Two To Make It Right

Thursday morning and I am slurping coffee and trying to get awake and ready for an exciting day of data entry and condom packing. I’ve not been terribly successful with my goal of cleaning out my inbox; I am going to try to work on that today after I finish working, after I go to the gym, and after I get today’s writing done.

I’ve identified a problem–a pattern, if you will–with my writing. I will get to a point in a short story where I am kind of stuck, and whereas what I do with a novel (write my way out of it) I won’t do that with the story, instead agonizing over it for a bit before consigning it to the oh well I’ll finish this later at some point folder. This is defeating, and why, ultimately, I have so many unfinished stories languishing around in my files. So, I am determined to solider on with the one I am currently working on, “The Sound of Snow Falling”, and try to get it finished. I am also determined to revise chapter one of Chlorine this weekend, and hopefully get into my next novella–either “Never Kiss a Stranger” or “A Holler Full of Kudzu”–and also get the Lost Apartment back under control at some point.

It’s amazing how little time it takes yet how easy it is for this place to look like a disaster area in need of FEMA assistance.

I also want to get back to reading–oh, how the books pile up!–and maybe it’s something I should do before I go to bed every night. I had tried for a brief while–after that less screen time before going to bed will help you sleep better thing circulated a few years ago–to read before bed every night; I have a non-fiction book on my nightstand that is now coated in dust that I would love to get back to reading–but it also wouldn’t hurt to do some fiction reading downstairs before I go up to bed, risking the getting caught up in the book and not wanting to put it down thing, which all too often happens to me with reading fiction. I am still greatly enjoying Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, by the way; Caro is an exceptional biographer. I also love how he weaves historical context into his biographies–I’ve only read the first volume of the Johnson biographies, and his description for how hard life was for poor rural women has never stopping haunting my mind–and always am blown away. I’ve never read the two biggest biographies of this century–Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton or McCullough’s John Adams, which I need to remedy–but then again my non-fiction reading (outside of necessary research for writing) has been woefully overshadowed this century by my fiction reading.

I also received copies of the MWA anthologies Deadly Anniversaries (edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini) and When a Stranger Comes to Town (edited by Michael Koryta), which reminded me of how much I’ve been languishing on the Short Story Project–while continuing to buy anthologies or single-author collections, which are also piling up around me. I also have a lot of short stories to read for my Bouchercon panel in August; I am on, of all things, a short story panel; which kind of caught me off-guard because I don’t consider myself a master of the form–or even half-way decent at it. But I have published quite a few of them, and my goal is to publish more (which means writing more of them) and I figure with the terrific panelists, maybe I can pick up a thing or two from some of them.

We started watching another Spanish language show last night, High Seas (Alta Mar in Spanish), which is a murder mystery set on a luxury liner sometime in the 1940’s, traveling from Spain to Rio de Janeiro. It’s gorgeously shot, the period costumes and decor are first rate, as is the acting. We’re on episode 4 now; there have already been two murders and some mysterious shenanigans, including a fire, and yes, we are completely sucked into it. (We’re taking The Underground Railroad slowly, because it’s not really something to be binged, since it raises so many philosophical and societal questions; you kind of need to absorb each episode. It’s really one of the most literate series I’ve ever watched, in part because the visuals are so incredible and poetic; I think it’s one that needs to be rewatched as well because it’s almost too cerebral–yet compelling–to absorb all at once for someone of such diminished intellectual capabilities as me–it’s also making me want to revisit the novel)

And on that note, I am heading into today’s spice mines. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you later.

Temptation

A very cold Monday morning in New Orleans, and the sun has yet to peek its head out from under the blankets this morning. I slept deeply and well last night also, which made the getting up even more difficult this morning. My space heater is going on HIGH right now, and my cappuccino feels wonderful to my incredibly cold hands. This morning’s shower is going to be quite the challenge, though. But I do feel rested this morning, which is lovely, and while dealing with today’s cold temperatures will indeed suck, I feel like I am somehow up for the challenge.

Walking to the gym tonight after work will be a considerably different tale, I fear.

We started watching Bridgerton last night (that’s us, always on the cusp and cutting edge of what’s new and exciting) and as I watched, I found the word charming popping up in my head when thinking about the show, which is a word that has fallen out of favor and use as a descriptor for fictions, but I think needs to come back. (Ted Lasso, for example, is also a charming show.) As I watched, I began to understand the pull of romance novels again. It’s been quite some time since I’ve read a romance, and I think this has been a grave disservice, not just to the romance genre in general but to me as a critical thinker and writer. I loved romances when I was younger, with a particular appeal for those novels and authors who carried the label romantic suspense–because those combined my two favorite genres, romance and mystery. I also read an awful lot of historical romances–mostly ones based on true history; romance of queens and empresses and princesses and royal mistresses (one of my all time favorites is Anya Seton’s Katherine, which told of the great love story of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and son of Edward III, and his commoner mistress, Katherine Swynford; whom he had an entire brood of children with and married after the death of his second wife, raising her to be the highest ranking women in England, second only to the Queen herself), and as I watched the show last night, I thought to myself in an alternate universe you would have been a romance writer. The Regency period has never interested me much in England–although the clothes were quite marvelous, and any number of women today would benefit from the Empire style high-waisted dress–primarily because it wasn’t, to me, a particularly interesting period, what with the mad King and his awful sons, who created a succession crisis as they refused royal marriages while living with their commoner mistresses and having hordes of bastard children by them. The show is sumptuous and the attention to details of the period exact; it has the look and feel of care and money, and we were, as I said, quite charmed by it–and we certainly weren’t expecting that.

There is an interesting essay about how Americans enjoy watching rich people suffer as entertainment formulating in my brain as I type this–going back to the 1980’s prime time soaps and mini-series.

I tried working on my short story yesterday, and I did manage to get the 1600 words I’d originally written revised and polished and in better working order, but I did not write into the second act of the story, which is the part I always struggle with on everything, from short stories to essays to novels to novellas. The story is due on Thursday, so I think I am going to have to buckle down, avoid Twitter (yes, I continued trolling right wing politicians and Trump administration appointees yesterday. It’s so endlessly satisfying calling Sarah Huckabee Sanders a fake Christian, a liar, and a traitor to her face…or asking trash like Tomi Lahren why she hates the Constitution, reminding Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio they are cucks and traitors…but effective today I am banning myself from anything other than bantering with friends on there anymore–I have too much to do to bother with stating the obvious to treasonous traitor trash.)

The sun is now rising over the West Bank, and the light is very gray. The sky is covered with clouds–it may even rain today, if I am not mistaken–and this cold spell is supposed to last most of the week, dipping into the low forties after sundown.

I also read a marvelous short story yesterday called “The Fixer”, a collaborative work by Edgar winners Laura Lippman and Alison Gaylin, which was in the Mystery Writers of America anthology Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Grand Masters Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller–released in the midst of the lockdown last spring, so it didn’t get the attention it truly deserved. The story is quite marvelous–you can never go wrong in the hands of either Lippman or Gaylin, let alone when they collaborate–and I greatly enjoyed it. It’s kind of a “#metoo” story in some ways; it tells the story of a faded child star who appeared in a science fiction television series who now makes most of her living selling signed photos of herself at Comic Cons, who in the present day runs into someone who was her ‘handler’ some years earlier when she was making a movie that eventually was shut done and never finished–ending her career with it–and what happened back then. It’s quite chilling, and a very hard look at how women’s bodies, regardless of age, are seen as property by men in the industry–property those same men have a right to use and abuse how they see fit. There have long been rumors about pedophilia in Hollywood–both Michael Nava and John Morgan Wilson wrote mystery novels around that very subject, which were two of their best books, I might add–and I highly recommend this story, and this anthology; every story in it was written by an Edgar winner, and I will be posting more about the stories as I read them.

The Saints also won yesterday, beating the Bears 21-10 (hey Bears fans, finished what Katrina started yet? Yeah. I have a looooooong ass memory) in an underwhelming game I had on while I cleaned the kitchen and made dinner. Next up are the Buccaneers, whom we’ve already beaten twice; will the third time be the charm for Tom Brady and his new team? Tonight is the Alabama-Ohio State game for the national title in college football, and I don’t find myself caring too terribly about that, to be honest. I might have it on? We’ll probably watch Bridgerton instead, and I’ll see who won when I get up tomorrow morning.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me.

If You Leave Me Now

One of my favorite writers when I was a kid was Charlotte Armstrong.

Armstrong was astonishing, really. The first book of hers I read was The Witch’s House. My parents had allowed me to join the Mystery Guild and I, of course, one month failed to do my duty and send the order card back declining that month’s selections. It was probably one of the best mistakes I’d ever made through my instinct for procrastination; I wound up getting a three volume omnibus of Armstrong called The Charlotte Armstrong Reader, and Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie. I shelved the Christie and forgot about it until years later–when I’d started reading Christie–but The Witch’s House sounded interesting to me; it had “witch” in the title and I’ve always been drawn to witches, for some reason, and I was at the age when I was still reading my kids’ mystery series but was slowly beginning to transition to books for adults. I was enthralled by The Witch’s House, and read it very quickly, and followed it up by reading the next, Mischief, which I liked even better. But the local library didn’t have any Armstrong novels in stock–which surprises me even more now than it did then–and so I didn’t continue reading Armstrong until years later. Armstrong is one of my favorite writers, even if the books might seem a bit dated today; whenever I read another one of her novels I greatly enjoy it. Armstrong’s books were–I don’t know how to put this, but I am going to give it a try–were dark without darkness; there was always a sense of optimism in her books no matter how dark they got (there’s one particular scene in The Gift Shop that to this day rattles me when I think about it) and I do think she is overdue for a renaissance. It was the combined work of Jeffrey Marks and Sarah Weinman that reminded me of Armstrong and got me to go back and try to finish reading her canon; they also introduced me to Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar (among others).

The point is, women have always been some of the greatest writers in the crime genre, and societal and cultural sexism have gone a very long way to ensuring that the men who wrote in the same period as these ladies are now lauded as giants of the genre and must-reads, while the women–who won just as many awards and critical laurels and big sales–faded away into obscurity. Mary Higgins Clark was the bridge from these great women of the past to the modern women who write domestic suspense–and really, has there ever been a greater concept for a domestic suspense novel than Where are the Children?–but the second wave of major women crime writers primarily focused on private eye fiction (Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky).

But what the great Sarah Weinman calls “domestic suspense” never faded away; and nowadays we have some truly terrific women writing truly terrific novels in this subgenre–Lori Rader-Day, Catriona McPherson, Carol Goodman, Wendy Corsi Staub, Alafair Burke, and so many others–and it’s really become one of my absolute favorite subgenres, primarily because of the work these women are doing. It’s extraordinary; I cannot urge you enough to check out these women’s books, Constant Reader.

I could go on and on about these women and domestic suspense forever; but I’ll spare you and cut to the chase.

x510

“It was the girl.” The old man leaned forward, bracing against the worn-out armchair as though he were trying to escape its grasp. “April Cooper. She was the real killer.”

Quentin Garrison watched his face. He was very good at describing people, a skill he used all the time in his true crime podcasts. Later, recording the narration segments with his coproducer Summer Hawkins, Quentin would paint the picture for his listeners–the leathery skin, the white eyebrows wispy as cobwebs, the eyes, cerulean in 1976 but now the color of worn denim, and with so much pain bottled up behind them, as though he were constantly hovering on the brink of tears.

The man was named Reg Sharkey, and on June 20, 1976 , he’d watched his four-year-old daughter Kimmy die instantly of a gunshot wound to the chest–the youngest victim of April Cooper and Gabriel Allen LeRoy, aka the Inland Empire Killers. Two weeks later, his wife, Clara, had decided her own grief was too much to bear and committed suicide, after which Reg Sharkey had apparently given up on caring about anything or anyone.

Quentin said, “Wasn’t it LeRoy who pulled the trigger?”

Alison Gaylin has been nominated for the Edgar four times (Best First for Hide Your Eyes, Best PBO for both Into the Dark and If I Die Tonight, Best Novel for What Remains of Me)  and claimed the prize, just this past week, for If I Die Tonight. Her novels encompass a wide variety of subgenres; her first series featured an amateur sleuth; she then wrote two brilliant crime novels built around the entertainment industry; and then did the Brenna Spector trilogy: private eye novels that were, by and large, quite superb. All of her novels were superb, but once the Brenna trilogy was completed she moved on to stand-alones of psychological suspense that also crossover into the domestic suspense category; explorations of families and the dysfunction that leads to damaged people and possibly crimes. What Remains of Me was a throwback to  her earlier stand alone novels about the entertainment industry; only delving more deeply into the friendships and family relationships with the insightful eye of an artist. What Remains of Me juggled two time-lines and two murders; one committed in 1979 and another committed in the present–both linked and connected to the same woman, the same cast of characters, and the big reveal was stunning. If I Die Tonight was all set in the present day, but Gaylin’s family relationships in this novel are just as fractured and dysfunctional on every level; the concept Gaylin explored in this novel was public face private truth–the singular kernel of truth in this book being that things are so rarely what they appear to be in public, whereas the actual truth is far more complicated, far more complex, and far too often not what anyone actually wants to know.

Never Look Back also, like What Remains of Me, juggles two timelines; one in the past, which is expressed and explored through letters a teenaged girl writes to her future child, the other, a present where the aftermath of a brutal killing spree decades earlier by the teenaged girl writing the letters and the “boyfriend” who took her along for the ride; the notorious Inland Empire Killers. In the present day, a happily married gay man whose own childhood and family was actually shattered by the Inland Empire Killers, now works as an adult as a coproducer of true crime podcasts. The book opens with him confronting the father of the youngest victim of the killers–who also happens to be his grandfather, whom he doesn’t know. The interview ends badly, with bitterness and shouting and recriminations; Quentin blames his grandfather for his mother’s tragic, drug addicted, and wasted life, which in turn made his own childhood a mess. Quentin is now happily married…but driven by an obsession to get to the bottom of the killings so many decades ago.

And then comes the tip that April Cooper, the young girl writing the letters and the “Bonnie” to Gabriel LeRoy’s “Clyde”–might not have died in the fire which everyone believed killed them both; that she might actually be still alive and living in the Hudson Valley of New York.

This is a terrific premise, and Gaylin delivers in ways the reader cannot imagine as they ride the rollercoaster of suspense and emotion along with her characters. It’s an enormously satisfying read, with lots of juggled subplots and clues being left in the most casual of ways, so that the careful reader might even be able to figure out the truth long before the characters. Quentin is a terrific character, and so is Robin Diamond, the website  columnist whose mother might–or might not–hold the key to the answers Quentin is so driven to learn. The suspense and the twists are stunning, but the ending is powerful and enormously satisfying…and there’s not a single loose plot thread left behind.

Charlotte Armstrong was dubbed the Queen of Suspense by critics and reviewers during her lifetime; Alison Gaylin is a worthy heir to that title.

The book is available for preorder now; I’d advise you to do yourself a favor and preorder now. You aren’t going to want to miss this one.