Don’t Toss Us Away

Edgar Allan Poe is credited with inventing the detective story, or so the lore of our genre goes, which is why the Mystery Writers of America named their awards for excellence in the field after him. The private detective has gradually evolved over the years from the times of Poe’s Auguste Dupin (“Murders in the Rue Morgue”–which Constant Reader should recognize as the source for my Chanse titles, beginning with Murder in the Rue Dauphine) through Conan Doyle’s terrific Sherlock Holmes to the twentieth century masters of crime-solving: Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, etc. The 1970’s served as a bridge for the post-war detective to the dawning of a new age–which was necessary because by the early 1980’s the genre had become a bit stagnant, repetitive, overloaded with tropes that were deeply misogynistic.

In the 1980’s, three women–Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller–breathed new life into the genre by introducing three hard-boiled women private eyes; tough women who could hold their own with their male counterparts and were also incredibly well-developed and extremely well written. All three women were named Grand Masters by the Mystery Writers of America in their turn; alas, only Paretsky is still publishing, and we still mourn the loss of Grafton to cancer several years ago, before she finished her alphabet series featuring Kinsey Millhone.

And while there is still great private eye work being produced today by both men and women, it’s also very exciting now to be on the verge of yet another re-invigorization of the private eye novel–and crime fiction in general–with new takes on old tropes, subversion of those tropes, and the exciting arrival of writers of color and queer writers. The passing of Sue Grafton was a great tragedy, but her publisher, Putnam, partnered with Mystery Writers of America to create an award to honor her and her work; by celebrating the series private eye novels with women firmly centered as the investigator. The first Grafton Prize, awarded last year, went to Sara Paretsky for Shell Game; this year there are six finalists: Linda Castillo (Shamed); Tracy Clark (Borrowed Time); Edwin Hill (The Missing Ones); Sujata Massey (The Satapur Moonstone); Gigi Pandian  (The Alchemist’s Illusion), and Marcie R. Rendon (Girl Gone Missing)–all books I am looking forward to reading,

Ironically, I had already arranged to interview Tracy Clark for the Sisters in Crime quarterly column I do, “The Conversation Continues”–so I had already obtained copies of all her works.

Yesterday I  finished reading the first Cass Raines mystery, Broken Places.

broken places

Chicago cops had to be on the lookout for any number of nefarious mopes eager to take a potshot, but this morning my biggest enemy was turning out to be the scorching rays of the summer sun. I slid into the driver’s seat of the unmarked car and cranked the windows down, balancing a rapidly melting iced tea, extra ice, between my thighs. A few feet away, my partner, Detective Ben Mickerson, stood in front of the Dairy Queen basking in the hellfire. “Vitamin D,” he said, ruddy face pointed skyward. “Soak in that Vitamin D.”

“You say Vitamin D, I say skin cancer,” I groused, The hot vinyl seats nearly seared through my blazer and pants–and they were both summer weight. I checked myself in the rearview. The little makeup I’d started the day with was long gone now, melted away by flop sweat. I flicked at the sweaty ringlets at the nape of my neck and wiggled uncomfortably in my bulletproof vest, my breasts pressed flat, as though squeezed between the hot plates of a waffle iron.  I looked like I’d gone through a car wash, and it was just ten AM. No great loss, though. Five mintues tops was all I ever invested in primping. I didn’t have the patience for it, and in the long run it seemed rather silly. Thugs and killers didn’t care what I looked like. They spotted the cop car, they ran, then I had to run after them. I’d be thirty-five in the spring. Eyeliner and blush weren’t going to make the running any easier.

“The sun is going to kill you,” I yelled out the window.

Cass Raines, Clark’s private eye, is actually a cop when the book opens; and she and her partner are tracking a problem kid, a gangbanger who killed four members of a rival gang, starting a war of attrition and revenge. They chase him down to a rooftop, and Cass almost has him talked down when another douchebag of an officer–protected by powerful political connections–ruins the situation and she ends up having to shoot the kid. She resigns from the force, haunted by the kid she killed, and become a private eye. This backstory plays out over the first several chapters, and then we flash forward two years to the present day. Cass is a complicated young woman–her mother died when she was young; her father took off and she was raised by her grandparents, whose home she inherited–and she is very solitary. This, her first case, kicks off when her father figure, a local priest (she’s lapsed) hires her to find out who is following and harassing him; but before she can even get truly started on her investigation Pops (as she calls Father Ray Heaton of St. Brendan’s) is found dead in the confessional booth, with the gun in his hand, an apparent suicide–and there’s another body in the church, a young Latino gangbanger named Cesar. The police–including her nemesis, the douchebag who ruined her attempt to bring the kid in several years earlier–are very quick to rule it a murder-suicide, but Cass doesn’t believe it for a minute, and begins her own investigation.

The case itself is full of surprising twists and turns, and Cass takes quite a beating as she tries to find out the true story of what happened that night at St. Brendan’s–and her personal life also starts to grow a little complicated, with the return of her birth father and the introduction of a possible love interest police detective for her. Well written, Cass is the kind of character you love to get behind and root for; she has, like all the best private eyes in fiction, a strong moral code of her own that turns her into a complex and fascinating character, one you can’t help but like even when she maybe isn’t behaving at her best. Clark has done a fantastic job of breathing life, not only into Cass, but into her supporting characters and the people she comes across throughout the course of the case.

Clark also makes Chicago into a very real place. I spent eight years of my childhood growing up on the south side, and she brings Chicago to life, with all of its problems and charms, with a loving but critical eye. It’s not the same Chicago we see through the eyes of Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, but it’s to Clark’s credit that she doesn’t try to imitate the queen of Chicago crime, but rather emulate her.

An impressive debut, and I am looking forward to reading further adventures of Cass Raines.

Do It Again

Here it is, Saturday morning and I am awake and on my first cup of coffee. I have things to get done today–two interviews and a roundtable (the round table is terrifying; I looked at the questions and I’m not really certain I am smart or knowledgeable enough to participate, but I said I would and I never back out of things I agree to–or rarely). It’s weird, one would think I would love the chance to talk about myself and my writing as they are basically my favorite subjects, but it always makes me feel, at best, awkward and at worst, deeply uncomfortable.

All that childhood conditioning against arrogance and bragging, I suppose.

I didn’t quite finish cleaning out my inbox yesterday–in fact, I didn’t get even remotely close to cleaning it out, so it’s going back to the list for today. I need to get the mail and I need to make a short grocery run this afternoon, and I would like to go to the gym and try to get started on a regular workout routine again, but that becomes even more difficult given the heat advisory. But thinking about going to the gym, while not the same thing as actually going, is a step closer to getting there, I suppose. I also need to stop by Office Depot to buy some padded envelopes; the arrival of the box o’books also means signing and mailing out copies I owe to friends and reviewers and so forth. Signing and packaging the books is a chore, but I don’t find it as odious as one might think.

Yesterday, as you already know, Constant Reader, I finished reading S. A. Cosby’s delightful My Darkest Prayer, and I am very thrilled and happy to know that he recently signed a two-book contract, so I can look forward to new work from Shawn in the future. Yay! I love discovering new writers, and I love when they have new work. I do have this insane thing where I try not to finish reading everything an author has published so I always know there’s one more book by them to read–I was looking at my bookshelves yesterday as I reorganized the living room, realizing there are still three Kinsey Millhone books by Sue Grafton I haven’t read yet, and was saddened again to know that those will always be the last three Sue Grafton novels, and actually was thinking I should, at some point, start reading the books to clear them off the shelves. I am already at the point with some of my favorite authors, like Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott, where I have finished everything they’ve published (Lippman’s new one, Lady in the Lake, is on deck and I am probably going to start reading it today). I am also behind on some of my favorite authors–I was caught up on Donna Andrews, but I read for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original last year, which put me behind on everyone who wasn’t in that category last year (some of which I want to go back and reread, taking my time to savor them the way I ordinarily would), and I am also years behind on numerous authors I enjoy…but new books are being released every damned day. Sigh. There’s simply never enough time.

In my review of Shawn’s book, I wrote about something I truly believe–and the more I diversify my reading in my own genre, the more I believe it to be true. I believe that women writers saved the crime genre in the 1980’s, and while they are still doing some serious heavy lifting, the diverse voices of authors like Shawn are reinvigorating and reinventing the crime genre, and breathing new life into it. (I’m really looking forward to October, when I will switch to reading horror, and reading novels by diverse voices in that genre–there are some new and exciting people of color writing in that genre…plus, reading horror will further diversify my reading by taking me outside of crime for a month.) Some of the diverse voices I’ve read thus far this year–Kellye Garrett, Rachel Howzell Hall, Walter Mosley, Steph Cha, Angie Kim, etc.–are doing extraordinary work that needs to be recognized, promoted, and pushed by all of us; they are breathing new life into our genre, as are women writers like Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Megan Abbott, Jamie Mason, Elizabeth Little, and many, many more. And while I often generically refer to the “straight white men”–let’s face it, some of today’s men are writing exceptional work, too–Ace Atkins, Bill Loefhelm, Michael Koryta, to name a few amongst many. I think this is a very exciting time for crime fiction, and I look forward to reading more work by queer writers, as well. I’ve not gotten to some of the newer queer crime writers yet, which I am going to try to focus on more in the latter part of the year. I am really looking forward to Kelly Ford’s Cottonmouths, as it is a queer novel by a queer woman set in the rural South; something I can certainly relate to.

I kind of had a lackadaisical day of rest yesterday, really, where I accomplished little other than reading my book and doing the laundry, and couldn’t really motivate myself to do much more than that–I did make a delicious shrimp stir-fry for dinner last night, though–and we watched two episodes of The Movies last night, “The 80’s” and “The 90’s.” There’s only one more episode left, unless they release “The 50’s,” which is also a rather interesting period in the history of film. I started reading, for research, City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s, by Otto Friedrichs (recommended by Megan Abbott), and it has a lovely bibliography in the back which should be enormously helpful for further research into the time period. I also have a copy of E. J. Fleming’s The Fixers, which should also come in handy for research; again, as a starting place with the gold mine of a bibliography in the back.

So, here’s hoping that today will be that unusual thing; a highly productive, but at the same time, a restful day. Last night’s wonderful sleep is, of course, a wonderful basis for the rest of my day.

Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader.

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Pink Houses

Another cold morning in New Orleans. The Saints are up in Minneapolis playing the Vikings today, with the winner going to the NFC championship game to play Philadelphia in Philadelphia, so I shouldn’t complain about how cold it is here! I am hoping to finish cleaning the kitchen this morning so I have to time to go lift weights for the first time since AUGUST before the game. And stretch, and do some cardio. I am taking this get back in shape goal for this year seriously, Constant Reader.

I also didn’t read a short story yesterday, but I started reading one of the Kinsey Millhone stories in Kinsey and Me, and it’s quite good; I look forward to finishing it today during the game, and reading another to get back on track. But I am doing much better this year on the Short Story Project than I ever have in past years, and I have so many short story collections and anthologies to choose from; which is part of the reason I decided to make 2018 the year of the short story. I was also inspired yesterday to start writing two short stories–“Sorry Wrong Email” (which is going to take a lot of work to get right) and “Neighborhood Warning”, which I think can be really really good. I also want to work on finishing the final draft of another short story today, and this week I need to start reading the submissions for Sunny Places Shady People. With no offense to my Blood on the Bayou contributors, I think this one might be even better, I also need to finish an interview for my Sisters newsletter column (basically, writing the introduction and putting the questions in the proper order for flow) and I also need to work on my two manuscripts, and of course the Scotty Bible languishes. Heavy heaving sigh, the work of a Gregalicious is never done. I also want to read a novel; another goal for the year is getting the TBR pile down to a workable size. Tomorrow I am going to Target, and probably going to make it Leg Day at the gym in the afternoon (I have a long work day on Tuesday, so I can’t do an every other day; the nice thing about Leg Day is no cardio; just stretch, do legs, and some abs).

I watched the 1970 film Airport yesterday, based on the Arthur Hailey novel, it was one of the year’s biggest hits and was nominated for lots of Academy Awards, and even got great reviews. It was also the movie that kicked off the ‘disaster movie’ trend of the 1970’s, and spawned several sequels. The opening sequence of the movie was pretty interesting, as they showed all the ticket counters for the various airlines at “Lincoln International” in Chicago; obviously a stand-in for O’Hare. What made it interesting was how none of the airlines whose counters were shown, or were mentioned in the PA announcements over the opening credits (Continental Airlines Flight 220 is now boarding) exist anymore: Northwest, Eastern, TWA, Continental, Braniff, Pan Am. It’s hard to imagine today, with our limited choices, but just twenty years ago they were a lot of options.

The movie had, as all these types of films usually did, what was called an ‘all-star cast’; Oscar winners Burt Lancaster, George Kennedy, Van Heflin, and Helen Hayes (who would win a second Oscar for her role); as well as other bankable stars as Dean Martin and Jean Seberg; newcomer Jacqueline Bisset, stunningly beautiful who would hit major stardom later in the decade in The Deep; stage actress Maureen Stapleton in one of her first roles and who would later win an Oscar of her own; and assorted others (Gary Collins, for example) in small parts early in their career. The premise of the film is simple: a major airport is in the throes of a several day long snowstorm; it was inspired by the blizzard of the winter of 1966 (which I remember), and how the airport operates in such a crisis, and the personal stories of the airport employees intercrossed with those of several people who pass through the airport. Burt Lancaster plays Mel Bakersfeld, general manager of the airport, who is married to his job and ignores his wife and family as a result. His marriage to Cindy (Dana Wynter) is in shambles, and he’s strongly attracted to the widowed Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg) who is some sort of manager for Trans Global Airlines (her job is never really defined in the movie; it certainly was in the book–Hailey was nothing if not thorough). They of course don’t act on their attraction, but it’s there–and she is considering a transfer to San Francisco and  ‘fresh start’ since they have no future. He fights with his wife several times on the phone, mostly to show how unreasonable she is–obviously his job should come before his wife and family! Dean Martin plays asshole pilot Vernon Demerest, who also happens to be Mel’s brother-in-law, married to Mel’s sister (played by Barbara Hale, best known for playing Della Street on the original Perry Mason series). He’s a great pilot, but a dick–and he and Mel disagree frequently about airport operations, etc. He’s also having an affair–the latest of many–with co-worker Gwen Meighan (Jacqueline Bisset), who tells him before they work their flight to Rome that she’s pregnant–including the icy line “You can stop twisting your wedding ring, I know you’re married”–which in turn doesn’t really either of them sympathetic. The head of Customs and Immigration’s niece is also going to be on the Rome flight…as it soon becomes apparent that this particular flight is going to be the film’s focus and everyone’s paths are going to cross in some way regarding Trans Global Flight 22, The Golden Argosy. Helen Hayes plays Ada Quonsett, an older woman who stows away on flights to try to visit her daughter and grandchildren in New York, caught and being sent back to Los Angeles, but she manages to evade her watcher and sneak aboard Flight 22. Also on the flight is D. O. Guerrero, a bankrupt failure with mental problems and lots of debts who also happens to be a demolitions expert, and his briefcase, which contains a bomb. He wants to blow up the plane so his wife (coffee shop waitress Inez, played by Maureen Stapleton) will collect on his flight insurance. (He’s played by Van Heflin.) This is before security, metal detectors, etc., and the rash of hijackings in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s started the change to tighter airport security (so many New York to Florida flights were hijacked and redirected to Havana that it became a joke in the zeitgeist; “my flight was hijacked to Cuba.'” Of course, after the flight takes off it becomes apparent to those on the ground that he must have a bomb; the flight crew tries to get it from him with the end result he sets it off in the bathroom, blowing a hole in the side of the plane and causing explosive decompression. Gwen was trying to get into the bathroom to him when the bomb goes off and experiences severe injuries. The damaged plane has to return to Chicago as all other airports are closed; and of course, the issue of the big runway being blocked by a plane stuck in the snow that opens the movie now becomes crucial; the plane must be moved because the damaged aircraft needs as much room as possible to land, since its rudder, and steering are damaged which means the brakes might be as well.

Complicated, right? Of course the plane gets moved, and the flight lands safely. Mel’s wife admits she is having an affair and wants a divorce, and it looks like asshole Vern might do the right thing with Gwen after all. At least if Mel and Tanya get involved, they’ll be together at the airport all the time, although as they prepare to drive off together at the end, there’s another crisis…but this time Mel says “let him handle it” which means…what, exactly? He’s not going to be a workaholic anymore?

The acting in the movie isn’t good, but then again they aren’t really given a lot to work with. Hailey’s books probably don’t hold up, but they were huge bestsellers in their day–I read them all. He always focused on an industry or business–medicine, hotels, airports, hospitals, banks, power companies–did a lot of research, and then wrote enormous, sprawling books that not only showed how the businesses worked but told melodramatic stories about the people who worked there or were involved somehow. His novel Hotel was also filmed, and then turned into a Love Boat like weekly television series in the 1980’s; in the book and movie the St. Gregory Hotel was in New Orleans (based on the Monteleone, actually), in the TV show it was moved to San Francisco. The book, written in the 1960’s, also dealt with racial issues; I should really reread both it and Airport. The Moneychangers, which was about banking, I read when I worked for Bank of America, and I was amazed at how spot-on he got working in a bank. I should reread Airport to see how different airports were in the 1960’s than they were in the 1990’s, when I worked for Continental. But his male leads, who usually ran the business, were Ayn Rand-ian style supermen: married to their jobs, good at them, and devoted to the point there was no room in their lives for a personal life, which also kind of made them unlikable.

But back to the film–as corny and badly acted as it was, despite the terrible dialogue, they did a really great job of building up the suspense about the bomb as well as would the plane be able to land safely; and since that was the most important part of the film, it worked on that level. It was also hard to not laugh a bit from time to time, having seen the spoof Airplane! so many times I can speak the dialogue along with the movie when watching; it’s weird seeing this stuff not being played for laughs  (although Airplane! was primarily based on Zero Hour! with elements from Airplane 1975. In an interesting aside, Arthur Hailey did the novelization of Zero Hour!, which was called Runway Zero-Eight). It was also interesting seeing how much things have changed since this film was made: divorce isn’t the societal horror it was back then; people don’t stay in bad marriages “for the sake of the children” anymore; abortion wasn’t legal in the US when the film was made so Gwen’s abortion would have to be in Sweden, if she chose to have one; and of course, all the changes in airport security. The plane itself was a Boeing 707; which aren’t used anymore. Stowaways can’t really get onto planes anymore, either.

Plus, back in the day the concept that airline crews were boozing and sexing it up all the time, and that flight attendants (then stewardesses) were good time girls fucking every pilot they could lure into their clutches was such a stereotype–one the airlines actually bought into because they had age, size and looks standards for the women, and ran print and television ads playing up the sexiness of their stewardesses–that it took years for that to be changed…and it still exists to a certain extent.

It was certainly not something I learned from the Vicki Barr Stewardess mystery series for kids! I’ve always wanted to write a crime series about a flight attendant–kind of an update of Vicki Barr but not for kids–but can never really figure out how to make it work. Maybe someday.

Back to the spice mines! The kitchen ain’t going to clean itself!

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