Louisiana Bayou

The traditional mystery, to quote Rodney Dangerfield, “don’t get no respect.”

I’m not sure why that is, to be perfectly honest. I do have my suspicions and opinions, most of which inevitably circle back to the root of so many societal ills: misogyny. Traditional mysteries, often called (both respectfully and derisively) cozies, are, as a general rule, primarily written by women, tell women’s stories, and theoretically, the primary market for them is women. So naturally, much like the entirety of the romance genre, it is subject to derision, not being taken as seriously as darker works, and often is shut out during awards seasons (the primary exception being the Agatha Awards, given at Malice Domestic, which is primarily focused on the traditional mystery). They generally also don’t get a lot of review coverage, because women mystery writers also traditionally don’t get their fair share of print reviews in major publications, either–and the ones who usually do trend to the darker side.

I will also admit that I, too, am guilty of being more drawn to the darker, harsher, more noir side of crime fiction in my reading–which is kind of ironic, as one of my favorite series writers of all time is Elizabeth Peters, who didn’t write dark but rather light-hearted and funny; the Amelia Peabody series is one of the all-time greats. I also love Ellen Hart’s and Donna Andrews’ and and Miranda James’ and Elaine Viets’ series; but a few years ago I realized I wasn’t giving the subgenre enough love and attention, so focused on consciously reading more traditional mysteries. I have since discovered other terrific traditional mystery writers by expanding my scope and not just reaching for the next thing that sounds interesting. I discovered Kellye Garrett’s terrific Detective by Day series, Leslie Budewitz, Sherry Harris, Julia Henry, Hannah Dennison, and far too many others to name. (Also, shout outs to Raquel V. Reyes and Mia P. Manansala for outstanding new series over the last year or so.)

And then of course there’s Ellen Byron.

In some cities, a middle-aged woman dancing down the street dressed as a cross between a 1970’s disco queen and Wilma Flintsone would be unusual. But this was New Orleans, where the unusual was the everyday.

The woman dancing past Ricki James-Diaz, dodging the broken concrete in the Irish Channel’s worn sidewalks, happened to be her landlady, Kitty Kat Rousseau, who lived on the other side of Ricki’s double-shotgun cottage on Odile Street. “On your way to rehearsal?” Ricki called to Kitty from the porch. Kitty belonged to the ABBA Dabbo Do’s, one of the Crescent City’s many synchronized dance and marching troupes that entertained at parades and special events.

“You know it, chère.” Kitty did the hustle, then paused. “Whew, spinning made me dizzy.” She leaned against a lamppost, trying to regain her equilibrium. “I’m glad you caught me. I wanted to wish you good luck today.”

Ricki used the back of her hand to wipe a drop of perspiration from her forehead, the result of nervrs, not the mid-August heat. “Thank you so much.”

I’ve been meaning to read Ellen Byron for quite some time now; I’m not really sure why I haven’t. Ellen and I met electronically, but I am not exactly sure I remember precisely how; a Facebook group, or something. I don’t know, but Ellen–who graduated from Tulane University and whose daughter was attending Loyola–wanted to meet for dinner on a trip here to get her daughter settled into an apartment and the rest was history. She has written two series already–the Cajun Country series (which I need to read) and the Catering Hall mysteries as Maria DiRico. She’s doing a prelaunch party for the first in her new series, the Vintage Cookbook series, the first of which is called Bayou Book Thief. She graciously asked me to do the event with her, and as such I spent yesterday afternoon reading the book…which is absolutely charming.

The premise of the book is the Ricki (full name: Miracle Fleur de Lis James-Diaz, thank you very much) has returned to New Orleans to escape two awful experiences: the freak accident death of her husband, a viral Youtube video-maker (think Jackass) who choked to death doing one of his stunts, and of course the video of his death–he filmed it live–has gone viral. If that isn’t bad enough, her employer (she curated his collection of rare first editions) was convicted of a massive Bernie Madoff-like fraud scheme. Having been born in New Orleans and lived there her first seven years of life till her adoptive (yes, she was abandoned at Charity Hospital as an infant) parents moved to Los Angeles, she has decided to return to the city of her birth, maybe find her birth mother, and start a new business–selling vintage cookbooks and vintage serving ware in a shop in the Bon Vee museum, which used to be the home of one of the city’s legendary restauranteurs, Genevieve “Vee” Charbonnet. The board president approves her idea, and the story is off to the races as Ricki gets to know her co-workers, the Bon Vee family, from administration to the tour guides to the docents, as well as those who work in the little café on the grounds.

Soon, one of the more irritating tour guides (let’s face it, he’s a dick) turns up dead in a trunk and dropped off at the mansion with some boxes of donated books for the shop. Ricki herself has had a few run-ins with the victim, and she’s also the one who finds the body. Worried about whether or not she herself is a suspect, as well as what damage the murder might do to her new business, Ricki starts looking into the murder herself–while also developing a weird relationship/friendship with the female police detective looking into the case. But this murder is just one of several mysteries surrounding Ricki and her life at the mansion, and many complications that arise from her working there and her amateur sleuthing.

Bayou Book Thief is a lot of fun, and is filled with endearing, likable characters along with some marvelous observations and truths about New Orleans–watching out for tree roots as you walk along the sidewalks; the horror of your air conditioning going out while it’s still hot; being in a bar during a Saints game; and above all else, that the city is really a very small town at heart. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to the next in the series, Wined and Died in New Orleans.

Join us tonight at five pm at Blue Cypress Books. It’ll be a fun time.

I’ll Be Home With Bells On

To be honest, I’ve never really understood what the phrase today’s song title means. Did people actually used to go to things wearing bells? I suppose it’s more along the lines of oh I am going and you will SO know that I am there, but it’s puzzled me ever since I was a child. Not enough to look it up, of course, but it’s still a mystery to me. Okay, I looked it up–it means arriving in a noticeably festive way.

Although if someone literally showed up anywhere with actual bells on, they’d deserve what happened to them next, methinks.

Last night wasn’t the best night of sleep I’ve had this week, but I shall have to persevere and push through this day. I am sleepy/tired as I sip my coffee, looking out my windows at the darkness, but hopefully it will revive me enough to get me going and through the morning. Damn, I am sleepy still. Hope the groggy wears off, but that’s what the coffee is for–although doesn’t it seem unnatural to wake up before you’re ready and then to use a stimulant to help you wake up? That’s why I hate getting up to alarms, to be honest, and always have. Oh, Greg, you’re just lazy, is the response I always get when I make this comment, but doesn’t it make more sense to listen to your body’s needs? My shoulder feels better this morning–speaking of listening to your body’s needs–so I might, depending on how this day goes and how the tired/grogginess develops/fades throughout the day–make an attempt at going to the gym tonight.

Or should I let it rest another day and try tomorrow? Decisions, decisions.

But as I sit here this morning swilling coffee groggily and hoping to wake up, I am all too aware of the ticking clock on my manuscript and a short story revision that is due around the same time as well as the fact that my next book will be released around the same time as those are due; one month from today is the due date for everything, and the book will come out three days prior to that…and I will be in New York that same weekend. I worked on the book last night–the work is slow but I also don’t have a lot of time dedicated to it every day, so that’s to be expected–but it’s taking shape nicely, which makes me feel a lot better about everything. If I buckle down on the weekends, I should be able to get it all finished on time–but yes, that does require buckling down on the weekends, doesn’t it? Heavy heaving sigh.

In checking my emails this morning I’ve got an invitation to write a story for a tribute anthology for charity–it’s something I would really like to do, but it’s going to depend on the timing, really; or whether I have something on hand already that can easily be adapted to fit the theme; which basically is “gothic,” which is definitely in my wheelhouse; it’s also going to depend on whether I have the time to look for something that can be adapted to fit into the theme. I am sure I have some Gothic stories on hand that can be adapted; I love Gothic, and it’s really the only kind of horror that I do write, really–and so this means I really do need to buckle down on the weekends.

And while it’s nice to fantasize abut “all the writing I could do” if I didn’t have a day job, the truth is…I probably wouldn’t write more than I do now. I’d find incredibly creative ways to avoid writing. I know this because there were periods of time where I not only did not have a day job, but years where I only worked part time…and I’ve actually been more productive while having a full time job. Does this make any sense? It only does in Gregalicious land.

I did spend some time before Paul got home last night reading A Caribbean Mystery, and while you may remember me reading, a while back, a piece about “problematic” Christie books and titles that needed to be changed–and wondering why this book was included–I’ve come to realize I must have misunderstood the article I was reading; they meant the book when they referred to this title–which was some seriously unclear writing, frankly. But the book is incredibly racist; there have been several times where something I’ve read has made me wince–the locals on St. Honoré are clearly seen by the colonialist British ruling class as sub-human, barely better than animals, and definitely uncivilized. I’m close to the end–I know who the killer is; I remember, and I also remember the clue Miss Marple missed in correctly identifying the killer earlier on in the book–and so will probably be able to finish it tonight. And then I think I am going to move on to either Vivien Chen’s Death by Dumpling or Julia Henry’s Pruned to Death.

And on that note, tis time to head in ye olde spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader.

Breathe

Good morning, Friday. How are you today? I am feeling good, thank you for asking.

I got a very good night’ sleep last night, and I have, as always, a lot to get done over the weekend (and today) before I head to Kentucky for the holiday on Monday. I want to drop off more books for the library sale tomorrow, have tons of writing to do (as always), and I would like to be able to finish reading Leslie Budewitz’ Guilty as Cinnamon, which I am deeply enjoying. I have a stack of cozy mysteries to take with me on this trip–Owl Be Home for Christmas by Donna Andrews; Pruning the Dead by Julia Henry; Better off Wed by Laura Durham, and A Disguise to Die For by Diana Vallere, plus any number of them on my iPad as ebooks (I’m taking the iPad with me on the chance that I run out of books, which is a horrible fate to contemplate)–and I also need to figure out how to work the check out audiobooks from the library for the phone thing so I can listen to a book both coming and going. (Eleven hours in the car both directions)

And now that some things have settled and been settled, I can now go ahead and officially announce that I have signed a one-book contract for a potential new series set here in New Orleans with Crooked Lane Books; that is the book I am currently working on, having had to put Chlorine aside yet again to make room to write a new book. This is a series with a straight woman main character–a widow with twin sons who’ve just left for LSU, leaving her with a bit of empty nest syndrome and a beautiful old Victorian house in the Irish Channel that now is much too big for her, who gets an unexpected inheritance from a great-uncle of her late husband’s whom she didn’t know even existed. The book will be published under the name T. G. Herren, to differentiate it from my queer books and series. I just got the sketch art for the book cover, and I love it. The book is called A Streetcar Named Murder, and will be released in the fall of 2022. I will be talking about this book a lot over the course of the next year, so prepare thyself, Constant Reader. (T. G. for those who may be wondering, are my initials only reversed; longtime reader know that I reversed my names for my erotica pseudonym Todd Gregory, hence the initials T. G.) My editor is the exceptional Terri Bischoff, whom I have always wanted to work with, and now I am not only working with her on this but also on the Bouchercon anthology for Minneapolis 2022 (we are co-editors), Land of 10000 Crimes.

Life is pretty good for one Gregalicious at the moment, seriously. And I am really looking forward to my January release, #shedeservedit, while being incredibly nervous at the same time. I also got an invitation to contribute to another anthology that pays well in my inbox this morning, so I am feeling kind of good about myself…I give it a day or two. (Bury Me in Shadows has a great review in the next issue of Mystery Scene magazine, which thrilled me to no end when I saw it last night. More on that later.)

I also booked another trip to New York for January yesterday, which is exciting as well. I also made my hotel arrangements for a return engagement to Murder in the Magic City/Murder on the Menu–the Birmingham/Wetumpka one-two punch I did in consecutive years a while back, so you can see why I feel like my career no longer feels stagnant or in stasis at the moment. And yes, the goal for 2022 is to finally land an agent once and for all. I think Chlorine is the book that will do that for me; we shall see.

I got caught up on Foundation yesterday, and I am really impressed with how well the show turned out, considering how much it has veered away from the books. I’d like to read the books again, frankly–oooh, audiobooks for the car!–and I also watched another episode of The Lost Symbol, which frankly I don’t pay as much attention to as I perhaps should while I am watching. It’s very well done, but the plot is far-fetched (which is about the only thing I do remember from reading the book), but watching the show has made me curious about seeing the Tom Hanks films based on the other Dan Brown novels, which I didn’t really care about before. That’s something, I suppose.

And on that note it’s back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader, and I will check back in with you again tomorrow.

Different Drum

I am, and have always been, a voracious reader. Mysteries and crime novels of all types have been my favorites, but I also try to read outside the genre every now and again–mainly because I think a constant diet of reading only the genre you write can make your own writing get stale; it’s nice to mix it up every now and again. I’ve never been a snob about reading or what others read and find pleasure in; the fact that so many others are so judgmental about other people’s reading choices has always made me raise my eyebrows and tilt my head slightly to one side in bewilderment (unless it’s, you know, Stephenie Meyer). To me, the most important thing is that people are reading, and I don’t judge anyone for their choices (unless the choice is Stephenie Meyer). Nothing bothers me more than when, upon being asked what they like to read, people squirm with embarrassment and have to be coaxed into revealing what they enjoy. Reading is supposed to be a pleasure, and no one should ever be shamed for what they find pleasure in reading (okay, even if it’s Stephenie Meyer–I would never shame someone to their face for reading her, and really, I am joking when I mock her on this blog. Again, as long as people are reading I don’t care what their choices are)–and once someone opens up and starts talking enthusiastically about books and writers they love, it’s infectious–and I love their excitement.

But reading snobbery also rears its ugly head within the crime fiction genre, which bothers me. I don’t know why it is so difficult for people to simply say, “that *whatever sub-genre* isn’t to my taste”–which is really all it is; reading is subjective and no one person is the authority of what books are worthy and what books aren’t. I like every sub-genre of crime fiction. Like every kind of label you put on books, there are excellent writers, good writers, and bad writers in every section of the library or the bookstore; good writing is good writing, no matter who the author is and what kind of crime novel they’ve written. There are shitty private eye novels and police procedurals–but those kinds of books don’t get the disdain that is reserved specifically for the tradition mystery, i.e. the “cozy.” I’ve often held that this sub-genre of crime fiction gets dismissed because they are the “romance” novels of crime fiction–in other words, not taken seriously because they are mostly written by women for women about women. (There are exceptions, of course; men write in this style and quite well, in fact.) One of the most popular mystery television series of all time is traditional/cozy: Murder She Wrote. I personally enjoy reading them, and don’t read them enough, to be honest. The common denominator in all traditional mysteries is that they are escapist reading–you can escape from the cares and worries of your every day life and world into a world where justice is always done, people are generally kind, and the settings are often places–usually small towns, or a community within a larger one–the reader would love to actually live. There’s often a hook to the series–often built around a business run by the heroine–and there’s a cast of lovable eccentric characters who appear in every book that the reader loves to visit; the books are like the holidays, when you gather with friends and family to celebrate life and love and joy.

My favorite panel I attended at Crime Bake this past weekend was the “Cozy Trends: Home Sweet Home?” moderated ably by Ang Pompano; the panelists were Sarah Osborne, Julia Henry, Barbara Ross, and Tina deBellegarde (Sherry Harris was also listed, but she wasn’t there, alas). They were fantastic, and the discussion was truly terrific. (This is the panel where Julia Henry said something I thought profound and true: “Respect the genre you’re writing.” I want that on a sampler.) I bought books by all the authors, and am really looking forward to reading them. On the flight home from Boston, I finished reading Invisible City by Julia Dahl, and pulled Shucked Apart by Barbara Ross out of my backpack and started reading.

I finished it last night.

“Julia, meet my friend Andie.” My boyfriend Chris, looking tousled and handsome as always, stood in the doorway of my office. He entered the room, confident and casual, and a pleasant-looking woman followed.

“You mean Andie from your poker nights?” I put my hand out to cover my confusion. For two years, I’d been laboring under the misapprehension that “Andy” was a man. “No, we haven’t. I’m Julia.”

She took my hand and shook. “Andie. Greatorex. So glad to finally meet.” Her handshale was firm and strong, which seemed right, given her looks. She was tall, broad-shouldered, and obviously fit. Her sandy-blonde hair, pulled back in a high ponytial, framed a round face with wide set, hazel eyes. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, like Chris and me. Also, like Chris and me, she wore jeans, work boots, a T-shirt, and a plaid, flannel overshirt, as if we were planning on starting our own Grunge band. Andie’s T-shirt was maroon and had the words, GREAT RIVER OYSTERS on it in white block letters. My T-shirt was navy and said, SNOWDEN FAMILY CLAMBAKE. Chris “doesn’t wear advertising”, quote, unquote, so his T-shirt was black.

In other words, we were dressed appropriately for a morning in coastal Maine in mid-May. Outside, pre-season tourists From Away wore jacket and windbreakers, but we natives are hardier folks.

Barbara Ross was an absolute delight on the panel, and I grabbed the last copy of this book the bookseller had and was able to get her to sign it for me–which is something I am not ashamed to say I completely geek about still; I will always be a fanboy.

Shucked Apart is the ninth (!) book in the Maine Clambake mystery series; Ross’ heroine Julia Snowden lives in the fictional Maine coastal village of Busman’s Harbor. She left a career in high finance in New York to take over her family’s clambake business (highly dependent on tourism and seasonal) and make it thrive. It’s very clear that Julia works very hard but has clearly gone back native–she doesn’t miss her old life at all–and the town is filled with likable and interesting characters. Her live-in boyfriend, Chris, has brought his friend Andie, an oyster farmer, to meet Julia to get her help. Andie was attacked and robbed of $35,000 of oyster spat for her farm (spat being the term for baby oysters), and she wants Julia’s help getting to the bottom of the robbery/assault. Not sure she can really help more than the police, Julia takes a liking to Andie and decides to see if there’s anything she can do to help. There are any number of suspects to investigate–including Julia’s own uncle–and then Andie turns up dead and it becomes a murder investigation.

There’s also a personal story going on during the course of the book–as indicated in those opening paragraphs above, Chris has been keeping Julia away from his friends (most of the mystery and investigation are centered in the nearby town of Damariscotta), and over the course of their relationship there have been a lot of secrets he’s kept from her–and this personal issue is really handled deftly by Ross. The juxtaposition of the crime investigation and the personal dilemma is juggled beautifully; Ross really makes the reader care about Julia and her friends, and the pacing is perfect–and it’s not easy to do this without making one story more important than the other.

As I said the other day, I love to learn things when I read, and I learned a lot about oyster farming, the politics of fishermen vs. oyster farmers vs lobstermen, and the ecology concerns with keeping the delicate balance of the ecosystem from being damaged. Ross casually slips in diverse characters and the issue of the warming of the seas without making a big deal out of them–no small feat, and it’s done so effortlessly it’s almost unnoticeable.

This was a fun, charming read, and I look forward to my next visit to Busman’s Harbor.