Left to My Own Devices

Thursday morning and here we are, with a mere two more days before we can call it the weekend again. I’m not really sure why I am looking so forward to it; I just have to write and clean and do shit all weekend. Yay? But I guess it’s lovely because I am on my own schedule, I suppose?

I didn’t sleep for shit last night, which was highly annoying. Also, convenient because I forgot to set my alarm. Fortunately, my eyes opened at promptly six this morning. Huzzah?

So, overnight my HBO app on my Apple TV magically converted to an HBO MAX app, and I got lost in there for hours last night, just exploring all the options. I doubt I’ll ever watch the eight or nine Harry Potter movies ever again, but they are there, along with all kinds of over things. Scooby Doo Where Are You in its original two series is there–I watched one last night, delighted, before making dinner–and of course TCM is there, and there are so many classic films I’ve either not seen, or haven’t seen in a very long time. One of my all time favorites, Body Heat, is also there; I can’t wait to rewatch, as I’ve been wanting to rewatch it for quite some time. Also a lot of classic Hitchcock films, many of which I’ve never seen, including North by Northwest and several others. Essentially, with HBO MAX, combined with Hulu and Netflix and Prime and Disney Plus, I really don’t think I ever will have an excuse to be bored ever again, as there’s always something I can watch on one of those streaming services. There’s also some very good classic Hollywood, thank to TCM (Mildred Pierce, Laura, Bringing Up Baby, etc.). In other words, I am quite pleased.

Alas, that will undoubtedly cut into my reading and writing time–but better that than Youtube black holes, right?

Larry Kramer died yesterday, and I thought, “you know, I’ve been meaning to reread Faggots for a really long time and perhaps this is the time to do so, as a tribute to Larry and everything he did for us all.” As I took the book from the stack, I also realized this meant pushing Night Has a Thousand Eyes back into the pile, and this was probably the kind of thing that has happened with far too great a frequency and why I’ve never gotten back to reading the Woolrich, so I decided to go ahead and read the Woolrich and then I’ll get back to the Kramer. Faggots was one of the first “gay” books I read after coming out officially (I had read Gordon Merrick and The Front Runner and The Swimming-Pool Library while in the closet. Faggots was recommended to me when I walked into my first gay bookstore, Tomes and Treasures, in Tampa in the early nineties; the incredibly sexy bookseller–on whom I had a major crush–told me I should read it and Dancer from the Dance, so I bought both and read them) and I sometimes joke that “it almost pushed me back into the closet.” The gay sexuality was so in in-your-face, and all the kinks and other variations depicted within the covers of that book–plus the clear misery and unhappiness of the main character, Fred Lemish–kind of was shocking to someone as naïve as I was when I first came out.

This also made me think about my life in those years prior to my thirty-third, which was when I stopped passively floating through my life and tried to take control of it–to start actively living instead of passively letting my life happen to me. I rarely talk about, or even think much about, my life between moving to the suburbs when I was ten and my thirty-third birthday; primarily because my existence was so completely miserable and tragic and pitiful. There was the duality of living as both a closet case in my more regular day-to-day life (and fooling no one, as I was quick to find out later), plus my hidden, furtive life on the edges of gay world. It’s difficult for me to look back at that twenty-three years and not wince or recoil in embarrassment at what a miserable life I was leading, and how desperately unhappy I was all the time. But that time was necessary, because it was also that same period where I was starting to recognize, and learn, that almost everything I was raised to believe was not just a lie but a horrible one. Unlearning those decidedly terrible values and lessons is an ongoing process to this very day, but it’s also terribly important and necessary to shed all that conditioning in American exceptionalism, evangelical Christianity with its bizarre morality and cognitive dissonance, and the true American legacy of white supremacy. As I thought about this last night–we watched the first episode of CNN’s docuseries The Movies on HBO MAX last night, and I was remembering, not only the unhappy first more-than-half of my life, but started unpacking the rest as well.

And it will inevitably show up in my writing at some point.

ANd now back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader.

The Letter

It sometimes catches me off-guard when it turns out a favorite movie was adapted from a short story or novel. Many of my favorite writers had their books turned into film more frequently than I think (or knew, or remembered); and more films were based on books and short stories than people remember or think. I knew, for example, that Now Voyager was a novel before a film; so were Stella Dallas, Flamingo Road, Laura, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and so forth. I also know W. Somerset Maugham had written Of Human Bondage (the film of which made Bette Davis a star) and the short story “Rain” (filmed with first Gloria Swanson and remade with Joan Crawford). I’d never read Maugham, but I know of his work; it was only recently, however, that I discovered that one of my favorite Bette Davis films, The Letter, was a Maugham short story he himself adapted into a play. Leslie Crosbie is one of Davis’ best performances, opening on a Malaysian rubber plantation with the sound of gunshots, as a man staggers down the front steps of a bungalow-style plantation house, with Bette Davis grimly following, gun in hand, and when he collapses onto the ground, she stands over him and fires four more bullets into his prone body at her feet. It’s an incredible opening, and a remarkable scene for Davis to play. The determination, the anger, the you so deserve worse than this look on her face–yes, she earned an Oscar nomination for that scene alone.

And once I knew (or was reminded; I may have known at one time it was a Maugham story and simply forgotten), I had to read the story.

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Outside on the quay the sun beat fiercely. A stream of motors, lorries and buses, private cars and hirelings, sped up and down the crowded thoroughfare, and every chauffeur blew his horn; rickshaws threaded their nimble path amid the throng, and the panting coolies found breath to yell at one another; coolies, carrying heavy bales, sidled along with their quick jog-trot and shouted to the passer-by to make way; itinerant vendors proclaimed their wares. Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones. But inside the office of Messrs. Ripley, Joyce and Naylor it was pleasantly cool; it was dark after the dusty glitter of the street and agreeably quiet after its unceasing din. Mr. Joyce sat in his private room, at the table, with an electric fan turned full on him. He was leaning back, his elbows on the arms of the chair, with the tips of the outstretched fingers of one hand resting neatly against the tips of the outstretched fingers of the other. His gaze rested on the battered volumes of the Law Reports which stood on a long shelf in front of him. On the top of a cupboard were square boxes of japanned tin, on which were painted the names of various clients.

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in.”

A Chinese clerk, very neat in his white ducks, opened it.

“Mr. Crosbie is here, sir.”

He spoke beautiful English, accenting each word with precision, and Mr. Joyce had often wondered at the extent of his vocabulary. Ong Chi Seng was a Cantonese, and he had studied law at Gray’s Inn. He was spending a year or two with Messrs. Ripley, Joyce and Naylor in order to prepare himself for practice on his own account. He was industrious, obliging, and of exemplary character.

“Show him in,” said Mr. Joyce.

He rose to shake hands with his visitor and asked him to sit down. The light fell on him as he did so. The face of Mr. Joyce remained in shadow. He was by nature a silent man, and now he looked at Robert Crosbie for quite a minute without speaking. Crosbie was a big fellow, well over six feet high, with broad shoulders, and muscular. He was a rubber-planter, hard with the constant exercise of walking over the estate, and with the tennis which was his relaxation when the day’s work was over. He was deeply sunburned. His hairy hands, his feet in clumsy boots were enormous, and Mr. Joyce found himself thinking that a blow of that great fist would easily kill the fragile Tamil. But there was no fierceness in his blue eyes; they were confiding and gentle; and his face, with its big, undistinguished features, was open, frank and honest. But at this moment it bore a look of deep distress. It was drawn and haggard.

“You look as though you hadn’t had much sleep the last night or two,” said Mr. Joyce.

“I haven’t.”

Mr. Joyce noticed now the old felt hat, with its broad double brim, which Crosbie had placed on the table; and then his eyes travelled to the khaki shorts he wore, showing his red hairy thighs, the tennis shirt open at the neck, without a tie, and the dirty khaki jacket with the ends of the sleeves turned up. He looked as though he had just come in from a long tramp among the rubber trees. Mr. Joyce gave a slight frown.

“You must pull yourself together, you know. You must keep your head.”

“Oh, I’m all right.”

“Have you seen your wife to-day?”

“No, I’m to see her this afternoon. You know, it is a damned shame that they should have arrested her.”

“I think they had to do that,” Mr. Joyce answered in his level, soft tone.

“I should have thought they’d have let her out on bail.”

“It’s a very serious charge.”

“It is damnable. She did what any decent woman would do in her place. Only, nine women out of ten wouldn’t have the pluck. Leslie’s the best woman in the world. She wouldn’t hurt a fly. Why, hang it all, man, I’ve been married to her for twelve years, do you think I don’t know her? God, if I’d got hold of the man I’d have wrung his neck, I’d have killed him without a moment’s hesitation. So would you.”

“My dear fellow, everybody’s on your side. No one has a good word to say for Hammond. We’re going to get her off. I don’t suppose either the assessors or the judge will go into court without having already made up their minds to bring in a verdict of not guilty.”

As you may have noted, Constant Reader, this story was written during a time when casual racism was not only accepted but was par for the course. Maugham wrote during the first half of the twentieth century primarily; “The Letter” was certainly set during the time of decline for the worldwide British Empire (“the sun never sets on the British empire”); an empire that was built on the backs of its enslaved and conquered peoples, and justified its abuses and colonialism and exploitation with the typical white supremacy. The Empire didn’t survive the second World War–the Japanese in particular shattered the Empire’s Asiatic pretensions–but all the worst of British racism and classism and misogyny is there on display in this story (this sentence: Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones–in particular), and really is terribly dated in that regard. The story is also problematic in that it also upholds the standard misogynist trope that a woman will easily and without qualm accuse a man of rape to cover up her own crimes. So, it’s easy to see how such a story could spring from the mind of a gay man in that time period; my gay brothers can make the worst misogynists, I’m ashamed to say, and written during a period when misogyny was so incredibly rampant…yes, I can see it.

The story is vastly different from the film. The film obviously centers Bette Davis; it’s one of her finer performances, and the character of Leslie Crosbie; the story itself is entirely told from the perspective of her attorney, Mr. Joyce. But the bottom line of the story and film are the same: Leslie Crosbie murdered Geoff Hammond; the question is why? Mrs. Crosbie’s story is that he showed up at her door late at night and tried to rape her, and she killed him in self-defense, protecting her honor. The only problem is that she fired four more bullets into his corpse when he was already dead, from close range; this doesn’t sound like self-defense. Mrs. Crosbie herself claims she doesn’t remember any of that; and given that she’s a white woman, her story is she was defending her honor against a rapist, and the victim had taken up with a Chinese woman and was no longer received by honorable people (oh, the racism!), Mr. Joyce has no doubt that Mrs. Crosbie will neither hang nor go to jail; popular opinion in the ruling class is heavily on her side. But it turns out there’s a letter in existence, in her handwriting; begging Geoff Hammond to come see her at her home while her husband was away. Leslie explains this away quickly; in the hubbub of the shooting and its aftermath, she’d quite forgotten she’d invited him over to help her buy a gun as a gift for her husband, and once she hadn’t told the police, and remembered, she couldn’t tell them without making herself look bad. The Chinese woman Hammond was sleeping with has the letter; and wants money for it. Mr. Joyce explains to Mr. Crosbie…who comes up with the money, and then bitterly says to Me. Joyce: “the reason I was away was because I had gone to buy myself a new gun.”

Leslie had lied about her reasons for inviting Hammond over; what else has she lied about? But once the letter has been destroyed, and the jury sets her free–Mr. Joyce asks her one more question–and Leslie explains her truth: she’d been having an affair for years with Hammond, but the Chinese woman–whom he had loved when he was younger–had come back to his life and he no longer wanted anything to do with Leslie. Leslie was furious–bad enough to be thrown over, but for a Chinese woman? She deliberately invited him over that night; he told her he hated her and wanted nothing to do with him, and to her–this justified not only killing him, but her desire to get away with murdering her lover…and, because of racism and misogyny and class, she does.

It was an interesting–if dated–read, and while I winced away from the horrific racism (much worse than the misogyny of how courts always treated upper crust white ladies with such gentility, allowing them to get away with their crimes, and even cheering lustily their acquittals), I’m glad I read the story. I’ll probably read more of Maugham–I’d read Of Human Bondage when I was a teenager and hated it; I should probably reread it through the lens of Waugham’s homosexuality and how that main character’s relationship with toxic Mildred was undoubtedly shaped by his own denial of his sexuality; I’d probably enjoy that more now–and most definitely want to read “Rain”, to see how Sadie Thompson fares in her creator’s words, as well as to see how misogynistic Maugham was in creating her…it seems to me, in the works of his I’ve read, that his female characters were a lot darker and definitely more noir, than I might have thought before.

It might be interesting to retell “The Letter” entirely from Leslie’s point of view. Hmm, now there’s a thought.

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.

troubled daughters twisted wives

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.