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!

Victory

And wasn’t yesterday’s entry boring as fuck? I should think at this point that it’s pretty clear, Constant Reader, that I don’t utilize this blog the way one is supposed to when one is a writer: as a conduit to convince readers to buy my books. I think I’ve done an excellent job over the years of proving that I, without question, have no idea how to sell books or how to make my work sound appealing enough for people to want to read, let alone buy.

I really suck at promoting myself. But to give myself credit, I never once believed “social media” would sell books, and from everything I’ve been reading lately, I was right. But it can make loyal readers aware you have something new coming out, and since the gay and lesbian bookstores are long gone…yeah, I’ve literally got nothing when it comes to reaching out and finding new readers, or reconnecting with old ones. I tried the newsletter thing way back in the days of my first website, but was always a little shocked whenever I’d send one out and people would ask to be removed…I was always a little, Why did you sign up in the first place? I never simply added people to my newsletter; you literally had to fill out a form to get on the list…and after a little while it was kind of depressing, so I gave up on the newsletter thing. It’s not like I’m that fascinating, anyway.

I do applaud those who do one, though.

It’s Christmas season already–according to some merchants, it has been since September–and of course, I’m a bit of a sucker for the Christmas season. I’m not a sucker for Christmas displays in September, or endless playing of Christmas carols over and over again on the radio or in public spaces; and while I also understand the importance of Christmas to our (retail) economy, I tire very quickly of Christmas commercials on television–my personal favorite the ones where people gift each other CARS for Christmas, because really? I’m not a Christian anymore; I’ve been in recovery for nearly thirty years, but the “reason for the season” has been forgotten by almost everyone else in the clamor for dollars and status and spend spend spend mentality of the holidays. The basic presumption behind Christmas–peace on earth and good will to all men–is a lovely one that I can certainly get behind; but Christmas has not only been commercialized it has also been politicized…because nothing says put the Christ back in Christmas like commercializing and politicizing the holiday that ostensibly celebrates the birth of Jesus. As always, I tire very quickly and easily of hypocrisy; and I tire of all the nonsense Christmas seems to trigger annually.

But I do like Christmas and the mentality behind it. I like the idea of a season to celebrate peace and love amongst all of humanity. I always wanted to write about Christmas; which is incredibly hard to do without giving into what I call ‘cheap sentimentality.’ I wrote a story a long time ago, my own attempt at writing a gay Christmas story because, frankly, there weren’t any that I was aware of, and it of course was terrible, absolutely terrible. It’s very difficult to come up with anything original about Christmas; but there’s also the possibility that the comfort of familiarity is what many enjoy about it. They enjoy watching the same films and television specials, listening to the same music recorded by the same artists, and follow the old traditions that transport them back to when they were children and the world seemed so much less complicated than it does as adults, and they want to give their kids that same comforting holiday experience they remember. I was quite mercenary as a child, and for me, for the longest time, Christmas was about the gifts I was going to get. As I got older, it gradually became more about the gifts I was giving as I began to understand the message more–and the message does seem to get lost all too frequently.

I also greatly appreciate the extra days off from work as well.

But I wanted to write about Christmas, as I said earlier. Early in my career I realized there weren’t many, if any, gay Christmas stories, so I decided to do an anthology of them, Upon a Midnight Clear, which was, I think, released in 2004. (My story, of course, turned out to be a horror tale, “The Snow Queen,” and I used a pseudonym.) I greatly enjoyed doing that anthology, and am still rather proud of it today. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to get when I asked writer friends to write a story for me; but all of the stories were inventive and new takes on Christmas, from a gay perspective.

Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series (which Constant Reader knows is one of my favorites) releases a Christmas mystery every year, and the way Andrews manages to turn out a highly original mystery every year centered on Christmas in Caerphilly is absolute genius. She never descends into cheap sentimentality, and yet manages to infuse the books with a healthy dose of the Christmas spirit each time. Caerphilly is one of my happy places; there’s no greater joy than spending some time there every year. I have already mentioned that Andrews kind of inspired me to write a Scotty book set during the Christmas season, and I am probably going to have to do another; the plot for this one was pretty much already set when I decided to have it take place in December, and so it kind of became a Christmas book by default….I will undoubtedly do another one at some point, one that is more centered on Christmas itself rather than just the season. I’d love to play with Christmas tropes and traditions a bit more–especially since Scotty and his parents are pagans.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely day, all.

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Casanova

It’s Thursday morning in New Orleans and all is well–or right–in the world; well, at least in mine. It was also chilly and my bed comfortable and warm; and as I was sleeping well for yet another night, I didn’t want to get up. But I have things to do this morning before I head into the office, and once I’ve had enough coffee to sharpen and get my brain under control, I shall accomplish these tasks before getting ready for work.

I managed to get some chores done when I got home from work yesterday, so the Lost Apartment’s kitchen is not a disaster this morning. I made mac-and-cheese again (I think this week’s is better than last week’s was, frankly) but used some of my training from McDonalds as a teenager to “clean as I go” and as such, when the mac-and-cheese went into the oven everything I’d used to make it was cleaned and in the dishwasher already. I don’t know why I don’t do this every time I cook; it’s so lovely to finish cooking and have all the dishes and bowls and so forth I used be clean already.

The lessons one learns from working in fast food as a teenager will hold you in good stead later in life, apparently.

My mind is not fully cognitive yet this morning, but the space heater is blowing lovely warm air on my legs and my coffee is delicious and it surely won’t be much longer before I am functional. Or so I hope, at any rate.

Then I’ll start cleaning out the email inbox. I kind of need cognitive abilities to answer them all, and won’t it be lovely to have an empty inbox? That’s always my goal, every morning and every week, and it’s been far too long since I unlocked that achievement.

It also occurred to me–sometime late in November–that I should use my December blog entries to write about my most recent book; focusing not only on my characters but also on New Orleans, Christmas, and Christmas in New Orleans, since the book is set during the Christmas season. And not to worry–I have lots of pictures of hot guys in Christmas-type attire to share along with those entries. So, yes, y’all, Royal Street Reveillon is an actual Christmas-in-New-Orleans book in which I resisted the urge to try to adapt a traditional Christmas story to both Scotty and New Orleans–although it was incredibly tempting and I might do that very thing later in my life and in the series. One of my favorite Christmas episodes of any television series was the very first Christmas episode of Moonlighting–anyone else remember the show that made Bruce Willis a star?–in which Blue Moon Detective Agency secretary Miss DiPesto found a baby in a manger at Christmas time. They played very heavily on Christmas stories and traditions to tell the story in that extremely brilliantly witty way the writers had in the first season or so of the show; those first two seasons are some of the best television ever written and filmed. I thought about trying to do something similar with Royal Street Reveillon, but I also wanted to get the Grande Dames of New Orleans story into the book, and there was simply no way to graft all the reality show stuff onto a Christmas tale; so the book wound up simply being set during Christmas.

The Scotty series, which was originally intended to simply be a stand-alone, and then merely a trilogy, was built around holidays to begin with; the first was during Southern Decadence, and when it became a trilogy I decided to use the trinity of gay holidays in New Orleans: Southern Decadence, Halloween, and Carnival. When Book 4 rolled around, I set it around Easter and had the book open with the Gay Easter Parade. Book 5 was built around New Orleans winning the Super Bowl; Book 6 was built around Mike the Tiger (LSU’s live tiger mascot) and Book 7 didn’t really have a holiday or anything truly local to build it around. I’ve always felt there was some separation between the first three books in the series and the four that followed; primarily because of the gay holiday associations with the first three.

I decided, when putting this one together, to set it during the Christmas season because Christmas in New Orleans doesn’t get as much play as other holidays (not here, I mean nationally; no one thinks of “Christmas” and “New Orleans” together), and I do love Christmas–some of it. I love the idea of Christmas and its message; I despise the unrelenting commercialism and the playing of carols in September and the Christmas stuff being stocked in stores before Halloween and don’t even get me started on the horrors of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and so forth. I did think I could possibly work some of that into the story, of course; but there was literally so much going on in the book that snark about commercializing Christmas wasn’t needed or necessary, even though it would have been fun.

And let’s be honest: Charles Schultz did it best with A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1966.

But I’ve enjoyed Donna Andrews’ Christmas mysteries in her Meg Langslow series so much that I thought I should give one a try. And the result was Royal Street Reveillon.

And now it’s Christmas season in New Orleans; football season is winding up, but I am hoping that after this weekend, I can take a Saturday afternoon to head down to the Quarter–or drive around the city–taking pictures of Christmas lights and decorations and so forth. New Orleans, as I said in the book, loves nothing more than holiday decorating, and it’s so dark here at night the Christmas lights look even more magnificent.

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

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Bridge over Troubled Water

Looks like we made it, Constant Reader; through another week of trials and tribulations and who knows what all, quite frankly. I woke up at six, but stayed in bed until just before eight, and feel obscenely well-rested, not tired at all; maybe a bit of a sleep hangover, but other than that, in tip-top shape for this lovely weekend. There’s condensation all over the windows around my workspace this morning; I suspect it rained over night and the air out there is probably warm and thick with water. It’s also not cold inside, which is a tip-off that it’s probably a lovely day outside. Paul is going to go into the office at some point today; I intend to go run some errands later as well as get some serious writing done. Conference championship football games are on television all day, but I really don’t care who wins any of them, if I’m going to be completely honest. The kitchen seems scattered and messy today, so does the living room, and of course, Paul is leaving for his winter visit to his family on this coming Wednesday, so I will have almost a full week of alone time.

I am, for December 1, disgustingly behind on everything; from Bury Me in Satin, stalled at Chapter Six, to finishing touches on both the Scotty book and the short story collection. I also need to proof read Jackson Square Jazz at some point so that can finally be available as an ebook; it never seems to end, does it? But I did somehow manage to tear through my to-do list this past week (other than anything writing/editing related that was on it) and I think now, finally, the day job is finally going to settle into a kind of routine schedule. I also picked up Bibliomysteries Volume I, edited by Otto Penzler, at the library yesterday, so I have a wealth of short stories to read. (I also still have all the volumes of anthologies and single author collections I was reading earlier in the year on the mantel in the living room; I should probably get back to those at some point as well.) I am probably going to keep The Short Story Project rolling into the new year; I do love short stories, and I keep finding more unread collections on my bookshelves.

I got some books in the mail yesterday; the two most recent Donna Andrews Meg Langslows, Toucan Keep a Secret and Lark! The Herald Angels Sing (which I wish I could read over the Christmas holidays; I love reading Donna’s Christmas books during the season but I doubt I’ll have time to read Toucan first; and yes, I have to read them in order DON’T JUDGE ME); two novels by Joan Didion, Democracy and The Last Thing He Wanted; two books by Robert Tallant, one fiction (The Voodoo Queen, an undoubtedly error-riddled and racist biographical novel about Marie Laveau) and one nonfiction (Ready to Hang: Seven Famous New Orleans Murders); the next volume of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, A Clash of Kings; and Hester Young’s follow-up to The Gates of Evangeline, The Shimmering Road. 

So, yes, my plate is rather full this weekend–but I shall also have plenty to do while Paul is gone. I am also thinking about buying the third and final season of Versailles on iTunes to watch. I will probably make an enormous list of all the things I want to get done while Paul is in Illinois and wind up doing none of them.

Heavy heaving sigh.

I also need to figure out his Christmas presents while he’s gone, so I can get them and have them all wrapped before he gets home.

And so now, ’tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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Here Comes the Rain Again

It started raining yesterday, and hasn’t really let up since; and it has brought a biting, bitter cold with it. As such I slept later than I intended to this morning–Wednesdays being one of the days I have the luxury of not needing to use an alarm–but nevertheless, I am not awake,, wearing sweats and swilling coffee.

I finished reading Donna Andrews’ delightful How the Finch Stole Christmas last evening, curled up in my easy chair under a blanket, and started reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Blunderer, which, as always with Highsmith, is enthralling. Highsmith is one of my favorite writers, but I’ve never read her entire oeuvre since there will never be new Highsmith novels to read; this way there’s always more of them I haven’t read yet (I have also done this with Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier); but after I finished the Andrews–which was an absolutely lovely comfort read–I wanted something a bit more biting and snide–and for that, you really can’t go wrong with Highsmith. The Blunderer is one of the novels curated by Sarah Weinman for the Library of America series about terrific women crime writers from the post-war era; Weinman’s ringing endorsement is one that simply should not be overlooked–she’s never wrong. I got several chapters into it last night before going to sleep, and am definitely looking forward to doing the same again this evening.

How the Finch Stole Christmas is a delight from start to finish, as are all of Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series.

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“Shakespeare was right. The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

“I wish I could hear you say that in person,” I said.

“Yeah, over the cell phone you miss all my dramatic gestures.” Michael’s voice sounded more exasperated than angry. And since I knew my husband wasn’t usually prejudiced against the legal profession, I was puzzled instead of worried.

“Are you someplace where you can talk?” he asked.

“I’m not at the theater, if that’s what you mean. Reverend Robyn wanted to see me about something. At the moment, I’m over at Trinity, sitting in her office, waiting for her to solve a Christmas pageant prop emergency, so until she comes back, I’m at your service.”

The other night, I watched All About Eve again for perhaps the thousandth time, with a young friend who’d never seen it before. One of my favorite lines in the film is not one that is quoted regularly; Karen and Margo are sitting in the car, out of gas on their way to the train to take Margo back into the city for the evening performance she is going to miss. Margo turns on the radio, and some maudlin orchestral music plays for a few moments, with the camera focused on Margo’s face, one eyebrow arched. She turns the radio off and says, “I detest cheap sentiment.”

One of my biggest issues with Christmas is precisely that; cheap sentiment. I used that quote as an epigram for my Christmas anthology Upon a Midnight Clear, because I didn’t want to publish stories that were emotionally manipulative, and the stories in the book weren’t. Christmas is nothing if not a holiday rife with cheap, manipulative sentiment, and many carols and shows and movies mine this territory to the point where by the actual day’s arrival, I am so completely over the holiday and the saccharine-sweetness that I am almost afraid to turn on the television.

Donna Andrews, as Constant Reader already knows, or should by now, is one of my favorite writers and her Meg Langslow series is also one of my favorites. This is the fourth Christmas book in the series (following Ducks the Halls, Six Geese a-Slayin’, and The Nightingale Before Christmas), each more charming than the last–which is no easy feat. Andrews’ ability to keep this series fresh with each successive volume–and witty–is the mark of a master. Meg loves Christmas; the charming Virginia hamlet of Caerphilly she calls home feels much the same way–to the point where it has turned into a Christmas tourist destination (in no small part due to Meg’s efforts).

This year, rather than having a staged reading of A Christmas Carol, starring Meg’s husband (a retired actor who now teaches at the local college, and also appeared on a television series that has remained a cult hit for decades), the town has decided to mount a full production,  starring Malcolm Haver, a has-been actor who also starred in a television series back in the 80’s, and has a small but devoted following, as Scrooge. Haver has a drinking problem, can’t remember his blocking and his lines, and is a little on the irascible side…but has an ironclad contract for run of the play. Meg and her friends have managed to ensure that no one in town will sell Haver alcohol–but he is still getting it somewhere; and that’s what kicks this clever whodunnit off.

As always, the charms of the town, the wonderful people that live there, and of course Meg’s own ability to face everything with a “how do I fix this” attitude and a clever line makes this a fine addition to the series, and as ever, all’s well that ends well in this Christmas visit to Caerphilly. A perfect read for the Christmas season.