That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be

The passage of time addles my brain and messes with my memories, as I have often complained about here. I don’t recall why I first picked up a Carol Goodman novel–someone must have recommended her books to me; all I do now is that when I did meet her in person, at the HarperCollins cocktail party at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, I had already read at least one of her novels and had quickly become a big fan. I fanboyed hard at that party, if I am recalling correctly, and I am not a bit embarrassed or sorry about it.

And every time I read another book she’s written, I fanboy all over again.

I have been told to make the Latin curriculum relevant to the lives of my students. I am finding, though, that my advanced girls at Heart Lake like Latin precisely because it has no relevance to their lives. They like nothing better than a new, difficult declension to memorize. They write the noun endings on their palms in blue ballpoint ink and chant the declensions, “Puella, puellae, puellae, puellam, puella…” like novices counting their rosaries.

When it comes time for a test they line up at the washroom to scrub down. I lean against the cool tile wall watching them as the washbasins fill with pale blue foam and the archaic words run down the drains. When they offer to show me the undersides of their wrists for traces of letters I am unsure if I should look. If I look, am I showing that I don’t trust them? If I don’t look, will they think I am naïve? When they put their upturned hands in mine–so light-boned and delicateit is as if a fledgling has alighted in my lap. I am afraid to move.

In class I see only the tops of their hands–the black nail polish and silver skull rings. One girl even has a tattoo on the top of her right hand–and intricate blue pattern that she tells me is a Celtic knot. Now I look at the warm, pink flesh–their fingertips are tender and whorled from immersion in water, the scent of soap rises like incense. Three of the girls have scratched the inside of their wrists with pins or razors. The lines are fainter than the lifelines that crease their palms. I want to trace their scars with my fingertips and ask them why, but instead I squeeze their hands and tell them to go on into cass. “Bona fortuna,” I say. “Good luck on the test.”

It is difficult to read, or write about, novels set at private schools without instantly thinking of Donna Tartt and her The Secret History–although I am not now, nor have ever been, a big fan of that particular novel (I’ve always meant to go back to it and give it another read)–or Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction, which is a book I really loved and should write about someday. I certainly don’t mean to imply that Goodman and her work is derivative; it’s not, by any means, any more so than anyone ever writing about a gay private detective in New Orleans is being derivative of my work. It’s reductive thinking at best, and lazy at worst.

When I was being interviewed for the Spirit of Ink yesterday, I was asked about what I am reading and how I decide what to read next–which isn’t a good question for me to answer, because so many things play into what I decide to read when I am looking for my next read–but I did give a big shout out to Carol Goodman and her The Lake of Dead Languages, which I only finished reading today; I said that Goodman writes modern-day Gothics, similar to what Phyllis A. Whitney wrote in her heyday of popularity, but with a distinctly modern flare that firmly fixes the books as contemporary. That brooding sense of menace and danger that are a hallmark of Gothics? Goodman had that down to a science. It’s actually hard to believe that The Lake of Dead Languages is, in fact, her debut novel; there’s so much professionalism and experience and intelligence in the book that that it’s actually a little intimidating for someone who’s writing novel number forty-something; the confidence in her language and character and story-telling choices is that of someone at their peak, rather than at their beginning. The book is immersive, impossible to put down, and incredibly satisfying when you finally reach the ending.

The book tells the tale of Jane Hudson, a divorced mom who has returned to Heart Lake Academy to teach Latin. She’s from the small town of Corinth in upstate New York that is home to the school; she was a scholarship student herself at Heart Lake, and when she was a student there several tragedies occurred: one of her roommates committed suicide, and later, so did the other roommate and her brother, whom Jane was sort-of in love with in that way teenaged girls think they are in love. But things aren’t what they seem, nor as things what they once were: those long-ago tragedies turned Heart Lake from a first-rate girls’ school to a school of last resort for problem girls whose parents have money. But weird things, echoes from the past, are intruding into Jane’s new life; there are the three stones known as the Three Sisters in the lake–and an old legend about how three sisters from the Crevecouer family (whose estate is now the school) all committed suicide by drowning in the lake and were turned into the three stones. The legend isn’t true–only the youngest sister died, from Spanish flu in 1918–but the legend is more fun to believe for students than the truth, but the truth–especially the truth from Jane’s time back as a student–has a weird way of working its way back into the light. Another student attempts suicide, Jane begins to think someone knows more about the tragedies of the past than they are letting on, and are torturing her–with pages from her own long lost diary when she was a student.

Goodman also manages a time-line shift; about a third of the way through the book we go back in time to when Jane was a young girl, and her burgeoning friendships with her roommates…which ended in tragedy that Jane has always blamed herself for–but Jane also never knew the full truth about what happened when she was a girl.

(Sounds like the cover blurb on a Phyllis A. Whitney novel, doesn’t it?)

The Lake of Dead Languages is a great read, one that I was truly sorry to finish reading. Highly recommended.

Ooh Baby Baby

There is no question that Agatha Christie is one of the giants (if not the giant) of crime fiction.

Agatha Christie was one of my gateways to adult crime fiction (along with Charlotte Armstrong, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Victoria Holt); if I remember correctly the first book of hers I bought was Witness for the Prosecution (which I didn’t know was a short story collection) and the first novel of hers I read was Murder in the Calais Coach (best known as Murder on the Orient Express; the former was a short-lived American title for the book, and frankly, isn’t an improvement; why make the title about something no one would know what is was? Everyone knew the Orient Express). I eventually read everything she wrote, with a few exceptions (I still haven’t read Murder in Three Acts or Death in the Air) but the first Miss Marple novel I read was A Caribbean Mystery. I always preferred Miss Marple to Poirot, but I kind of want to give a Poirot or two a reread; Donna Andrews made a very clever observation about him on one of my social media posts which provides another lens for me to read through.

I found a hardcover copy of A Caribbean Mystery somewhere since we moved into the Lost Apartment; I’m not sure where. I certainly don’t remember buying it on eBay (the only other Christie I have in hardcover, Halloween Party, is missing its dust jacket, and I think I got it at a yard sale? But wait! It’s a Poirot! And has Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s stand-in! Yes, that’s a reread for the new lens for Poirot! And now that that’s sorted…), so there’s no telling where it came from. I don’t know why it took me so long to reread it–it’s actually on the short side–but it did take me a while. Maybe because there was no urgency because I remembered who the killer was?

“Take all this business about Kenya,” said Major Palgrave. “Lots of chaps gabbing away who know nothing about the place! Now I spent fourteen years of my life there. Some of the best years of my life, too–“

Old Miss Marple inclined her head.

It was a gentle gesture of courtesy. While Major Palgrave proceeded with the somewhat uninteresting recollections of a lifetime, Miss Marple peacefully pursued her own thoughts. It was a routine with which she was well acquainted. The locale varied. In the past, it had been predominantly India. Majors, colonels, lieutenant-generals–and a familiar series of words: Simla. Bearers. Tigers. Chota Hazri–Tiffin. Khitmagars, and so on. With Major Palgrave the terms were slightly different. Safari. Kikuyu. Elephants. Swahili. But the pattern was essentially the same. An elderly man who needed a listener so that he could, in memory, relive days in which he had been happy Days when his back had been straight, his eyesight keen, his hearing acute. Some of these talkers had been handsome soldierly old boys, some again had been regrettably unattractive; and Major Palgrave, purple of face, with a glass eye, and the general appearance of a stuffed frog, belonged in the latter category.

Miss Marple has bestowed on all of them the same gentle charity. She had sat attentively, inclingin her head from time to time in gentle agreement, thinking her own thoughts and enjoying what there was to enjoy, in this case the deep blue of a Caribbean sea.

I decided to reread this book for several reasons. First, I am reading a lot of “cozy” mysteries (mysteries with amateur sleuths as the main crime-solver) because I am writing one myself; second, because I’ve been wanting to revisit Christie on a smaller scale (there’s no way I could reread her entire canon again); and third, because I read a piece recently somewhere (Crime Reads, perhaps?) about the enduring legacy of Christie despite some problematic aspects to some of the books (I was well aware of the classism and anti-Semitism, and VERY WELL AWARE of the various problematic title changes for And Then There Were None over the years), and this one was mentioned. I remembered the book, I remembered the story; I remembered that this was the book where Miss Marple met Mr. Rafiel and she became, in some ways, Nemesis to the two of them (one of the later Marples was, in fact, Nemesis, and Mr. Rafiel sent her a murder to solve from beyond the grave); but I wasn’t so sure I remembered why precisely this book was problematic, could be see that way. So, I took it down from the shelves, and started reading.

The premise of the book is this: Miss Marple had a rough winter, having contracted pneumonia, and her nephew, bestselling novelist Raymond West, has decided to send his beloved elderly aunt to a warmer climate to recuperate–St. Honoré, to be exact, in the Caribbean, or the West Indies–at the Golden Palm Hotel resort. (St. Honoré is, of course, fictional; I may use it if I ever need a fictional Caribbean setting) As she sits in the warm sun, knitting and observing the people around her–she is always watching–and half-listening to the pompous bore rattling on to his captive audience (this scene, and her thoughts about Major Palgrave being of a type who really doesn’t need anyone to really pay attention, but to just be in hearing range with the proper noises being made when necessary, is quite insightful and brilliant; haven’t we all been there in that situation?), when he asks her if she wants to see the picture of a murderer? Since she isn’t really listening, she assents and continues to observe and watch everyone around her, and as he is reaching into his wallet to show her a picture of said murderer, he stops, turns quite purple, shoves the photo back into his wallet and loudly changes the subject. This does catch her attention, and she turns around to see what he saw–but doesn’t see anything or anyone that could explain this behavior change. He then makes excuses and leaves.

And of course, he dies that night–and this incident nags at Miss Marple. His death is explained away by him having high blood pressure, and having drank too much on top of his medication; but she isn’t so sure. And then she makes up a lie about the photograph, which she tells the doctor, and it turns out the photograph is missing.

Obviously, the Major was murdered, and did he really have high blood pressure, or is that merely gossip? As Miss Marple observes, “it’s very easy to get a rumor about, and people will just repeat it. There’s never any first-hand knowledge; it always A heard it from B who heard it from C and no one can really pinpoint where the story started.”

It’s a good story, with lots of suspects and suspicious behavior and trying to sort rumor from truth, but two more people wind up dead–a very common theme in Christie is a murderer having to kill others to cover up their original crime–before Miss Marple remembers something and figures out not only who the killer is, but who their actual target was from the very beginning.

And yes, there’s some serious problematic views of the islanders from the British paternalistic colonialist point of view. But Christie herself never says anything problematic–it always comes from the mouth of one of her characters, who, given the time period, would inevitably think that way–side comments about how many of the islanders are in committed relationships without benefit of clergy; etc. etc. etc.

So, I would say it held up about 95% on the reread; yes, there’s some problematic stuff that might be jarring for someone to read now for the first time and would probably not be allowed past the editorial process today–and excising it wouldn’t harm the book in the least.

Salvation Theme

Reading has always been my escape from the realities of the cruel, cold world. As long as I can remember, I found solace in books–I could always open a book and escape from realities I didn’t want to participate in, or when the world became too much, there was always the comfort of a story about other people and another world where I could go to get away from it all.

When I was a kid, I was more interested in stories about women and girls than I was in stories about boys; I couldn’t really relate to boys as easily as I did to girls. This was, I think, a part of the strict gender divide in the society and culture I was born into; there were specific and clear differences between things for boys and things for girls. Girls played at housekeeping and mothering; boys were supposed to be outdoorsy and adventurous and active. I was not an outdoorsy, adventurous, active little boy; all I wanted to do was be left alone with a book–and the more my parents tried to get me interested in boy things the harder I stubbornly resisted. I never understood why it was so wrong that all I ever wanted to do was read.

I think that part of the reason I’ve always preferred books by and about women are because I can relate to them more, if that makes sense. As someone who never became vested in what society viewed as what masculine behavior is, those behaviors–not always necessarily toxic, but certainly steeped in it–inevitably make me lose interest in the character and their story.

Likewise, one of the reasons I preferred Mary Stewart to Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney (still love Holt and Whitney, though) is because her heroines weren’t passive; they didn’t sit still for being victimized or playing the victim but rather took charge of the situation and were just as capable as any man. This is why one of my favorite fictional series characters of all time were those created by the great Elizabeth Peters: Jacqueline Kirby and Vicky Bliss were also take-charge characters who didn’t suffer fools gladly, and of then there’s her creation who may be my favorite series character of all time: Amelia Peabody. God, how I love Amelia Peabody. Peters’ death was a blow for me; knowing there would be no more books with Peabody and Emerson and Ramses and Nofret and Walter and Evelyn and David….

But then I had the enormous good fortune to discover Mary Russell.

I sat back in y chair, jabbed the cap onto my pen, threw it into the drawer, and abandoned myself to the flood of satisfaction, relief, and anticipation that was let loose by that simple action. The satisfaction was for the essay whose last endnote I had just corrected, the distillation of several months’ hard work and my first effort as a mature scholar: It was a solid piece of work, ringing true and clear on the page. The relief I felt was not for the writing, but for the concomitant fact that, thanks to my preoccupation, I had survived the compulsory Christmas revels, a fete which ha reached a fever pitch in this, the last year of my aunts controls of what she saw as the family purse. The anticipation was for the week of freedom before me, one entire week with neither commitments nor responsibilities, leading up to y twenty-first birthday and all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. A small but persistent niggle of trepidation tried to make itself known, but I forestalled it by standing up and going to the chest of drawers for clothing.

My aunt was, strictly speaking, Jewish, but she had long ago abandoned her heritage and claimed with all the enthusiasm of a convert the outward forms of cultural Anglicanism. As a result, her idea of Christmas tended heavily toward the Dickensian and Saxe-Gothan. Her final year as my so-called guardian was coincidentally the first year since the Great War ended to see quantities of unrationed sugar, butter, and meat, which meant the emotional excesses had been compounded by culinary ones. I had begged off most of the revelry, citing the demands of the paper, but with my typewriter fallen silent, I had no choice but crass and immediate flight. I did not have to think about y choice of goals–I should begin at the cottage of my friend and mentor, my tutor, sparring partner and comrade-in-arms, Sherlock Holmes. Hence my anticipation. Hence my trepidation.

I first encountered Mary Russell last year when I read the first of her adventures with Holmes, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which took place over several years and was really a loosely connected series of different stories that showed the growing bond between the teenaged girl and the retired detective. Her wit, her style, her fierce intelligence–and her refusal to be a sidekick or passive made me fall madly in love with her–despite my long-held antipathy towards Sherlock Holmes. (I have since read more of Doyle, and find the antipathy I once felt fading; in no small part, I think, because last year I had to write my own spin on Holmes and Watson, which really changed everything I thought, felt, and believed about them.) I’m not sure what made me select the second Mary Russell to read recently; I do intend to read them all, of course, but there are sixteen or so (!) of them, and then there are King’s stand alones, and I’d also love to revisit her Kate Martinelli series, which is how I first came to read King in the first place. But I digress.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women is, of course, a terrific title; and I knew, of course, the source for it: the tedious Scot religious bigot John Knox’s 1550’s pamphlet primarily attacking Queen Mary I of England (aka Mary Tudor), “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” in which he blamed the sad state of Christendom at the time at the irreligious and unprecedented amount of women in power at that time in Europe–and, as I have said many times before, the sixteenth century had more powerful women running countries than any century before or since (and I’ve always wanted to write a history of that century, focusing on those women, and using that very same title King used here). So, going into the book, and knowing that Mary was studying theology at Oxford in the latter half of the first book, I assumed (correctly) that this book would have religion, and women, at its heart, so I sat down with the book rather eagerly.

It did not disappoint.

The book opens, as noted above, around Christmas time, just before Mary finally achieves her majority and comes into the inheritance her benighted aunt/guardian has been enjoying herself with since Mary’s family perished in an auto accident when she was fourteen. Rather the celebrate the holiday with her aunt and the aunt’s hangers-on, Mary escapes the house and goes in search of her old comrade, Holmes. This leads her to London and an encounter with a friend from earlier in her education at Oxford, which in turn leads her to the New Temple of God and its leader, Margery Childe–charismatic, suffragette, and also a religious mystic. (I was put in mind of Aimee Semple McPherson, who has always fascinated me and I’ve always kind of wanted to write about.) But there’s something unholy going on at the New Temple, and perspicacious Mary can’t quite put her finger on what’s wrong there–but it intrigues her and she gets deeper and deeper into what’s going on there.

There’s also a switch-up in the dynamic between her and Holmes in this book, but it is also to King’s credit that the groundwork for this was laid almost from the very beginning of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and it neither seems out of place or untoward, either for the story or the characters–and despite the awkwardness this change-up creates between the two of them in their all-too-brief encounters in the story (for make no mistake about it; this is clearly Mary’s story, and Holmes no more than a supporting player on this stage), it makes sense and it also answers one of the questions the first book aroused in me; how can King keep writing about this opposite-sex pair through an entire series without the question of chaperoning and so forth not coming up, or them simply remaining good friends while the deep and growing affection between them is so plainly right there on the page?

The writing is masterful and intelligent, and the story–with its interesting twists and turns, along with some exciting ventures along some of the more disreputable sections of London–is so well paced and plotted that you simply cannot put the book down. I was, quite literally, only on chapter three when I picked the book up again yesterday morning; within moments I was a captive of King’s magic and completely incapable of putting the book down–to the point that I resented having to take breaks to get coffee or go to the restroom or feed the cat. I had decided, when I sat down with the book, that I had to stop reading at noon so I could get back to my own manuscript. Noon came and went, and still I kept reading. At one I flipped to the back to see how many more pages were left, and decided that it was ridiculous and incomprehensible to stop reading so close to the end, and I wouldn’t be able to completely focus on my own while I was so worried about how Mary was going to escape the peril in which King had placed her. So…rationalizing if I don’t finish my own editing today I can always finish tomorrow I plowed forward.

And–without spoilers–I will say King did an incredibly accurate and chilling depiction of how drug addiction takes hold of people.

She also explores the question of women’s role in the Christian religion beautifully, weaving these theological questions and issues seamlessly into the narrative. Each chapter begins with a quote about just that–either from the Bible or the great Christian philosophers, exposing the vicious misogyny that has poisoned that faith almost from the very beginning.*

I loved this book, loved loved loved it, and am really looking forward to the next, A Letter of Mary.

If you’ve not yet started this series, wait no more.

*I also made note of these quotes so I can shamelessly use them myself!

All You Had to Do Was Stay

Well, we survived yet another week, Constant Reader, and here we are on Saturday morning. Huzzah! Congratulations–I do think even such small accomplishments definitely need to be rewarded in this year of Our Lord 2020.

It rained yesterday while I was making condom packs, and I just rewatched the LSU-Georgia game from last year–the SEC title game–because, well, frankly because after watching Fright Night on Thursday I was kind of not in the mood to watch any more horror, at least not yesterday; Fright Night was so disappointing I allowed that to carry over into another day (April Fool’s Day from last week was also disappointing).

This has been a very strange week; one of low energy, regularly occurring irritations and concerns and stressors, among other things. I finally got that damned essay revised and approved by the editor (thank you baby Jesus) and now today I intend to whip that short story into shape, work on a chapter of the book, and get some cleaning and organizing done around here. I’ve also found myself not on social media nearly as much as I used to be, and it’s really not a bad thing, after all. Sure, engaging with friends from across the country, commiserating about the slog of writing, etc. is often fun and satisfying, but emotionally there’s so much nastiness and negativity in the world that seems to take over so much of it that I don’t really miss being there nearly as much as I thought I might; I kind of miss the days when my feed mostly consisted of people taking pictures of their food or asking for recommendations for things to watch or read. I found a lot of terrific books and TV shows and films from my social media feeds; but now they are so emotionally and intellectually exhausting that I am not really terribly sure that I want to spend more time there than i have been lately.

The bloom is rather off that rose, as it were.

And yet another example of how and why we can’t have anything nice.

I slept marvelously last night; I even slept later than usual this morning, which was equally lovely. I do feel rested as I swill my coffee this morning, and I am currently working on backing up my back -up hard drive to the cloud, so that everything recent is kind of there. (I have done back-ups before, so I really don’t need to back-up anything past a certain date from the back-up hard drive, really; something i just realized, which means I don’t really need to spend as much time with it as I have been; I really only need to back up things from the last few months or so because it all should have already been backed up to the cloud already.) I’m still a bit foggy this morning as I type this, but the caffeine will eventually turn the trick and I’ll be ready to go tackle the revision of “The Snow Globe,” before preparing to take on the book again. LSU doesn’t play until six tonight, which gives me the entire day to write and read and clean and organize. Tomorrow morning will be my “try to answer all my emails” morning, before moving on to writing again. I want to read some more short stories this weekend–I may even move back into the Reread Project; I’ve had a hankering for a reread of Christine ever since I rewatched the film recently, and there are any number of Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney classics loaded into my iPad for me to reread quite easily; I actually queued up Sara the other night–why not reread one of my own, particularly my only previous Kansas book; particularly since I need to be certain I am not reusing character names from it in the new one–and I’ve also need to be certain that I am making time to write going forward.

Writing (and reading) really needs to become more of a priority in my life again.

I have been thinking about writing–whether in short or long form, I have yet to decide–about the yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans. The worst one was in 1853, when one in fifteen died; but the last was in 1905. (Bubonic plague paid a visit less than ten years later, something I noted in my Sherlock story “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy”) I particularly like the note that people actually believed that yellow fever was spread by miasma, pollution in the air, or foul odors (they hadn’t discovered that mosquitoes spread it yet) and so they used to occasionally fire a cannon during fever season in an attempt to clear/clean the air. As always, the epidemics primarily targeted the poor, the enslaved, and the immigrant populations of the city; the wealthy used to abandon the city for their country estates or visiting relatives when it was fever season (little known fact: the reputation of Marie Laveau was primarily earned because she worked as a volunteer nurse during epidemics and never became ill herself; people began to believe this was further proof of her supernatural powers). It’s also really interesting to me that where the campus of the University of New Orleans sits now used to be a lake resort area called Milneburg; people used to catch the train at Elysian Fields and Esplanade to ride out there to catch the gentle breezes and experience the cooler air on the lakefront, renting little cabins out there as a vacation of sorts. I am very interested in New Orleans in the period between the Spanish-American War and the first world war; I also recognize that the period is one that most historians love and history fans love to read about, as it was the heyday of Storyville. But in fairness, all of the twentieth century in New Orleans is interesting to me, much more so than the previous centuries. I do have an idea for another Sherlock story or novella having to do with Storyville, based on an actual true story; “The Mother of Harlots” about the murder of a Storyville madam whom I have running a bordello called Babylon–my fictional Mrs. Fournier was the kind of women who embraced the sin of what she was doing and made sure everyone knew it, yet at the same time she had a very secret–and respectable–life with a daughter she was trying to pass off to society (there actually was a madam who did this very thing!), which, on its face, is the perfect set up for a murder, don’t you think?

I also want to set one in Milneburg, but I don’t have anything other than the Sherlockian title of “A Scandal in Milneburg”, which doesn’t really thrill me. I don’t see the need for me to parody Holmes canon titles, really; I can certainly mimic the style of the titles, as I did with the one I already wrote and sold. It’s interesting how writing that story has fired up my imagination as far as Holmes and Watson is concerned–I’ve written before about not being a huge fan of the stories–but actually writing about them has whetted my appetite to keep giving my own spin on the two characters, and I genuinely liked Watson as I wrote through his point of view.

Who would have ever thought I would come to the fandom by actually writing about them? Interesting, isn’t it?

And on that note I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!

To Step Aside

AH, hello, Thursday, how are you doing?

Yesterday was a good day, despite paying the bills. I worked from home, made a lot of condom packs, and had some lovely, lovely phone calls. I also remembered why I stopped talking on the phone–I can talk for hours, and now that I used the headphones and can actually hear, yes, well, pity the poor fools I called to talk to yesterday. I talked endlessly.

The telephone–cell phone, whatever–is really a marvelous invention, truly.

See? Even a tired old Luddite like me can adapt and change and learn some new tricks.

We started watching a German series, Dark, last night on Netflix. It’s really quite good, even if we’re really not sure after one episode what it’s about. I suspected Germans would be particularly good with dark suspense shows, and the German language, as I said to Paul last night, is perfect for that creepiness because it’s such a guttural language. My German is so rusty as to be non-existent anymore, despite the years spent studying and learning it, but I was able to pick up a word every now and then. I was reading an article the other day that said the easiest way to learn another language was to watch a show in that language with English subtitles–that way you learn pronunciations and the rhythm of the language, and then watch shows in English with subtitles in that language–so you read the words in German while hearing them in English. It’s an interesting idea, and I’ve always regretted losing my German, so maybe I’ll give it a try. I tried learning Italian last year with Duolingo, and was doing their short lessons one per day, but then got behind during Carnival and never caught up. I’d love to be able to at least understand some Italian or German, in case we ever go to Europe ever again, but laziness and a lack of time will undoubtedly hold me back.

I’ve also slept well every night this week, which is lovely and undoubtedly a product of the lower levels of caffeine in my system every day. (I’ve probably jinxed it and that bitch Insomnia will probably return this evening.) But it’s lovely, and feeling actually rested this many days in a row has been wonderful. The Lost Apartment is also looking better, as I am trying to get the clutter decluttered and the house better organized. I’ve also decided to slowly begin to cull the books; it’s not easy and frequently, far too frequently, I will pull a book off the shelves, put it back, take it down, and so on and so forth for much longer than it needs to go on. But it’s also silly to keep hard copies of books I have electronically, no matter how much I may cherish the actual physical copy (it’s so much easier to take a book down off the shelf and page through it, find a scene I enjoy, and reread it; but I am also not doing that nearly as much as I used to and really, these books can find better, more deserving homes).

And the older I get, the far less likely it is that I will ever write the exploratory essays or non-fiction books to study a particular style of book/subgenre/writing. I’ve always wanted to do an in-depth look at the style and themes frequently explored in Gothics/romantic suspense novels; beginning with the Bronte sisters, Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney. But the truth is there isn’t a market for that, really, and while it may be interesting to me, I don’t know that it would be interesting to readers. I’m also not an academic writer in any way shape or form; a bunch of literary writers did a live watch of the Anthony Minghella film of The Talented Mr. Ripley and while following it was interesting, a lot of the commentary was about things I never noticed in my many viewings of the film; themes and symbolism and so forth. Which, of course, is why I don’t write criticism; I always rolled my eyes in Lit classes when we studied these things and the professor would so condescendingly ‘explain’ the work to us; I’ve always rebelled against the academy and its mindset and how it tried to teach us how to re-learn how to read. Sure, I could play the game once I intuited what the professor was looking for in our essays and get good grades–I am, after all, a writer at heart and always have been–but as an adult and one who no longer needs to suck up to a professor and toe the line they’ve set for a grade, I have no desire to revisit that methodology and ruin the reading experience for myself–I don’t need to write lengthy articles delving into the themes and symbolism and so forth in fiction to publish for free in academic journals in order to get tenure; so why on earth would I waste my time doing so?

I write enough for free as it is, and every year I make the determination that I will stop–but inevitably, it always seems to happen anyway.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines for me. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader, be safe and may all your dreams come true.

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Phyllis A. Whitney is one of my all-time favorite authors.

I first discovered her, as Constant Reader is probably already aware, when I was a kid looking for mysteries in the school library. I distinctly remember that day in the fourth grade when I found The Mystery of the Hidden Hand on the shelves at the Eli Whitney Elementary School library; this was during my period of fascination with the ancient world (I was getting the Time-Life series Great Ages of Man; and had just gotten the volume Classical Greece). The description on the back of the book told me it was set in Greece, and had to do with antiquities and Greek history; that was all I needed and I signed it out. (I have, in the past, mistakenly identified The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye as my gateway drug into Whitney’s novels; I remembered incorrectly.) I enjoyed the book tremendously; I returned it and checked out The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye. I went on to read many of her children’s mysteries; she won two Edgars for Best Juvenile and was nominated twice more. After we’d moved to the suburbs, Signet started reissuing her children’s mysteries, and I started buying them at Zayre’s: The Mystery of the Angry Idol, The Secret of the Spotted Shell, The Mystery of the Black Diamonds, The Mystery of the Golden Horn, The Mystery of the Gulls, and numerous others. (I started collecting them again as an adult, thanks to eBay.)

I won’t tell the story again of how I rediscovered Whitney as a romantic suspense writer for adults; I’ve told that story any number of times, and I read almost everything she wrote for adults–but with The Ebony Swan I noted a decline in the quality of her writing, and never read anything she published after that. (I do intend, at some point, to read the ones I’ve never read–it’s the completist in me.)

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Cunningham’s department store is quiet again now. Sylvester Haring still puts his head in the door of my office whenever he goes by, to call out “Hi, Linell!” and perhaps to linger and study the pictures on my walls, to speak briefly of the past. But his days are given over to the humdrum of catching shoplifters and petty thieves, instead of trailing a murderer.

He never mentions that one picture we hunted down together, or the tragic denouement to which it led. But now and then we cock an eyebrow at each other because we are conspirators and know it.

Not that the law was in any way defeated. Payment in full was made for all those terrible things that happened. But still, Haring and I know what we know and the case as it broke in the papers told only half the story.

There are still things about Cunningham’s that make me shiver. I can never cross that narrow passageway that leads past the freight elevators into the display department without a feeling of uneasiness. I cannot bear the mannequin room at all, and I will go to any length to avoid setting foot in it. But most of all I am haunted by the symbols that came into being during the case.

The color red, for instance. I never wear it anymore, because it was the theme of those dreadful days. It ran beneath the surface of our lives like a bright network of veins, spilling out into the open now and then to accent with horror. And there are the owls. Sometimes in my dreams that eerie moment returns when I stood there in the gloom with all those plaster creatures crowding about me, cutting off my escape.

Nor will I ever again breathe the scent of pine without remembering the way the light went out and those groping hands came toward me. Strange to have your life saved by the odor of Christmas trees.

But the worst thing of all is when I imagine I hear the strains of Sondo’s phonograph. For me, those rooms will never be free of ghostly music and I break into cold chills in broad daylight whenever a radio plays Begin the Beguine.

And while there are some romantic aspects to The Red Carnelian, it’s probably one of the least romantic suspense-like novels she published (Skye Cameron, The Quicksilver Pool, and The Trembling Hills were not mysteries, at least not that I recall; but they were also early in her career and once she hit her stride, she became enormously successful). It’s a straight-up murder mystery, told in the first person point of view of Linell Wynn, who works at Cunningham’s Department Store on State Street in Chicago, writing copy for advertising posters, ads, and so forth. When the story opens, the entire store is on edge, because the window display manager, Michael “Monty” Montgomery, is returning to work that day from his surprise honeymoon; he and Linell had been a thing before his sudden elopement caught everyone by surprise. He’d married Chris Gardner, whose father Owen ran the luxury floor–the 4th–evening gowns and jewelry and furs. Linell claims that she and Monty were cooling things off when he suddenly eloped; I’m not entirely convinced that’s not something she claims to salvage her damaged pride. Naturally, later that day Monty is murdered, and of course, Linell finds the body; a fact which she, on the advice of Bill Thorne (one of the store’s vendors) keeps quiet from the police. He was killed near one of the window displays, by a golf club; Linell found the broken end of it in the window before she finds the body and put it back in the golf bag, thus handling the murder weapon. She also finds a piece of stone, a red carnelian, in the window display and puts it in her smock pocket and forgets about it.

Linell, of course, immediately becomes suspect number one–but it doesn’t take long for her, her store detective buddy Sylvester Haring, and new love interest Bill (who she does suspect from time to time) to find out almost every single person working in the store who’s a character in the book has a reason for hating Monty and wanting to see him dead. Linell of course also finds herself targeted from time to time by the killer–who never actually kills her (obviously)–as she sort of starts figuring out the who’s and what’s and why’s of the story.

It’s quite a good read; the characters are very well fleshed out, and the writing itself is pretty good. Whitney always wrote in a more Gothic style, in her books for adults; a style that seems a little dated now as well but still manages to hold your interest. I also would imagine a teenager reading the book today would have to look up what a “phonograph” was–although its usage makes it fairly clear to me what it is; but of course I grew up with phonographs and vinyl records and needles and all the accoutrement that goes along with them.

I’d recommend it as a gateway to Whitney’s other, more romantic suspense type work; it works very well as a stand-alone cozy type mystery novel.

Disco Potential

Sunday morning and I slept very well last night, which feels pretty lovely this morning, quite frankly. Yesterday was a good day, which I took off from all my deadlines, worries, and cares. I did run to the grocery store for a few things, tried to buy ink at Office Depot to no avail, and then went to the gym. I then came home and showered before reading for a while, and then I started watching Outer Banks again, after it being recommended by Chris and Katrina Niidas Holm; this time I got sucked into the story. Is it a great show? Not really, but it is trashy fun, and I like that the writers finally got what they were actually doing and went all in. We also finished watching The Great last night, which is actually quite fun and terrific. I’m not quite sure who the audience for The Great is, but Elle Fanning is terrific as Catherine and it’s highly entertaining.

Sigh. Saturday nights are a whole lot different for me now than they were for years.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that Saturday meant an entirely different thing than it does to me now. Now, it’s all about what can I get done today and what will we watch this evening and so forth; back then it wasn’t a question of whether we would be going out or not–the question was which bars would we be going to and what time would we be going out. Even if the idea was always just to be around people and listen to fun music, we’d inevitably pass the tipping point over into drunk. Sometimes we’d go dancing, sometimes we’d just hang out in the non-dance clubs with friends or would run into people; the free flow of going out on the weekend in the French Quarter was something that could never be planned. You never knew who you’d run into and how that would impact or change your plans; whether the mood or the music in a particular club would be off or fun–which also impacted how long we’d stay there before moving on.

I miss going dancing sometimes, but I don’t miss the late nights and the cigarette smoke (of course that’s also a thing of the past) and I don’t miss getting drunk two or three times on the weekend, either (the only question of the weekend wasn’t if we would go out on Saturday or not, it was would we also go out on Friday as well? And Sunday inevitably wound up being a given). I drank enough in those days to last me the rest of my life, and while I do like the occasional cocktail and the occasional buzz, I don’t like getting sloppy drunk anymore, and that happens more rarely now than it used to.

Now, of course, as a fifty-eight year old who feels like he’s going on eighty sometimes, the thought of going to a bar or a club isn’t appealing to me in the least. I can’t imagine standing around for hours, for one thing, and for another, I can’t imagine dancing for hours like I used to, getting hot and sweaty and taking off my shirt and tucking it into the back of my jeans. Then again, it’s been so long since I’ve been to a gay bar I don’t know if gays still do that–oh, what am I saying? Of course they do. Just like the swallows return to Capistrano, a certain subset of gay men will always go dancing on the weekends, drink too much, perhaps indulge in some illegal substances, and dance the night away with their shirts off. Why else would you go to the gym all week if you’re not going to show off the hard work on the dance floor?

I do miss it sometimes, though.

Today I am going to do some writing and trying to get out from behind this eight ball I seem to have been behind for most of this year. I have some things to reread and edit, and of course I want to get going on the Secret Project again, which has stalled for a moment–damned work week heat and humidity, sucking the life out of me every day–and there’s some cleaning to do as well. I didn’t get the floors done yesterday–trying to get caught up on the dishes and laundry was hard enough work as it was–and I am going to try to finish reading Phyllis Whitney’s The Red Carnelian today, as well as Bruce Campbell’s The Secret of Skeleton Island, which is the first novel in one of my favorite kids’ series, the Ken Holt mysteries. And yes, as always, I am probably assuming I can get more done today than I actually can, but hey–you never know until you try.

It’s also so incredibly easy to get distracted…I must try to avoid distractions at all cost. Distractions are the progress killer.

And I am, after all, so easily distracted. In fact, even as I type about not letting myself get distracted….I am thinking about things to do to waste my time today rather than writing.

But one important thing: I am going to close my web browser before I start writing. The Internet is the true distraction.

And on that note, tis off to the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader!

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It’s A Sin

Ah, SIN.

The human concept of sin is something that has alays fascinated me; as does the societal distinction that sin isn’t necessarily a crime. Adultery, after all, made the Top Ten in the Bible; but adultery isn’t a crime, at least in our country. Maybe I’ve been reading too much medieval plague history, but as a result the entire concept of sin v. crime has been running through my head a lot. We also always tend to speak and think of historical as being more religious and superstitious than our modern, “rational” time; which is why when the religious superstitions start finding their way out of the woodwork, people are always surprised. I’ve seen that a lot, actually, since 2008; the surprise of people who were just now noticing that much of organized religion is steeped in bigotry propped up by skillful, selective usage of their “holy” book while ignoring the parts that do not prove their bigotry and ignorance as holy. I’ve been toying, since the start of this current pandemic and the beginning of my own plague readings, with a story called “The Flagellants,” based on an idea obtained from rereading Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and it’s plague chapter–about a movement of religious fanatics who believed God had sent the plague as a punishment for mankind’s sin (as fanatics have always believed in divine punishment as long as they have believed there are gods in the sky), and marched through the streets praying and repenting loudly while flogging themselves; their theory (if one can call it that) was that they were representing mankind’s penitence to God and therefore their behavior was intended to get God to take the scourge away. This set me to thinking about that Christian group that loves to show up here in the Quarter during Southern Decadence and Carnival to loudly tell us all, through megaphones and over amplifiers, that we are all sinners that need to repent and find our way back to the Lord, and wondering why they weren’t parading through the streets of the Quarter, doing something similar. (Their faith isn’t as strong as they would have us believe, apparently.) And so I started writing said story, but wasn’t really sure where to take it…I have some ideas; hopefully this weekend will help me sketch some of those ideas out.

Ah, sin.

A three day weekend is always a delight; I’m of the mind that every weekend should be three days rather than two. It generally takes me one day to rest and recover from the weekend, which is when I do my errands and clean and so forth, and then I am centered enough and rested enough (after two good night’s sleep) to get some work done on Sunday. With a three day weekend, that gives me an extra day to simply focus on writing. Naturally, of course, if every weekend was a three day weekend it would eventually prove also to not be enough time for me, I suppose, and so probably best to leave things as they are and simply enjoy those weekends when they come around. I have some plans for today; primarily a grocery run and perhaps a trip to the gym, along with some cleaning and organizing and perhaps some writing/brainstorming.

We continue to enjoy The Great on Hulu; I do recommend it, it’s very entertaining if not always the most historically accurate–and as I have stated many times, when it comes to television or film adaptations of actual historical events, accuracy inevitably goes out the window (the most egregious example of this being The Tudors. By combining Henry VIII’s sisters Margaret and Mary into one person, and then having her die without children, they essentially erased not only the Brandon/Grey line–no Nine Days’ Queen Jane Grey–but also the Scottish Stewarts; so no Mary Queen of Scots or any of the royalty since the death of Elizabeth I); and complaining about historical inaccuracies in fictional representations of actual history is low-hanging fruit, as it were.

I also want to finish reading Phyllis A. Whitney’s The Red Carnelian, and I’ve also started rereading a book from one of my favorite kids’ series, the Ken Holt mysteries by Bruce Campbell. The Ken Holt series is always neck and neck with The Three Investigators as my favorite kids’ series; they are very well written, action-packed, and well plotted as well; with a kind of hard-boiled edge to them. The first book in the series, The Secret of Skeleton Island, (a title also used in The Three Investigators series) introduces us not only to our young hero but to the people at Global News (Ken’s father is a globe trotting reporter; his mother is dead, and since his father is gone a lot Ken is at a boarding school somewhere outside of New York; I always assumed it was up the Hudson valley but it may have actually been Long Island), and how Ken meets up with, and basically is adopted into, the Allen family. I’m actually enjoying the book–and considering it was written for 9-12 year olds in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s, and it still holds up, is saying quite a bit. The fact these books never caught on or were as popular as, say the Hardy Boys, and have been out of print for decades, is disgraceful.

And on that note, I am going to head into the spice mines. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader, and I look forward to speaking to you again this weekend.

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It’s Alright

Monday morning, and we have thus far made it through another weekend, and have another week to stare down. I’ve not heard or seen any reports about how the gradual reopening of New Orleans went this weekend–I stayed my ass at home; I didn’t go outside at all other than to take out the trash–and today’s a work-at-home day. The gym has reopened, and I am debating whether I should go workout after work tonight. I’ve been itching to get back to the gym since everything closed–if you will recall, I’d started working out again before the shutdown, even managing to make it through Carnival, and had developed a really good routine before the world closed down on me.

I got some writing done on the Secret Project yesterday, almost two thousand words, which was pretty thrilling for me. I’d hoped to get more done–as I always do–but I really had to force those words out, and I was pretty glad to have been that productive when the words weren’t coming, so I called it a day when the well went dry and retired to my easy chair. I watched a great documentary on Galaxy Quest (one of my favorite movies) on Prime called Never Surrender–if you’re a fan of the movie, I highly recommend the documentary. Last evening Paul and I continued watching The Great, which is becoming more and more fun as I no longer think of them as actual historical figures, since the show bears so little resemblance to the actual history.

I also tried reading  a classic novel by a master of our genre, but couldn’t get very far into it. I admire what the author was doing with his style, voice and use of language–I’ve heard him speak and he’s all about the rhythm of the words, which is very important, and something I tell beginning writers all the time to watch for, and why it’s always important to read your work out loud to make sure the rhythm you’re using is consistent–but he also was guilty of one of my pet peeves: the use of colons and semi-colons in fiction prose. Anyway, between that and the toxic masculinity and racism–I don’t care if it was accurate for the period, it’s hard for me to see toxic racist men as heroic–and when I got to the extensive use of the n*word–again, probably accurate and correct for the period–I was done. I put it in the donation pile and was done with it. I’ve read his work before and I don’t remember it being quite as bad as this particular book; but I intend to reread that book again at some point (it was also homophobic, which jumped off the page at me, and that’s why I want to reread it–to see if it still rings that way) and then I can gladly call it quits on that author.

I’m also still rereading Phyllis A. Whitney’s The Red Carnelian, which is more of a straight-up mystery than any of her other novels for adults. As I mentioned before, it was originally titled Red is for Murder; most of her novels for adults had a color in the title somehow–The Turquoise Mask, Silverhill, Hunter’s Green, Black Amber, Sea Jade–but when her work became more romantic suspense, it was reissued and retitled as The Red Carnelian, to fit her other titles more. Set in a sprawling department store on State Street in Chicago (like Marshall Field’s or Carson Pirie Scott, back in the day–I wonder which store she used as a research; Mrs. Whitney was a librarian, and always exhaustively researched her novels) named Cunningham’s, the book also offers an interesting, behind-the-scenes look at how department stores are run, and the various jobs (window dresser, poster and sign copy, marketing and sales, backdrop painting, mannequin arranging) that are necessary for the day-to-day operation of a large department store. Thinking about which store she used to research her novel sent me into an Internet wormhole, where I looked up Marshall Field’s, Carson Pirie Scott, Goldblatt’s, and Zayre’s, among the many department stores I remember visiting as a child in Chicago. (The bargain basement at Zayre’s was where I first discovered the children’s mystery series featuring Rick Brant, Ken Holt, and Biff Brewster.)

I kind of miss department stores.

I am hoping to get a lot accomplished this week–and I am really looking forward to our three day weekend that’s coming up. Huzzah!

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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Home and Dry

And here we are at Friday once again. Lovely, isn’t it?

Yesterday I had a massive breakthrough on the Secret Project; I found the character’s voice and precisely how to write the opening. I also immediately realized that the plot I was planning on recycling here doesn’t necessarily work as easily as I might like, and then I realized precisely what the story was. I even wrote a few paragraphs, and as I wrote them the characters began taking form in my head; I could hear her voice and I knew exactly who she was.

It was such an enormous relief; I am always terrified that the “Eureka!” moment will stop coming to me and the well will, finally, once and for all, run dry. I don’t know if other authors worry about things like that–but it happens whenever the work isn’t coming well for me, and it affects my moods and everything else, every other aspect of my life–and not in a positive way. You’d think by now I’d recognize all the symptoms of the work not going well, and the subconscious worry involved; the restless sleep, the exhaustion, the grouchiness and deepening of my auto-pilot snarkiness, and the lackadaisical approach to everything else in my life. It always means the work isn’t going well and I am starting to get worried about it deep inside the inner recesses of my psyche–and it’s always such an enormous relief when the breakthrough comes and the sun begins to shine again after the dark night of the soul.

We had a horrific thunderstorm last night before I went to bed–long lasting rolls of thunder that seemed to never end. I could feel the pressure change, and I also knew that the combination of thunderstorm at bedtime and writing breakthrough meant I would also sleep deeply and well and restfully. Apparently, the surrounding parishes flooded and still have standing water this morning. Yikes! But it also meant that I slept well, which was good for me if horrible for the poor people impacted by the downpour.

I finished reading House of Many Shadows yesterday. I had a doctor’s appointment that was a bit of a clusterfuck (I won’t go into the details here, but I’ll leave it at I didn’t see the doctor today), and afterwards I ran a few errands. Once I was home–it did sprinkle on me during the errands, but I was able to get everything out of the car and into the house without being rained upon; I don’t think it ever did much more than sprinkle, but once the groceries were put away, I relaxed in my easy chair and finished reading my book. I was much closer to the end than I thought I was, and immediately after I started another reread, The Red Carnelian by Phyllis A. Whitney; the book originally published as Red is for Murder. It was Mrs. Whitney’s first novel for adults, and was more of a straight-up mystery than the novels that took her to the top of the New York Times list and to the pinnacle of success. I thought of it because of an odd thing; someone–Scott Heim, perhaps?–had posted a link on social media to an article about a cafe or restaurant that was seating mannequins in the dining room to help with social distancing as well as make it seem less empty; it reminded me of a truly terrifying scene in this book (as I remember it) that takes place in a darkened room filled with unused mannequins; the heroine is alone in the room with the killer. I’ve never quite been able to not see mannequins as something terrifying ever since. The book is set in a large department store in Chicago; which I also thought was an interesting setting for a mystery novel. (I came up with an idea for a soap built around a department store dynasty, back in the days when I wanted to be a soap writer; it was probably born of reading this book. Now that I think about it more, my “soap” was also set in Chicago. Hmmm. Well, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.)

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader!

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