Nobody Told Me

Friday, and a Holiday Weekend Eve. Huzzah! I am going to get so much done this weekend, Constant Reader, you have no idea. Huzzah! Huzzah!

One thing I did notice this week–and this is really funny–is that when I was posting my book covers and book blurbs on Tumblr this week ((you can follow me here) I saw that in one of my former y/a’s, I’d used a name that I am again using in my WIP; obviously, that’s going to have to change! I also realized I was going to need to reread that book (Sara, in case you were wondering) to make sure I’m not pillaging other names from it, either. This happens, you see, because of manuscripts I wrote in my twenties and early thirties, and names I used in those books that I have re-used in rewrites of them or in new books. I also always would come up with character names for short story or book ideas; and so those names are already lodged in my head and when I need a new character name they boil up in my subconscious. So, now I have to rename this girl…and hopefully, I won’t have to rename anyone else.

(This hilariously happened another time, with two male names: Chris Moore and Eric Matthews. I originally came up with those names in the 1980’s when I was making notes on a fraternity murder mystery–great idea I should revisit–and then, when I was writing Every Frat Boy Wants It, I used those character names. In another irony, they were both from a small town in the California mountains, Woodbridge. When I was revising and rewriting and finishing Sleeping Angel, set in a small town in the California mountains named Woodbridge, I used those character names again and didn’t realize what I had done….which sort of makes Every Frat Boy Wants It kind of a sequel to Sleeping Angel. My work always somehow winds up connected in some way…)

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately; in fact, I’ve read about six over the last two days! How cool is that? I discovered that I had a collection of all Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer stories, The Archer Files, and dug into that last night while I was waiting for Paul to come home. I also can’t stop reading Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives by Sarah Weinman, and also read another couple of Laura Lippman’s stories in her collection Hardly Knew Her. There was a discussion recently on social media about short stories, and how the market has been slowly imploding over the last twenty years or so…it was interesting, and it also made me curious. I generally don’t read a lot of short stories–hence the Short Story Project–and yet, whenever I do read short stories I enjoy the hell out of them. You should always read the kind of things you like to write, and perhaps the reason I have so much trouble writing short stories is because I don’t read them very often (yes, yes, I edit anthologies, but that’s an entirely different thing–but maybe because I’ve done so many anthologies is part of the reason why I don’t read short stories in my free time? Hmmmm, something to ponder there), and frankly, reading these amazing short stories since the Short Story Project started has been kind of inspirational for me. So, the Short Story Project is working. Huzzah!

One of the last two stories I read in the Weinman anthology were “Lavender Lady” by Barbara Callahan; the story was originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in September 1976 and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Short Story:

It was always the same request wherever I played. College audiences, park audiences, concert-hall audiences–they listened and waited. Would I play it in the beginning of a set? Would I wait till the end of a performance? When would I play Lavender Lady?

Once I tried to trick them into forgetting that song. I sang four new songs, good songs with intricate chords and compelling lyrics. They listened politely as if each work were merely the flip side of the song they really wanted to hear.

That night I left the stage without playing it. I went straight to my dressing room and put my guitar in the closet. I heard them chanting “Lavender Lady, Lavender Lady.” The chant began as a joyful summons which I hoped would drift into silence like a nursery rhyme a child tires of repeating. It didn’t. The chant became an ugly command accompanied by stamping feet. I fled to safety.

Mick Jagger famously said he’d rather be dead than singing “Satisfaction” when he was forty-five; that comment came back to bite him in the ass as he was singing it when he was in his sixties. I often wonder about that; how tired musicians must become of playing songs that are trademarks; the monotony of singing the same songs day after day, year after year. Imagine how many times Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow,” or Cher has sung “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves,” Madonna “Like a Virgin,” and so forth. How do you manage to do it without it becoming rote, routine, dull and boring?

But what makes this story so strong is that our main character’s signature tune, “Lavender Lady,” has a dark history. The song is beautiful and beloved, but the story behind it, the story that inspired the heroine to write it, is twisted and nasty. She was born into a wealthy family, neglected by everyone, and was kidnapped by her nanny…who was the Lavender Lady. That is the story behind the song, and so you can imagine how anguishing it is for her to sing it, over and over again, to have it be the signature tune that audiences expect for you to perform, come to hear; reliving that awful memory every time you play the first chord and sing the first note.

Terrific story!

The other was written by the amazing Vera Caspary, who also wrote the classic novel Laura, which of course was made into an even more well-known classic film. This story, called “Sugar and Spice,” which is the story of a very twisted relationship between two cousins.

I have never known a murderer, a murder victim, not anyone involved in a murder case. I admit that I am a snob, but to my mind crime is sordid and inevitably associated with gangsters, frustrated choir singers in dusty suburban towns, and starving old ladies supposed to have hidden vast fortunes in the bedsprings. I once remarked to a friend that people of our set were not in the homicide set, and three weeks later heard that her brother-in-law had been arrested as a suspect in the shooting of his rich uncle. It was proved, however, that this was a hunting accident and the brother-in-law exonerated. But it gave me quite a jolt.

Jolt number two came when Mike Jordan, sitting on my patio on a Sunday afternoon, told me a story which proved that well-bred, middle-class girls can commit a murder as calmly as I can knit a sock, and with fewer lumps in the finished product. Mike had arrived that morning for an eleven o’clock breakfast, and after the briefest greeting had sat silent until the bells of San Miguel started tolling twelve.

As I mentioned, “Sugar and Spice” tells the story of two cousins; Nancy and Phyllis. Nancy’s father was the richest man in their small town, and so therefore Nancy was rather spoiled and had a privileged upbringing, was used to getting her own way. Phyllis’ father walked out on her and her mother, and so her mother was forced to give piano lessons to support them. Everyone in town felt sorry for them; as they were quite poor. Nancy was overweight, ungainly and unattractive; Phyllis was kind of effortlessly beautiful, and their grandmother preferred Phyllis, constantly insulting Nancy and putting the two girls at odds with each. Mike Jordan, as mentioned above, is telling the story of the two cousins, and the murder of actor  Gilbert Jones, to his hostess, Lissa. As he gets to know both girls and they get older, the twisted relationship between the two girls becomes even more entangled and bitter and twisted, as they tend to keep falling in love with the same man. The story is fantastic, absolutely fantastic, and a master class in how to build suspense in a short story. Wow. Amazing.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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I Still Can’t Get Over Loving You

Wednesday, and Day 4 of Facebook Jail. You know something? I wonder if they’ve heard of unintended consequences over at the Facebook Community Standards department. I usually spend far too much time scrolling through my Facebook feed and interacting with friends. So far this week, instead of doing that, I’ve revised a short story, worked on an outline, read a book (a wonderful history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted), read several short stories, and gotten some other things done. As this thirty day sentence continues, I will probably visit Facebook less and less–it’s kind of frustrating being able to see things and not respond to them–and by the end of the sentence, probably will be completely broken of the need to go there, and hopefully my attention span will have snapped back to what it was in the days before social media. I’m also liking Tumblr, INstagram and Twitter–you don’t wind up spending nearly as much time there, at least don’t, at any rate. Once I get used to not being on Facebook and having all this free time…look out.

I also read Lois Duncan’s young adult novel Ransom. Originally published in 1967 as Five Were Missing, it’s clear to see why Duncan was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America shortly before her death. I’ve not read all of Duncan’s work–I’m working my way through them all–but her novels were startlingly original and fresh, particularly when you consider when they were originally published. Ransom, inspired by a true crime in northern California where a school bus was hijacked and the students kidnapped, reads very quickly. The five students on the bus all are fully developed and fleshed out beautifully; and Duncan uses the kidnapping as a way of getting inside the heads of the characters and exposing them for what they are; the golden boy with dark secrets and feet of lead; the spoiled cheerleader who dislikes and resents her stepfather, only to learn that the father she idolizes is unworthy of her love; the military brat, deeply intelligent, who is the first to realize the truth of their situation and finds depths of bravery she never knew she had; the younger brother of the golden boy who realizes his own identity, and finds he has levels of potential strength his brother can only aspire to; and the orphan, being raised by his bachelor uncle with scars of his own to hide who finds out that self-pity only keeps him from enjoying his life. The dialogue is a little stilted and old-fashioned, but as I said, it reads very quickly.

Duncan was definitely a master.

Speaking of masters, I read a short story by Patricia Highsmith yesterday as well, “The Heroine,” which is the lead off story in Sarah Weinman’s Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives; a brilliant anthology of stories written by women crime writers from the 1940’s thru the 1950’s, a time when women dominated the industry and many of these wonderful writers are sadly, overlooked and forgotten.

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The girl was so sure she would get the job, she had unabashedly come out to Westchester with her suitcase. She sat in a comfortable chair in the living room of the Christiansens’ house, looking in her navy blue coat and beret even younger than 21, and replied earnestly to their questions.

“Have you worked as a governess before?” Mr. Christianen asked. He sat beside his wife on the sofa, his elbows on the knees of his gray flannel slacks and his hands clasped. “Any references, I mean?”

“I was a maid at Mrs. Dwight Howell’s home in New York for the last seven months.” Lucille looked at him with suddenly wide gray eyes. “I could get a reference from there if you like…But when I saw your advertisement this morning I didn’t want to wait. I’ve always wanted a place where there were children.”

I love Patricia Highsmith, and I have an enormous volume that contains all of her short stories. It’s really criminal that I, like so many other people, don’t read more short stories (hence my short story project, which I might make a year-long thing rather than just a few months), and it deeply shames me that I’ve had Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives sitting on my shelf collecting dust all this time without taking it down and reading it. This Highsmith story, “The Heroine,” is genius, absolute genius, in the cold, slightly detached way that Highsmith uses as her point of view, which makes her stories and novels so much more chilling. It’s very clear, almost from the start–ah, that foreshadowing–that the Christiansens are probably making a terrible mistake in not checking on Lucille’s references. And how the story develops is so much more chilling than you think it is when you get that uh oh feeling in your stomach when Mrs. Christiansen charmingly says she won’t check Lucille’s references. Highsmith’s authorial voice is so distant, so cold and matter-of-fact, and her word choice is always simple and spare…but she always gets that feeling of suspense, of oh my god what is going to happen that you feel amping up as you finish reading each sentence…and her denouements never disappoint.

Weinman has done an excellent job curating this collection; she also did a two-volume collection of novels by these writers called Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940’s and 1950s: A Library of America Boxed Set. Some of the novels included in that gorgeous set I’ve already read–Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, Margaret Millar’s Beast in View, Vera Caspary’s Laura–but I am definitely going to have to get that set down from the shelf and read the others as well. Weinman is also pretty expert on the crime genre in general; very well read, fiercely intelligent and deeply perceptive, her newsletter The Crime Lady is amazing, and I read it every week for her thoughts on true crimes, the books she’s read and recommends…you can sign up for it here. You can thank for me for it later. She’s also writing a true crime of her own right now that I can’t wait to read.

And now, back to the spice mines.