The Ledge

And here it is, Tuesday morning and dark outside my windows as I have my morning coffee preparatory to getting ready for work. It’s getting to be that time of year where I drive to and from work in the dark, which is always a bit debilitating; you feel like you’ve spent the entire day at work when you don’t get to spend any time outside–even if just going to and from work–in the sunshine. The weather has cooled here a bit over the last week, which has been lovely (and early in the season for coolness). My back is much better–there’s still some tightness and slight pain involved–but I think i can actually head to work today and not be in the kind of pain I was in last week, which is kind of nice. It’s still there, but I am learning how to not trigger it–the irony of which is that I am having to use good posture at all times so as not to inflame the pain, which means had I been using good posture most of my life I might not have this problem right now.

But it’s something I can live with today; something I wasn’t so sure about as recently as Sunday. So taking the days of rest, with the alternating hot and cold, was probably a very smart thing to do. I will be taking the generic Ben-Gay with me to work today, too–just in case. But I can sit comfortably without it, which is something I can honestly say was not the case as recently as Sunday. And now of course I have to start digging myself out from under–which is a lot of catching up I need to get done. I also have to do some digging around and figure out what is missing from some projects that I need to get finished, and I also need to get back to writing. There’s an anthology deadline next month–more like three weeks from now–that I wanted to submit something to, but I seriously doubt I am going to be able to have the time or the energy to revise anything the way I want it to be revised to submit to this anthology, so I am probably going to have to let it go once and for all.

We watched Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders last night, a documentary series about the In Cold Blood murders and of course Truman Capote’s famous book that was written about the case (which remains, to this day, one of my favorites) as well as the film made from the book (which I’ve never seen, but Paul’s friend the actress Brenda Curran was in, playing Nancy Clutter). I’ve been to both Holcomb and Garden City, back when I lived in Kansas and when I also had no idea Holcomb was where the crimes happened (I didn’t read In Cold Blood until I lived in California). One of the things I’ve always found interesting about these old rural crimes is how they always talk about how the “community changed” after it happened and how people never used to lock their doors…and everyone could just knock and enter other people’s homes. I wasn’t raised that way; my mother was very obsessive about always making sure everything was locked up–cars, homes, wherever–and used to get mad at me when, as a lazy not really paying much attention teenager used to sometimes leave the car unlocked. Paul is much the same as my mom; sometimes I forget to lock the car, and when I am home by myself I forget sometimes to lock the front door–someone would have to scale the fence, which isn’t easy, to get back to our apartment door–but that’s also a part and parcel of the false sense of security we all have about being safe in our homes. Once I am inside I am safe.

Which really isn’t true.

I spent some more time with Donna Andrews’ delightful new Meg Langslow novel last night while I waited for Paul to finish working so I could make dinner, and it’s delightful. I don’t know how she manages to do this with a series that has lasted as long as hers has; I think there may be more than twenty volumes in the series now? But each one is a delight. I love the town of Caerphilly, I love her family, and most of all I really enjoy Meg. I love highly accomplished, confident, efficient women like her; she’s yet another drily humorous main character in the vein of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody and Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell (I really am overdue for reading another book in that series) and while my own poor Valerie is hardly in the same vein as these remarkable women characters, I’d kind of like to keep developing her into a series because, well, I kind of grew attached to Valerie and her friends while writing A Streetcar Named Murder, and I’d kind of like to revisit them again in another book. I have a title and an idea for the next book in the series, should Crooked Lane want another, and while I felt fairly confident they’d hate the title, I just this weekend came up with a potentially better title for it…and now that I am writing this, i cannot for the life of me remember what that title was, nor do I think I made a note of it (which is why you should always make a note of it).

Ah, well, perhaps it will come back to me at some point.

I also woke up to proofs of an anthology I contributed a story to that has been in the works for many years now, which means the book is finally going to be released which is great news. My story is called “A Whisper from the Graveyard” and I really don’t remember much, if anything, about the story because it’s frankly been so long. But I will need to proof it–check for typos and missing words and such–which will be a nice way to get reacquainted with the story, at the very least. I vaguely have some idea about the story–I know it’s a private eye story, with a gay detective who has just tested HIV positive and it’s set in the early 1990’s, so it’s a death sentence as far as he knows–and is hired by someone to find someone else? I don’t remember–it really has been a long time since I wrote this story.

But I am also completely overwhelmed with work and being behind on everything and I really need to start making a to-do list so I can sort all this shit out and get things done that need to be done. I know I need to go back to work on Scotty and my other project; there’s any number of other things I need to get done, and I also need to start figuring out promo for A Streetcar Named Murder else no one will buy it and that will be the end of that.

The great joy of being a writer.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Happy Tuesday everyone (except Buccaneer fans)!

Do You Know What I Mean

The traditional mystery often gets a bum rap by mystery fans. I’m not sure why that is; these books have never gone out of style, have never decreased in popularity, and have always been the backbone of the crime/mystery genre. They are often (wrongly, I think) identified with Agatha Christie–if anything, Christie should be identified with every sub-genre of crime/mystery fiction. She wrote private eye novels (Poirot); dark noir (Endless Night); spy fiction (N or M?, The Man in the Brown Suit, They Came to Baghdad); historicals (Death Comes as the End); and even romantic suspense (as Mary Westmacott). Sure, she often relied on the amateur sleuth–her most famous amateur being probably Miss Marple–but she literally did everything first, really.

Probably why everyone refers to her as the Queen of Crime Fiction.

But the traditional mystery, for some reason, gets short shrift in our modern world, despite being one of the most popular subgenres of crime fiction. Why? I don’t really understand it. Sure, there’s not any blood or sex or violence–the sort of thing generally used to sell everything from television shows to movies to laundry soap and deoderant. Many of us grew up reading books about amateur detectives, from Nancy Drew to the Hardy Boys to Trixie Belden. So why do so many turn their noses up at the traditional mystery, also known as the cozy mystery?

I think it’s much harder to write about crime without using the tough guy male lead (stereotype), blood, violence, swear words, and sex. Is it this lack of the “rougher” aspects of crime that earned these books the nickname “cozy”?

What precisely does the word cozy mean, used as a book descriptor in this way? Ask five mystery fans/writers, and you will get five different answers. It’s often hard to quantify the variety of subgenres within the mystery/crime field. Everything else aside, I think the most important thing, the key, for a mystery novel to get this kind of classification is that the book focuses, on one level, on a sense of community; the reader develops a warm, comfortable feeling, the kind that you usually get from visiting family and friends you don’t get to see all of the time. You open the book and start reading and already feel relaxed and at home; happy to see people you care about, are interested in, and are excited to find out what they have been up to. Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series is an excellent example of this; so is Leslie Budewitz’ Spice Shop mystery series (both series, obviously, are favorites of mine). These books welcome you in, invite you to put your feet up, get comfortable, and spend some time with your old friends you’ve not seen in a while.

This, naturally, is very difficult to establish when writing the first book in a new series of this kind; how do you immediately establish this warm environment where the reader feels comfortable enough to kick off their shoes and relax? It’s not the easiest thing to pull off for an accomplished writer; so it’s all the more remarkable when someone nails it in their very first book.

Mia P. Manansala nailed it in her debut.

My name is Lila Macapagal and my life has become a rom-com cliché.

Not many romantic comedies feature an Asian-American (or dead bodies, but more on that later), but all the hallmarks are there.

Girl from an improbably named small town in the Midwest moves to the big city to make a name for herself and find love? Check.

Girl achieves these things only for the world to come crashing down when she walks in on her fiancé getting down and dirty with their next-door neighbors (yes, plural)? Double check.

Girl then moves back home in disgrace and finds work reinvigorating her aunt’s failing business? Well now we’re up to a hat trick of clichés.

And to put the cherry on top, in the trope of all tropes, I even reconnected with my high school sweetheart after moving back to town and discovered the true meaning of Christmas.

Okay, that last part is a joke, but I really did run into my high school sweetheart. Derek Winter, my first love.

First of all, can we talk about the voice?

It is impossible not to fall in love with Lila’s voice from the very first sentence of the book. She is smart and funny and eminently likable, which is important in a traditional mystery (no one wants to read a cozy whose main character is an unlikable bitch) and much harder to do than most people who don’t actually write books think it is. Lila is a remarkable character; very clear-eyed about what she wants and what she doesn’t, as well as who she thinks she is and wants to be. She’s returned from her big escape to the big city to the small town she wasn’t terribly happy in when she was growing up–her past experiences continually are reminding her, and not in pleasant way, of why she left in the first place. She never intended to return home (as Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again), but she is back and rather than focusing on what she is certain everyone she knows or is related to sees as her “failure,” she intends instead to focus on helping save her aunt’s restaurant business.

The immense strength of this story rests upon those family bonds, and Lila’s recognition of just how important those bonds–family, friends, community–actually are to her; and her growing realization, over the course of the books, that those things she once thought were strangling and restraining her are actually where her own power comes from.

The mystery itself is also strong: Lila’s wretched local ex, whose mother has since married a businessman who rents Tita Rosie’s building to her and is a total dick, has taken to writing shitty reviews of local restaurants, apparently targeting one and trying to destroy its business before moving on to another. Lila’s relationship with him is also strained; and she also doesn’t like the dickish stepfather either. It is while she is serving them lunch that her ex keels over face-first into his plate–dead from arsenic poisoning. In the food Lila fed him, and came from her aunt’s kitchen. The financially strapped business is shut down pending an investigation into the murder and a health department inspection, and there is the very real fear that Tita Rosie may lose her restaurant. Lila takes it upon herself to investigate and find the real culprit, to clear herself as well as her aunt and the beloved family business of any wrongdoing and scandal. The journey, which introduces us to her friends and family, and welcomes the reader into their charming world and community, twists and turns and is full of surprises every step along the way–as Lila also learns just how much the restaurant, her family, and her friends really mean to her.

This book is absolutely charming, well-written, and very fun. I cannot wait to revisit Lila and her crew in the second book, Homicide and Halo-Halo. Mia P. Manansala is definitely one to watch, and it’s going to be fun watching her career reaching even more heights than she has already achieved.

Just One Look

I am now almost completely caught on the Donna Andrew canon, with only The Twelve Jays of Christmas, this year’s Christmas Meg mystery, to go. I have already decided to save it for Christmas Eve and Christmas day reading; what better way to celebrate the holiday with yet another visit to Caerphilly at Christmastime? I have also realized that I have done something I try to never, ever do; once I have finished that particular Meg story, I won’t have another to read until next year’s release. Insane as it may sound, I never want to run out of books to read by favorite authors; it’s oddly comforting to know there’s still another one left for me to read. I still have about three to go with Sue Grafton, and there’s one Elizabeth Peters novel still left unread for me to sink my teeth into with a heavy sigh someday. I know it makes little to no sense to think this way, and it’s kind of irrational, but I’ve never claimed that my brain and its peculiarities and weird ways of working makes sense to anyone who is NOT me

And in complete honesty, I’m not entirely certain I understand how my brains works. It certainly mystifies me most of the time.

“Mom?”

I kept my eyes firmly closed and focused on breathing in and out in the slow, deliberate way that was supposed to make you feel better when you were stressed. One…two…

“Mom,” Jamie repeated. “I know when you’re doing your yoga breathing we’re not supposed to interrupt you unless there’s actual bleeding involved.”

“Or open flames,” his twin brother, Josh, added.

“But I kind of think this might qualify,” Jamie went on.

My eyes flew open.

All I could see for a second were the muddy shins and baggy knees of the woolen hose they were wearing as part of their medieval costumes. I craned my neck to see upward, past the well-worn lether doublets to their faces. Josh was leaning on his longbow as if it were a staff. Jamie had his lung over his left shoulder. Neither appeared to be injured. But they both looked…anxious. And that wasn’t a look I saw very often on the faces of my not-quite-teenage sons.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

They exchanged a glance. Were they deciding what to tell me? Or just sorting out who had to do the telling?

“We think we found a body,” Josh said.

“A dead body,” Jamie clarified.

As always, Meg has her hands full as the book opens. Not only have the twins discovered what may be a dead body in the woods near the house, the reason they are dressed in medieval costume is because Michael, her husband and a professor of drama at the local college, is mounting a production of Macbeth, and the twins have (small) roles. Because of insane and arcane academic inter-departmental politics, the Drama department has had to enlist the assistance of the History department in a skirmish against the villainous English department, which has resulted with a group of re-enactors camping out in the field on her parents’ neighboring property; the leader of the group is a royal pain in the ass. There’s also a house full of relatives, as per usual, and due to the on-going housing situation in Caerphilly, many of the cast of the show are having to stay, if not in Meg’s and Michael’s house, then camping out around it. There have also been some incidents of vandalism, inside and outside the house–and oh, yes, there’s a documentary filmmaker staying in his trailer, also on the property and also proving to be a bit of a handful.

Never ever a dull moment in Meg’s life, certainly!

If that’s enough, the area is in the middle of a drought, and someone has been lighting campfires in the woods. Rose Noire, Meg’s cousin and an herbalist/naturalist/holistic healer type, is convinced that whoever is lighting the campfires is up to no good–and the discovery of a page torn from a book with an evil spell written out in nearby only seems to back up Rose Noire’s intuition (Rose Noire is becoming a favorite of mine; I love all the characters in this series–the ongoing feud between Meg’s grandparents is a personal favorite on-going subplot of mine–but Rose Noire was a bit irritating at first, but as I’ve spent more time with her she has definitely grown in my estimation; and her devotion to protecting animals–as happens throughout this book–played no small part in that rise) that the miscreants are definitely up to no good.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot–which is, as always, interwoven with various subplots and minor mysteries, which only serve to complicate and confuse the reader (not so much Meg) while trying to solve the central mystery–but the book is, as always, a charming experience that engaged me throughout, making me laugh aloud several times, and while I was glad to get to the bottom of the mystery, and the ending was enormously satisfying…at the same time I was a little morose to be done with my latest visit to Meg’s world.

And I only have one more to read. Heavy sigh.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

What I am hearing is that Donna Andrews is a master of writing about Christmas.

It’s incredibly easy to become cynical about Christmas; American capitalism’s infection of the holiday has made such cynicism almost de rigueur. The commercialization of what is supposed to be a religious holiday has been a concern for decades–A Charlie Brown Christmas was, after all, produced in 1965–and it is has even been politicized for the last thirty or so years (war on Christmas, anyone?). And while the argument over whether one should say “Merry Christmas” rather than the more inclusive “Happy holidays” has always struck me as particularly stupid (in a multi-cultural society where one cannot easily identify which particular holiday a stranger might celebrate, why would anyone want to risk giving offense? I really don’t understand this modern sensibility that good manners no longer matter), it becomes easier and easier to become tired of the entire thing and want to wash one’s hands of it all.

But Donna Andrews’ Christmas mysteries hit precisely the right chord, and can revive that holiday spirit in even that most cynical of hearts and souls, my own; so much so that I may even revisit the books every December as a necessary reminder of what this season is really supposed to be about.

“Cow manure?”

I was talking into my cell phone, but my friend Caroline Willner, who’d just popped into the kitchen with an armload of brightly wrapped presents, must have thought I was talking to her.

“Is this part of the whole not-swearing-in-front-of-the-boys thing?” she asked. “And what did I do to deserve–oops!” Her voice sank into a whisper. “Sorry! I didn’t realize you were on the phone.”

Although I could see her curiosity was aroused.

“We have access to a variety of manures–cow, horse, sheep, goat, and llama,” I said into the phone. “Much of it’s even organic. Is there a particular reason you want cow manure?”

“Well, any of those would be acceptable,” my caller said. “Especially the organic ones. I just don’t want chicken manure.”

“Of course not,” I said. “It’s so apt to be infected with salmonella. Give me your address and let me know when I can drop by–would sometime later today work? If you can show me the area you want fertilized, I can figure out how much manure is required and how many volunteers we’ll need to spread it.”

It is, as one can assume by the cover and title of this particular Meg Langslow mystery, Christmas time in Caerphilly again, and as always, Meg has her incredibly capable hands full with everything that is going on that she needs to make sure gets taken care of (her competence, list-making, and multi-tasking are all things that I aspire to, and inevitably always fall short on). Caerphilly’s Interfaith Council has, this particular year, come up with an amazing idea to help people out called “Helping Hands for the Holidays”–in which those in need of help can ask for assistance, and Meg and her group will find volunteers to get things taken care of for those in need. It’s an absolutely lovely idea, and who better than mayoral assistant Meg to take charge of such a program as part of her official duties? A Caerfully Christmas, which has become a major source of tourist revenue for the small town, is also in full swing; her house is filled with relatives; and she is hoping, for once, to have a relatively peaceful Christmas.

But that is not to be. One of the projects involved helping Harvey Dunlop (aka Harvey the Hoarder) declutter and de-hoard his home. Harvey’s neighbors loathe him because of his hoarding tendencies (the town has already helped him declutter his yard to mollify his neighbors), and naturally he is suspicious of the de-hoard assistance he is being offered at first, but with so many people willing to chip in and help out–with Meg there to assure him that the purpose isn’t to get rid of everything, but to help him sort and decide what to keep, as well as moving it all out so the house can get some much-needed repairs, Harvey begins to slowly come around. It would be easy to make Harvey the butt of many jokes here, and a lesser writer would probably do so. However, Andrews completely humanizes Harvey, and as we the reader get to know him better, understand his loneliness and sadness and how the hoarding has so completely overwhelmed him…we can’t help but root for him. The lovely people of Caerphilly even throw an impromptu holiday party for Harvey in the warehouse his things are being stored in (honestly, my bitter old cynical self would love to live in this marvelous lovely town full of kind, caring people who look out for everyone), and Harvey actually begins to come out of his shell, has a lovely evening, and everything is look up for him…

..until later that night when he is brutally attacked, and later dies in the hospital.

This was, for me, a complete and total shock. I had suspected that Harvey–with his hateful neighbors and even more hateful relatives–was going to be the murder victim at the heart of this story, but kept hoping he would be the suspect whom Meg would have to clear instead, and as the book progressed and I came to like him as a character more and more, finding so much joy in the way everyone in Caerphilly was working with him to make his life better and the way he was responding to the kindnesses he was being shown, it was a horrible shock to me…which, of course, is yet another testament to Andrews’ gifts as a novelist. I mean, I was seriously upset that he was murdered.

So upset, in fact, that I grimly looked forward to the murderer being caught and thinking of the most horrible ways for them to be punished, and as I kept reading to find out who this monstrous villain was, I was actually angry and outraged and was certain that whatever their fate might be, it wouldn’t be horrible and gruesome enough to satisfy the bloodlust I was feeling.

But this is Caerphilly, and Donna Andrews, and a Christmas book. There are some major twists along the way to the final denouement, and as always, there was a most satisfying conclusion to the mystery and the book, which enabled me to close it with a happy sigh, again reminded of what the season is truly about, and wishing the world was more like the fictional one that exists in this magical series.

It’s So Easy

I honestly don’t know how I used to survive long drives without audiobooks.

I used to worry about listening to audiobooks on those long drives, primarily out of worry that I would get so absorbed in what I was listening to that I would lose track of what I was doing (when one is easily distracted–hello, ADHD! how’s the wife and kids?–one tends to avoid things that might be distracting) and that isn’t good when you are hurtling along a highway at speeds between sixty and eighty miles-per-hour. This is why I have massively long playlists on my phone (both in iTunes and Spotify); they were created so I would have music to entertain me on these lengthy drives. But while music can make the time pass more quickly, audiobooks make it seem to fly past. It doesn’t distract me to listen to a book being read (I’ve always hated being read to, another reason I avoided them for as long as I have); if anything, sometimes I miss things in the book when I am having to pay attention to something on the road (like construction or heavy traffic) but have found I don’t lose the thread of what I am listening to; my subconscious is still listening and and so I don’t lose my place–which does happen with an actual book, and I have to sometimes go back and reread parts when I get lost.

But…never happens when I am reading Donna Andrews.

“I think they’re plotting to bump off Terence today,” Michael said.

“Bump him off?” I echoed. “Not for real, I assume.”

“Don’t get your hopes up. Bump off his character. In the Game.”

“I could love with them bumping him off for real,” I said. “Just as long as they pick a time when we both have alibis.”

Michael chuckled. No doubt he thought I was kidding. Of the two dozen actors, musicians, and acrobats my husband had recruited to perform at the Riverton Renaissance Faire, Terence was my least favorite by a mile. He was rude, selfish, greedy, lecherous, and just plain obnoxious. Unfortunately, he was also an intergral part of what we’d come to call “the Game”–the ongoing semi-improvisational entertainment that had become so popular with visitors to the Faire.

“Most Renaissance fairs just replay the story of Henry the Eighth and one or another of his wives,” MIchael had said when he’d explained the idea to my grandmother Cordelia, the Riverton Faire’ss owner and organizer. “Or Queen Elizabeth beheading Essex. What I have in mind is something much more exciting. We have this fictitious kingdom, and all the actors belong to one or another of the factions fighting to control it, and they plot and scheme and duel and seduce and betray each other. And they do it loudly and publicly at regularly intervals all day long, in period costume and elegant Shakespearean prose.”

As I have undoubtedly made very clear on this blog over the years, I love Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series. It’s one of my happy places; revisiting Caerphilly (or wherever she has sent the cast of this delightful series) is like watching Ted Lasso or Schitt’s Creek; I know I am going to put the book down with a satisfied smile upon completion, be in a very good mood, and just be happy and content with life in general. That’s a real gift, as a reader, and one I am very grateful to receive. I do worry, however, as I get closer to being caught up with this marvelous series that once I am, that there will be a tinge of sadness when I finish the most recent release, akin to when I get to the end of a season of Ted Lasso–sad that there’s not another one to read, but happy to know that there will inevitably be two dropping within months of each other. (While I can completely understand the stress and hard work involved in producing two such lovely and intricately plotted novels per year–those subplots! All the regular supporting cast! The history of a series going on so long!–I am quite happy that Ms. Andrews has such a dedicated work ethic.)

When I saw this was set at a Renaissance Fair, my heart leapt with joy. Andrews positively excels at writing books set at events and/or conferences (the one set at a fan convention for the fantasy series Meg’s husband starred in is a particular favorite, as is the one set at a Battle of Yorktown reenactment), and the fact that the RenFair is being held at, and hosted by, Meg’s grandmother Cordelia (who first turned up in another favorite, The Good the Bad and the Emus–well, they’re all favorites, really) made it even more joyous for me. I love the relationship between Cordelia and Meg’s grandfather, Dr. Blake–as well as their relationship with their joint son, Meg’s father. The ins-and-outs of a RenFair are of particular interest, particularly since this one has a story running through it, known by participants as ‘The Game’; hired actors playing parts, acting out the struggle over who will succeed Good Queen Cordelia (played by Meg’s grandmother, natch) on the throne of Albion? Costumes and swords, duels and jousting, crafts and mead and underhanded skullduggery!

And the skullduggery doesn’t stop at the Game, either.

The book, as all Andrews novels, is an absolute delight. Her wit makes me laugh out loud–I am sure any number of highway drivers on I-75 or I-59, glancing over at me as we drove along, were curious (or concerned) as I occasionally would burst out laughing as I listened. I resented having to stop for gas or a bathroom break, or to get something to eat–scarfing down food as quickly as I could so I could get back to the car and get the audio going yet again. (I am certain the pleasure of listening to this book had something to do with the trip home being an hour shorter than the trip up) The only complaint I could possibly have with this book (any of hers, really) is that I want more of it, more of the regular cast…I would absolutely read a book about them even if there were no mystery involved at all. But Andrews always delivers a solid mystery to go along with the delightful characters she creates–and she also often slips in some social commentary so slyly and sneakily that unless you’re attuned to looking for it, you might miss it.

The afore-mentioned Terence is the villain of this piece, as one might well expect from that witty opening quoted above. An egomaniacal actor in the grips of a severe case of narcissism, he’s not nearly as witty and talented and attractive as he thinks he is, and his constant practical jokes on other cast members–or attempts to add new subplots to the Game, naturally involving his own character–are looked at askance by the others; fortunately, Meg and her grandmother are quick-witted enough, along with Michael, to improvise on the spot and divert the story back to where it should be.

A particularly funny bit involves Dr. Blake, her grandfather, and why he shows up at the RenFair: a noted ornithologist and environmentalist (with a particular liking for birds of prey), he shows up with a cage of wrens…thinking it’s WrenFest (a throwback to the previous book in the series, which featured OwlFest). They find him a wizard’s costume and staff, and he takes to the role with relish, which leads to even funnier scenes.

But one an early morning owling expedition, our intrepid cast stumbles over a dead body in the woods…but no worries. Meg is on the case, and manages, with wit, style and verve, to untangle the various subplots and motives and machinations of the various suspects to eventually unmask the killer…which leads to a hilarious, if dangerous, confrontation in which she saves the day.

And resolve all the various problems of everyone in the book.

I actually had about five minutes of the book left when I pulled up in front of my house–and despite being incredibly glad and grateful to finally be home after eleven hours in the car…I stayed in the car to finish listening.

I cannot think of any higher praise than that.

All I Want for Christmas

I love prolific writers, but keeping up with their canon when you have very little time to spare on actually reading for pleasure can be difficult. I somehow managed to fall years behind on one of my favorite series–the Meg Langslow mysteries by Donna Andrews–right around the time she started producing two books per year (a regular mystery and one centered on Christmas–hello, Hallmark? This series is perfect for you), which made it even harder to catch up. I did manage to read two this past week (well, I listened to one in the car on the way home, which made the drive a delightful experience), and yes, both were marvelous as always.

“Hoo! Woo-hoo HOO!…HOO! Woo-hoo HOO!”

The gray-haired couple standing at the tinsel-decked front desk of the Caerphilly Inn started slightly, and glanced over their shoulders in the direction of the hooting.

“That’s just the ornithologists again, Mr. Ackley.” Sami, the desk clerk, had probably been hired for his soothing voice. “Having their conference here, you know. Owl Fest.”

“They haven’t brought in live owls, have they?” Mrs. Ackley’s face was anxious. “Surely the hotel wouldn’t allow them to do that.”

“Jane’s terrified of birds.” The man put a protective arm around his wife’s shoulder.

“Of course not!” Sami managed to look shocked at the mere suggestion. “That would be completely against the Caerphilly Inn’s policies.”

Which is why we’d been confiscating all the live owls various ornithologists kept bringing into the conference, and taking them a few miles down the road to temporary headquarters at the Caerphilly Zoo. The owls, that is, not the ornithologists–although I’d been tempted. Two screech owls, a barn owl, and a northern saw-whet owl so far.

Christmas is hard to write about, really. My favorite quote from All About Eve isn’t nearly as famous as the ones everyone quotes regularly–“I detest cheap sentiment”–and I’ve tried to keep that quote in the forefront of my mind when I am writing. That isn’t to say that cheap sentiment doesn’t have its place in entertainment; there’s comfort to be found in works that can sometimes be cloyingly sentimental. For me, I define cheap sentiment as unearned; not coming from the honest emotions of the characters based on circumstance and situations and interactions, but rather from homilies: blood is thicker than water, family above all else, etc. I’ve always wanted to write about Christmas, but it’s a minefield when it comes to sentiment. I myself have written short stories about/around Christmas, but they seemed trite, cloying, and cheaply sentimental, with “all’s well that ends well” ending because, well, it’s Christmas. Everything is supposed to work out in the end because it’s Christmas, right? Clarence gets his wings, bullied Rudolph becomes a hero, etc. etc. I tried to avoid that with my own entry into Christmas crime writing, Royal Street Reveillon, and am not entirely certain I succeeded. Yes, the guilty were punished, but like Die Hard, it wouldn’t have to be the holiday season for the story to work. (This is why I fall on the side of “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie” because Christmas wasn’t integral to the story; it could have been Thanksgiving or the middle of the summer and still worked.)

And yet, Donna Andrews manages to write a new Christmas murder mystery that leaves you feeling contented, satisfied, and enormously happy when you close the book after reading the last line–and Owl Be Home from Christmas is yet another gold standard work from the master.

The premise of this one is that Meg’s grandfather, wildlife expert and activist Dr. Blake, is hosting OwlFest at the Caerphilly Inn, and of course, his assistant Nigel is off for the holidays to visit family so the onerous task of keeping the conference running smoothly, and solving problems, falls to Meg, who has moved herself, husband Michael, and their twins (Josh and Jamie*) to one of the guest cottages on the property. Christmas is looming on the horizon, and a polar vortex has descended on Virginia from Canada, creating a blizzard that has everyone trapped at the Inn. In fact, the storm has cancelled flights up and down the eastern seaboard, and Caerphilly is woefully unprepared for a storm of this magnitude, with the city’s two snowplows stranded in snowbanks. Meg, as always, makes the best of every situation, and with the help of the impressively efficient Inn manager, Ekaterina, tries to make the situation of being stranded at the Inn as comfortable and fun for the conference attendees as possible.

Naturally, there are some difficult attendees who Meg would love to righteously smite–and certainly deserve said smiting–and when the obnoxious and well-hated villain of the book, Dr. Frogmore, drops dead at the conference banquet, there’s a plethora of suspects…and with the Inn cut off from civilization by the blizzard, obviously the killer is someone on site.

Meg and her intrepid family and friends now have to find the killer–while still keeping the conference running smoothly and continuing with plans to keep the stranded guests entertained and happy; making the best of a bad situation, which Meg is fantastic at doing.

I loved this book. Andrews has somehow managed to keep a series running for over thirty books without dropping a stitch. While other series tend to run dry (my own Chanse series, for example, and I regularly worry about Scotty doing the same), somehow she manages to keep her enormous supporting cast involved and memorable (I deeply appreciate the three-dimensional lives of the supporting cast, and she is expert at deciding which ones to highlight in each book; Rose Noire is becoming a favorite), and I don’t think there’s a single book in this series where I’ve not laughed out loud multiple times while reading. Caerphilly is a charming place, and every time I go back to visit–even if the cast isn’t in Caerphilly in the book–I always am a bit melancholy when I finish and have to face the real world again.

And she has managed to write all these Christmas books with heart, compassion, and love–and isn’t that what Christmas is really all about?

Masterful. Andrews is a gift the crime fiction community should cherish.

*More Josh and Jamie, please.

Freedom

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…

Happily, I made it through my first Monday back at work. Usually, I tend to take the day after I travel off from work–so if I fly home on Sunday I don’t work on Monday, so I can get acclimated and readjusted to being home–laundry, make groceries, get the mail, etc.–and usually I am exhausted from traveling so I need to sleep in a bit as well. But…yesterday somehow I managed to get up with the alarm, make some coffee, and got my shit together and wasn’t even the least bit grumpy about it. I was a bit tired–the legs especially; I walked a shit ton last week–but I made it through the day without incident and managed to run some errands on the way home. I had considered making a trip to the gym last night but decided it made more sense to go after work tonight–I know, I know, excuses to fail instead of reasons to succeed, but hey, I took a four hour flight yesterday, had to navigate two airports and so forth, not to mention the horrors of I-10 East through the burbs and into the city–no small feat. But I also started feeling low energy around three yesterday afternoon (nothing new; that’s when it usually hits me right between the eyes with a 2 x 4) so it wasn’t travel related at all, but was enough to make me rethink my gym strategy.

Ironically, once I get readjusted to my schedule, I’m off to Kentucky for Thanksgiving.

Which is not an excuse to not go to the gym this week.

The realization that Murder the Indigenous People Day looms on the horizon is also forcing me to rethink my grocery shopping necessities; I really don’t need to be buying anything perishable, and I need to make sure Paul is all stocked up with things he can easily prepare for himself (although he’ll inevitably simply end up eating out the entire time); but I have this weekend to worry about all of that and get it handled. I made significant progress yesterday on getting caught up on everything–still horribly behind on everything, of course–but at least I feel like I’m getting somewhere, and I don’t feel as terribly stressed out about being so far behind, which is also progress of a sort. I do want to get back to reading Barbara Ross’ delightful Shucked Away, which I started reading on the plane home Sunday, and I think next up will be another Leslie Budewitz; I loved the first in her wonderful Spice Shop series, but haven’t managed to get back to it yet, and of course, after Thanksgiving is the best time to read the next up in Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series, Owl Be Home for Christmas–it would actually be kind of great to have an entire season of Christmas books to read, wouldn’t it, and Andrews does one every year, which is also kind of marvelous as well, but I don’t want to read the books out of order.

I also began piecing together and outlining an article I am writing for Crime Reads to help promote the Kansas book when it’s released–I got the hook finally over the weekend at Crime Bake, for which I will always be grateful to that conference, and the New England chapters of MWA and Sisters in Crime–and that definitely counts as writing (I never count the blog as writing, despite the fact that every entry is more than five hundred words and sometimes even longer), so I am getting back into that saddle, which feels really great. I also managed to finish the laundry last night, emptied a load from the dishwasher so I could reload it, and got some filing and organizing done around the Lost Apartment so my desk area isn’t quite as disheveled and scattered as it was when I got home Sunday night. I still have to finish my blog posts on Invisible City by Julia Dahl and Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier (if you haven’t read them, Constant Reader, you really need to get on with it! Don’t wait as long as I did, which was a huge mistake), and I also want to get some boxes prepared to clear out some more books for the library sale. I think Saturday I am going to drag a box down from the attic to dispose of as well; might as well get that project started–because the attic is definitely not ever going to clean itself out at any point in time.

We watched the recent episode of Dopesick last night, and the acting is truly superb; the entire show has been extremely well done and well-written; everyone in the cast should be tapped for an Emmy nomination; the young woman who plays Bets, the lesbian mine worker who gets hooked after a back injury is particularly fantastic, as is Mare Winningham and Michael Keaton. Rosario Dawson is no slouch, either, and if there was ever an oilier, slimier villain–the actor playing Richard Sackler is Bond-villain worthy. We’ll probably get caught up on our other shows the rest of this week–The Sinner, The Morning Show–and there’s some other shows I want to watch as well; I really do need to start making a list. I also want to get back to Chapelwaite, which I don’t think Paul was enjoying as much as I did; we’ll have to have a chat about that tonight when we both get home from the gym.

Yes, I am planning on going to the gym tonight. We’ll see how that turns out, won’t we?

And on that note, I am going to head into the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader. I know I intend to.

Up To My Neck In Muddy Water

There seems to be a trend–at least to me–in mystery publishing that I am not sure how I feel about; primarily, that authors are moving away from writing series and going the stand alone route. Far be it from me to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t write–if the market is stand alone novels are flying off the shelves while series books aren’t quite as popular, well, you have to write what is selling if you want to have a career; writing may be an art form, but publishing is a business. Why this is happening–or it’s entirely happening inside my brain and it’s completely made up from observations–is up for debate. I know with me, while I love discovering a new-to-me author and steadily working my way through their backlist is a joy, I also understand that you can look at an author’s backlist and think to yourself, oh dear God I will never have the time to read all of those books so why even try?

In my case, a great example of this is Michael Connelly. I had never read him, but a few years ago I read his debut Bosch novel, The Black Echo, and absolutely loved it. Yay! I thought. A new-to-me author with an extensive backlist I can dive into without fear of ever running out of something new to read! I had the same reaction when I read Louise Penny’s first Gamache novel, Still Life.

And yet here I sit, several years later, having not read anything else either of them have written. This isn’t a dis of either Connelly or Penny, for the record; I loved both books and sang their praises to the skies here on this blog when I finished reading them. I have the next two books in the Bosch series on hand, and I have the next four Penny novels here as well. I’m not sure why I don’t ever think to pick up their next novels when I am in search of my next read through the endless stacks and stacks of my TBR pile, but I do think it has something to do with the extant of the enormous backlists by both–and of course new books are coming out daily, and on and on and so it goes, forever and ever, amen.

I have also fallen behind on reading one of my favorite series of all time, Donna Andrews’ marvelous Meg Langslow series. Addictive as oxycontin, clever and witty and charming, I absolutely love these books. Caerphilly, where Meg and her cast of colorful, unique and lovable characters, made up of friends and family, is kind of like Schitt’s Creek to me; a charming, wonderful place with an underlying level and degree of kindness that always shines through in a believable and realistic way that you cannot help but love to go back to; it really does feel like coming home when you open the book to page one and start reading.

“Do you really think there’s room for all this luggage on the boat?”

“Ship,” I corrected. “I know it’s only a cruise ship, but I understand it demoralizes the crew when you call it a boat. And don’t worry, the porters will handle everything.”

Trevor Ponsonby-West sighed and looked put-upon. Well, he was put-upon. Being put-open was more or less his job. He was my grandfather’s personal assistant, which meant Grandfather delegated to him anything he didn’t want to bother with himself and couldn’t cajole his friends or family to do. Trevor’s job was demanding under normal circumstances and almost overwhelming when Grandfather traveled. And he traveled a lot. After all, even though he was now in his nineties, the world still expected to see Dr. J. Montgomery Blake rescuing endangered species, leading environmental protests, and appearing in the nature documentaries that had become such a staple on television channels like National Geographic and Animal Planet.

Trevor did a great job of getting Grandfather where he had to go, when he was supposed to be there, and equipped with whatever he needed to bring. If only he could do it without quite so much sighing.

What I wouldn’t give to write such a clever, witty, put-the-reader-right-into-the-middle-of-the-story opening for one of my books!

Meg and company are about to embark on a cruise–her grandfather is being paid to give lectures on board–but the cruise company is a smaller, less-famous one; one that isn’t an enormous floating hotel with thousands packed on board. Much of the regular cast–including her parents, cousin Horace the CSI, brother Rob and fiancee Delaney, cousin Rose Noire, husband and twin sons–are coming along for the cruise to Bermuda and back (it really wouldn’t be a Meg novel without the rest of the cast). And of course, whenever the lovably eccentric Langslow family goes or does anything…murder is sure to spring up along the way.

Sure enough, the arrival of a Diva at the pier, named Desiree St. Christophe, arrives in her Christian Laboutin stilettos, and all the pieces are in place. Desiree is a very successful romance novelist–early success, faded away, made a massive comeback–and there’s another group of writers also on board–who all hate her and blame her for the death of one of their group, a writer who’d been struggling with block for years, but had finally come up with a surefire winning manuscript (complete with bids from several publishers) before Desiree claimed she’d stolen one of Desiree’s manuscripts. The publishers withdrew their offers, her agent dropped her, and drowning in debt from a terrible divorce, their friend Nancy committed suicide. Desiree isn’t likable–demanding, unfriendly, and always drunk. On their first night at sea, Desiree apparently jumps overboard in a suicide…but it doesn’t make sense, and Meg and her mystery novel fan father soon think there may be foul play. The ship also becomes stranded out in the middle of the ocean, Trevor (from the opening paragraphs) appears to be missing, and the cruise quickly becomes one of those horrific Cruises from Hell.

But no one is more adept than Meg in a crisis!

The book is charming and wonderfully, cleverly written–there were times when I laughed out loud–as are all of the books in this marvelous series. The plotting is also terrific; I had no idea what skullduggery was going on, until Meg’s intrepid investigation starts uncovering clues and links in the chain of a diabolical conspiracy, and right up to the very end I had no idea who was responsible for all the things going on aboard the ship; which is the mark of a truly great mystery writer.

I can never stop reading once I’ve started reading a Meg adventure (misadventure?) and if you’ve not read this series, and it’s length (this is book 25) concerns you–you needn’t worry. You don’t have to start at the beginning (Murder with Peacocks), but can pick it up in the middle (I actually mistakenly started with book two)…but this is a series you absolutely should read from the beginning, because they are all a lot of fun, clever, charming, and like Schitt’s Creek, a lovely, wonderful world of love and kindness you’ll want to escape into over and over.

Mary Mary

I have always loved strong female characters, having cut my reading teeth on Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Vicki Barr, the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, and Cherry Ames, just to name a few. As an adult reader of mysteries, two of my favorite series are Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series (simply the best) and Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series (also a gem of a series); primarily because I love the characters of Amelia and Meg both so very much. They are both fiercely intelligent women with a very dry sense of humor, and are the kind of strong women that everyone around them comes to depend on for support–and droll wit. The death of Dr. Barbara Mertz (who wrote as Peters AND as Barbara Michaels) ended the Peabody series forever, much to my heartbreak; the Meg Langslow series is going strong still, so I am hopeful that I will have years and years of reading pleasure yet to come from Donna.

And then, last year I discovered Mary Russell.

The envelope slapped down onto the desk ten inches from my much-abused eyes, instantly obscuring the black lines of Hebrew letters that had begun to quiver an hour before. With the shock of the sudden change, my vision stuttered, attempted a valiant rally, then slid into complete rebellion and would not focus at all.

I leant back into my chair with an ill-stifled groan, peeled my wire-rimmed spectacles from my ears and dropped tjem onto the stack of notes, and sat for a long minute with the heels of both hands pressed into my eye sockets.

I was already a fan of Laurie R. King from her brilliant Kate Martinelli series, about a lesbian police detective. (If you’ve not read that series, you need to–it’s one of the best of the last thirty years.) I was reluctant to read the Mary Russell series, as Constant Reader may remember from my previous posts about earlier books in this series; for any number of reasons, but primarily not ever really getting into the Sherlock Holmes/Conan Doyle stories. This shifted and changed when I was asked to contribute a Sherlock story to Narrelle Harris’ The Only One in the World anthology; this required me to go back and do some reading of Doyle, and having worked with Laurie R. King on the MWA board, I decided to give her feminist take on Sherlock a go.

And I have not regretted that decision once.

Mary has stepped up to replace Amelia Peabody as one of my favorite on-going series; I love the character–a strong-minded, fiercely independent woman of no small intelligence who is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Mr. Holmes. Theirs is, despite the age difference, a true partnership of equals; I love that Holmes, in King’s interpretation of him, isn’t quite so misogynistic or incapable of feeling–which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a male-written version. I like King’s Holmes; the strong female character who is his equal was the perfect solution to whatever misogynistic issues I may have had with other interpretations. I also love that Russell is also pursuing a life of the mind; her studies into theology at Oxford are not just asides to add color and flavor to the character but are just as important to whom she is as a character as the love interest/relationship with Holmes. As I also have an amateur’s curiosity into the history of Christianity and how the faith changed and developed throughout the centuries following the New Testament stories…how that was shaped and influenced by men with not the purest of motives…is something I’ve always been interested in.

I think the first book that challenged Christian orthodoxy in a fictional form that I read–the first time I became aware of the possibilities that the BIble wasn’t actually the pure word of God and had been edited and revised repeatedly in the centuries since Christ ostensibly lived, died and was resurrected–was, of all things, a book by Irving Wallace called The Word (Wallace isn’t really remembered much today, but he wrote enormous books of great length that were huge bestsellers, and the subject matter and style of the books was essentially that they were very bery long thrillers: The Prize was about the maneuvering to win a Nobel; The Plot was about an international conspiracy to kill JFK; The Second Lady was about a Soviet plan to kidnap the First Lady and replace her with a lookalike who was a Soviet agent; etc etc etc). The premise of The Word is simply that a new testament, a document hidden away for centuries in a monastery in Greece, claims that not only did Jesus not die on the cross but went on to live for many decades, preaching his own ministry and even visiting Rome. This, of course, is a cataclysmic document–it would change everything everyone had ever known and believed…if it is indeed authentic.

I’ve always loved a good thriller with a base in theology, ever since; and A Letter of Mary is just that, even if more of a mystery than a thriller. The role of Mary Magdalen has been questioned a lot in the last few decades–not the least reason of which is Holy Blood Holy Grail–an interesting concept if one that has been proven to based in a falsehood in the times since (or was THAT part of the Vatican’s plot?)–which inevitably led to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I don’t find the idea that the Magdalen was a beloved disciple of Jesus–and that she may have been his favorite–a reach; likewise, there’s nothing I’ve ever seen in the actual New Testament that essentially says she was a prostitute, a “fallen woman.”

This book begins with Russell despairing over her research only to receive a letter that she and Holmes are going to be receiving a visitor–someone they met during their time in the Holy Land some time earlier–glossed over in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice but apparently explored more deeply in O Jerusalem! The visitor, an older heiress of no small means who is fascinated with archaeology and has been funding digs in the Holy Land, presents the pair with a gift as well as an ancient letter, unauthenticated, which is ostensibly a letter from Mary Magdalen some years after the death of Christ, written to a sister as the city of Jerusalem falls under seige by the Romans during the Jewish Wars, around 70 AD, that saw the sack of the city and the start of the diaspora; which makes it very clear that, if authentic, the Magdalen was one of the disciples and heavily involved in the ministry of the Christian church. Their guest returns to London, and is killed when she is stuck by a car the following day. Holmes and Russell sniff around the crime scene and find evidence that the old woman was murdered…but by whom? Why? Is this about the letter from Mary?

King always tells a great story–you never can go wrong with one of her books, really–and the characters are so well-defined, so real, that even if she didn’t tell a great story, you want to read about those characters more, get to know them better, and cheer them on to their successes and sympathize with their failures. Her writing style is also a joy to read; the Mary Russell voice is so different and so clearly distinct from Kate Martinelli that you can’t not marvel at her mastery.

The next book in the series is The Moor, and I am really looking forward to it.

Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)

I am the first to admit that I am a crime writer who was always kind of meh about Sherlock Holmes. I read some of the novels and some of the stories when I was in junior high, and while I enjoyed them somewhat, I was never particularly driven to go on to read the rest. I did read the Nicholas Meyer pastiches in the 1970’s–The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution, The West End Horror–but was never particularly driven to go back to Doyle. I never actually went back to Doyle (until recently; bear with me) but Holmes is so ubiquitous, so part of the crime fiction zeitgeist that it was impossible not to be aware of him and iconic parts of his canon, even the ones I’d not read–Irene Adler, Professor Moriarty, Mary who married Watson–and of course, like many others, I’ve watched a great deal of the Holmes film canon, including Young Sherlock Holmes, and am a big an of the Benedict Cumberbatch interpretation; we even watched the first few seasons of the Americanized Holmes, Elementary. But for the most part I’ve avoided pastiches and the originals, with the exception of a story here and there by one of the modern-day aficionados who worship at the altar of Sherlock.

I have always known that my lack of Sherlockian knowledge was perhaps detrimental to my career as a crime writer. Several years ago, I managed to find a gloriously beautiful hardbound edition of the Baring-Gould The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and I have periodically dipped into it; no more so than when I was tasked to write my own Sherlock story, which became “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy.” Writing the story, putting my own interpretation on someone else’s characters and breathing life into them to try to make them engaging and new while respecting the originals was quite a challenge for me, one at many times I felt I was not equal to bringing to fruition. The story was written and then revised with editorial input, which made the story much stronger (in my opinion) than how I’d originally envisioned it, and it also unlocked potential in my creative brain: I want to, and plan to, return to the New Orleans of 1916 that I created for iteration, and even see how some other historic stories about New Orleans could easily fit into my Sherlock world, could prove to be cases for the great brain residing at 821 B Royal Street in the French Quarter.

I also decided that reading Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series was long overdue.

And seriously, what a treat it was.

Dear Reader,

As both I and the century approach the beginnings of our ninth decades, I have been forced to admit that age is not always a desirable state. The physical, of course, contributes its own flavour to life, but the most vexing problem I have found is that my past, intensely real to me, has begun to fade into the mists of history in the eyes of those around me. The First World War has deteriorated into a handful of quaint songs and sepia images, occasionally powerful but immeasurably distant; there is death in that war, but no blood. The twenties have become a caricature, the clothing we wore is now in museums, and those of us who remember the beginnings of this godforsaken century are beginning to falter. With us will go our memories.

I do not remember when I first realized that the flesh-and-blood Sherlock Holmes I knew so well was to the rest of the world merely a figment of an out-of-work medical doctor’s powerful imagination. What I do remember is how the realisation took my breath away, and how for several days my own self-awareness became slightly detached, tenuous, as if I too were in the process of transmuting into fiction, by contagion with Holmes. My sense of humour provided the pinch that woke me, but it was a very peculiar sensation while it lasted.

Now, the process has become complete: Watson’s stories, those feeble evocations of the compelling personality we both knew, have taken on a life of their own, and the living creature of Sherlock Holmes has become ethereal, dreamy. Fictional.

I first discovered Laurie R. King’s work with her Kate Martinelli series; I received a review copy of Night Work when I was editor of Lambda Book Report. I wasn’t familiar with the series, which caught me off guard–how did I not know about a crime series with a lesbian police detective as the protagonist?–and the book itself caught me completely off-guard. It was brilliant, so strongly written and the characters so real I was quite literally shocked to find out, many years later, that King was not herself a lesbian. I went back and read the entire series, loved each one, and was saddened when King ended the series with Book 5, moving on to a new series with Mary Russell–a series so completely different and disparate from the Martinelli series I didn’t see how it could work…and then add in the fact that it was actually a Holmes pastiche, and well, I wasn’t terribly interested.

It was sometime during the past year while working alongside King on the Mystery Writers of America board of directors (I will never get used to the big names I rub elbows with through my years of volunteering with MWA), and in the wake of my own Sherlockian writing experience, I thought, you love and admire her as a writer AND as a person, you should read her Mary Russell series.

It was quite literally one of the smartest decisions I have ever made.

I finished reading Book One of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and as you can see from the above paragraphs, immediately I was immersed in the story. The voice, the style, everything about the character and the story was as far removed from the more hard-boiled, gritty Martinelli series, but the intelligence and warmth and humor was still there–only in a completely different manne, a completely different way. You could read a Kate book and then a Mary and easily believe it was two different authors, they are so different. This is genius, by the way; the ability to create such completely different worlds, completely different characters, completely different voices? And I was riveted by Mary Russell. By the end of the first chapter I was crazy about her–she reminds me of two of my favorite female series characters of all time, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody and Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow–and her warmth and intelligence and humor…she was more than a match for Holmes, and by seeing Holmes through the eyes of an intelligent, independent woman rather than an admiring doctor also helped greater humanize Holmes himself, something I never got from the Doyle works (but that could also entirely be my own failing; I am going to leisurely revisit Doyle this year methinks), and I also found myself caring about them deeply–not just about the case, but about them as people.

So, if you’re avoiding this series because you aren’t a Sherlockian, you’re being ridiculous because you can have no knowledge of Holmes whatsoever to enjoy this, and I can’t see how you can’t enjoy this if you are a Sherlockian. This is a version of Holmes that deserves to be shared on a screen–television or theater, it doesn’t matter–and I can also see any number of today’s younger actresses playing this role. And while I have only seen the television adaptation of The Alienist, but the young female detective played so brilliantly by Dakota Fanning, Sara Howard, seems to also have a lot in common with Mary Russell.

I cannot wait to read the next A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and not just because of that great title resonating with me (I’ve always wanted to write a history of the 16th century by exploring the many powerful regnant women, pilfering that title from the John Knox tract denouncing the most ‘unChristian’ fact of so many powerful women on the scene at the same time).

Color me a big fan!