The Letter

It sometimes catches me off-guard when it turns out a favorite movie was adapted from a short story or novel. Many of my favorite writers had their books turned into film more frequently than I think (or knew, or remembered); and more films were based on books and short stories than people remember or think. I knew, for example, that Now Voyager was a novel before a film; so were Stella Dallas, Flamingo Road, Laura, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and so forth. I also know W. Somerset Maugham had written Of Human Bondage (the film of which made Bette Davis a star) and the short story “Rain” (filmed with first Gloria Swanson and remade with Joan Crawford). I’d never read Maugham, but I know of his work; it was only recently, however, that I discovered that one of my favorite Bette Davis films, The Letter, was a Maugham short story he himself adapted into a play. Leslie Crosbie is one of Davis’ best performances, opening on a Malaysian rubber plantation with the sound of gunshots, as a man staggers down the front steps of a bungalow-style plantation house, with Bette Davis grimly following, gun in hand, and when he collapses onto the ground, she stands over him and fires four more bullets into his prone body at her feet. It’s an incredible opening, and a remarkable scene for Davis to play. The determination, the anger, the you so deserve worse than this look on her face–yes, she earned an Oscar nomination for that scene alone.

And once I knew (or was reminded; I may have known at one time it was a Maugham story and simply forgotten), I had to read the story.

The_Letter_poster

Outside on the quay the sun beat fiercely. A stream of motors, lorries and buses, private cars and hirelings, sped up and down the crowded thoroughfare, and every chauffeur blew his horn; rickshaws threaded their nimble path amid the throng, and the panting coolies found breath to yell at one another; coolies, carrying heavy bales, sidled along with their quick jog-trot and shouted to the passer-by to make way; itinerant vendors proclaimed their wares. Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones. But inside the office of Messrs. Ripley, Joyce and Naylor it was pleasantly cool; it was dark after the dusty glitter of the street and agreeably quiet after its unceasing din. Mr. Joyce sat in his private room, at the table, with an electric fan turned full on him. He was leaning back, his elbows on the arms of the chair, with the tips of the outstretched fingers of one hand resting neatly against the tips of the outstretched fingers of the other. His gaze rested on the battered volumes of the Law Reports which stood on a long shelf in front of him. On the top of a cupboard were square boxes of japanned tin, on which were painted the names of various clients.

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in.”

A Chinese clerk, very neat in his white ducks, opened it.

“Mr. Crosbie is here, sir.”

He spoke beautiful English, accenting each word with precision, and Mr. Joyce had often wondered at the extent of his vocabulary. Ong Chi Seng was a Cantonese, and he had studied law at Gray’s Inn. He was spending a year or two with Messrs. Ripley, Joyce and Naylor in order to prepare himself for practice on his own account. He was industrious, obliging, and of exemplary character.

“Show him in,” said Mr. Joyce.

He rose to shake hands with his visitor and asked him to sit down. The light fell on him as he did so. The face of Mr. Joyce remained in shadow. He was by nature a silent man, and now he looked at Robert Crosbie for quite a minute without speaking. Crosbie was a big fellow, well over six feet high, with broad shoulders, and muscular. He was a rubber-planter, hard with the constant exercise of walking over the estate, and with the tennis which was his relaxation when the day’s work was over. He was deeply sunburned. His hairy hands, his feet in clumsy boots were enormous, and Mr. Joyce found himself thinking that a blow of that great fist would easily kill the fragile Tamil. But there was no fierceness in his blue eyes; they were confiding and gentle; and his face, with its big, undistinguished features, was open, frank and honest. But at this moment it bore a look of deep distress. It was drawn and haggard.

“You look as though you hadn’t had much sleep the last night or two,” said Mr. Joyce.

“I haven’t.”

Mr. Joyce noticed now the old felt hat, with its broad double brim, which Crosbie had placed on the table; and then his eyes travelled to the khaki shorts he wore, showing his red hairy thighs, the tennis shirt open at the neck, without a tie, and the dirty khaki jacket with the ends of the sleeves turned up. He looked as though he had just come in from a long tramp among the rubber trees. Mr. Joyce gave a slight frown.

“You must pull yourself together, you know. You must keep your head.”

“Oh, I’m all right.”

“Have you seen your wife to-day?”

“No, I’m to see her this afternoon. You know, it is a damned shame that they should have arrested her.”

“I think they had to do that,” Mr. Joyce answered in his level, soft tone.

“I should have thought they’d have let her out on bail.”

“It’s a very serious charge.”

“It is damnable. She did what any decent woman would do in her place. Only, nine women out of ten wouldn’t have the pluck. Leslie’s the best woman in the world. She wouldn’t hurt a fly. Why, hang it all, man, I’ve been married to her for twelve years, do you think I don’t know her? God, if I’d got hold of the man I’d have wrung his neck, I’d have killed him without a moment’s hesitation. So would you.”

“My dear fellow, everybody’s on your side. No one has a good word to say for Hammond. We’re going to get her off. I don’t suppose either the assessors or the judge will go into court without having already made up their minds to bring in a verdict of not guilty.”

As you may have noted, Constant Reader, this story was written during a time when casual racism was not only accepted but was par for the course. Maugham wrote during the first half of the twentieth century primarily; “The Letter” was certainly set during the time of decline for the worldwide British Empire (“the sun never sets on the British empire”); an empire that was built on the backs of its enslaved and conquered peoples, and justified its abuses and colonialism and exploitation with the typical white supremacy. The Empire didn’t survive the second World War–the Japanese in particular shattered the Empire’s Asiatic pretensions–but all the worst of British racism and classism and misogyny is there on display in this story (this sentence: Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones–in particular), and really is terribly dated in that regard. The story is also problematic in that it also upholds the standard misogynist trope that a woman will easily and without qualm accuse a man of rape to cover up her own crimes. So, it’s easy to see how such a story could spring from the mind of a gay man in that time period; my gay brothers can make the worst misogynists, I’m ashamed to say, and written during a period when misogyny was so incredibly rampant…yes, I can see it.

The story is vastly different from the film. The film obviously centers Bette Davis; it’s one of her finer performances, and the character of Leslie Crosbie; the story itself is entirely told from the perspective of her attorney, Mr. Joyce. But the bottom line of the story and film are the same: Leslie Crosbie murdered Geoff Hammond; the question is why? Mrs. Crosbie’s story is that he showed up at her door late at night and tried to rape her, and she killed him in self-defense, protecting her honor. The only problem is that she fired four more bullets into his corpse when he was already dead, from close range; this doesn’t sound like self-defense. Mrs. Crosbie herself claims she doesn’t remember any of that; and given that she’s a white woman, her story is she was defending her honor against a rapist, and the victim had taken up with a Chinese woman and was no longer received by honorable people (oh, the racism!), Mr. Joyce has no doubt that Mrs. Crosbie will neither hang nor go to jail; popular opinion in the ruling class is heavily on her side. But it turns out there’s a letter in existence, in her handwriting; begging Geoff Hammond to come see her at her home while her husband was away. Leslie explains this away quickly; in the hubbub of the shooting and its aftermath, she’d quite forgotten she’d invited him over to help her buy a gun as a gift for her husband, and once she hadn’t told the police, and remembered, she couldn’t tell them without making herself look bad. The Chinese woman Hammond was sleeping with has the letter; and wants money for it. Mr. Joyce explains to Mr. Crosbie…who comes up with the money, and then bitterly says to Me. Joyce: “the reason I was away was because I had gone to buy myself a new gun.”

Leslie had lied about her reasons for inviting Hammond over; what else has she lied about? But once the letter has been destroyed, and the jury sets her free–Mr. Joyce asks her one more question–and Leslie explains her truth: she’d been having an affair for years with Hammond, but the Chinese woman–whom he had loved when he was younger–had come back to his life and he no longer wanted anything to do with Leslie. Leslie was furious–bad enough to be thrown over, but for a Chinese woman? She deliberately invited him over that night; he told her he hated her and wanted nothing to do with him, and to her–this justified not only killing him, but her desire to get away with murdering her lover…and, because of racism and misogyny and class, she does.

It was an interesting–if dated–read, and while I winced away from the horrific racism (much worse than the misogyny of how courts always treated upper crust white ladies with such gentility, allowing them to get away with their crimes, and even cheering lustily their acquittals), I’m glad I read the story. I’ll probably read more of Maugham–I’d read Of Human Bondage when I was a teenager and hated it; I should probably reread it through the lens of Waugham’s homosexuality and how that main character’s relationship with toxic Mildred was undoubtedly shaped by his own denial of his sexuality; I’d probably enjoy that more now–and most definitely want to read “Rain”, to see how Sadie Thompson fares in her creator’s words, as well as to see how misogynistic Maugham was in creating her…it seems to me, in the works of his I’ve read, that his female characters were a lot darker and definitely more noir, than I might have thought before.

It might be interesting to retell “The Letter” entirely from Leslie’s point of view. Hmm, now there’s a thought.

Wanted Dead or Alive

The past month been an interesting one, so much so that I’ve not really been able to get a whole lot of anything writing related finished. This is partly my own fault, of course; I should have repeatedly resisted the urge to continue to read and refresh pages and follow links and so forth; but like a train wreck, I wasn’t able to ever tear my eyes away from the carnage.

As I said to a friend at the height of the drama, “Every time I think the last car of the train has come off the rails and the wreck is finished, here comes another train on the same tracks and I am mesmerized all over again.” I’ve read blog posts and Facebook posts and Twitter threads, over and over again, my mouth wide open and there being literally no way to keep my jaw from its permanently dropped position other than using both hands to push it up and then hold it in place.

I mean, wow. What a month it has been for both the crime and horror fiction communities.

This is a roundabout way of getting to a question that has come up a lot in the last decade or so, and one I’ve thought about a lot, but have never really addressed very much…but with all these shenanigans going on recently, I started thinking about this again, and it also played into my thoughts about reading The Hunter by Richard Stark, and my recent read of I the Jury by Mickey Spillane; two enormously popular novels by well-regarded crime writers that might not hold up as well through the modern day lens as they perhaps did when they were originally released.

And that ever-present question of the artist versus the art.

Probably the first time I’ve ever thought about whether it’s possible to continue to enjoy art despite the artist was, of course, the film Chinatown. I never saw it in the theatrical release, but it’s widely regarded as one of the best crime films ever made; I remember it was nominated for like ten or eleven Oscars in the year it was released (which, if memory serves, was the same year as The Godfather Part II, which pretty much won everything imaginable), and the debate about the movie has raged ever since Polanski fled the country to avoid statutory rape consequences. I find that abhorrent; and any defense of Polanski’s indefensible behavior irrelevant to me. But I wanted to watch Chinatown, and Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite horror movies of all time; I revisit it every now and then. So, how can I justify watching and enjoying these two films directed by someone who did something heinous? When I was finally able to stream Chinatown a few years back, I justified it to myself by saying it was 1. before the statutory rape and 2. if I didn’t review or talk about or promote the film on social media or on my blog, streaming it through a service I already pay for isn’t contributing much, if any, money to Polanski’s bank account.

And yes, I am very well aware of how ludicrous and torturous those mental hoops I jumped through actually are.

There was also the Orson Scott Card debacle a few years back, and I didn’t jump through hoops on that one. I had read and enjoyed Ender’s Game, and had thought about reading more of Card’s work…until I discovered he was a horrific homophobe who actually worked, donated money to, and actively sought to block gay equality in the United States. 

Nope, sorry, done.

It’s one thing to have abhorrent opinions about a minority; it’s another to actively work–and use the money you’ve earned through your art–against the rights of that minority. Fuck all the way off, Mr. Card, and never come back.

Which brings me to The Hunter.

the hunter

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to  hell. The guy said, “Screw you, buddy,” yanked his Chevy back into the stream of traffic, and roared on down to the tollbooths. Parker spat in the right-hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge.

The 8 a.m. traffic went mmmmmm, mmmmmm, all on this side, headed for the city. Over there, lanes and lanes of nobody going to Jersey. Underneath, the same thing.

Out in the middle, the bridge trembled and swayed in the wind. It does it all the time, but he’d never noticed it. He’d never walked it before. He felt it shivering under his feet, and he got mad. He threw the used-up butt at the river, spat on a passing hubcab, and strode on.

Richard Stark is one of the pseudonyms of crime writer extraordinaire Donald Westlake. I will be the first to admit, repeatedly, that my education in not only literature but crime fiction is sorely lacking; there are many authors whose works I should have read and haven’t; Westlake is one. I read my first Westlake a few years ago, a Hard Case Crime edition of The Comedy is Finished and it was amazingly good. I ordered a copy of The Hot Rock shortly thereafter; alas, it is still in the TBR pile., and I do intend to get to it at some point.

Westlake also happens to be an inspiration to one of my favorite queer writers, Rob Byrnes, who writes witty, Westlake-like queer caper novels (if you’ve not already read him, you must do so immediately).

I first discovered that Westlake was also Richard Stark when these Parker novels he wrote under that name were brought back into print recently by the University of Chicago Press, and a crime writer I admire deeply, Chris Holm, announced he’d written an introduction for one of the books. Chris has never steered me wrong in his recommendations (for that matter, neither has his amazing wife, Katrina Niidas Holm, who was the one who steered me to Michael McDowell’s The Elementals, for which I will always be grateful), and so I thought, as is my wont, to start with the first book in the series, The Hunter.

And once I started reading it, as you can see by the opening above, I was caught up in the story and the voice.

But, as I said earlier, The Hunter was very much a novel of its time: 1960.

Parker was considered an anti-hero when the books first started coming into print–although today I suppose he would be considered a sociopath. He does live by a code, even if he is a sociopathic criminal; and one has to admire the dedication to that code, and how he never deviates from it. He doesn’t have an issue with breaking the law–in fact, he makes his living breaking the law–nor does he have a problem with meting out vengeance on those who do him wrong. In The Hunter, he is betrayed–and almost killed–by his partners in a high-stakes robbery; amongst those who wronged and cheated him are his wife–and he kills her without a second thought, and then goes after the rest of those involved in the scam, even though some of them are very well connected with the New York mob. (The mob is referred to as a ‘syndicate’ in the book; an old term I haven’t heard in a very long time, and it was a lovely piece of nostalgia. Organized crime was often referred to as a ‘syndicate’ back in the day.)

It’s tautly written, suspenseful (will Parker get his revenge, or will he be betrayed yet again?) and I kept turning the pages. I really enjoyed the book tremendously, and will go back and continue to read the Parker novels–I am curious to see how Stark developed the character and the continuing story of his life and career in crime, as well as to see how Westlake continued to develop as a writer under the name Richard Stark.

However–the casual homophobia of the time slapped me in the face a couple of times while I was reading the book:

Page Three: On the way, he panhandled a dime from a latent fag with big hips and stopped in a grimy diner for coffee.

p. 38: “She’s dead. So is your fat pansy. You can be dead, too, if you want.”

Yeah, I did kind of recoil, and in both instances I debated finishing the book. But…it was written in 1960, and the attitude towards homosexuality exhibited in those lines (including the slur pansy, which I haven’t heard in a while) was common. We can’t deny that it existed–we cannot deny homophobia exists today any more than we can that it did in 1960–and it was a sign of the times. Does that mean the book shouldn’t be read? Should it come with a trigger warning? A deep-seated contempt for homosexuality was part and parcel of the alpha male/tough guy persona of the times, and including that language in the book was an easy way to convey the no-nonsense masculinity of the character (it was also there in I the Jury–much more so in the Spillane than the Stark).

The attitudes towards women isn’t much better; but again, a sign of the times:

p. 135 He used one cord to tie her hands behind her, the other to tie her ankles. He found scissors in a desk drawer next to an inhaler, snipped off part of her slip and used it for a gag. She had good legs–But not now. After it was over, after Mal was dead, he’d want somebody then.

Ew, because killing someone is a turn-on? Although it fits with the character Stark has created; this is a man who killed his wife without a second thought.

But…I enjoyed reading the book. I suspect my enjoyment would have been greater in the past–I probably would have loved this series had I discovered it in my late teens and early twenties, but the world was a different place then, too. I am definitely going to continue reading the series; as I said earlier, I am curious to see how the character develops and changes and grows–or if he doesn’t, how bad he becomes. I am intrigued by the character, and of course, the writing is absolutely stellar.

I don’t think, for the record, books from earlier times should be held to the same standards as we would hold something newly published; times and attitudes vary and change over time. It’s hard to read an older book without the modern lenses, however; probably as little as ten years ago I would have dismissed the “pansy” remarks or the misogyny apparent in the character without feeling the need to point it out. I don’t think these books should be cancelled or not read; primarily because it’s incredibly important to have these conversations–as well as these works serve as a time capsule, a window into another time where things hadn’t yet changed but needed to, certainly.

I do recommend it; as I said, I will continue reading the Parker series and I am looking forward to reading more of the Westlake novels as well.

All the Gold in California

I often talk about how my education in the so-called “classics” is somewhat lacking; this is also true, not just of the great canon of literary fiction, but within my own genre as well (which is why I never pose as an expert on crime fiction; I am not one). I had never read Ross MacDonald–I was aware of him, and Lew Archer–but never had any real desire to read him until I was on a panel with Christopher Rice, who mentioned MacDonald as one of his favorite writers and an inspiration. Hmmm, I thought, perhaps I should give MacDonald a try.

So, in the years following that panel, I started reading the Archer novels, and enjoyed them tremendously. I’ve not read all of them, and I’ve not read any of his stand-alones…but what I liked the most about them was the style; how MacDonald put words and sentences together to create not only character, but mood and a kind of dark, noir-ish hard-boiled sensibility that I really admired. Early in my writing career, I patterned Chanse–both character and series–after John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series; later, after I started reading Ross MacDonald, I tried to see if I could create my own version of that sensibility and writing style; influenced by both MacDonalds but trying to create my own version, if that makes any kind of sense. I’d say Murder in the Irish Channel came the closest of any of the books to perfecting that style; I don’t know if Murder in the Arts District  replicated the feat (which means I am going to have to reread it, even if cursorily, damn it).

There’s nothing more tedious than rereading your own work.

But I recently decided it was past time to give one of Ross MacDonald’s stand-alones a shot, and chose The Ferguson Affair.

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The case began quietly, on the women’s floor of the county jail. I was there to interview a client, a young nurse named Ella Barker who had been arrested on a stolen-property charge. Specifically, she had sold a diamond ring which was part of the loot in a recent burglary; the secondhand dealer who bought it from her reported the transaction to the police.

Our interview started out inauspiciously. “Why you?” she wanted to know. “I thought people in trouble had a right to choose their own lawyer. Especially when they’re innocent, like me.”

“Innocence or guilt has nothing to do with it, Miss Barker. The judges keep an alphabetical list of all the attorneys in town. We take turns representing defendants without funds. My name happened to be next on the list.”

“What did you say your name was?”

“Gunnarson. William Gunnarson.”

“It’s a funny name,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

Reading books written in the past–no matter how far back–can often be jarring. One has to take into consideration the context of the time in which the book was written; The Ferguson Affair, for example, was published originally in 1960, and if you don’t think the world and society and culture have changed dramatically in the time since the final full year of the Eisenhower administration, you might want to think again. The book was published the year before I was born, so technically the book is only slighter older than I am, and it came out in a world without color television, cable, cell phones, etc. Technology had advanced so far in those fifty-nine years it might as well have been published a hundred years ago.

The Ferguson Affair was published in the midst of the period when he was producing the Lew Archer novels, and a lot of the Archer hallmarks also appear in this book; a complicated, winding plot that begins as something very small–in this case, the arrest of Ella Barker for pawning stolen property–and then continues, over the course of the investigation, to expand outwards into something much bigger, most dastardly, and more deadly. William Gunnarson, the main character of the book, is an attorney in a small California city named Buenavista, reminiscent of the town of Santa Teresa where some of the Archer books are set (and was later borrowed by Sue Grafton for her Kinsey Millhone books in a homage to MacDonald). Gunnarson is married and his wife is nine months pregnant and ready to give birth at any moment; more on that later. He is interviewing his client when word comes that someone had tried to kill the pawnshop owner who turned her in; Gunnarson is allowed to ride along to the pawnshop, which is on Pelly Street–clearly the wrong side of the tracks, and the Latin side of town. Ella was given the diamond ring she pawned for her engagement to Larry Gaines, the lifeguard at the fancy Foothill Club (the Buenavista country club), after discovering he was stepping out on her with retired screen star Holly May. The ring was loot from a robbery; the police suspect Ella knows more about the gang of robbers than she is letting on–because the victims of the robbery have all been patients at the hospital where she works as a nurse.

The book proceeds from there, with twists and turns involving kidnapping and extortion, murder and robbery; and while it is a fun ride as all MacDonald novels are, there is definitely some 1960’s era um, that’s a bit racist stuff when it comes to the Latinx people he comes into contact with over the course of the story.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration how Gunnarson treats his pregnant wife, Sally. Nine months pregnant and about to give birth at any given moment, he can’t be bothered to call her to tell her he’s coming home late for dinner which she is preparing. He never checks in on her to see if she’s okay; and in fact, he’s not around when she finally does go into labor, and someone else has to make sure she gets to the hospital in time for the birth. There’s none of the modern sentimentality about pregnancy and childbirth; he actually teases and mocks her about being so pregnant during the brief time he gives her any attention at all.  I’m not really sure why it was necessary for her to be pregnant, to be honest; it bore no relation to the story in any way, and all it did was make Gunnarson seem, to my modern eyes, like an asshole.

It did occur to me that this story could have just as easily been an Archer novel/story; only set in the past, to give a key insight into who Archer was as a character, and how he developed. I could totally see this being Archer’s marriage, and Archer being the kind of husband who would always put his wife and family last; as was expected of men at the time, and the wife getting tired of it and divorcing him. (I am not an Archer expert; I’ve read some of the books, not all, and while I do enjoy them when I do read them, I don’t have details memorized. I do seem to recall that Archer had been married and divorced; I think his ex-wife is mentioned a few times…but like I said, this works as an early Archer story, but back then it wasn’t common for series books to be written out of order; maybe that was why this wound up not being an Archer? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting theory.)

Reading the book, though, made me think more about writing another Chanse novel, which I think may happen at some point in the next few years. I’d recommend it to you if you’re a MacDonald fan and want to achieve completion with his works; it’s probably not the best place to start with MacDonald if you haven’t read him before.

Walk Like an Egyptian

And just like that, it is now Friday. I’m still not entirely certain of everything I must get done this weekend, but at some point today I am going to have to make a list. I know I have to finish my essay, get further along on that short story I have due at the end of the month, and get some work done on another that isn’t due until March, but I want to start playing with.

Last night was another bad night as far as sleep was concerned, but I do feel somewhat rested today. My friend Lisa from Atlanta is in town, and I am meeting her after work today to hang out for a bit. My schedule has changed from early morning to early afternoon, which is always my preference–I’d rather never do any early mornings, quite frankly–and I am hoping this morning’s coffee will not only fuel me through this entire day of work but get me through hanging out with Lisa with some coherence. I have a lot of work to do this weekend–one of the many things I’ve allowed to fall to the wayside whilst working on this enormous volunteer project is housework, other than the dishes and laundry–and I really need to get that under control. The weather is still pretty awful here, although it’s getting to the point where it’s cool in the morning and cool in the evenings, which is a sign the heat’s going to break relatively soon.

It’s also Friday the 13th, which I just realized, and there’s a full moon tonight, methinks.

I’ve been reading Lords of Misrule by James Gill, as I have mentioned previously, and it’s really quite eye-opening. It’s funny to me in some ways because all of my reading of New Orleans history this and last year has shown me that New Orleans has always been a rather lawless city, with high rates of brawls, murders and robberies; I am sure rape rates have always been high but never reported back in those days. The history of the city can essentially be summed up in the theme I am using for Bury Me in Shadows: “The history of this city was written in blood.” It shames me that I’ve not studied the history of my home city and state in more detail, and that it has taken me this long to start. I’m going to be writing a historical short story soon–I’ve been asked to write one for an anthology, and I am setting it in 1913-1914 era New Orleans, in Storyville, and I think it will be incredibly fun to write, and I know it will be incredibly fun to research. I really do want to, at some point, write more historical fiction set in New Orleans; the history here is fascinating, if a little frightening–the white supremacy and racism is particularly horrible for such a seemingly tolerant city; but we also have to remember the horribly homophobic reaction of most of the city when the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter, was set ablaze in the worst mass murder of queer people in American history until the Pulse massacre in Orlando a few years back. (I really can’t wait to read Robert Fieseler’s Edgar winning Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Upstairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation.)

Anyway, I am at the chapter in Lords of Misrule called “The Battle of Liberty Place,” and I am already dreading reading it in some ways. I know a little about this; all I really need say is it involves a mob of white supremacists and it happened in 1874, during Reconstruction while the state was occupied after the Civil War and…I don’t really need to draw a picture, do I? The Battle of Liberty Place monument was one of the Confederate memorials in the city that were taken down during Mitch Landrieu’s administration, and while I believe they all had to go (I was truly tired of saying to visitors I was showing around, “and here we are at politically incorrect Lee Circle, which memorializes treason”), the Liberty Place monument in particular was a disgrace to a modern city. (I had considered doing a Scotty book around the memorials and their removal, but decided ultimately against it. I don’t like the Scotty books to be fixed in time; there are times when I’ve regretted writing about the Saints winning the Super Bowl) I don’t consider myself to be particularly “woke”, but I do recognize I’ve benefited from privilege most of my life, and while being gay has resulted in some marginalization, I’m still a cisgendered white male, which in this society and culture puts me on third base already.

I can always do better when it comes to issues of race, gender, and sexuality–and it’s something I think about every day at least once. I strive to be a better ally than I am. It really is amazing, when you think about it, how indoctrinated we all are into this shit.

And the history is absolutely horrifying–and it’s disgraceful how it’s been sanitized into mythology.

Heavy thoughts for a Friday morning, aren’t they? Sheesh. But it’s hard not to read about  angry mobs murdering people they’ve othered, and not be appalled by it. I haven’t even gotten to the xenophobic massacre of Italians in the 1890’s yet.

Yes, New Orleans is a city with a history that drips blood; a city of massive contradictions, and it’s not hard to believe that the city’s history haunts it. And yet it is still a magical place, where all that pain and blood and suffering has been somehow transmuted into gold through art and music and literature. The city will probably never stop fascinating me, and I will undoubtedly spend the rest of my life studying it.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. One of the things that is completely out of control is my inbox; I’ve got to do something about that this morning.

Heavy sigh.

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Dueling Banjos

Writing about the rural Deep South is difficult.

I’m from the deep south, yes, but I didn’t grow up there. I spent a lot of time there, my parents were Southern, and so a lot of my values and mind-view for a number of years were patterned in the Southern mindset. I draw from my memories of summers in the rural backwoods of the mid-central-western part of the state, about seventy miles from the Mississippi state line or so, but there are also so many attitudes and mentalities and stereotypes and tropes about the rural Deep South that it is easy to become lazy and fall into those. I am trying very hard not to do that, but as I said, it’s hard. Stereotypes and tropes exist for a reason, after all–they weren’t created from nothing; there’s always a core kernel of truth in them, whatever they’ve become once the seeds were planted–but the key is to burrow into them to dig out the core kernel of truth to build upon, so you’re telling the truth. But I worry, as I continue to excavate into this book, that I am relying on negative tropes and stereotypes.

I think I was thirteen when Deliverance was released; we saw it at the drive-in, which was something my parents loved to do with us when we were kids. I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in the movie–it was the kind of macho bullshit I loathed as a child, a loathing that has only somewhat lessened as an adult, so I stopped paying attention to it and I think I may have even dozed off. But I did see the scene early in the movie which has forever cemented into people’s minds a link between the backwoods South and redneck morons–“Dueling Banjos.” The open notes of the song are all that is needed to reference a joke about passing from civilization into the land of the uneducated, probably inbred, backwoods hillbillies; it has come to symbolize moonshine-makin’, overalls-wearin’, cousin-marryin’, dangerous rural Southern people. I’ve made the joke myself from time to time–driving through the Southern countryside at night, “You can almost hear the banjo notes, can’t you?”

Deliverance and “Dueling Banjos” are such a part of our zeitgeist and popular culture that the book and film have become kind of shorthand Southern references–even for people who don’t know the origins of the references. I’ve never read the book, but I bought a copy a few years ago because I heard one of the references in something–a talk show, a book, a film, a television show; I don’t remember which–but I thought it was time for me to read the book and possibly watch the film in its entirety; that there was a possibly an essay in both about masculinity, rape culture, and the American male. (For those of you who don’t know, many male-on-male rape jokes were born directly of Deliverance.) I never did get around to reading the book or watching the movie; to be honest, I’d completely forgotten about them and the essay idea until recently. I also never got around to reading the book because I’d heard bad things about James Dickey, who wrote the novel. Dickey was primarily a poet, and considered one of the better American ones of the second half of the twentieth century by the Academy, and Deliverance was his only novel. I knew people who knew Dickey, and the reports back on him were terribly unpleasant, if not surprisingly so. (American letters has produced some horrific examples of toxic masculinity with its iconic, deified authors.)

Southern people are masters at grievance; they’ve been aggrieved for quite some time now–probably as far back as when the rumblings in the northern states began against slavery.  Everything is always someone else’s fault; even that language from the 1960’s came back to haunt Alabama during the special election to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate: “outside agitators.” That was always a favorite fallback of Southern white supremacy; people of color in the South were perfectly happy with the way things were set up, with not voting or having opportunities, and being segregated away from white people, until “outside agitators” stirred them up against their kind, genial white overlords. Outside agitation goes all the way back to slavery; Southern politicians and leaders railed against “Yankee agitation on the slavery issue.” It’s all there, in black and white, in the history books–if you know what to look for.

The politics of race in the South have always been problematic, but nothing is more irritating to me than white apologia fiction set in the South; in which the white people aren’t racists; those nasty lower class white trash people are the real racists, not the educated whites. I’ve seen this in any number of books and it never ceases to irritate me when I come across it; this historical revision that relieves the guilt of Southern white people is kind of like, as my friend Victoria says, how after the Second World War  no Germans had really been Nazis and everyone in France was a resistance fighter.

Bitch, please.

I guess all those southern white civil rights activists were working undercover, because they sure weren’t public in their opposition. (And yes, I know–not all Southern white people; but I sure don’t see any white faces in any of the footage from the civil rights marches and school integrations that weren’t in military uniform…or certainly not as many as novels and fictions would have us believe.) To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic to me in that I don’t believe for a minute that the sheriff and the cops in Maycomb, Alabama, were worried about the rednecks from the county lynching Tom Robinson and gathering up some of the good white people from town to defend the jail; history shows that the police were often Klansmen, or at least more sympathetic to the cause of white supremacy than they were to civil rights. That scene, while powerful, doesn’t ring true to me–it again divides Southern whites into the educated professionals and the uneducated racist rednecks, and I am not certain of the accuracy. The publication of Go Set a Watchman upset a lot of fans of the original work with its depiction of Atticus as a segregationist; they felt betrayed that the heroic white champion of racial tolerance and justice from Mockingbird was turned into a segregationist…but it was honest and real and rang true to me.

And seriously, I highly recommend anyone interested in looking at how Southern white people viewed civil rights during the 1960’s dig up The Klansman by William Bradford Huie.

This is, of course, part of the problem I am having with writing this first draft of a book set in the rural South that deals, in part, with issues of race in the modern rural South. I don’t want to be heavy-handed, nor do I want this to be another oh look another white person discovers how terrible racism is book, nor do I want it to be another “white savior” book; there are plenty of those already. But I also want to be honest; and how does one do that? There are always going to be those who criticize such a book for failing, or trying too hard, or some such. Southern racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny do exist, and having an openly gay teenager with roots in Alabama spend the summer there helping take care of his dying grandmother, while dealing with some other issues that arise during his visit, seems like a good lens to view all of these things through.

Or at least, seems to be one, at any rate.

I think this is one of the reasons I am having so much trouble writing this book and getting this draft done; I am so worried about being offensive or crossing some line as well as wanting to do it well and do it right that I am overthinking everything, and it’s like I have this incredible overwhelming sense of confidence about my abilities as a writer. But I am going to press on, all the while worrying…but I must needs remember: I can always fix everything in future drafts.

Part of my goals for the weekend are to finish writing a promised essay, to get three chapters of the book written, and to finish reading Steph Cha’s amazing Your House Will Pay. I also need to reread everything I’ve written for Bury Me in Shadows, and make notes as I go.

Heavy thoughts for a Friday morning, Constant Reader.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Be Tender With My Love

Saturday morning, and how is your weekend so far, Constant Reader? Mine is going just fine, thank you for asking–you’re always so thoughtful.

I woke up early this morning–I’d just planned on sleeping until I woke up, and boom! There I was wide awake at seven thirty this morning, so I just rolled with it and got out of bed and decided to start the day.  Yesterday afternoon was kind of lovely; as I said yesterday I spent the afternoon backing up devices, cleaning, doing the laundry, that sort of thing, while trying to cleanse my mind and prepare myself for the next chapter of the WIP. There’s also still some cleaning and straightening up to do, and later I have to go pick up a book at Garden District and my prescriptions from CVS. After that I intend to come home and read or write or clean for the rest of the day.

I started watching Good Omens last night, and rather enjoyed it. Paul didn’t care for it, so it’s something I’ll have to watch on my own, and then we watched another episode of Killing Eve, which has gone into a whole new level. I daresay this second season is even better than the first? The primary thing I love about this show is it constantly surprises me; I never have the slightest clue which direction the story is going to go next, which I absolutely love. There’s nothing better than a completely unpredictable show, you know? This is why I loved Game of Thrones and Dead to Me so much; why I continue to enjoy How to Get Away with Murder, which no longer even makes any logical sense, but is just a wonderfully over-the-top campy soap opera now. (I am also aware that a lot of people have stopped watching Murder for that very reason; but I’ve always enjoyed soaps so I don’t have a problem with it–I also remember that Melrose Place became a lot more fun once it stopped trying to be realistic and went full-on over-the-top)

I also want to work on a couple of proposals this weekend, and I’d love to send some more of my short stories out into the world. I have a couple that I think might be ready to go out; but it’s difficult, as I’ve said before, since my short stories tend to be crime stories that aren’t necessarily mysteries. Writing a mystery short story is incredibly difficult, of course; I’ve tried it a few times and I’m not certain I had any success with it. But I do think there may be some stories I have on hand that might be ready to be sent out into the world, and the worst thing that could happen would be they say no, right? And no doesn’t mean I suck, of course, it just means the story wasn’t right for that particular medium.

It’s also Pride Month, today being the first day of it, and lately I’ve been seeing (and sharing some of the) posts about the history of Pride, or “pictures from this city’s pride in this year” and one of the things that strikes me as I look at photos from pride celebrations in the 70’s or 80’s or 90’s is how overwhelmingly white and male the pictures are; which is kind of a sobering thought. Where are the gays of color, where are the lesbians, where are the transpeople? One of the problems we have as a community is that we are a microcosm of the society at large; so the queer community comes with its own racial/misogynist baggage carried over from the bigger society. And while progress has been made in the right direction within our community, we do still have a long way to go.

I often doubt, as I am wont to do about anything to do with me being a writer, my ability to tell stories about race, misogyny, and homophobia well; without being preachy, without being over the top, without making out those who believe in those things cardboard cutout villains with no redeeming qualities. Can a racist or a sexist or a homophobe have any good qualities? And therein lies the rub. No matter how much of a good person someone with any of all of those qualities might be, I don’t think their good qualities can outweigh the bad ones, quite frankly. “I’m glad you rescue dogs. Unfortunately, your commitment to the belief that (fill in the blank) are secondary citizens not entitled to full and equal protection under the law negates the good you do.”

Ava DuVarnay’s seminal mini-series about the Central Park 5, When They See Us, has been released and is apparently wrenching. I know I need to watch it, but I am resistant to it because I know it’s going to expose some horrific things, and from everything I’ve seen or heard it is a wrenching experience. But I do think it’s important, and not watching would serve to only make me even more complicit in systemic racism; I consider this to be yet another step in my ongoing re-education on the subject of race in America.

I’m also hearing good things about Chernobyl, which Paul also doesn’t want to watch.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Sweet Thing

Wednesday, and the downward slide into the weekend begins.

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

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

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

Whoa.

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

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

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

And now,  back to the spice mines.

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Allentown

I was so tired last night when I got home from work–and I worked a short day! After work yesterday, a friend and I went to lunch to a place on the corner of Tulane and Carrollton called Namese, and I had an enormous  bowl of beef pho, which was absolutely delicious. I was in the mood for noodles, and having never actually had pho before, was quite thrilled to try it, and it was amazing. I’ve been wanting to try pho since seeing a show on our local PBS channel, WYES, about the big Vietnamese community in New Orleans, and one of the things they talked about on the documentary was pho. I’d been wanting to try it ever since, and got my chance.

DAMN THAT WAS GOOD.

I’d known we have a big Vietnamese community in New Orleans for quite some time–most of them live in New Orleans East, and were devastated by the flooding after the levees failed back in 2005. Poppy Z. Brite wrote about that community in his brilliant (and deeply disturbing) Exquisite Corpse, doing it so well I never had the nerve to try to write about it myself. (Our first, and only,  Congressman from Orleans Parish was a Vietnamese; Joseph Cao, who defeated “Dollar Bill” Jefferson in the post-Katrina scandal created by the fifty thousand dollars in cash he had stored in his home freezer. Cao was born in Ho Chi Minh City (then called Saigon), and only served one term in Congress–but I liked Congressman Cao; he put New Orleans ahead of party, and I was sorry to see him go.

I have an idea for a noir involving the Vietnamese communities of the Gulf Coast that I hope to write some day. I’ve also been toying with an old idea for a horror novel that’s been dancing in my head for the last thirty years or so–I can tell that I am writing another book; my creativity always spikes when I am writing a book.

Honestly. One would think I could get that under control.

Anyway, I also finished reading Margaret Millar’s Do Evil in Return last night. It wasn’t the below edition I read, but rather one of the volumes of The Collected Millar; this volume also contains Fire Will Freeze, Experiment in Springtime, The Cannibal Heart, and Rose’s Last Summer. But I rather like that Gothic-style cover.

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The afternoon was still hot but the wind carried a threat of fog to come in the night. It slid in through the open window and with curious, insinuating fingers it pried into the corners of the reception room and lifted the skirt of Miss Schiller’s white uniform and explored the dark hair of the girl sitting by the door. The girl held a magazine in her lap but she wasn’t reading it; she was pleating the corners of the pages one by one.

“I don’t know if Dr. Keating will be able to see you,” Miss Schiller said. “It’s quite late.”

The girl coughed nervously. “I couldn’t get here any sooner. I–couldn’t find the office.”

“Oh. You’re a stranger in town?”

“Yes.”

“Were you referred to Dr. Keating by anyone?”

“Referred?”

“Did anyone send you?”

Margaret Millar is a treasure, and her work, despite now being dated because of societal and social changes, are worthy of not only being read by modern audiences but also deserving of study. She, along with Dorothy B. Hughes and Charlotte Armstrong, formed a triumvirate of strong women writing suspense novels featuring women protagonists that were the equal of anything written by male contemporaries; there were numerous other women doing the same, but these three had longer careers and are now being rediscovered, in part thanks to the diligent work of Sarah Weinman and Jeffrey Marks. Library of America has released a two-volume collection of works by great women writers of the time; Soho Crime is releasing thick volumes collecting all of Millar’s work, which I am happily acquiring. I read Armstrong when I was young, and loved her; I am in the process of working my way through the canons of both Millar and Hughes, as well as two other great women writers of the same period, the incomparable Patricia Highsmith and my personal hero, Daphne du Maurier.

Do Evil in Return, originally published in 1950, is ultimately a novel about how society and its hypocritical misogynistic treatment of women can destroy them. The main character of the novel, Dr. Charlotte Keating, is a strong, independent woman with a successful practice in a small California coastal town. She is both single and hard-working; owns her own car and her own home–no small feat for a woman in 1950–and the book opens with a young woman coming to her for help. The woman, Violet O’Gorman, is only twenty and married, but finds herself with a particular problem; estranged from her husband, she had a one-night stand with a married man which has left her pregnant, and she is desperate for an abortion, which of course was illegal in 1950. Dr. Keating–Charley to her friends–refuses to break the law and perform this service, but her heart goes out to her patient and wants to help her, but while distracted by a phone call doesn’t notice the girl slipping out of her office. With a local address her only clue as to how to find Violet, she goes looking for her…and soon finds herself wrapped up in a terrible string of events beyond control, a noose tightening around her own neck. For, like her patient, Charley herself is involved in a love affair with a married man–a platonic one, to be sure, for she refuses to become intimate with him as he is married–and the similarities she sees between herself and young Violet is part of what drives her. The following morning, Violet’s body washes ashore, an apparent suicide, according to the police but Charley herself isn’t so sure.

And of course, she is right.

Millar’s particular genius lies in how casually she lays out her cards; she never tells her reader straight out what’s going on, but allows it to unfurl naturally, leaving it to her reader to figure it out. When we meet Charley’s platonic lover, there is no mention of his being married–Millar simply talks about the stifling existence he has at home with Gwen. As the story continues the reader slowly realizes that Gwen is actually his wife, and she is also one of Charley’s patients. Charley has tried to foist Gwen off on other doctors, but hypochondriac Gwen refuses to see anyone else–and is incredibly needy, ringing Charley for help at all hours of the day or night. Charley’s own feelings for Gwen’s husband also aren’t that simple; and in 1950 divorces weren’t as easy to obtain as they are today.

Perhaps the strongest part of the book is how Millar clearly depicts how claustrophobic a woman’s world was in 1950, and the delicate balance a single, independent professional woman had to maintain. Exposure of the relationship would ruin Charley, both personally and professionally; just as Violet’s unexpected pregnancy has ruined her. Society’s expectations of women, and their sexuality, are the true villains, the true evil in this novel; and the realization that this world Millar so brilliantly depicts was only sixty-seven years ago is truly chilling.

I think this book would be excellent reading for a Women’s Studies course; to let young women know how truly awful and misogynistic society was not so long ago, as a reminder to everyone today how far women have come in a short period of time, and how hard they fought to get to where they are today.