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I was tagged awhile back in one of those post seven covers of books you love with no explanation things on Facebook, so I obliged, and even tweeted the covers.

I love nothing more than sharing information or titles or covers of books I love; the problem is, as always, narrowing the list down to just seven. I’ve read (and loved) thousands of books over the course of my life (I kind of wish I’d actually kept track or logged them somehow, because the completist in me wants to know the actual number), and for this round I decided to go with suspense novels written by women that I read when I was in high school or younger; women authors who might not be as well remembered as they perhaps should be (although, in fairness, Sarah Weinman and Jeffrey Marks have both done an excellent job of preserving some of these women writers; I went with the ones considered domestic suspense first, then switched and finished with romantic suspense).

The books I chose are: Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong; The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes; The Fiend by Margaret Millar; The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart; The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt; Listen for the Whisperer by Phyllis A. Whitney; and An Afternoon Walk by Dorothy Eden.

Holt, Eden, and Whitney are generally forgotten today when female crime writers of the past are discussed; only recently have the names of the amazing triad of  Millar, Armstrong, and Hughes gone through a sort of renaissance. (Stewart isn’t as forgotten as Holt, Eden and Whitney; nor is she enjoying the same sort of renaissance as Millar, Armstrong and Hughes. More’s the pity in all four cases, frankly; the books might seem dated today, but they are excellent time capsules for the era in which they were written, and all seven women deserve better.) All seven women were fantastic writers, and the books I recommended are simply a starting place. Case in point: Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman was the first of hers I’d read, so it always holds place of honor for me; but if pressed to name a favorite I would go with On the Night of the Seventh Moon, simply because it’s plot was almost completely insane–and she pulled it off. As I have said in previous entries, I also revisited Kirkland Revels lately, one of the few earlier works of hers I’ve not read multiple times–and frankly, it was kind of a revelation in how well it’s done.

I’ve also been revisiting Armstrong lately–well, over the last five or six years or so; undoubtedly since Sarah Weinman reminded me of her existence, and her importance to my developing crime fan mind as a kid–and I’ve focused primarily on reading the works of hers I hadn’t already read. Her Edgar-winning A Dram of Poison is actually one of the more charming suspense novels I’ve ever read; it was dark, of course, but had such a warm, optimistic heart that you couldn’t help but smile as a ragtag group of people tried to track down a lost olive oil bottle filled with poison.

I do want to reread Millar’s The Fiend (it’s my personal favorite of her novels) and Eden’s An Afternoon Walk (another favorite, but it’s been at least thirty years or so since I read it, if not more)–which is a very underrated and unjustly forgotten tale of domestic suspense that rivals the masters of the form.

And on that note, back to the spice mines.

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Faded Love

I’ve always enjoyed romantic suspense, especially if it leaned really hard into the suspense aspect of the sub-genre. This sub-genre was enormously popular in the mid-to-late twentieth century; with authors like Dorothy Eden and Phyllis A. Whitney and Susan Howatch, among many others, scoring a number of successes with their books and even becoming international bestsellers. The sub-genre was so popular, in fact, that other female writers–who technically didn’t write romantic suspense–were often marketed as such, with the same styles of cover and fonts and cover design; often covers featuring a cover featuring a wind-swept beautiful young woman with long-flowing hair and a long gown, usually in the foreground with an enormous, spooky, brooding house/castle/mansion in the background with a solitary window lit up and the woman almost inevitably had a look of fear on her face. (I’ve always thought of them as girl running away from lighted window covers.)

But Victoria Holt was different from the others. Her books were varied, and while there were certainly tropes she followed, she often toyed with them in ways that were always clever and smart and original. Sometimes she followed the Jane Eyre style; in which the first third of the book is the main character’s history and how she wound up “running away from the lighted window”; sometimes she just inserted you right into the midst of the story as it developed….and once the mystery/suspense kicked into gear, it was impossible to stop reading.

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I met Gabriel and Friday on the same day, and strangely enough I lost them together; so that thereafter I was never able to think about one without the other. The fact that my life became a part of theirs is, in a way, an indication of my character, because they both began by arousing some protective instinct in me; all my life up to that time I had been protecting myself and I think I felt gratified to find others in need of protection. I had never before had a lover, never before had a dog; and, when these two appeared, it was natural enough that I should welcome them.

I remember the day perfectly. It was spring, and there was a fresh wind blowing over the moors. I had ridden away from Glen House after luncheon ad I could at this time leave the house without a feeling that I had escaped. This feeling had been with me since I returned home from my school in Dijon; perhaps it had always been there, but a young woman senses these emotions more readily than a child.

My home was a somber place. How could it be otherwise when it was dominated by someone who was no longer there. I decided during the first days of my return that I would never live in the past. No matter what happened to me, when it was over I should not look back. Early in life–I was nineteen at this time–I had learned an important lesson. I determined to live in the present–the past forgotten, the future left to unfold itself.

Kirkland Revels  was the second novel British writer Eleanor Hibbert wrote under the name Victoria Holt; she used, over the course of her incredibly prolific career (using a manual typewriter for most of it) many different pseudonyms, including Jean Plaidy (historical fiction focusing on royalty; fictionalizing the lives of kings and queens and the mistresses of kings) and Philippa Carr (historical romantic suspense novels, all linked by the concept that each novel featured the daughter of the main character in the preceding novel, beginning with The Miracle at St. Bruno’s). The first Holt novel, Mistress of Mellyn, launched the Victoria Holt name quite successfully; she wrote numerous bestsellers under that name for decades. The first Holt novel I read was The Secret Woman, a novel I still remember fondly because its plot was so complicated and the mystery essentially unsolvable–the twist at the end caught me completely by surprise. Holt often did this with the mystery/suspense side of her novels–tightly plotted, and just as many twists and turns as any other suspense novel. (Although one of my personal favorites, On the Night of the Seventh Moon, has about as original–and far-fetched–a plot as anyone could have ever dreamed up; I’m still surprised, all these years later, her agent and publisher went with it.)

Kirkland Revels was unique for its sub-genre in that the heroine, Catherine, spent the entire suspense part of the book pregnant. The first half of the book details Catherine’s background and sets up the suspense half of the novel; she’s come home from a boarding school in France, her home is empty and strange, haunted by the absence of a dead mother and an absent-minded, rarely present father when she meets Gabriel Rockwell on the moors and also finds a stray dog. She and Gabriel have a whirlwind romance, they wed, and he brings her home to meet his family in the brooding mansion, Kirkland Revels–which is located near the ruins of an old abbey, whose stones were used to build the mansion and is supposedly haunted by a monk. But her time in this strange house is limited when Gabriel falls from a balcony to his death and the dog also disappears; she returns to her home as a young widow…only to discover she is actually pregnant from her brief marriage, and returns to the Rockwell manse as her child, if a boy, will inherit everything.

And soon, things take a turn to the dark side:

One prospective master of the Revels had died violently; was something being plotted against another?

That was the beginning of my period of terror.

Catherine soon finds out that her mother isn’t actually dead, but completely insane and locked away in a mental hospital; her father tried to shield her from this knowledge, and Catherine herself isn’t so sure of her own sanity as weird things continue to happen to her at the Revels. Is she imagining things? Is she really seeing the ghostly monk or is her grip on sanity slipping, the same way her mother’s did? (It was widely believed in the past that madness, or insanity, was inherited; the prospect of inherited insanity drove the plots of several of Holt’s books set in the past.) Holt was really good at building suspense and tension; all of her books read quickly, despite the old-fashioned, formal style in which she wrote them.

Kirkland Revels was never one of my favorite Holt novels, and I rarely, if ever, reread it when I was younger–I used to reread favorites over and over again–but now, as an adult, I realize that the reason the book wasn’t a favorite was the notion of a pregnant heroine in danger, the danger growing as she grew closer to term, made me uncomfortable; much the way Pet Sematary by Stephen King disturbed me so much I never reread it until recently. I’m glad I gave Kirkland Revels a reread; it’s actually quite well done–and while later Holt heroines might have been mothers (hell, the heroine of The House of a Thousand Lanterns was not only a mother but was on her THIRD marriage in that book!), they were never again pregnant throughout the suspense portion of the book.

Definitely worth a look, Constant Reader.

You Don’t Love Me Anymore

Sunday morning, and with no Saints game today I have no excuse not to get a lot done today. It’s chilly this morning and gray outside; we still have rain in the forecast but it’s calm and quiet out there right now; perhaps the calm before the storm? Ugh, such a tired cliche–but it’s fine with me.

Yesterday I got a lot of chores done–very little writing, but the chores were necessary and of course, being the Master Procrastinator that I am; I have to have a clean apartment–or at least one that’s been straightened up some–in order to have a clear conscience enough to get work done. I now have no excuses to not get everything done that I need to get done today–but we’ll see how that goes; there’s always something.

I read another Holmes story yesterday–“The Musgrave Ritual”–which I couldn’t remember the plot of, other than remembering that it was one of my favorite Holmes stories. Like “The Gloria Scott“, it’s a “let me tell you a story” story; I really don’t remember the Holmes stories being like this, of course, but it’s something to think about as I prepare to write my own pastiche. It’s a style of writing/story-telling I’m not so certain I want to try, but then again–the entire point of me writing a Holmes story is to push myself as a writer and get better overall, so perhaps…perhaps I should try it that way and see how it goes. Anyway, as I reread it, I remembered why I liked it so much; it’s a treasure hunt story, and I absolutely love treasure hunts. At least two Scotty books–Jackson Square Jazz and Vieux Carre Voodoo, are treasure hunts.

I also rewatched the original film version of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, 1963’s The Haunting, directed by multiple Oscar winner Robert Wise, and starring Julie Harris as Nell. I saw this movie long before I even knew there was a book, let alone read it; my grandmother loved old black and white movies, and she especially loved crime and horror–probably where I get it from, and she also introduced me to the novels of Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Ellery Queen, and Erle Stanley Gardner. I was very young and the film absolutely terrified me–to this day, even remembering the scene with the door expanding and contracting unsettles me. I was, of course, quite delighted as a teenager to discover it was actually a novel (I had read Richard Matheson’s Hell House, with it’s similarities to The Haunting, year earlier and wondered if he’d gotten the idea for the book from the movie), and it quickly became one of my favorite novels of all time; in fact, I believe it was Stephen King who introduced me to the novel, because the opening paragraph was an epigram to ‘salem’s Lot. But I hadn’t watched the film in years; I’d watched the horrible 1999 remake, and of course the Netflix series loosely based on the book (I do recommend the series, it’s fantastic, once you get back the fact that it’s not a faithful adaptation but kind of fan-fiction; it didn’t even have to be Hill House for the story to work, but that’s a subject for a different blog. I do recommend it, though). Julie Harris is perfectly cast as Nell, and Claire Bloom does an excellent job as Theo. There are differences between the book and the film; why they changed Dr. Montague’s name to Dr. Markway is a mystery, and the later third of the film, after his wife arrives, is vastly different from the later third of the novel, and her character is completely changed; the young man who escorts her to Hill House is also excised from the movie. But the way the film is shot–the use of light and shadow, the up angles of the camera, and the ever-so creepy claustrophobia of the enclosed house–is absolutely terrifying, and you never see what is actually haunting the house. That was the singular brilliance of the book, and Wise kept that for his film (the execrable 1999 remake went completely over the top with CGI effects and so forth; ruining the necessary intimacy of the story). I still think of it as one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, and on a rewatch–the way you hear Nell’s thoughts, whispered, while Julie Harris’ eyes dart around–adds to the intimacy. I think that interior intimacy is a large factor in why the book is so fantastic, and why both book and original film work so well. The Netflix series does show the ghosts of Hill House, but it’s also done in a very subtle, unsettling way, which is why I think I liked it so much.

I also was thinking about rewatching Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, but decided to hold off until I finish the reread of the book–which I am still in the midst of–I want to finish it before my trip this week, because I want to take two different books with me to read.

I did finish my reread of Kirkland Revels by Victoria Holt, which was much better than I remembered, with it’s haunted monastery and ghostly monk haunting the big manor house. It’s also a terrific novel about paranoia and gaslighting; the ultimate evil scheme behind everything hinges on the heroine of the story being eventually committed to an insane asylum, and hopefully miscarrying her child, or it being born dead as a result of the confinement. Holt novels often hinged on the possibility of insanity being genetic–if the mother is insane, her child most likely will be as well–and this horror, which was probably very real in the nineteenth century, makes this book terribly unsettling. The main character, Catherine, is very strong-willed and intelligent, but she marries a man without meeting any of his family, moves into the family estate (Kirkland Revels), and then he dies in a fall from a balcony, and she returns to her father’s house; only to have to return to Kirkland Revels when she discovers she is pregnant. The combination of vulnerable and pregnant heroine being gaslit into believing she is insane was pretty unsettling to me when I originally read the novel; which is probably why it’s one of the few Holts I never took down from the shelf on a rainy afternoon and reread. Rereading it, thought, makes me appreciate the mastery apparent in Holt’s writing. She never again wrote another novel with a pregnant heroine–while some of her later novels did involve pregnancies and/or motherhood (On the Night of the Seventh Moon, The House of a Thousand Lanterns) the mystery, and the plot against the heroine, never occurred during the pregnancy. Romantic suspense, and its twin sister, domestic suspense, were a kind of “women’s noir,” in that the stories always focused on what were seen as the biggest fears for women–marrying the wrong man, danger to her child, not being able to trust your husband–were the recurring thread through all of them.

I also did manage to get some work done on the new project yesterday, which was lovely and my goal for the day. Not as much as I would like–I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t fail to achieve everything in a day that I wanted to–but enough to be satisfactory. I also came up with an idea for another Scotty, one that takes place down in the bayou–Cajun Country Cavaille–but whether I’ll write it or not remains to be seen. But I’d like to address the loss of the Louisiana wetlands at some point in print, and writing about a (probably fictional) version of Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes is probably the best way to do that; I just don’t have a murder mystery to hang the story on. My interest in the Scotty (and possible resurrection of the Chanse) series is expanding outward from New Orleans to the rest of Louisiana; I’ve come to realize that not only do I love New Orleans but I also love Louisiana, frustrating and irritating as that love can be sometimes. Louisiana is so beautiful…I also want to write about the Atchafalaya basin sometime, too, and of course let’s not forget the infamous Bayou Corne sinkhole no one talks about anymore…and of course there’s Cancer Alley along the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which is also begging to be written about.

And on that note, perhaps it’s time for me to head back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

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