paul and I are going to go see Dunkirk tomorrow night, and then out for dinner afterwards. I’ve taken Monday off, and I am working a late night on Tuesday, so I won’t have to be in to work until around three, which means I basically have a three and a half day weekend, which is lovely. I am hoping to be able to get a lot done this weekend; I want to finish reading the Ambler, which I am loving, then I am going to reread Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place, and then I am going to reread The Haunting of Hill House. After that, it’s either Jeff Abbott’s Blame or my advance copy of Laura Lippman’s newest, Sunburn.

One of the best perks of being a writer is that I get advance copies of books, or know people who do that can pass them along to me. My dear friend Lisa recently gave me an advance copy of this:

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I don’t consider myself to be a horror writer (SHUT UP BACK THERE! I said horror, not horrible), but I do consider myself to be a big fan of the genre. I read a lot of these books–not all, who knew there were so many? But I was a voracious reader, and I loved to read horror. The first horror novel I read was The Other–I still have the hardcover copy I originally read in junior high; I’m not sure I remember how I got a hardcover copy of it, maybe it was my grandmother’s–and I also read The Exorcist in junior high; everyone was reading it, and as all tweens (although we weren’t called that then) are wont to do, all we talked about was the crucifix masturbation scene. I always liked horror–I remember watching old black and white scary movies with my grandmother (she also likes mysteries) when I was a kid, but I never thought I could write it. I certainly never tried until the 1980’s, when my fandom of Stephen King made me give it a try. I still love reading horror, and there are certainly some amazing horror writers being published today whose books I greatly enjoy.

My inability to get any of it published is an indicator that crime was a better fit for my talents.

But what a wonderful resource this is! And a lovely trip down memory lane. To be honest, I thought I hadn’t read much horror throughout my life outside of the usual suspects (Stephen King, Peter Straub, Poppy Z. Brite) and some others that have come along more recently, but in going through this, I saw many titles I’d forgotten I’d read, and authors I’d forgotten.

This is a must for all horror fans; even those who are too young to remember the glory days of the mass market paperback boom of the 70’s and 80’s.

And now, back to the spice mines.

 

Hungry Like the Wolf

Ah, Thursday. I am very tired this morning; my sleep last night was restless and of course, after a long day yesterday (twelve hours), which included bar testing and all the walking that entails, I am very low energy this morning. I didn’t get much writing done yesterday morning; I am still in the midst of Chapter Two of the new Scotty but part of that problem is trying to make sure I have the voice and tone right–which is, of course, ridiculous; it can always be fixed in a later draft. I need to plow through this first draft and get the story done. Everything else can be repaired later.

Why do I always try to make it right the first time? So stupid. How many books have I written? Some people seriously never learn, you know what I mean?

The line edit continues as well, and is beginning to feel like my own personal invasion of Afghanistan; an endless quagmire I’m never going to get out from under. I still want to have it all finished by the end of the month and the clock is seriously ticking. Heavy heaving sigh.

The lovely thing is I have a three day weekend to look forward to; my birthday is this weekend and as such, I took Monday off as a treat for myself. We’re going to go see Dunkirk Saturday evening, and have a lovely dinner out afterwards. I also hope to be able to use the extra time off to get some work done and do some reading; I want to get the Ambler novel read this weekend so I can reread Dorothy B. Hughes’ sublime In a Lonely Place in its new edition with an afterward by the sublime Megan Abbott. I read it several years ago on the recommendation of Megan, Margery Flax and the wonderful Sarah Weinman, and I became a huge fan of Hughes as a result. I went on to read everything she’d written that was still in print, and started hunting down used copies of the rest on eBay and second hand booksellers on-line. If you’ve not read Hughes and are a fan of crime fiction, you really should read In a Lonely Place. You owe it to yourself to read it.

The film, while different from the book, is also extraordinary. You can’t go wrong with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

All right I need to hit the spice mines. Your Throwback Thursday hunk is actor/model Ed Fury.

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