Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here

I’ve never been terribly interested in historical mysteries.

It really doesn’t make sense, when I sit and think about it. I love history, I love crime stories; you’d think a novel or short story that combined the two together would be my proverbial catnip. Yet with few exceptions (Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell, and Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder, to namecheck a few) I generally don’t read historical mysteries. I am not sure why that is, to be honest; I used to love historical fiction when I was a kid, and of course, the great Gothic ladies of the mid-century often set their novels in the past–looking at you, Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt–and yet…I also love reading books written contemporarily that are now historical in setting (Margaret Millar, Mary Stewart, and Charlotte Armstrong spring to mind, as do Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, and Agatha Christie, for that matter).

Paul and I are also huge fans of the German series Babylon Berlin–I really do need to read the books sometime, as well as those of James Benn–but for some reason, I never ever reach for the historical mysteries when I am looking for something to read.

But I am really glad I put my hands on Dead Dead Girls when I was looking for something to read when the power was out.

The wind whips against her face. Snowflakes stick to her hair, her cheeks, her eyelashes.

She’s disoriented as she tries to find her way home. The sun set at four in the afternoon, but it’s much later now. It’s so dark that it feels as if blackness has swallowed up the city. She’s making her way down the streets, relying on streetlamps and muscle memory. It’s impossible to see in the snow.

She knows two things: first, that she’s going to be in big trouble for being so late; second, that it’s not going to be easy to locate her house in this terrible storm. It’s a small home. She’s the oldest of four girls. The youngest are twins–high energy and overly demanding of her patience. It’s exhausting to keep them in line. They don’t behave as they’re supposed to. Even worse, they’re all crammed into one bedroom.

They live with their widowed father and his sister. Her aunt is strict, but her father is ruthless. He works in the church and has high standards for his children. She also suspects he resents all of them for not being boys. He can snap at any time, for ay reason. Anything she can do to protect the twins, she will do.

Nekesa Afia’s debut novel is an absolute pleasure to read. The 1920’s are a great decade for crime novels, with everything that was going on during that post-war, post-plague decade. Prohibition and speak easies; the rebirth of the Klan; grotesque class inequities and racial discrimination codified; it was a period when there was money to be made in bootlegging and investments and everyone was frantically trying to have a good time to make up for the misery of the previous decade. I have often thought a stand alone–or series–set in New Orleans during this time would be interesting; as Storyville was being broken up and broken down, and of course everyone in the city was ignoring Prohibition…but it was also the time of the Harlem Renaissance, and that is the setting for Afia’s impressive debut.

The main character is Louise Lloyd, a young Black woman who works as a waitress at a tea room (which is actually a cover for the nightclub/speak easy on the upper floor. Louise is strong-willed and determined; when she was young she was kidnapped, along with some other girls, and Louise not only got away but helped the others do so as well, and took down the kidnapper, earning her some notoriety as Harlem’s Hero. Years later, she is estranged from her minister father and the rest of her family, is staying at a Harlem boarding house for women and sneaking out at night to go drinking and dancing in the speak easies of Harlem. Young Black women–many of whom are also working as prostitutes, meeting johns at the speak easies and then retiring with them to rooms or apartments–are being murdered; their bodies being left at the doors of the speak easies. Louise knew the most recent victim, and as someone who can get places the cops can’t–and can possibly get others to speak to her in ways they won’t speak to the police–Louise is dragged into the police investigation, at a huge risk to not only her life but those of the people she is closest to-especially a beautiful young woman named Rosa Maria, and Rosa Maria’s brother Rafael.

It’s a fun read; Afia brings the period–and it’s horrible racism, both casual and overt–to life. Her depiction of the most popular of the clubs, the Zodiac, makes you wish you could actually go and dance to the live music and drink the swill of the liquor served, working up a sweat on the dance floor. Louise is an interesting and likable character; with her flaws and foibles and estrangement from her family, you can’t help but root for her as she navigates a path that is made that much more difficult by her gender and her race–and then Afia adds in, like it’s nothing, that Rosa Maria and Louise are actually in love, and Rafael also swings to the beat of his own gender. It was so matter of fact the way these sexualities were introduced into the story, so nonchalantly, and not mentioned on either the cover or the publicity materials–which is really kind of how it should be; it’s just another facet of the character, it’s not that big a deal to them and therefore it shouldn’t be for the reader, either.

I greatly enjoyed this story, and I am hoping that it’s the first in a series. Towards the end of the book Louise gets a pair of pants–and I felt like this was a huge step in her development as a series character…fingers crossed, because I would love to get to know her better and watch the character develop over the years in a series.

And like Babylon Berlin, this could be the basis for a terrific television series. Fingers crossed.

I’m on the Road

We tried to stick it out, ever hopeful that Entergy would pull off a miracle, but today we cracked and couldn’t take it anymore. We were also out of food, and while some stores are indeed open (without power), it was incredibly ridiculously hot today; I’ve not really slept since the power went out Sunday morning; and we decided to go today. With it being the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, I knew–between Louisiana evacuees and “last holiday weekend at the beach” people, there was no point in following I-10 East and trying to find anywhere to stay. I only had a half-tank of gas, and wasn’t sure we’d be able to get any if we went north or west, so we headed east on I-10. We got gas near Biloxi (yay!) and once we hit Mobile we turned north. I knew we’d be able to find a pet friendly room somewhere between Mobile and Montgomery, and I was correct. Paul, Scooter and I are now checked into a motel in Greenville, Alabama. We’ve both taken our first hot showers since before the power went out, and are relaxing in the air conditioning (on high and full blast) while the US Open plays on the television. Everything is currently charging. Scooter isn’t sure what to make of this, as he has never stayed anywhere besides our house or the Cat Practice in the last eleven years, but he was great in the car and just slept…which is his usual state. I am looking forward to tonight’s sleep–you have no idea, Constant Reader, how much I am looking forward to finally getting some sleep. We have the room until Sunday–we’ll either go back to New Orleans or decide what to do next then. I’ll worry about it tomorrow.

It was very weird how quickly this storm came together–we barely had space to breathe or even think, and then it was already too late to go. I had to turn in my edits on #shedeservedit by the first; there were rumblings Friday morning that we were in trouble, and I had to power through the edits to get them done just in case (a wise decision, for once). I had to have my teeth cleaned Friday morning, and after I got home from that I just worked on the edits, finally finished about half an hour before I was due to meet my friend Ellen Byron for dinner at Red Gravy on Magazine Street. (The dinner and the conversation was marvelous.) Saturday morning I got up and by the time I was coherent–I overslept a bit, as did Paul–it was too late, really. I-10 in both directions a parking lot; I-55 and I-59 north both the same. We left very late for Katrina–and the crawl across the twin spans with the beginnings of the system starting to come in was not something I ever wanted to live through again. We just kind of looked at each other, and decided to ride it out and hope for the best–figuring if we made it through, we could leave afterwards. We watched a lot of television Saturday night, went to bed relatively early, and then of course, Sunday morning the power went out around eleven. I grabbed a book–I had started Megan Abbott’s The Turnout last week, and so I read for the rest of the day.

The storm was terrifying. The entire house rattled and shook, and there were times when I thought–I would swear to God this is true–I felt the house shifting before settling back to where it was once the gust had finished. I kept waiting for the windows to blow out–I moved my computer away from the windows–and finally, it was over. I never want to ride out a storm like that again, frankly; once was more than enough. And then we settled in to wait for the power to come back on, with no Internet and very very VERY spotty (did I say VERY) cell phone service, we were essentially cut off from the rest of the world. My friend Alafair texted me at some point and I asked her if the levees held; we literally had no idea what was going on, not only in the rest of the world, but in our own city–let alone our neighborhood. The weather was hot and humid but bearable–it was miserable, but it could have been much worse; had Monday been like today we would have left then.

I did manage to read a lot–I finished The Turnout and moved on to Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage (loved it!), Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia (also recommend); A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen; Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng; and A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King. I started rereading Paul Monette’s The Gold Diggers, and also started Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Velvet Was the Night, which came with me to Alabama. I am going to do blog posts on all of these books at some point–it was a week of amazing reading, frankly–and I also thought a lot about things I am working on and things I want to be working on, so it wasn’t a total loss of a week. I cleaned and organized in the kitchen some, and of course today I had to throw away everything in the refrigerator and the freezer, which was sad–all that money into the trash–but better to clean it out now rather than let it sit in there rotting and then come home to it. (A valuable lesson from Katrina.)

I thought about bringing manuscripts to edit with me, but then decided not to–I have the electronic files, after all, and I have enough paper around as it is. I started purging books again too–and I spent a lot of time, as I mentioned, thinking about things and life in general and what my priorities should be going forward–there’s nothing like a catastrophe to make you sit down and think about what is and isn’t important–and I am going to probably make some changes going forward. I hate that this disruption came when I was on a roll–with my writing, with the gym, with the reorganization of the apartment–but I am glad that it did happen in some ways; I was kind of letting myself drown again and a reset was kind of necessary. I also don’t know how long this particular disruption is going to last, either.

So, I am going to relax, enjoy hot showers and air conditioning and having access to the Internet again–and read and write and try to dig out from under.

And now I am going to take a doll and go to sleep.

Til tomorrow, then.