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.

Lightnin’ Strikes

I have mentioned numerous times that I was asked last year–early last year? I don’t recall precisely, but that’s a pandemic year for you–to write a Sherlock Holmes story. I was enormously flattered–and let’s face it, if anyone offers to pay me to write, I will–as I inevitably am whenever someone wants me to write for them; as I have mentioned before (a lot), it’s rare for me to get validation for my writing, and so being included (which is a whole other neurosis I will inevitably write about someday) is so enormously flattering that I feel like I can’t say no; being asked to write something also is such a rare thing for me that I am always afraid to say no because I fear I won’t ever be asked again.

Ah, the joys of being a writer. I probably could stand to be a little more egocentric when it comes to my writing, and build up more confidence…I seriously aspire to the confidence of a mediocre straight white male writer.

In those first few years during which I shared the upper floors at 821 B Royal Street with Mr Sherlock Holmes, it was my custom to rise early in the mornings and take a walk on the earthen levee containing the mighty river. Holmes was by habit a late riser, rarely springing out of bed before the noon-time whistle rang along the waterfront, but taking such exercise was good for the damage to my leg caused by the wound – a souvenir of the Spanish War.

I enjoyed those quiet, early mornings, watching the ships sailing up the river to the docks from foreign ports, and the barges floating down the currents from points as far north as Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis, all while I strolled with my walking stick along the levee. Seeing the large bales of cotton being unloaded as the morning mists arose from the dark muddy water, the unloading of crates of coffee and bananas from the central American republics, I marveled each morning at the hubbub of activity that created and maintained this most curious of American cities, rising from the swamps like something from a forgotten myth.

After, I would adjourn to my favorite café, the Aquitaine, mere blocks from my home, where I would read the morning papers while enjoying coffee and Italian pastries.

This particular morning in early December, I cut my morning walk short. The temperature had dropped most precipitously overnight, and I had not chosen a heavy enough jacket. My leg ached terribly from the damp and the cold, and I limped along the banquettes to the café. My usual table was in the back, away from the hustle and bustle and smells of Royal Street. In those days, the French Quarter stank to high heaven, malignant odors hanging in the thick wet air from breweries and sugar refineries and, of course, seafood. Holmes often burned heavily scented candles in the various rooms of our apartments, particularly the parlor whose windows opened out onto our third-floor balcony facing Royal Street.

But on this morning, there were no tables to be had. The cold and damp had driven others inside, seeking the solace of warm air, fragrant Italian pastries, and piping hot café au lait. So, disgruntled, I paid for my papers.

I noticed a headline in the lower right corner of the front page of the Daily Picayune: FAMED ITALIAN OPERA SINGER ADDS DATES FOR NEW ORLEANS ENGAGEMENT.

I have mentioned before that I’ve never been much of a Sherlock fan, as written by Doyle. I read The Hound of the Baskervilles when I was a child, and didn’t really like it near as much as I felt I should, and never went back to read the rest of the Holmes canon (yet another reason I say my education in the classics–in general and in my chosen genre–was sorely neglected). I read the Nicholas Meyer pastiches in the 1970’s, and have since read other Holmes-fiction by modern writers; there was a story in particular by Lyndsay Faye in one of The Best American Mystery Stories collections I particularly enjoyed, and of course I am completely smitten by Laurie R. King’s take on the character in her marvelous Mary Russell novels. I’ve watched a lot of Holmes film and television adaptations (not caring particularly for the Robert Downey Jr version, alas), and of course like so many others was completely smitten by Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation in the modern series (I also liked Elementary, but we never finished watching its run). I had bought the Baring-Gould compendiums a few years back from eBay; lovely, enormous and richly bound editions that I treasure. In preparation for writing my own story I went into the Baring-Gould to read some of the short stories, to get a feel for Doyle’s style and his characterizations.

(It is interesting, though, that my favorite fictions about Holmes are written by women…and King’s stories center a woman.)

I had come up with this title, “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy,” years ago. Little known fact: I originally envisioned the Chanse series to have titles all derived from Poe: Murder in the Rue Dauphine of course was paying homage to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue; and I thought the next would be The Purloined Stripper and go from there. Alyson Books said not to the Poe conceits, although they liked Murder in the Rue Dauphine as a title (another little known fact: the book was originally called Tricks; when I first met Felice Picano and picked him up at the airport here for the Williams Festival we chatted on the drive into the city and he nixed Tricks, and the Poe homages were HIS idea, which I don’t even think he himself remembers) and wanted me to brand the book with “Murder in the” titles. But I always liked The Purloined Stripper and kept that title in my back pocket, as it were, and when editor Narrelle Harris reached out to me for a Holmes story, to be set in New Orleans during any time period I chose, that title sprang into my mind and, having only recent read some New Orleans history (and been fascinated, at long last, by Storyville and the tales of the old Quarter) I thought to myself, yes, I can write about the pre-Great War period and include Storyville in it…and instead of a stripper I’ll use a rentboy. There had been allusions to rentboys and gay bars in the Quarter in the New Orleans histories I’d been reading–often times, when a client’s tastes ran that way, a madam would send one of her bouncers to the gay bars to find someone who fit what the client was looking for, appearance wise; I thought that was interesting. Only a few bordellos houses actual rentboys permanently; even in the bawdy houses of Storyville men who were interested in other men were reticent about putting voice to their desires….and isn’t “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” a lovely title?

And yes, it’s one of my favorite titles, and one of my favorite stories of my own.

As I said, it was a challenge for me to write it–the original submission required a significant revision; but as someone who appreciates editorial input I didn’t mind in the least–and as previously mentioned, it also inspired an appreciation for Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle in me. I keep thinking it would be fun to do more “Sherlock in New Orleans” stories; I may do just that very thing. I have some ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for him since finishing this story; I also liked the new universe of New Orleans I created for him–which inevitably will be tied in some way to my other New Orleans universe as well– I really cannot help myself when it comes to linking all of my work together.

Here is a short interview I did about my story: https://www.clandestinepress.net/blogs/clan_destine_press_blog/the-only-one-in-the-world-greg-herren-interview?fbclid=IwAR10KeDfVRv9Tcp9xioQ4aE7Fj4CUNdibVdVwdsjONN7ozvxKVFfF6gUTxw

And here is the editor talking about my story: https://narrellemharris.com/short-stories/narrelle-m-harris-on-greg-herren/?fbclid=IwAR0ei8LLFJjZaB0ATV3IKwg1s8NBcgapvQOFYe0PaGVNdV2LFMBOf5bw_8A

I’ve Got a Feeling

And now it’s Wednesday again, and believe it or not, it’s also Pay the Bills Day again. I could have sworn this just happened, but here we are again. At least I got a very wonderful night’s sleep last night, which was quite marvelous. Scooter woke me up around five, by lying down on me while in full purr mode, but that was fine–I was even able to doze off a little bit more for another hour before the wretched alarm tore me from the arms of Morpheus–but again, it’s fine; I slept so well and feel so rested and ready to go this morning that it didn’t matter to me in the least.

I actually made it to the gym last night after work–it was so strange; I slept better Monday night than I did Sunday, yet was more tired when I got off work yesterday than when I did on Monday–despite the near-death experience I had on the way there. I always walk down to Coliseum Square, then cut through the park to Camp Place before walking down Camp Street to Josephine before cutting over to Magazine. I am extremely careful about crossing streets on foot–going back to the olden days when there were no stop signs on the French Quarter streets that ran parallel to the river, so people would drive through the Quarter at about ninety miles per hour, and woe to the pedestrian not paying attention–and Coliseum Street is a one-way, so really, I only have to look one direction before crossing the street. I had my headphones on, listening quite happily to Fearless–Taylor’s Version, and started across to the park. I was about half-way across when I either noticed something out of the corner of my eye or heard it, but I turned my head and saw there was a speeding pick-up truck–doing at least forty in a residential area, if not more–heading right for me and not slowing–and was maybe a car-length away from me. I started running to get to the other side and he steered towards me, forcing me to leap for the curb. It was very close. Had I not noticed or heard him coming, I would have been hit and sent flying, possibly killed, definitely severely injured. My heart thumping in my ears, I took some deep breaths and started crossing the park. I looked back and the guy had his window down–trucker cap, beard, gun rack in the back window–and he was calling out to me “Sorry dude”. I just rolled my eyes and kept walking, resisting the urge to yell back, “Sorry you missed me? Because you sure as fuck were trying to hit me.” In fairness, he was probably not paying attention–typical in New Orleans–and reacted badly when he finally saw me and most likely tried to steer around me without hitting me, not realizing I would run for the curb, but still.

As I very carefully crossed Race Street at the light, I thought to myself, well, at least my heart rate is already up.

The gym was crowded, so I abbreviated my workout a bit; skipping biceps/triceps–the easiest to skip, since most upper body exercises of every kind will inevitably work your bis and tris anyway–and skedaddled home, where I emptied the dishwasher, did another load of dishes, queued up my Taylor playlist (Paul calls me “A Swiftie at Sixty”), and started working through the book again. I am so glad I am past the Imposter Syndrome (for now, at least), so am able to work clearly and concisely on the manuscript, detaching all personal emotion from it–when I edit my own work, I try to get into the mindspace that it’s someone else’s manuscript I am being paid to edit, which makes it ever so much easier–although there are times it is simply not possible. After Paul got home, we watched yet another episode of Line of Duty, which is incredible–the plotting and writing and acting are topnotch; seriously, if you have Acorn you need to be watching this show–and am looking forward to getting home tonight and watching some more.

It’s been a week already, let me tell you! MWA’s How to Write a Mystery dropped yesterday; the Edgars are tomorrow; and the Sherlock anthology I have a story in, The Only One in the World, edited by the marvelous Narrelle Harris, also was released in Australia this week. This is the one that includes my wonderfully titled story “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy”; my first and thus far only entry into the Sherlock Holmes canon–which indirectly led me to get started reading Laurie R. King’s amazing Mary Russell series, for which I shall be eternally grateful–and I am still a bit torn. I would love to do some more Sherlock stories, maybe even a book–I have a great title and premise, The Mother of Harlots, about the murder of a Storyville madam, and there’s even a famous murder case I can purloin details from; but then the Imposter Syndrome kicks in and I slink back to more contemporary ideas.

Heavy sigh.

But I am going to head back into the spice mines for now–have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you tomorrow!