Reelin’ in the Years

Sunday morning, and times keeps on slippin’, slippin’, into the future.

I slept in this morning–this life of “sorta leisure” is one that I could easily adapt to–and now sit, inside my condensation-covered windows, sipping my morning coffee and reflecting on what the day ahead has in store for me. I finished both interviews yesterday–despite the best attempts of my computer to thwart me, with freezing programs and even an operating system that locked up at one point, requiring me to force-restart the thing–but this morning, it appears to have updated its operating system overnight and is running quite smoothly this morning. I am not, of course, taking this as a sign that this latest update may have removed the bugs from the operating system–this has been a consistent problem since the Mojave update back in December, which created the Great Data Disaster of 2018, from which I still seem to not be completely recovered from–because it’s still early in the day and there’s plenty of time for this thing to malfunction all over the place yet. It did make doing the second interview difficult, but I finally managed to get it saved and emailed off yesterday. I have to do that group thing yet today–I was going to do it  yesterday but after all the functionality problems I was facing, thought it probably best to not try to do the round table and push it off until today. I also need to work on some fiction writing today as well, and of course, I have a toothache again, one of the few molars I have left, and it’s making chewing a bit of a challenge.

Yay, vacation.

I also want to start reading Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake today; alas, while I was watching things on the television yesterday I got sucked into City of Nets–and there’s nothing more distracting for me than Hollywood history. I read about half the book yesterday–sometimes making notes, other times just getting enthralled in the story–and around nine last night I thought, oh, I should be reading Laura’s book but instead couldn’t stop reading about Hollywood corruption and morality. I’ve always been interested in Hollywood history but have never really thought about writing it–I’ve always been reluctant to write much of anything not set in the present day–but I’m slowly coming around to writing recent history. As I said in one of my interviews, I am working on something set in 1994–“Never Kiss a Stranger”–and immersing myself in that period whenever I can, and originally went there for my story “A Whisper from the Graveyard.” As a result I am finding myself vastly interested in writing about the recent past–so much has changed in so quickly a time that it’s really amazing; the 1950’s, for example, might as well have been 1776. (Which, of course, reminds me that my story “The Weight of a Feather” is set in the early 1950’s/late 1940’s; not specifically in any year, but it’s definitely that post-war time.)

But I hope to get my round-table participation finished this morning, and then I am going to work on “Moist Money” for a little while, and then perhaps start Chapter 23 of Bury Me in Shadows. I’d like to get the first draft finished before September 1; and I’d also like to get to work on some other things that are just hanging around. I’ve already been much more productive than I’ve been on any of my previous long weekend vacations, which is a lovely sign, and I absolutely must get moving.

The end of the year will be upon us before we even know it.

I mean, LSU’s first football game is merely a couple of weeks away; and the Saints are already going through their preseason games. Football season is nigh; and shortly behind it will come the cooler weather. This summer hasn’t been that bad–despite the series of heat-advisory days we’ve been dealing with this month–and the river is finally no longer in flood stage, which is lovely and a bit of a relief; when the river is in flood stage there’s always this sense of impending doom hanging over our heads.  I would like it to get cooler, because I do want to spend some time exploring the Quarter–it’s been a hot minute–just to see what down there is different and what has changed; I used to work a block away, for example, from where Scotty lived and I could walk down there and check out his home and the rest of his block from time to time. It’s going to be awhile before I start writing another Scotty novel, and one of the things I do want to address/tackle in the new Scotty is the gentrification/short term rental issue; which will also require bringing back one of the characters from Royal Street Reveillon. (I do this often; bring characters back from previous books to impact the current one. Life kind of does that, too, so it only makes sense from a realistic standpoint to do this periodically.) But I’ll probably write the Chanse before the next Scotty; once I get all these partial novel manuscripts out of the way and submitted I am going to focus on writing Chlorine, then the Chanse, and then the Scotty. So, really, I need to be reading Hollywood history this fall, so I can be prepared to write Chlorine. 

As I love Hollywood history, this is not going to be a horrific chore. I also think I can justify reading James Ellroy’s L. A. Confidential as well for research.

It will also give me an excuse to reread In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, which will always be a pleasure to read. (I also have some other Hughes novels on hand, and the entire canon of Margaret Millar, which I would also like to  finish working my way through)

And on that note, I should probably get back to the spice mines. If I work on the round table for a bit, I can justify spending some time with the new Lippman novel.

Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

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Thunder Island

As Constant Reader already is aware, I’ve been trying to diversify my reading this year. The Diversity Project, as I’ve been calling it, has been revelatory for me; I’ve been reading books and authors I should have been reading all along, but somehow, despite having bought the books, they’ve collected dust and cobwebs in my TBR pile as I somehow always manage to reach for something else when it’s time to read something new. But it has been, as I said, revelatory to me; and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of the ride. My endgame, as it were, is that when I finish this “project”, any subconscious bias I might have in deciding on what to read will have been ripped out, root and stem, and it will simply fade away into something I won’t need to call attention to because I’ve bested the worst biases in my psyche–and aren’t the ones we aren’t aware of the worst?

Yes, they are.

So over the last week I read Rachel Howzell Hall’s wonderful They All Fall Down.

they all fall down

The Los Angeles International Airport was the worst place to lose your mind in post-9/11 America. Especially if you perspired like Kobe Bryant in Game 7 of the NBA finals. Especially if you popped Valium twice a day to combat anxiety. And there I was, standing in the TSA security clearance line at LAX, a sweaty, anxious black woman wearing sweaty green silk, sipping air and blinking away tears.

Miriam, keep it together. They’re gonna pull you out of line if you keep on. Calm down. But “calm” was slipping further away, an iceberg on a quick current being pushed by a pod of enthusiastic killer whales.

And so I closed my eyes and I prayed again. God, don’t let them kick me out of LAX today. Please help me stay calm.

“Next.”

In my mind, I said, “Amen,” then opened my eyes. I forced myself to smile at the gray-eyed TSA agent seated behind the little podium, and hoped that she thought I was a slow blinker and not a terrorist praying one last time before setting one off.

The agent flicked her hand at me and said, “ID and boarding pass, please.”

I’m not sure how I became aware of Rachel Howzell Hall, but I think it was while I was serving on the board of directors for Mystery Writers of America and I was chairing the committee to recruit new board members; we were determined to diversify the board and I think the wondrous Margery Flax suggested her to me as a possible, viable candidate. We had a lovely email exchange and I bought one of her books, Land of Shadows, which went into the TBR pile and never came out of it. I’d heard lots of good things about They All Fall Down, so I got a copy, and decided to read it next.

And am I glad I did!

Sometimes I talk about Agatha Christie, but it’s been years since I’ve read any of her books (I did reread a favorite, Endless Night, a few years back; it’s the most noir of Christie’s novels, which are all, frankly, much darker than she gets credit for) but one cannot deny Christie’s rightful place as the greatest mystery writer of all time; she did it all, and she did it first. One of my absolute favorites of hers is And Then There Were None, which was groundbreaking and highly original and has been copied numerous times: the set up of taking a group of people somewhere remote, stranding them without chance of rescue or escape, and setting a murderer loose amongst them. Margaret Millar, for example, used this set-up for Fire Will Freeze; and it’s been the basis for many slasher movies, etc. I thought about doing my own version of this a few years ago–because the set-up is so classic and enduring, I wanted to give it my own spin–but the problem was how to strand a group of people without cell phone service or the Internet or even satellite phones, without using Christie’s “send them to a remote island” trope.

Let’s face it, though–the remote island is the perfect set-up.

They All Fall Down has been compared to And Then There Were None, and it’s apparent, almost from the first: a group of people have been invited to Mictlan Island, a remote location somewhere in the Sea of Cortez; all with different understandings of why they’ve been invited. Miriam Macy, Hall’s main character, believes she’s been invited to join the cast of a Survivor type reality television show; she’s hoping to win and use the prize money to reboot her shattered life. Hall only doles out information about Miriam slowly, over the course of the novel, but it’s a testament to her skill as a writer that there are two mysteries going on at the same time–the mystery of Miriam’s past, and the mystery of who is killing people on the island. The book is full of surprises and twists, the cast of characters is diverse, and the themes Hall explores are original, or given enough of a new spin to make them seem fresh and new.

But the real revelation of the book is the character of Miriam Macy, and the way Hall breathes life into this complicated woman who has done something horrible and yet continues to justify what she did rather than accepting any culpability for it. You can’t help but root for Miriam, an unreliable narrator if there ever was one, and the brilliance of Hall’s talent is that you keep rooting for Miriam as the story goes on, even after you find out the full story and her history, because her experience on the island is helping her to grow and see the darkness she has denied for years.

This book is an extraordinary accomplishment, and I can’t wait to read more of Hall’s work. Buy it, read it, and love it.

One of These Nights

I have been saying for quite some time that some of the best crime fiction in print is being written by women. This is not to say that there isn’t great crime fiction being written by men these days–there are a lot of amazing male crime writers–but the women don’t ever seem to get the attention–or rapturous praise–that men do. Sistersn in Crime has dedicated itself for over thirty years to put women on the same playing field–recognition, reviews, awards–as the guys, and their hard work is starting to pay dividends.

That isn’t to say we don’t have a long way to go, however; but I do believe in recognizing progress once it’s been made.

I met Jamie Mason I don’t know how many years ago; I do remember it was at Sleuthfest in Orlando (thanks for the invite and another shout-out to MWA-Florida!), and we were on a panel together about place/setting. I think Laura Lippman, who was a keynote speaker/special guest, was also on the panel, and maybe one more person? My memories are hazy these days, my apologies. But I liked Jamie immediately, she was smart and had really insightful things to say. After the panel, Laura and I repaired to the poolside bar for a cocktail and lunch (it was afternoon and no one was out there), and Jamie tentatively asked if she could join us.

From such humble beginnings are friendships born.

I bought Jamie’s first novel that weekend, Three Graves Full, and read it several months later and LOVED it. (It’s still one of my favorite crime novels of this decade, for the record.) She handed me a copy of the ARCs for his second, Monday’s Lie, at Bouchercon in Long Beach either later that year or the next; I treasure that ARC, but as is my wont, didn’t want to read it until there was another Jamie Mason book in print.

That time is now. This summer sees the release of Jamie’s third novel, The Hidden Things, and she very generously send me an ARC of it.

the hidden things

The video had been watched only forty-four times before Carly Liddell’s attacker was identified to the police. Viewer number forty-four was the prize tipster, and it was a good thing it was all resolved quickly. The young man in the video had killed a turtle over a span of hours one dull Saturday a decade earlier, at the age of nine, in the early weeks of the same summer he’d set his first fire. Since then, matches, rocks, the heel of his shoe, the long drop over the railing of a bridge, and other weapons of juvenile destruction had been urgently fascinating to him in ways that got him into trouble when he was a boy, in ways he’d learned to hide over the years.

He’d been stealing things, lately. And watching women.

He always would have made the news.

The video, a sloppy edit of footage from a home-security system, went on to become something of a phenomenon. It had been cut together in a hurry by a tech-savvy officer in the cybercrimes unit who was good with that sort of thing. It went up on the police website less than twenty minutes after the flash drive, loaded with the raw recordings from the home’s monitoring surveillance, had been plugged into his computer. Backslaps and high fives all around for that one.

I love the way Jamie writes.

She has a very distinct and different style from others writing today, which is, in and of itself, an achievement. She builds her stories from a small kernel, a small thing that might happen at any time any day to anyone, and it builds from there. In Three Graves Full that small thing was the main character’s decision to hire landscapers to redo the flower beds around his nondescript home; in The Hidden Things it’s a little more unique: a high school girl coming from school to an empty house is followed by an assailant who gets into the house behind her. She manages to fight him off and go for help; all of this is captured by security cameras inside the house. The local cops post the video on-line on their Facebook page in order to help identify the assailant, with the unexpected result that the video goes viral.

Videos go viral, after all, every day. So what makes this viral video memorable, different, from other viral videos?

Well, for one thing, neither the girl (Carly Liddell) nor her mother had known there were security cameras in the foyer of their home; so her stepfather has some explaining to do.

Secondly, something caught on video–the corner of a painting hanging in the foyer–catches the attention of some very dangerous people.

You see, Carly’s stepfather of four years has been keeping some seriously dark secrets from both her and her mother…secrets that start coming out now with serious consequences.

I absolutely loved this book. The characters are beautifully sculpted; Mason knows what makes people tick and also understands that small, barely noticeable touches are what make characters come to life as well as making relationships ring with honesty and truth and reality. The book is so good I deeply resented everything else that was keeping me from reading it–being tired, errands, cleaning, doing my own writing, my day job–and I literally had to finally push everything aside one day to read the second half in one sitting. Her style reminds me of a combination of Margaret Millar and Patricia Highsmith; literary but accessible at the same time.

It is officially being released in August; do yourself a favor and preorder it right now. And if you’ve not read her before, do yourself an even bigger favor and go read her back list. You won’t regret it.

Sweet Thing

Wednesday, and the downward slide into the weekend begins.

I somehow managed to pull out another 700 words on the WIP and have now progressed to Chapter 6, so I call that winning. It’s also payday, so at some point I need to continue paying the goddamned bills. Huzzah.

As you can see, paying the bills is not one of my favorite things.

Yesterday was an interesting day. It was a long day at work, and as is my wont, periodically I check social media between clients, to see what’s going on in the world and so forth. Twitter usually is only good for raising my blood pressure–honestly, what a fucking cesspool it usually is–but I stumbled into something that reminded me of what social media could be, and actually can be: The Writer magazine (which I used to read, back in the day; I even subscribed for a few years) had done a joint interview with Lee Child and Paul Doirot. Well and good, but the take the magazine chose to take when tweeting about the piece–and ostensibly what the piece was about–was about how these two male thriller writers were creating women characters that were three dimensional. Again, all well and good–except the tack taken by the tweet, and slightly less so in the piece itself–is that the crime fiction genre primarily traffics in female characters who are little more than either a femme fatale, a damsel in distress, or a combination of the two.

Whoa.

As you can imagine, crime writers were having a field day with this on Twitter. I think the reason I got pulled into this amazing and fun thread was because Jessica Laine, one of my fellow contributors to Murder-a-Go-Go’s, brought up me, and my story “This Town,” as an example of a man getting female characters spot-on correct. This naturally made my day–the rare occasions when one of my short stories gets some love are moments I cherish, as I am incredibly insecure about short story writing–and several other women writers whom I respect also were highly complimentary about the story. Sisters in Crime wrote a wonderful response to the piece, as did Nik Kolokowski in a response essay for Mystery Tribune. And while many of us were having a lot of fun on Twitter making jokes, cracking wise, and finding new ways to use sarcasm, the truth is more serious: the very idea that a major writing publication could be so way off base and uninformed about an entire genre (which has always been heavily populated by women writing about women), shows how much work remains to be done within the genre itself.

If I wrote about even a fraction of the women writing superb crime fiction, I would be here for the rest of the week, month, year, my life. The dismissal of the contributions of stellar women writing powerful books isn’t just a problem in the crime genre, but in fiction, period. (Romance is written primarily by women; thus the entire genre is frequently written off as unworthy.) It’s also indicative of the misogyny that pervades our society and culture; women have been fighting misogyny for millennia. Women writers are often asked about work/life balance, whereas men never are; women often write movingly and powerfully about social injustice and rarely get recognized for it. (Two really good examples of this are Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man and Margaret Millar’s Do Evil in Return, both from the early 1960’s and tackling racism and abortion, respectively.) Stories by men about men are seen as “universal” stories, big stories tackling major themes and making commentary on the state of humanity and the world; women’s stories are considered to be insular, small, and in many cases, domestic.

One can almost look at the publishing world as a microcosm of society. Crime fiction is wrestling with the same demons that we are as a culture and a society; the clamor for full equality for women, people of color, and queer people is being pushed back against by those who feel they are being displaced by equal opportunity for all. The loss of an unfair advantage gained simply as a side effect of one’s gender, sexuality and color isn’t really a loss; but for those who are disadvantaged and sometimes disqualified based on any of those things, losing that disadvantage and being judged equally and fairly can make an enormous world of difference.

And now,  back to the spice mines.

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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.

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“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.

Nikita

I read a terrific piece about Mary Higgins Clark the other day; about how her books are really, at the barest bone, about how women cannot even truly trust men. It’s a terrific read, and I do think everyone should read this piece–draw your own conclusions. The brilliant Sarah Weinman then tweeted the piece, positing that she considers Clark the bridge between the domestic suspense thrillers of the past (writers like Dorothy B. Hughes, Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and scores of others) to the modern day women who are killing it in the crime fiction world. On that tweet thread, someone (I think Jeff Abbott?) brought up Phyllis A. Whitney.

Now, Phyllis A. Whitney is one of my favorite writers of all time. I first read her children’s/young adult mysteries (the first being The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye, which I checked out from the library at Eli Whitney Elementary School, after which I started tearing through them. Some were available through the Scholastic Book Club, others I got from the library. I loved them all because they were always set in far off places I wanted to visit–Tiger’s Eye taught me about South Africa and apartheid; The Mystery of the Hidden Hand taught me about Greece and the black market for antiquities, etc.

My mom let me join the Mystery Guild when I was eleven, and I was very thrilled and excited to see as one of the choices, a book by Phyllis A. Whitney, Listen for the Whisperer, and I added it to my choices, filling in the little white box with the correct item number. I was also, at this same time, going through my Hollywood period, reading biographies of movie stars and producers and histories of the film industry. So, you can imagine my thrill to discover that Listen for the Whisperer also was sort of about the film industry; the main character’s biological mother, had been a major Hollywood star, even winning an Oscar, when a scandal destroyed her career; her director was murdered one night on the film set of what would ultimately be her last film, a Gothic black-and-white suspense film called The Whisperer.

It was amazing. A romance and a thriller and a murder mystery, with a lot of Hollywood background to it, it’s remained one of my favorite books of all time, and always makes any list I make of books that were important and/or formative to me.

I soon began tearing through her backlist: Thunder Heights, Seven Tears for Apollo, Blue Fire, Black Amber, Skye Cameron, The Trembling Hills, Silverhill, The Winter People, The Quicksilver Pool, Lost Island, The Moonflower, Sea Jade, Columbella, and Hunter’s Green. Mrs. Whitney continued producing work for almost another twenty years, and I read those books as they were released in paperback, later getting them as they were originally released in hardcover: Snowfire, The Turquoise Mask, The Golden Unicorn, The Glass Flame, Spindrift, Rainbow in the Mist, Woman without a Past, and Vermilion, among many others. Like her teen books, the adult novels also were often set in exotic places which Mrs. Whitney described perfectly, and you learned a little something about the places as you read about them. I also began to realize that when Mrs. Whitney went on one of her research trips, she often wrote two books set there–one for kids, and another for adults.

But the primary difference, I think, between Mary Higgins Clark and Phyllis Whitney is this: if, as the article I read (and linked to) is correct, Ms. Clark’s message is a woman can’t trust any man, then Mrs. Whitney’s was a woman can’t trust anyone, ESPECIALLY not family.

Mrs. Whitney’s books were often, not always, about a young woman trying to either obtain closure (like meeting the birth mother she never knew in Listen for the Whisperer, or confronting her estranged husband who finally wants a divorce after several years of separation in Hunter’s Green, or seeking a relationship with the child she gave up in Lost Island) or trying to get to know a family she’s never met or knew existed (Silverhill, Woman without a Past, Thunder Heights, Sea Jade). 

You couldn’t trust anyone in a Whitney novel; sometimes her killers were actually women.

A common trope in Whitney’s work was also the bad girl, who was often either married to, or engaged to, the love interest for the main character; and frequently, particularly in her earlier works, the bad girl wound up as the murder victim (Columbella, Lost Island). There was almost always a “bad girl” archetype in these books; a beautiful, sexually free woman who refused to be a submissive wife, and was sometimes, quite frankly, a nasty bitch to the main character (The Turquoise Mask, Vermilion) but eventually came over the heroine’s side and thus survived the story.

Here’s a list of all her novels (you can see, she was very prolific and her career lasted over fifty years; often publishing more than one book per year–and remember, she had to use a typewriter):

  • A Place for Ann (1941)
  • A Star for Ginny (1942)
  • A Window for Julie (1943)
  • Red is for Murder (1943), Reissued as The Red Carnelian (1965)
  • The Silver Inkwell (1945)
  • Writing Juvenile Fiction (1947)
  • Willow Hill (1947)
  • Ever After (1948)
  • The Mystery of the Gulls (1949)
  • Linda’s Homecoming (1950)
  • The Island of Dark Woods (1951), Reissued as Mystery of the Strange Traveler (1967)
  • Love Me, Love Me Not (1952)
  • Step to the Music (1953)
  • Mystery of the Black Diamonds (1954)
  • A Long Time Coming (1954)
  • Mystery on the Isle of Skye (1955)
  • The Quicksilver Pool (1955)
  • The Fire and the Gold (1956)
  • The Highest Dream (1956)
  • The Trembling Hills (1956)
  • Mystery of the Green Cat (1957)
  • Skye Cameron (1957)
  • Secret of the Samurai Sword (1958)
  • The Moonflower (1958)
  • Creole Holiday (1959)
  • Mystery of the Haunted Pool (1960)
  • Thunder Heights (1960)
  • Secret of the Tiger’s Eye (1961)
  • Blue Fire (1961)
  • Mystery of the Golden Horn (1962)
  • Window on the Square (1962)
  • Mystery of the Hidden Hand (1963)
  • Seven Tears for Apollo (1963)
  • Secret of the Emerald Star (1964)
  • Black Amber (1964)
  • Mystery of the Angry Idol (1965)
  • Sea Jade (1965)
  • Columbella (1966)
  • Secret of the Spotted Shell (1967)
  • Silverhill (1967)
  • Hunter’s Green (1968)
  • Secret of Goblin Glen (1969)
  • The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost (1969)
  • The Winter People (1969)
  • Secret of the Missing Footprint (1969)
  • Lost Island (1970)
  • The Vanishing Scarecrow (1971)
  • Nobody Likes Trina (1972)
  • Listen for the Whisperer (1972)
  • Mystery of the Scowling Boy (1973)
  • Snowfire (1973)
  • The Turquoise Mask (1974)
  • Secret of Haunted Mesa (1975)
  • Spindrift (1975)
  • The Golden Unicorn (1976)
  • Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels (1976)
  • Secret of the Stone Face (1977)
  • The Stone Bull (1977)
  • The Glass Flame (1978)
  • Domino (1979)
  • Poinciana (1980)
  • Vermilion (1981)
  • Guide to Fiction Writing (1982)
  • Emerald (1983)
  • Rainsong (1984)
  • Dream of Orchids (1985)
  • Flaming Tree (1986)
  • Silversword (1987)
  • Feather on the Moon (1988)
  • Rainbow in the Mist (1989)
  • The Singing Stones (1990)
  • Woman Without a Past (1991)
  • The Ebony Swan (1992)
  • Star Flight (1993)
  • Daughter of the Stars (1994)
  • Amethyst Dreams (1997)

She won two Edgars for her mysteries for children, and was eventually named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

I did sometimes get frustrated with her heroines for being more wimpy than they needed to be; usually, though, the course of the novel allowed her heroines to become more confident in themselves as well as to work through whatever neuroses they had at the start of the novel. And like I said, a common theme was damaged families. Her books, along with those of Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, were labelled as romantic suspense, but I think female noir is actually a better label for them; and as an adult, I really don’t think Stewart’s books actually are romantic suspense…but that’s a topic for another time.

And now, back to the spice mines.

freddie stroma

Sugar Walls

Sunday morning. Yesterday wasn’t nearly as productive as I would have hoped; but I am pleased to report that “My Brother’s Keeper” is finished,  and “Don’t Look Down” isn’t nearly as big of a mess as I thought it was before reading it from beginning to end. It needs some serious polishing before I can consider it to be done–or read it aloud–but I think another push on it today and it will be done. I also started writing yet another story yesterday–“This Thing of Darkness”–which is kind of an interesting idea. We’ll see how it goes. My goal for today is to finish “Don’t Look Down” and “Fireflies” today so they are ready for the read-aloud. And, of course, once “Don’t Look Down” is finished, my collection will be as well–which is kind of exciting.

I didn’t work on Scotty yesterday; I am going to hold off on going back to work on him until tomorrow. I want to get this collection finished, and he needs to sit for another day. I may go back and reread what I’ve already written; the first fourteen chapters, so I can figure out where, precisely, this next chapter needs to go.

I also finished reading Megan Abbott’s amazing Give Me Your Hand last night.

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I guess I always knew, in some subterranean way, Diane and I would end up back together.

We were bound, ankle to ankle, a monstrous three-legged race.

Accidental accomplices. Wary conspirators.

Or Siamese twins, fused in some hidden place.

It is powerful, this thing we share. A murky history, its narrative near impenetrable. We keep telling it to ourselves, noting its twists and turns, trying to make sense of it. And hiding it from everyone else.

Sometimes it feels like Diane was a corner of myself broken off and left to roam my body, floating through my blood.

On occasional nights, stumbling to the bathroom after a bad dream, a Diane dream, I avoid the mirror, averting my eyes, leaving the light off, some primitive part of my half-asleep brain certain that if I looked, she might be there. (Cover your mirrors after dark, my great-grandma used to say. Or they trap the dreamer’s wandering soul.)

Megan Abbott has been a favorite of mine, since years ago when I first read Bury Me Deep as a judge for the Hammett Prize. A period noir, set in the early 1980’s and based on a true story, I was blown away by its deceptive simplicity and hidden complexities. It echoed of the great noirs of James M. Cain and great hardboiled women writers, like Margaret Millar and Dorothy B. Hughes; a tale of desperation and love and murder, crime and ruined reputations, as it delved into the complex emotions that could lead a woman to commit a horrifically brutal murder; its exploration of small-town corruption was reminiscent of Hammett’s Red Harvest. Over the years since that first reading, I’ve gone on to read Abbott’s other brilliances: This Song is You, Queenpin, Dare Me, The End of Everything, You Will Know Me. Her women aren’t victims in the classic sense of victims in crime fiction; her women have agency, they make their decisions and they know their own power; a common theme to all of her novels is the discovery of that power and learning to harness it; whether it’s sexual power (The End of Everything), physical power (You Will Know Me), cerebral (Give Me Your Hand), or inner strength (Dare Me).

And somehow, she manages to continue to grow and get better as a novelist, as a writer, with every book.

She is probably the greatest psychological suspense writer of our time; her ability to create complex inner lives for her characters, to explore the duality of weakness and strength we all carry within us, and the delving into the complicated nuances of female friendships, with all their inner rivalries and passions and jealousies and affections, is probably unparalleled. Her books are also incredibly smart and layered; this one has references, both subtle and overt, to both Hamlet and Macbeth seamlessly woven into the text; the dual, competing themes of inertia despite the knowledge of a crime versus unfettered ambition; and what to do when faced with both. How do you decide? And what does your decisions say about you as a person?

Give Me Your Hand is set in the world of research science, which may seem a weird setting for a crime novel…but competition for research funding and positions, for advancement in career, the thin veneer of civility and camaraderie between co-workers angling for plum research assignments, is at its very heart, noir. One of the characters, Alex, says at one point, jokingly, “we’re a nest of vipers”…and it turns out to be very true.

The novel follows the complex friendship between the main character, Kit Owens and Diane Fleming, who first meet as young teens at Science Camp, and again later their senior year of high school. They become friends, with similar interests; Kit and Diane push each other to be their very best. It is the friendship with Diane that sets Kit on the road to  her career as a research scientist; yet their friendship is blown apart by a secret Diane shares with Kit,  and the knowledge of that shared secret haunts both women for the rest of their lives. Their paths cross again years later, working in the same lab and competing for a limited number of spots on a new, important research project having to do with how excessive premenstrual syndrome: premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). The book also offers two timelines: the senior year, with its heavy influence of the Hamlet theme, and the present, which is more on the lines of Macbeth. Blood also is used, repeatedly, brilliantly, as an image; the study is on a disorder caused by menstruation, and of course, blood as in relatives, as a life-force, as a motivator.

The book is slated for a July release; usually when I get advance copies I wait until the release date is imminent for me to blog about these books. But this one couldn’t wait; I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since finishing it late last night.

Preorder the hell out of this, people.