All the Gold in California

I often talk about how my education in the so-called “classics” is somewhat lacking; this is also true, not just of the great canon of literary fiction, but within my own genre as well (which is why I never pose as an expert on crime fiction; I am not one). I had never read Ross MacDonald–I was aware of him, and Lew Archer–but never had any real desire to read him until I was on a panel with Christopher Rice, who mentioned MacDonald as one of his favorite writers and an inspiration. Hmmm, I thought, perhaps I should give MacDonald a try.

So, in the years following that panel, I started reading the Archer novels, and enjoyed them tremendously. I’ve not read all of them, and I’ve not read any of his stand-alones…but what I liked the most about them was the style; how MacDonald put words and sentences together to create not only character, but mood and a kind of dark, noir-ish hard-boiled sensibility that I really admired. Early in my writing career, I patterned Chanse–both character and series–after John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series; later, after I started reading Ross MacDonald, I tried to see if I could create my own version of that sensibility and writing style; influenced by both MacDonalds but trying to create my own version, if that makes any kind of sense. I’d say Murder in the Irish Channel came the closest of any of the books to perfecting that style; I don’t know if Murder in the Arts District  replicated the feat (which means I am going to have to reread it, even if cursorily, damn it).

There’s nothing more tedious than rereading your own work.

But I recently decided it was past time to give one of Ross MacDonald’s stand-alones a shot, and chose The Ferguson Affair.

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The case began quietly, on the women’s floor of the county jail. I was there to interview a client, a young nurse named Ella Barker who had been arrested on a stolen-property charge. Specifically, she had sold a diamond ring which was part of the loot in a recent burglary; the secondhand dealer who bought it from her reported the transaction to the police.

Our interview started out inauspiciously. “Why you?” she wanted to know. “I thought people in trouble had a right to choose their own lawyer. Especially when they’re innocent, like me.”

“Innocence or guilt has nothing to do with it, Miss Barker. The judges keep an alphabetical list of all the attorneys in town. We take turns representing defendants without funds. My name happened to be next on the list.”

“What did you say your name was?”

“Gunnarson. William Gunnarson.”

“It’s a funny name,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

Reading books written in the past–no matter how far back–can often be jarring. One has to take into consideration the context of the time in which the book was written; The Ferguson Affair, for example, was published originally in 1960, and if you don’t think the world and society and culture have changed dramatically in the time since the final full year of the Eisenhower administration, you might want to think again. The book was published the year before I was born, so technically the book is only slighter older than I am, and it came out in a world without color television, cable, cell phones, etc. Technology had advanced so far in those fifty-nine years it might as well have been published a hundred years ago.

The Ferguson Affair was published in the midst of the period when he was producing the Lew Archer novels, and a lot of the Archer hallmarks also appear in this book; a complicated, winding plot that begins as something very small–in this case, the arrest of Ella Barker for pawning stolen property–and then continues, over the course of the investigation, to expand outwards into something much bigger, most dastardly, and more deadly. William Gunnarson, the main character of the book, is an attorney in a small California city named Buenavista, reminiscent of the town of Santa Teresa where some of the Archer books are set (and was later borrowed by Sue Grafton for her Kinsey Millhone books in a homage to MacDonald). Gunnarson is married and his wife is nine months pregnant and ready to give birth at any moment; more on that later. He is interviewing his client when word comes that someone had tried to kill the pawnshop owner who turned her in; Gunnarson is allowed to ride along to the pawnshop, which is on Pelly Street–clearly the wrong side of the tracks, and the Latin side of town. Ella was given the diamond ring she pawned for her engagement to Larry Gaines, the lifeguard at the fancy Foothill Club (the Buenavista country club), after discovering he was stepping out on her with retired screen star Holly May. The ring was loot from a robbery; the police suspect Ella knows more about the gang of robbers than she is letting on–because the victims of the robbery have all been patients at the hospital where she works as a nurse.

The book proceeds from there, with twists and turns involving kidnapping and extortion, murder and robbery; and while it is a fun ride as all MacDonald novels are, there is definitely some 1960’s era um, that’s a bit racist stuff when it comes to the Latinx people he comes into contact with over the course of the story.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration how Gunnarson treats his pregnant wife, Sally. Nine months pregnant and about to give birth at any given moment, he can’t be bothered to call her to tell her he’s coming home late for dinner which she is preparing. He never checks in on her to see if she’s okay; and in fact, he’s not around when she finally does go into labor, and someone else has to make sure she gets to the hospital in time for the birth. There’s none of the modern sentimentality about pregnancy and childbirth; he actually teases and mocks her about being so pregnant during the brief time he gives her any attention at all.  I’m not really sure why it was necessary for her to be pregnant, to be honest; it bore no relation to the story in any way, and all it did was make Gunnarson seem, to my modern eyes, like an asshole.

It did occur to me that this story could have just as easily been an Archer novel/story; only set in the past, to give a key insight into who Archer was as a character, and how he developed. I could totally see this being Archer’s marriage, and Archer being the kind of husband who would always put his wife and family last; as was expected of men at the time, and the wife getting tired of it and divorcing him. (I am not an Archer expert; I’ve read some of the books, not all, and while I do enjoy them when I do read them, I don’t have details memorized. I do seem to recall that Archer had been married and divorced; I think his ex-wife is mentioned a few times…but like I said, this works as an early Archer story, but back then it wasn’t common for series books to be written out of order; maybe that was why this wound up not being an Archer? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting theory.)

Reading the book, though, made me think more about writing another Chanse novel, which I think may happen at some point in the next few years. I’d recommend it to you if you’re a MacDonald fan and want to achieve completion with his works; it’s probably not the best place to start with MacDonald if you haven’t read him before.

Do It Again

Here it is, Saturday morning and I am awake and on my first cup of coffee. I have things to get done today–two interviews and a roundtable (the round table is terrifying; I looked at the questions and I’m not really certain I am smart or knowledgeable enough to participate, but I said I would and I never back out of things I agree to–or rarely). It’s weird, one would think I would love the chance to talk about myself and my writing as they are basically my favorite subjects, but it always makes me feel, at best, awkward and at worst, deeply uncomfortable.

All that childhood conditioning against arrogance and bragging, I suppose.

I didn’t quite finish cleaning out my inbox yesterday–in fact, I didn’t get even remotely close to cleaning it out, so it’s going back to the list for today. I need to get the mail and I need to make a short grocery run this afternoon, and I would like to go to the gym and try to get started on a regular workout routine again, but that becomes even more difficult given the heat advisory. But thinking about going to the gym, while not the same thing as actually going, is a step closer to getting there, I suppose. I also need to stop by Office Depot to buy some padded envelopes; the arrival of the box o’books also means signing and mailing out copies I owe to friends and reviewers and so forth. Signing and packaging the books is a chore, but I don’t find it as odious as one might think.

Yesterday, as you already know, Constant Reader, I finished reading S. A. Cosby’s delightful My Darkest Prayer, and I am very thrilled and happy to know that he recently signed a two-book contract, so I can look forward to new work from Shawn in the future. Yay! I love discovering new writers, and I love when they have new work. I do have this insane thing where I try not to finish reading everything an author has published so I always know there’s one more book by them to read–I was looking at my bookshelves yesterday as I reorganized the living room, realizing there are still three Kinsey Millhone books by Sue Grafton I haven’t read yet, and was saddened again to know that those will always be the last three Sue Grafton novels, and actually was thinking I should, at some point, start reading the books to clear them off the shelves. I am already at the point with some of my favorite authors, like Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott, where I have finished everything they’ve published (Lippman’s new one, Lady in the Lake, is on deck and I am probably going to start reading it today). I am also behind on some of my favorite authors–I was caught up on Donna Andrews, but I read for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original last year, which put me behind on everyone who wasn’t in that category last year (some of which I want to go back and reread, taking my time to savor them the way I ordinarily would), and I am also years behind on numerous authors I enjoy…but new books are being released every damned day. Sigh. There’s simply never enough time.

In my review of Shawn’s book, I wrote about something I truly believe–and the more I diversify my reading in my own genre, the more I believe it to be true. I believe that women writers saved the crime genre in the 1980’s, and while they are still doing some serious heavy lifting, the diverse voices of authors like Shawn are reinvigorating and reinventing the crime genre, and breathing new life into it. (I’m really looking forward to October, when I will switch to reading horror, and reading novels by diverse voices in that genre–there are some new and exciting people of color writing in that genre…plus, reading horror will further diversify my reading by taking me outside of crime for a month.) Some of the diverse voices I’ve read thus far this year–Kellye Garrett, Rachel Howzell Hall, Walter Mosley, Steph Cha, Angie Kim, etc.–are doing extraordinary work that needs to be recognized, promoted, and pushed by all of us; they are breathing new life into our genre, as are women writers like Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Megan Abbott, Jamie Mason, Elizabeth Little, and many, many more. And while I often generically refer to the “straight white men”–let’s face it, some of today’s men are writing exceptional work, too–Ace Atkins, Bill Loefhelm, Michael Koryta, to name a few amongst many. I think this is a very exciting time for crime fiction, and I look forward to reading more work by queer writers, as well. I’ve not gotten to some of the newer queer crime writers yet, which I am going to try to focus on more in the latter part of the year. I am really looking forward to Kelly Ford’s Cottonmouths, as it is a queer novel by a queer woman set in the rural South; something I can certainly relate to.

I kind of had a lackadaisical day of rest yesterday, really, where I accomplished little other than reading my book and doing the laundry, and couldn’t really motivate myself to do much more than that–I did make a delicious shrimp stir-fry for dinner last night, though–and we watched two episodes of The Movies last night, “The 80’s” and “The 90’s.” There’s only one more episode left, unless they release “The 50’s,” which is also a rather interesting period in the history of film. I started reading, for research, City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s, by Otto Friedrichs (recommended by Megan Abbott), and it has a lovely bibliography in the back which should be enormously helpful for further research into the time period. I also have a copy of E. J. Fleming’s The Fixers, which should also come in handy for research; again, as a starting place with the gold mine of a bibliography in the back.

So, here’s hoping that today will be that unusual thing; a highly productive, but at the same time, a restful day. Last night’s wonderful sleep is, of course, a wonderful basis for the rest of my day.

Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader.

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If You Leave Me Now

One of my favorite writers when I was a kid was Charlotte Armstrong.

Armstrong was astonishing, really. The first book of hers I read was The Witch’s House. My parents had allowed me to join the Mystery Guild and I, of course, one month failed to do my duty and send the order card back declining that month’s selections. It was probably one of the best mistakes I’d ever made through my instinct for procrastination; I wound up getting a three volume omnibus of Armstrong called The Charlotte Armstrong Reader, and Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie. I shelved the Christie and forgot about it until years later–when I’d started reading Christie–but The Witch’s House sounded interesting to me; it had “witch” in the title and I’ve always been drawn to witches, for some reason, and I was at the age when I was still reading my kids’ mystery series but was slowly beginning to transition to books for adults. I was enthralled by The Witch’s House, and read it very quickly, and followed it up by reading the next, Mischief, which I liked even better. But the local library didn’t have any Armstrong novels in stock–which surprises me even more now than it did then–and so I didn’t continue reading Armstrong until years later. Armstrong is one of my favorite writers, even if the books might seem a bit dated today; whenever I read another one of her novels I greatly enjoy it. Armstrong’s books were–I don’t know how to put this, but I am going to give it a try–were dark without darkness; there was always a sense of optimism in her books no matter how dark they got (there’s one particular scene in The Gift Shop that to this day rattles me when I think about it) and I do think she is overdue for a renaissance. It was the combined work of Jeffrey Marks and Sarah Weinman that reminded me of Armstrong and got me to go back and try to finish reading her canon; they also introduced me to Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar (among others).

The point is, women have always been some of the greatest writers in the crime genre, and societal and cultural sexism have gone a very long way to ensuring that the men who wrote in the same period as these ladies are now lauded as giants of the genre and must-reads, while the women–who won just as many awards and critical laurels and big sales–faded away into obscurity. Mary Higgins Clark was the bridge from these great women of the past to the modern women who write domestic suspense–and really, has there ever been a greater concept for a domestic suspense novel than Where are the Children?–but the second wave of major women crime writers primarily focused on private eye fiction (Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky).

But what the great Sarah Weinman calls “domestic suspense” never faded away; and nowadays we have some truly terrific women writing truly terrific novels in this subgenre–Lori Rader-Day, Catriona McPherson, Carol Goodman, Wendy Corsi Staub, Alafair Burke, and so many others–and it’s really become one of my absolute favorite subgenres, primarily because of the work these women are doing. It’s extraordinary; I cannot urge you enough to check out these women’s books, Constant Reader.

I could go on and on about these women and domestic suspense forever; but I’ll spare you and cut to the chase.

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“It was the girl.” The old man leaned forward, bracing against the worn-out armchair as though he were trying to escape its grasp. “April Cooper. She was the real killer.”

Quentin Garrison watched his face. He was very good at describing people, a skill he used all the time in his true crime podcasts. Later, recording the narration segments with his coproducer Summer Hawkins, Quentin would paint the picture for his listeners–the leathery skin, the white eyebrows wispy as cobwebs, the eyes, cerulean in 1976 but now the color of worn denim, and with so much pain bottled up behind them, as though he were constantly hovering on the brink of tears.

The man was named Reg Sharkey, and on June 20, 1976 , he’d watched his four-year-old daughter Kimmy die instantly of a gunshot wound to the chest–the youngest victim of April Cooper and Gabriel Allen LeRoy, aka the Inland Empire Killers. Two weeks later, his wife, Clara, had decided her own grief was too much to bear and committed suicide, after which Reg Sharkey had apparently given up on caring about anything or anyone.

Quentin said, “Wasn’t it LeRoy who pulled the trigger?”

Alison Gaylin has been nominated for the Edgar four times (Best First for Hide Your Eyes, Best PBO for both Into the Dark and If I Die Tonight, Best Novel for What Remains of Me)  and claimed the prize, just this past week, for If I Die Tonight. Her novels encompass a wide variety of subgenres; her first series featured an amateur sleuth; she then wrote two brilliant crime novels built around the entertainment industry; and then did the Brenna Spector trilogy: private eye novels that were, by and large, quite superb. All of her novels were superb, but once the Brenna trilogy was completed she moved on to stand-alones of psychological suspense that also crossover into the domestic suspense category; explorations of families and the dysfunction that leads to damaged people and possibly crimes. What Remains of Me was a throwback to  her earlier stand alone novels about the entertainment industry; only delving more deeply into the friendships and family relationships with the insightful eye of an artist. What Remains of Me juggled two time-lines and two murders; one committed in 1979 and another committed in the present–both linked and connected to the same woman, the same cast of characters, and the big reveal was stunning. If I Die Tonight was all set in the present day, but Gaylin’s family relationships in this novel are just as fractured and dysfunctional on every level; the concept Gaylin explored in this novel was public face private truth–the singular kernel of truth in this book being that things are so rarely what they appear to be in public, whereas the actual truth is far more complicated, far more complex, and far too often not what anyone actually wants to know.

Never Look Back also, like What Remains of Me, juggles two timelines; one in the past, which is expressed and explored through letters a teenaged girl writes to her future child, the other, a present where the aftermath of a brutal killing spree decades earlier by the teenaged girl writing the letters and the “boyfriend” who took her along for the ride; the notorious Inland Empire Killers. In the present day, a happily married gay man whose own childhood and family was actually shattered by the Inland Empire Killers, now works as an adult as a coproducer of true crime podcasts. The book opens with him confronting the father of the youngest victim of the killers–who also happens to be his grandfather, whom he doesn’t know. The interview ends badly, with bitterness and shouting and recriminations; Quentin blames his grandfather for his mother’s tragic, drug addicted, and wasted life, which in turn made his own childhood a mess. Quentin is now happily married…but driven by an obsession to get to the bottom of the killings so many decades ago.

And then comes the tip that April Cooper, the young girl writing the letters and the “Bonnie” to Gabriel LeRoy’s “Clyde”–might not have died in the fire which everyone believed killed them both; that she might actually be still alive and living in the Hudson Valley of New York.

This is a terrific premise, and Gaylin delivers in ways the reader cannot imagine as they ride the rollercoaster of suspense and emotion along with her characters. It’s an enormously satisfying read, with lots of juggled subplots and clues being left in the most casual of ways, so that the careful reader might even be able to figure out the truth long before the characters. Quentin is a terrific character, and so is Robin Diamond, the website  columnist whose mother might–or might not–hold the key to the answers Quentin is so driven to learn. The suspense and the twists are stunning, but the ending is powerful and enormously satisfying…and there’s not a single loose plot thread left behind.

Charlotte Armstrong was dubbed the Queen of Suspense by critics and reviewers during her lifetime; Alison Gaylin is a worthy heir to that title.

The book is available for preorder now; I’d advise you to do yourself a favor and preorder now. You aren’t going to want to miss this one.

Fame

MWA Partners with G.P. Putnam’s Sons to Create the Sue Grafton Memorial Award

Presented by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, the award will be given at Mystery Writers of America’s
73rd Annual Edgar Awards in New York City on April 25, 2019

Thirty-five years ago, Sue Grafton launched one of the most acclaimed and celebrated mystery series of all time with A is for Alibi, and with it created the model of the modern female detective with Kinsey Millhone, a feisty, whip-smart woman who is not above breaking the rules to solve a case or save a life. Like her fictional alter ego, Grafton was a true original, a model for every woman who has ever struck out on her own independent way.

Sue Grafton passed away on December 28, 2017, but she and Kinsey will be remembered as international icons and treasured by millions of readers across the world. Sue was adored throughout the reading world, the publishing industry, and was a longtime and beloved member of MWA, serving as MWA President in 1994 and was the recipient of three Edgar nominations as well as the Grand Master Award in 2009. G.P. Putnam’s Sons is partnering with MWA to create the Sue Grafton Memorial Award honoring the Best Novel in a Series featuring a female protagonist in a series that also has the hallmarks of Sue’s writing and Kinsey’s character: a woman with quirks but also with a sense of herself, with empathy but also with savvy, intelligence, and wit.

The inaugural Sue Grafton Memorial Award will be presented for the first time at the 73rd Annual Edgar Awards in New York City on April 25, 2019 – the day after what would have been Sue’s 79th birthday – and will be presented annually there to honor Sue’s life and work.

The nominees for the inaugural Sue Grafton Memorial Award were chosen by the 2019 Best Novel and Best Paperback Original Edgar Award judges from the books submitted to them throughout the year. The winner will be chosen by a reading committee made up of current National board members, and will be announced at this year’s Edgars Award banquet.

The nominees for the inaugural Sue Grafton Memorial Award are:

Lisa Black, Perish – Kensington
Sara Paretsky, Shell Game, HarperCollins – William Morrow
Victoria Thompson, City of Secrets, Penguin Random House – Berkley
Charles Todd, A Forgotten Place, HarperCollins – William Morrow
Jacqueline Winspear, To Die But Once, HarperCollins – Harper

ABOUT SUE GRAFTON:
#1 New York Times–bestselling author Sue Grafton is published in twenty-eight countries and in twenty-six languages—including Estonian, Bulgarian, and Indonesian. Books in her alphabet series, beginning with A is for Alibi in 1982 are international bestsellers with readership in the millions. Named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, she also received many other honors and awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, the Ross Macdonald Literary Award, the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award from Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Malice Domestic, the Anthony Award given by Bouchercon (most recently the 2018 Anthony /Bill Crider Award for Best Novel in a Series), and three Shamus Awards. Grafton passed away on December 28, 2017.

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Jungle Love

Well, I finally got those story edits done yesterday, and it wasn’t that hard to do. I don’t know why I was resisting looking them over, reading the notes, and looking at the story; and frankly, the story is stronger for them. I now await whether or not there will be further notes–if I did a good enough job correcting things for the editor–and I feel as though a millstone has been lifted from around my neck. I honestly don’t understand myself sometimes. This wasn’t a big deal, and yet I avoided it for at least three weeks, not only letting it hang over my head like the sword of Damocles but it was always there, in the back of my mind as I worked on other things, nagging at me from the darkened recesses of my brain, worrying me the way I’d worry a loose tooth with my tongue.

And getting it done? Such an enormous relief.

And of course, once I conquered that beast, I went back to that pesky chapter and yep, sure enough, I was able to start whipping it into shape and what’s more, it was relatively easy. I guess I’d had so much trouble getting the damned thing done in the first place–and yes, for the record, it wasn’t the mess I thought it was–that I thought fixing it would be nearly as painful as writing it was. Nope, it wasn’t. Sigh. And now I know I can get back on track and on schedule. HUZZAH!

Seriously. This is why writers drink.

So I, for one, am really looking forward to this weekend and getting a lot of things done. Hurray!

I also read two more Ross MacDonald stories, from The Archer Files.

First was “The Angry Man”

I thought at first sheer terror was his trouble. He shut the door of my office behind him and stood against it, panting like a dog. He was a gaunt man in blue jeans, almost black with sweat and dirt. Short rust-colored hair grew like stubble on his hatless scalp. His face was still young, but it had been furrowed by pain and clawed by anger.

“They’re after me. I need help.” The words came from deep in his laboring chest. “You’re a detective, aren’t you?”

“A sort of one. Sit down and take a little time to get your breath. You shouldn’t have run up those stairs.”

Next was “Midnight Blue” :

It had rained in the canyon during the night. The world had the colored freshness of a butterfly just emerged from the chrysalis stage and trembling in the sun. Actual  butterflies danced in flight across free spaces of air or played a game of tag without any rules among the tree branches. At this height there were giant pines among the eucalyptus trees.

I parked my car where I usually parked it, in the shadow of the stone building just inside the gates of the old estate. Just inside the posts, that is–the gates had long since fallen from their rusted hinges. The owner of the country house had died in Europe, and the place had stood empty since the war. It was one reason I came here on the occasional Sunday when I wanted to get away from the Hollywood rat race. Nobody lived within two miles.

Until now, anyway. The window of the gatehouse overlooking the drive had broken the last time that I’d noticed it. Now it was patched up with a piece of cardboard. Through a hole punched in the center of the cardboard, bright emptiness watched me–human eye’s bright emptiness.

“Hello,” I said.

The stories are pretty good; I’m glad I took a break from reading the MacDonald stories because the style and voice were starting to grate on me. Don’t get me wrong; I think MacDonald–despite the occasional casual racism and misogyny–is one of crime’s best stylists, and I love Archer’s voice. But reading story after story consecutively was starting to grate a bit, particularly since some were clearly better than others. Both of these are gems; both of them wind up twisting and turning far away from their simple, casual beginnings.

I also have to say that reading the MacDonald stories, as well as Sue Grafton’s Kinsey and Me collection, along with Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan short stories in Hardly Knew Her have not only inspired me but kind of taught me how to write a private eye short story. We’ll see how my Chanse stories turn out, I suppose…but at least now I am willing to try writing them, whereas last year I never would have dared try.

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Smooth Operator

April Fool’s Eve!

I slept in this morning, after staying up much later than I intended last night. I’d read somewhere that you should stop looking at a screen of any kind–television, computer, phone, iPad–at least half an hour before going to bed to help with sleep, and frankly, I’ll try just about anything that will help in that regard; so I’ve started keeping a non-fiction book on my nightstand, to read for about half an hour every night before attempting sleep. The last two I read were The Black Prince of Florence and Joan Didion’s After Henry; last night I started onJon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I couldn’t stop reading it, of course, and before I knew it, I’d read through the first two people he’d interviewed about their public shamings–Jonah Lehrer and Justine Sacco–and wanted to keep going; but I forced myself to put the book down because it was much later than I wanted to stay up and I was worried about not getting up this morning.

I was right.

It’s kind of interesting to be reading the Ronson book about how public shaming destroyed the lives of two people–one who did something terrible (Lerner) and the other who made a really dumb joke on Twitter that went viral–and Ronson is really a good writer; I actually have some sympathy for the people he is writing about. But this is another, perfect example of why Twitter terrifies and fascinates me at the same time. I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to go viral in such a way on social media, but then again, I try to be very careful with social media. Is that cowardly? Perhaps it is, but i also don’t have time for arguing with people on social media, nor do I have an inclination to do so. I am frequently exposed to different viewpoints on my own social media–but as long as it is couched respectfully and is not in any way nasty or vicious, I like seeing points of view that are different than my own. (Homophobia, misogyny, and racism, however, are always deal-breakers. I never have any sympathy or interest in seeing that point of view.)

As you can tell, I am finding the book to be very interesting.

We also finished watching Season 2 of Santa Clarita Diet, which is hilarious. I highly recommend it. I also got caught up on Krypton and Riverdale yesterday, and did some more writing–not very good writing, mind you; for some reason “Don’t Look Down” is becoming increasingly more and more difficult to write, but I am determined to get that first fucking draft done this weekend. I also want to get some revisions done today. I am going to run some errands and go to the gym in a little bit, and then I am hoping to be able to get home and sit down and just write for the rest of the afternoon, which is going to require me shutting down all social media and closing my web browsers. I think I’ll clean the windows today as well, and maybe do some cleaning…which is the best way to deal with getting stuck on writing.

As I said, I finished reading Joan Didion’s After Henry this week.

after henry

It’s a collections of essays she wrote that were published in various places, and tackle various subjects in that amazing style of writing she had; the way she constructs sentences, and puts words and paragraphs together, is so amazing that it’s hard sometimes to drink in what she is actually saying. These essays, about politics in Los Angeles; natural disasters in southern California; the Central Park jogger case in New York; the political conventions in 1988; the Reagan administration and the face it presented to the world; and several others, are pretty amazing and also serve as a kind of time capsule of recent history. I am really looking forward to reading another non-fiction Didion book, and possibly another of her novels.

I had finished reading The Black Prince of Florence before I took up the Didion.

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As Constant Reader is aware, I am fascinated by the Medici family of Florence, who rose from being merchant class to one of the wealthiest banking families in Europe to popes and queens to royalty in their own right. Alessandro de Medici, the little known subject of this biography, was the first Medici to attain royalty on his own; due to the machinations of his uncle, Pope Clement VII (better known to history as the pope who refused Henry VIII’s request for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon), he became Duke of Florence and the republic came to an end. Alessandro was illegitimate, and there is no proof of whom his mother was; his legitimate sister, Catherine, became queen of France. Fletcher does an excellent job of explaining the tumult of the times; how Italy had been riven by a series of wars between different city-states as well as between France and the Holy Roman Empire, both with extensive claims to various places on the peninsula, along with all the machinations in Rome for the papacy. The question of whether Alessandro’s mother was an African slave, or that was simply a slander to discredit him during his lifetime by his enemies, is one that Fletcher takes up; she also explains the differences between modern day views of race as opposed to those of the sixteenth century. I found the book to be endlessly fascinating, and really helped me get a better grasp of just how the Medici family became royalty. Alessandro’s sister Catherine is probably the most famous (notorious?) member of the family; I have numerous biographies of her on my shelves I look forward to reading.

I’ve also read some more short stories for the Short Story Project. First up is”A Poison That Leaves No Trace” by Sue Grafton, from Kinsey and Me:

The woman was waiting for me outside my office when I arrived that morning. She was short and quite plump, wearing jeans in a size I’ve never seen on the rack. Her blouse was tunic length, ostensibly to disguise her considerable rear end. Someone must have told her never to wear horizontal stripes, so the bold red-and-blue bands ran diagonally across her torso with a dizzying effect. Big red canvas tote, matching canvas wedgies. Her face was round, seamless, and smooth, her hair a uniformly dark shade that suggested a rinse. She might have been any age between forty and sixty. “You’re not Kinsey Millhone,” she said as I approached.

“Actually, I am. Would you like to come in?” I unlocked the door and stepped back so she could pass in front of me. She was giving me the once-over, as if my appearance was as remarkable to her as hers was to me.

This story is kind of clever, with a surprise twist at the end that caught me off guard; a woman hires Kinsey to prove that her niece murdered the woman’s sister for the insurance money. It’s fraud, all right, but not what Kinsey was originally led to believe, and the twists and turns are spooled out very cleverly.

The next up was another Sue Grafton tale from Kinsey and Me, “Full Circle.”

The accident seemed to happen in slow motion–one of those stop-action sequences that seem to go on forever though in tryth no mare than a few seconds have elapsed. It was Friday afternoon, rush hour, Santa Teresa traffic moving at a lively pace, my little VW holding its own despite the fact it’s fifteen years out of date. I was feeling good. I’d just wrapped up a case and I had a check in my handbag for four thousand bucks, not bad considering the fact that I’m a female private eye, self-employed, and subject to the feast-or-famine vagaries of any other freelance work.

I glanced to my left as a young woman, driving a white compact, appeared in my driver’s-side mirror. A bright red Porsche was bearing down on her in the fast lane. I adjust my speed, making room for her, sensing that she meant to cut right in front of me. A navy blue pick-up truck was coming up on my right, each of us jockeying for position as the late afternoon sun washed down out of a cloudless California spring sky. I had glanced in my rearview mirror, checking traffic behind me, when I heard a loud popping noise. I snapped my attention back to the road in front of me. The white compact veered abruptly back into the fast lane, clipped the rear of the red Porsche, then hit the center divider and careened directly into my path. I slammed on my brakes, adrenaline shooting through me as I fought to control the VW’s fishtailing rear end.

This story opens with one of the best descriptions of the slow-motion horror of an accident on the highway; how it happens right before your eyes and how you basically have to rely on instinct and automatic reaction to try to avoid the accident because your brain is so busy processing what it’s seeing. The story is worth reading for that alone, but it turns into a case when the mother of the girl driving the compact, Caroline Spurrier, hires Kinsey because it turns out the accident didn’t kill Caroline; she’d been shot. The man driving the truck also has disappeared. From that point on, it’s a great example of a private eye story.

Sigh. I’m going to miss Sue Grafton.

Axel F

GOOD FRIDAY. I slept in, which was absolutely lovely, and am now enjoying my first cup of coffee this morning. The herd of cats are outside my windows, gathered for their morning feeding, and Scooter is firmly ensconced on my desk–it’s going to be a long day of him needing attention, I suspect–and am looking forward to  my three-day weekend. It looks gorgeous outside, honestly; I think I might clean the windows today, as well as work on cleaning the house. I also need to hit the gym; it’s been well over two weeks at this point, and I’m not going to get leaner sitting on my ass thinking about it, quite frankly.

I am also procrastinating running some errands as well as cleaning. I am also planning on getting some writing done, and some reading. I’ve gotten some fantastic ARC’s this week, and there are a couple of other novels I’ve been meaning to get to  as well; I am hoping to get to one of those this weekend. The primary problem here, of course, is that I can’t decide which to read. I am also almost finished with Joan Didion’s essay collection, After Henry, which, despite its bad name, is quite enjoyable. I am still abstaining from buying new books until I get the TBR more manageable and under control, but am itching to get my hands on another Didion non-fiction.

Yesterday I worked some more on “Don’t Look Down” and another one that’s been languishing, “A Holler Full of Kudzu,” but I also realized yesterday as I looked at the unholy mess that is “Don’t Look Down” that I am going to simply approach these stories as I do a novel; in other words, just write everything as it comes to me, and worry about editing and revising later. That quite often works for me when I am writing a novel, so why not apply it to a short story? I also want to get a final first draft of those stories done this weekend, as well as “Once a Tiger” while also revising and reworking “My Brother’s Keeper”; Sunday is not only Easter but it’s also April 1st, which is when I intended to put all short story work aside and dive back into the novels. (I may use Sunday for the short stories, and move on to Scotty on Monday; I may just use Sunday as a buffer day between them all, who knows? We’ll see, won’t we?)

We are also watching the second season of Santa Clarita Diet, which is just as funny, charming and clever as the first. I have also started watching Krypton, the Superman prequel on Syfy, and I am enjoying it. It’s getting some so-so reviews, but I am enjoying it so far; I’ve always loved the Krypton stories, and John Byrne’s comic book mini-series The World of Krypton from the original DC reboot in the 1980’s is still one of my all-time favorite comics. Some of the elements from that mini-series are showing up in this show–not having followed comics as much over the last twenty years or so has limited my knowledge of things; of what is considered canon now and what is not; but some of the things I am seeing in this show were things I first became aware of in The World of Krypton. I also need to get caught up on Riverdale; at least I have things I can watch while doing cardio at the gym!

I also managed to read some short stories. First up is  “The Downward Path to Wisdom” by Katherine Anne Porter, from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter.

In the square bedroom with the big window Mama and Papa were lolling back on their pillows handing each other things from the wide black tray on the small table with crossed legs. They were smiling and they smiled even more when the little boy, with the feeling of sleep still in his skin and hair, came in and walked up to the bed. Leaning against it, his bare toes wriggling in the white fur rug, he went on eating peanuts which he took from his pajamas pocket. He was four years old.

“Here’s my baby,” said Mama. “Lift him up, will you?”

This is another one of those Porter stories that just wasn’t for me. I mean, I get what she was doing; the entire story is told from the point of view of a small child, and she manages to really get that way children have no sense of time perfectly. The passage of time either seems incredibly slow and other times is really fast; and the way the child observes the clashes and moodiness and volatility of the adults around him is sort of interesting; but the story itself isn’t interesting at all. Not really for me, I guess; I should just park Ms. Porter’s collection back on the shelf and be done with it, frankly. But I also remember that I had a much greater appreciation of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” this time around, and keep thinking, well, maybe I’ll appreciate one of the others in a different way this time.

Yeah, well, it didn’t happen with this story.

Next up was another Sue Grafton story from Kinsey and Me, “Falling off the Roof.”

It was six a.m and I was jogging on the bike path at the beach, trotting three miles in behalf of my sagging rear end. I’m thirty-two years old, weighing in at 118, so you wouldn’t think I’d have to concern myself with such things, but I’m a private eye by trade and I’m single on top of that. Sometimes I end up running for my life, so it will never do to get out of shape.

I had just hit my stride. My breathing was audible but not labored, my shoes chunking rhythmically as the asphalt sped away underneath my feet. What worried me was the sound of someone running behind me, and gaining too. I glanced back casually and felt adrenaline shoot through my heart, jolting it up to jackhammer pace. A man in a black sweat suit was closing ground. I picked up speed, quickly assessing the situation. There wasn’t another soul in sight. No other joggers. None of the usual bums sleeping on the grass.

This story is terrific. Kinsey is hired by a man who thinks his brother brother was murdere; he fell off his roof and the police ruled it an accident. However, he was in a really bad marriage that seemed to suddenly settle down some in the weeks before the death, and the brother suspects the wife had something to do with the death–despite her rigid, airtight alibi. Kinsey starts looking into things, and soon becomes fairly certain that it was a murder; the trick is figuring out how she did it and got away with it…which leads Kinsey to going undercover at a Mystery Book Club. This story is clever, clever, clever, and one of my favorites of the Kinsey short stories.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me.

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