Don’t Toss Us Away

Edgar Allan Poe is credited with inventing the detective story, or so the lore of our genre goes, which is why the Mystery Writers of America named their awards for excellence in the field after him. The private detective has gradually evolved over the years from the times of Poe’s Auguste Dupin (“Murders in the Rue Morgue”–which Constant Reader should recognize as the source for my Chanse titles, beginning with Murder in the Rue Dauphine) through Conan Doyle’s terrific Sherlock Holmes to the twentieth century masters of crime-solving: Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, etc. The 1970’s served as a bridge for the post-war detective to the dawning of a new age–which was necessary because by the early 1980’s the genre had become a bit stagnant, repetitive, overloaded with tropes that were deeply misogynistic.

In the 1980’s, three women–Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller–breathed new life into the genre by introducing three hard-boiled women private eyes; tough women who could hold their own with their male counterparts and were also incredibly well-developed and extremely well written. All three women were named Grand Masters by the Mystery Writers of America in their turn; alas, only Paretsky is still publishing, and we still mourn the loss of Grafton to cancer several years ago, before she finished her alphabet series featuring Kinsey Millhone.

And while there is still great private eye work being produced today by both men and women, it’s also very exciting now to be on the verge of yet another re-invigorization of the private eye novel–and crime fiction in general–with new takes on old tropes, subversion of those tropes, and the exciting arrival of writers of color and queer writers. The passing of Sue Grafton was a great tragedy, but her publisher, Putnam, partnered with Mystery Writers of America to create an award to honor her and her work; by celebrating the series private eye novels with women firmly centered as the investigator. The first Grafton Prize, awarded last year, went to Sara Paretsky for Shell Game; this year there are six finalists: Linda Castillo (Shamed); Tracy Clark (Borrowed Time); Edwin Hill (The Missing Ones); Sujata Massey (The Satapur Moonstone); Gigi Pandian  (The Alchemist’s Illusion), and Marcie R. Rendon (Girl Gone Missing)–all books I am looking forward to reading,

Ironically, I had already arranged to interview Tracy Clark for the Sisters in Crime quarterly column I do, “The Conversation Continues”–so I had already obtained copies of all her works.

Yesterday I  finished reading the first Cass Raines mystery, Broken Places.

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Chicago cops had to be on the lookout for any number of nefarious mopes eager to take a potshot, but this morning my biggest enemy was turning out to be the scorching rays of the summer sun. I slid into the driver’s seat of the unmarked car and cranked the windows down, balancing a rapidly melting iced tea, extra ice, between my thighs. A few feet away, my partner, Detective Ben Mickerson, stood in front of the Dairy Queen basking in the hellfire. “Vitamin D,” he said, ruddy face pointed skyward. “Soak in that Vitamin D.”

“You say Vitamin D, I say skin cancer,” I groused, The hot vinyl seats nearly seared through my blazer and pants–and they were both summer weight. I checked myself in the rearview. The little makeup I’d started the day with was long gone now, melted away by flop sweat. I flicked at the sweaty ringlets at the nape of my neck and wiggled uncomfortably in my bulletproof vest, my breasts pressed flat, as though squeezed between the hot plates of a waffle iron.  I looked like I’d gone through a car wash, and it was just ten AM. No great loss, though. Five mintues tops was all I ever invested in primping. I didn’t have the patience for it, and in the long run it seemed rather silly. Thugs and killers didn’t care what I looked like. They spotted the cop car, they ran, then I had to run after them. I’d be thirty-five in the spring. Eyeliner and blush weren’t going to make the running any easier.

“The sun is going to kill you,” I yelled out the window.

Cass Raines, Clark’s private eye, is actually a cop when the book opens; and she and her partner are tracking a problem kid, a gangbanger who killed four members of a rival gang, starting a war of attrition and revenge. They chase him down to a rooftop, and Cass almost has him talked down when another douchebag of an officer–protected by powerful political connections–ruins the situation and she ends up having to shoot the kid. She resigns from the force, haunted by the kid she killed, and become a private eye. This backstory plays out over the first several chapters, and then we flash forward two years to the present day. Cass is a complicated young woman–her mother died when she was young; her father took off and she was raised by her grandparents, whose home she inherited–and she is very solitary. This, her first case, kicks off when her father figure, a local priest (she’s lapsed) hires her to find out who is following and harassing him; but before she can even get truly started on her investigation Pops (as she calls Father Ray Heaton of St. Brendan’s) is found dead in the confessional booth, with the gun in his hand, an apparent suicide–and there’s another body in the church, a young Latino gangbanger named Cesar. The police–including her nemesis, the douchebag who ruined her attempt to bring the kid in several years earlier–are very quick to rule it a murder-suicide, but Cass doesn’t believe it for a minute, and begins her own investigation.

The case itself is full of surprising twists and turns, and Cass takes quite a beating as she tries to find out the true story of what happened that night at St. Brendan’s–and her personal life also starts to grow a little complicated, with the return of her birth father and the introduction of a possible love interest police detective for her. Well written, Cass is the kind of character you love to get behind and root for; she has, like all the best private eyes in fiction, a strong moral code of her own that turns her into a complex and fascinating character, one you can’t help but like even when she maybe isn’t behaving at her best. Clark has done a fantastic job of breathing life, not only into Cass, but into her supporting characters and the people she comes across throughout the course of the case.

Clark also makes Chicago into a very real place. I spent eight years of my childhood growing up on the south side, and she brings Chicago to life, with all of its problems and charms, with a loving but critical eye. It’s not the same Chicago we see through the eyes of Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, but it’s to Clark’s credit that she doesn’t try to imitate the queen of Chicago crime, but rather emulate her.

An impressive debut, and I am looking forward to reading further adventures of Cass Raines.

One More Night

Thursday. I overslept this morning and thus didn’t make it to the gym–I’ll have to go tomorrow night after work–but I also had a really great night’s sleep and so am taking that as a win; now that I am out of bed my muscles aren’t tired or sore. I’ll do some stretching and my abs this morning before getting in the shower. I also have to get up tomorrow morning and go to the eye doctor; instead of my usual wimpy not complaining and accepting things, I called them and told them I can’t read in my progressive contacts so I need a stronger prescription. So, I am going in tomorrow to get a new trial pair and perhaps order my new glasses and a year’s supply of the contacts; depending on how the new ones feel.

The decisions have been made on the Bouchercon anthology, and all the people who submitted have been duly noted. This weekend I will read the chosen again and put them in order. I am currently waiting to hear back from all the selected authors. I think we’ll make the announcement of the table of contents next week. Huzzah!

Yesterday I also started writing, of all things, a Chanse MacLeod short story. I know, right? I don’t think I’ll ever write another Chanse novel, but there are ideas I had for him that I don’t want to really waste, and hey, why not write short stories about him? I always had in mind to write about him returning to the town of his birth; I also had a story in mind involving his younger brother; another with him dealing with his fraternity past in Baton Rouge–all stories my publishers were never interested in since they weren’t set in New Orleans. As I have said before, I’ve never really known how to write a private eye mystery short story, but all this short story reading I’ve been doing has kind of opened my eyes in that regard; so thank you, Sue Grafton, Ross Macdonald, Laura Lippman, etc. I’ve already realized that the opening doesn’t work, and it’s just extraneous crap I don’t need. But I am going to soldier on, and hopefully today I will finish the first draft. I also have an idea for a short story involving Chanse’s partner, whose name I cannot recall; I’ve always been interested in writing about her–the straight girl who paid for college by stripping on Bourbon Street. I cannot for the life of me think of her name right now, which is annoying, but I always thought she was interesting. I’d even thought about spinning her off, even using Chanse as a supporting character in the books–but then, is there an audience for a series about a female private eye who used to work as a stripper? But I think I can make it work as a short story. We’ll see.

Last night while I was making dinner I reread some of the short stories I have in progress, and was quite pleased with them. I am going to try to get those revisions done as quickly as I can, so I can get them out of my hair so I can focus on getting the new project done.

I’m still behind on the Short Story Project, but I did manage to read Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind” yesterday; someone recently talked about it somewhere on social media as the perfect hard-boiled short story. It had been a while since I’d read Chandler–and I haven’t read all of Chandler, either, something I need to remedy–and so I thought it was a great opportunity to read this story, which I wasn’t familiar with.

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

I was getting one in a flossy new place across the street from the apartment house where I lived. It had been open about a week and it wasn’t doing any business. The kid behind the bar was in his early twenties and looked as if he had never had a drink in his life.

I’ve not read all of Chandler, or his hard-boiled cohorts Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, or noir master James M. Cain. What I have read I’ve greatly enjoyed; as I have greatly enjoyed John D. Macdonald. I think I’ve been influenced by all of them to some degree; and there simply isn’t enough time to read. I’d love to go back and not only finish reading all of their works but to reread the ones I’ve already read; The Maltese Falcon, for example, is way overdue for a reread and so are the Travis McGee novels; The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, and The Lady in the Lake, along with Love’s Lovely Counterfeit and of course, the Archer novels (although I am reading the Archer short stories). Anyway, I’ve always loved these writers and their work, and I do need to go back and reread them, problematic as some of them may be to modern eyes.

“Red Wind” is a really good story, complicated and complex, but still moves relatively easily from A to B to C. It opens with Marlowe stopping in at a bar across the street from where he lives in an apartment building, and a murder occurs right in front of him and the other denizens of the bar. After dealing with the police he heads back to the apartment building where he runs into the proverbial ‘dame’ of these types of stories, she lies to him, of course, but also manages to save his life when the murderer shows up to eliminate the witnesses. But while the mystery of the murder is now cleared up, turns out the victim has left some loose ends behind–involving the dame and some others. He was a blackmailer; the murder had nothing to do with the shooting (a very clever shift by Chandler), and Marlowe is on the case, trying to solve the blackmail cases and dealing with the LAPD. The writing is choice, terse, and all throughout the story the Santa Ana wind plays a role, almost like another character, driving people to do things they might not do under normal weather circumstances.

And now, back to the spice mines; since I didn’t go to the gym I need to get other things done.

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