Blue

So, Saints & Sinners and the Tennessee Williams Festival were a Jeopardy clue on Friday night; how fricking cool is that? I didn’t see it myself–I was cleaning–but any number of people tagged me on Facebook or on Twitter, so I got to see it, which is cool. The Tennessee Williams Festival has been a clue before, but I think this is the first time Saints & Sinners was–and it’s a queer/LGBTQ festival, so even more cool. Way to go, Jeopardy! There’s a reason why you’ve always been my favorite game show!

Hold up your hand if you didn’t think I’d get everything done yesterday that I’d planned. But it was still a good day, and I wrote some new stuff for the first time in a while. I have these horrible stagnant times, when I don’t get any writing done–and as we’ve already established, I always have to force myself to do it (despite loving doing it) and then when I’ve got my writing for the day finished, I wonder why I have to make myself do something I love–and those stagnant times always make me worry that I’ve lost the spark, the desire, to do it; that this time is the time I won’t be able to get back into it and do it. I worked on the Secret Project for a while yesterday, basically completely rewrote everything I wrote to begin with, and moved onto from the first scene to the next scene, which was also quite lovely.

I did get some organizing done–there’s more to be done today; my iCloud drive is so ridiculously disorganized that it’s almost impossible to use, and I probably should back everything up yet again–and some of the filing; I should be able to get more done this morning before I dive back into the Secret Project. I am also planning on heading to the gym for the first time in a very long time (I prefer not to think about just how long that time has been, frankly), which is my first move in my attempt to live a healthier, better organized, better life. I already am thinking of excuses to get out of going, frankly–which is par for the course, as always–but as long as I don’t tie myself to any particular time table, I should be good. I guess the Super Bowl is also tonight, but I don’t really care about either team–the 49ers or the Chiefs–though I suppose if I had to pick one I’d pick the Chiefs, and that’s mainly because they haven’t won a Super Bowl in forever and I think Kansas City could use the boost. We’ll probably spend the evening getting caught up on shows we watch. We still haven’t finished watching Messiah, are way behind on Dare Me, haven’t started the last season of Schitt’s Creek, and so on.

We haven’t even started HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsider, which is getting rave reviews. Who would have ever guessed The Hogan Family’s Jason Bateman would become one of our finest actors/directors/writers for television? I really can’t wait for Ozark to come back.

I also finally finished and published my blog post about Victoria Holt’s Kirkland Revels, part of my Reread Project; I still need to do The Talented Mr. Ripley–it’s started, but I need to finish it.

I am resisting the urge to read Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble next; I need to start reading Tracy Clark’s canon so I can interview her for Sisters; but I also have to read Lori Rader-Day’s The Lucky One for the panel I’m moderating this year at the Jeopardy clue Tennessee Williams Festival late next month. Decisions, decisions. Probably the smart thing to do is read Tracy Clark’s first book next, then Lori’s, and then back to Tracy again for her second book.

I’ve also reached the final section of Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street, which I am looking forward to finally finishing this month. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the book, which is interesting, well-written, and incredibly informative; it’s going to remain on my desk as an important reference guide for any future New Orleans writing I do–which reminds me, I’ve got to start that Sherlock Holmes story–and probably when I finish the Campanella I’ll probably move on to Jason Berry’s City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Age 300. 

The plan is to get this work on the Secret Project finished this week, get started on the Sherlock story, and then get back to Bury Me in Shadows. I’d like to get Shadows turned in by the end of March, get back to the Kansas book–maybe with some serious focus I can get that finished and turned in by the end of May, and then I can get to work on Chlorine. I’d like to have the first draft of Chlorine finished by the end of summer.

Must stay organized, and must stay focused.

I also finished reading Dorothy B. Hughes’ Dread Journey yesterday.

dread journey

“I’m afraid.”

She had spoken aloud. She hadn’t meant to; she hadn’t wanted those words to come up from her throat to her lips. She hadn’t meant to think them, much less speak them. She didn’t want Gratia to have heard them.

But across the room the girl lifted her eyes from her book.

“What did you say?” she queried.

Dorothy B. Hughes is one of the more unjustly forgotten women writers of the mid to later twentieth century; fortunately Sarah Weinman worked–and has continued to work–tirelessly to bring this women back into the public eye. She wrote the introduction to Dread Journey, and in it she names Hughes as her favorite crime writer of all time. She’s not wrong, frankly; Sarah and my friend Margery are both huge fans of Hughes, and if not for them–and Megan Abbott–I may not have ever started reading Hughes, and for that I shall always be grateful to them. In a Lonely Place and The Expendable Man are both extraordinary; I think, frankly, The Expendable Man should be taught; it’s on my list for the Reread Project, for later in the year. Dread Journey is yet another masterwork by Hughes; I cannot wait to dig my teeth into more of her work.

Dread Journey takes place entirely on a train; the Chief, making its regular run from Los Angeles to Chicago–and you know, at some point, someone really needs to do a book or lengthy essay about crime novels and trains; not only did Hughes write one, but Christie wrote two (the very well known Murder on the Orient Express and the lesser known The Mystery of the Blue Train; as well as others that revolved around trains, like 4:50 from Paddington–called What Mrs. McGillicudy Saw! in the US) and of course, Graham Greene’s wonderful Orient Express comes to mind as well. Trains were part and parcel of the American experience. Trains made travel and connecting the massive distances across this continent much easier in the time before air travel became more commonplace and everyone wasn’t convinced they needed a car; there’s a certain nostalgic romantic element to train travel now, probably a result of these novels. I know that year we lived in Washington, we loved taking the train to Philadelphia and New York, even on to Boston; I’ve always, as I said the other day, wanted to write a book or a story called Murder on the Acela Express, and perhaps someday I will–even though the Acela is more of a commuter train without compartments. One of these days I want to take the City of New Orleans on its twenty-four hour ride to Chicago; it just seems like a lovely thing to do and the reading time! Oh, the reading time.

Anyway, the premise behind Dread Journey revolves around the dysfunctional and borderline abusive relationship between Viv Spender, a self-made Hollywood producer and studio head, and Kitten Agnew, a woman he discovered, became obsessed with, and groomed into a major star–America’s sweetheart, the girl next door. There is a huge difference between Kitten’s public image and who she is–a hard as nails fighter who won’t let go of her stardom in the face of Gratia Shawn, his new obsession, and whom he has decided will replace Kitten as the star of his dream project in the role of Clavdia Chauchat. But Kitten has a contract and isn’t giving up without a fight–and they, along with Viv’s longtime secretary Mike Dana, and several other characters–a journalist returning from the Far East, who drowns his memories of the atrocities and horrors he saw there in alcohol; a snippy, gossipy bandleader; a failed screenwriter returning to New York embittered by his failure; and of course, the car attendant, a man of color named James Cobbett–a decent working man who witnesses almost everything that happens on the car. Will Viv go so far as to kill Kitten to get out of the contract he has signed with her? She’s threatening to sue if she doesn’t play Clavdia; and the tension mounts as the cat-and-mouse game between the two of them slowly draws everyone else in the railroad car in.

It’s a very short read, and a good one. I highly recommend it, and of course, Sarah Weinman’s opening essay is worth the cover price alone.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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.

Hungry Like the Wolf

Ah, Thursday. I am very tired this morning; my sleep last night was restless and of course, after a long day yesterday (twelve hours), which included bar testing and all the walking that entails, I am very low energy this morning. I didn’t get much writing done yesterday morning; I am still in the midst of Chapter Two of the new Scotty but part of that problem is trying to make sure I have the voice and tone right–which is, of course, ridiculous; it can always be fixed in a later draft. I need to plow through this first draft and get the story done. Everything else can be repaired later.

Why do I always try to make it right the first time? So stupid. How many books have I written? Some people seriously never learn, you know what I mean?

The line edit continues as well, and is beginning to feel like my own personal invasion of Afghanistan; an endless quagmire I’m never going to get out from under. I still want to have it all finished by the end of the month and the clock is seriously ticking. Heavy heaving sigh.

The lovely thing is I have a three day weekend to look forward to; my birthday is this weekend and as such, I took Monday off as a treat for myself. We’re going to go see Dunkirk Saturday evening, and have a lovely dinner out afterwards. I also hope to be able to use the extra time off to get some work done and do some reading; I want to get the Ambler novel read this weekend so I can reread Dorothy B. Hughes’ sublime In a Lonely Place in its new edition with an afterward by the sublime Megan Abbott. I read it several years ago on the recommendation of Megan, Margery Flax and the wonderful Sarah Weinman, and I became a huge fan of Hughes as a result. I went on to read everything she’d written that was still in print, and started hunting down used copies of the rest on eBay and second hand booksellers on-line. If you’ve not read Hughes and are a fan of crime fiction, you really should read In a Lonely Place. You owe it to yourself to read it.

The film, while different from the book, is also extraordinary. You can’t go wrong with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

All right I need to hit the spice mines. Your Throwback Thursday hunk is actor/model Ed Fury.

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