All By Myself

Friday morning sliding into the weekend…and woke up still sick. The throat is still sore and my voice is a Kathleen Turner-like whiskey-soaked rasp; my eyes still ache and so do all my joints, and the fever is still upon me. I just swigged some DayQuil, so am hoping for some relief; this knot of phlegm lodged into the top of my lungs has to loosen and come out at some point, right?

Ye Gods, how I hate being sick. And the older I get, the more susceptible to these things I seem to be.

The weather was horrible yesterday afternoon, but for once, it was lovely to be covered in blankets while the storm raged outside, with a constant downpour of rain and the occasional blast of lightning and thunder. It is, really, the best time to curl up with a good book, and so yesterday I finished reading Alison Gaylin’s next novel, of which I am fortunate enough to have an advance copy. Never Look Back is probably her best book to date, and given she won an Edgar last night, that’s saying something. I then proceeded to start reading Kellye Garrett’s award-winning debut Hollywood Homicide, which I am also greatly enjoying. I really like her main character, and her voice.

And now that the Edgars are over and the program has been printed and distributed, I can now out myself as a judge for Best Paperback Original. That was the book award I was reading for all of last year–and I do mean reading for all of last year. Once again, the Lost Apartment was buried in an avalanche of books, and since electronic editions of books could also be entered, my Kindle is also incredibly full. Led by our distinguished panel chair Alex Segura, my fellow judges (the always delightful and talented Susanna Calkins and Gwen Florio) read and discussed, read some more and discussed some more, and finally narrowed our choices down to our top five and the winner. I do believe our category this past year just might have been the only (if not the only, but one of the few) times in Edgar history where all the finalists in a category were women; that wasn’t our intent, either; it just played out that way, but it was still amazing and cool. Last night’s batch of Edgar winners was also perhaps the most diverse in Edgar history; with Walter Mosley taking home the statue for Best Novel and Robert Feiseler taking home the award for Fact Crime for his Tinderbox, which is about the Upstairs Fire lounge fire in New Orleans back in 1973; the biggest mass murder of gay men until the Pulse shootings in 2016. I wrote about the Upstairs Fire in Murder in the Rue Chartres, and am really looking forward to reading Robert’s book. Sujata Massey also won the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and I feel that Sara Paretsky’s winning the first Sue Grafton Memorial Award would definitely have Sue’s approval.

And huzzah for the wonderful Art Taylor’s Edgar win for Best Short Story! Art is one of the best short story writers around; I keep hoping he’s going to put out a short story collection–I think he’s won every conceivable mystery award for short story now, which is an indication of just how good he is. He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met–in general, not just the mystery community.

Needless to say, the illness has kept me from doing any writing or pretty much anything, really. Yesterday I spent most of the day swilling chicken soup and sitting in my chair under blankets and reading. I watched the live-stream of the Edgar Awards on my television through the Youtube app on my  Apple TV, which was very cool and surreal at the same time. I felt sorry for the young man with the long hair at the front table who was on camera almost the entire night and probably had no idea! Today I am going to probably swill some more soup while again retiring to my chair with Kellye’s book, and then I have an ARC of Jamie Mason’s The Hidden Things which I will tackle next.

And I did have two ideas for stories yesterday, through the DayQuil and fever induced fogginess of my brain. So that’s something, at any rate.

And now back to my blankets.

33718_1637106693818_1421271844_1638566_8166918_n

You Thought

One of the things I loved about Go-Go’s music was it was high energy and danceable; and it didn’t matter if you had no rhythm, didn’t know how to dance, or were clumsy and awkward. Go-Go’s music was so good that it just didn’t matter–people who would never think about getting out on the dance floor would just dash out there and start bouncing around once the deejay put one of their records on the turntable.

When I basically invited myself to be a part of this anthology, many of the songs were already taken, but editor Holly West gave me a list of three to choose from. I looked up the lyrics of each…and one thing that struck me, right between the eyes, was how dark the lyrics were. The songs, played with a bouncy, danceable beat and catchy, ear-wormy lyrics with Belinda Carlisle’s oh-so-cheery voice and the lovely harmonies, were really, if anything, kind of noir…all those years of dancing and singing along with the records, I’d never really paid attention to what the lyrics were saying.

I don’t know that I’ll ever look at the songs in quite the same way again, frankly–but that’s not a bad thing; the songs have much greater depth than I’d ever thought, which is my failing, not the Go-Go’s.

Susanna Calkins’ story is the next up in Murder-a-Go-Go’s. Serendipity brought Susie into my life in 2018; her story “Postcard for the Dead” was selected for Florida Happens (and has also made the Agatha shortlist for Best Short Story) and we also worked together on another project. We met in person at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, and I hope that 2018 was the start of a terrific new friendship with this talent.

Her story is “You Thought.”

cover-west-murder-go-gos-front

Alison tightened her hand on her husband’s arm as they followed their real estate agent up the stone path to the 1920’s Craftsman bungalow. They’d waited so long to be shown a decent house within their limited budget. Finally, this one had come along and Sheila, clad today in an impossibly bubble-gum pink pantsuit, had reassured them it was a mustsee. “Perfect for a young couple,” she’d promised. “A steal at this price. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

Now, they gazed at the house in front of them. “Oh, Charlie,” Alison said, a catch in her voice. “Look at the front porch. We could sit outside after dinner. Enjoy the sunsets.”

Overhearing, Sheila smiled over her shoulder at them. “The house is charming, isn’t it? Did I mention there’s a basement? Just look at the yard! What a lovely place for children to play.”

Alison glanced up at her husband. Children! Perhaps that could happen now since they were finally settling down. After seven apartments in as many years, she could barely stomach the thought of another impermanent home. But she didn’t want to press him on that dream, at least not yet. “The begonias are beautiful, don’t you think?” she said instead, pointing at the pinkish-orange flowers in front of the house. “We could have a garden!”

There is nothing quite as stressful as making a major purchase that’s a lengthy commitment. I bought a brand new car in 2017, and I cannot even begin to tell you, Constant Reader, the agonies of indecision that went on for the weeks before I finally decided to bite the bullet and head to the dealership. I cannot even begin to imagine the stress involved with buying a home–particularly for the first time.

That is the beating heart at the center of this tale; Alison and Charlie are buying their first-ever house after seven years of marriage and seven years of moving from apartment to apartment; Alison falls in love with this house being shown to them by their realtor, Sheila. They end up in a bidding war that ends with them paying more than they can afford for the house, and once they move in…they soon learn that their realtor wasn’t really to be trusted.

I love the way Susanna takes the American Dream of home ownership and digs into it, exploring how home ownership can also be a trap as well as an investment into the future, and how financial distress can drive people to extreme measures.

Too Hot

Tuesday and the world has gone mad.

Polar vortexes and wind chills around fifty below! New Orleans in a freeze warning with the possibility of snow! Madness, sheer madness.

Yesterday was a pretty good day, over all. It was so lovely, and I’m so happy, that Susanna Calkins was nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story for her contribution to Florida Happens, “A Postcard for the Dead.” It’s an absolutely wonderful story, too, an I couldn’t be happier for Susanna, who was an absolute delight to work with and whom I finally met at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg this past year. One of the things I love about being a part of the mystery or crime writing community is how many truly wonderful people are also a part of it, which always makes Bouchercon a wonderful experience for me. I always see old friends, meet new people and make new friends, and I always have the best time. For someone who is used to hiding out in his apartment most of the time being antisocial, Bouchercon and the Tennessee Williams Festival/Saints and Sinners weekend are seriously over-stimulating; I have a blast but when it’s all over I am drained and exhausted. Happy and still aglow, usually inspired to write, but drained and exhausted nonetheless. All of the Agatha nominees are terrific writers I admire; congrats to everyone.

I managed to proof read the first fifty pages of Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories; remember talking the other day about much I hate reading my own work? What’s interesting–let’s face it, I find myself fascinating–is that I often find myself using the same phrase, or turn of phrase, in more than one short story; which is something I wouldn’t be aware of writing them at different times over the years, and I would never sit down and reread all my short stories all at once. I know that I have a tendency to write about men with black hair, tanned olive skin, and green eyes; dimples also show up often in male characters in my work (Colin in the Scotty series hits all that criteria, and so did Paul in the first two Chanse novels). I also write about my neighborhood, the Lower Garden District, a lot in my short stories (in the novels, Chanse and Paige live in this neighborhood; Scotty lives in the Quarter); in fact, two of the first five stories are set less than three blocks apart. I also tend to use similar names a lot–David is a particular favorite of mine to call my characters; I also use Gary and Tony a lot.

I probably should pay more attention to this than I do.

I also started reading  The Klansman on Sunday night; and it’s not an easy thing to read. I only read a single chapter, and it took me a while. I kept getting memories, memories of the time period the book is set in as well as the summer I read it; a hot, damp Alabama summer with no air conditioning. It’s interesting because that is the setting for the WIP, and so I kept putting the book down so I could scribble down some memories in my journal, things to use for the WIP should I ever get to the point where I can work on it again. What the book is about you can pretty much guess given the title, and it’s hard to read. I don’t remember much of the book; I remember reading it, and I do remember it making me think about the things the book talked about; thinking about them in a different way than I had before. I’ve remembered the book my entire life, but have never gone back and reread it; the copy I read wasn’t mine and I never thought to look for a copy whenever I haunted any bookstore. I’m interested in the period, and I am interested in the pop culture of the period; a short story I am currently working on, “Burning Crosses,” made me think of this book again–and of course, the Internet makes everything easy. I got a first edition hardcover from Ebay for less than five dollars, and my decision to read it again now, as part of the Diversity Project, is because I want to know if the book will make me think as much as it did when I was nine or ten….or if my own values and morality have changed enough from then that I won’t view it in the same way.

But…it’s difficult to read. Not that it isn’t well written; it’s too well-written, if you get what I mean.

And now, back to the spice mines. Stay warm, Constant Reader!

17796768_1312311175483610_8650911927517055102_n

Save the Best for Last

Thursday!

My Bouchercon homework continues, with me now reading James Ziskin’s Cast the First Stone. I am very excited to read this; I’ve heard nothing but great things about his books, plus he’s a pretty good guy. I had bought the first in his series–still in the TBR pile, alas–so am kind of glad that this book became a homework assignment. I am really enjoying it thus far, and if it’s going where I think it may be going–well, that would be awesome, but I am sure I am going to love it even if it doesn’t.

I started watching the BBC series The Musketeers on Hulu this evening. I did a half-day today; one of my co-workers and I tested at a conference at the Riverside Hilton for four hours, after which I walked home on an afternoon in August. Heavy sigh. Any way, ’tis a good thing I did work only half-a-day, because alas we are having to clean everything in the house because Scooter had a couple of fleas. His medication is working–the fleas we’ve found were dying or dead–but it’s August and we live in a swamp, and so while there have been no signs of infestation thus far, we aren’t going to take the risk. So I’ve been cleaning all day ever since I got home; taking breaks now and then to watch something on the television, and having it on as I launder things and vacuum things and well, it needed to be done, didn’t it?

That’s a rather tired and round about way of getting to the point, isn’t it? Long story short: I’ve always been a big fan of The Three Musketeers, ever since I was a kid, and I’ve been meaning to watch this BBC series for years…but kept forgetting about it. Someone posted somewhere on Facebook last night asking people to name their favorite d’Artagnan, and as I always do, whenever I get the chance, I replied Always Michael York. Always. But someone else posted a picture of the young actor who plays him in the television series and I thought, yes, I’d been meaning to watch that, hadn’t I? So I watched a couple of episodes as I cleaned–and am intrigued. More watching is most definitely called for.

Next up in Florida Happens is “A Postcard for the Dead”, by Susanna Calkins.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Susanna Calkins lives outside Chicago with her husband and two sons. Holding a PhD in history, Susanna writes the award-winning Lucy Campion historical mysteries as well as the forthcoming Speakeasy Murders, both from St. Martin’s Minotaur. Murder Knocks Twice, set in Prohibition-Era Chicago, will be out Spring 2019. Her first short story, “The Trial of Madame Pelletier,” featuring a 19th century poisoning case, is up for an Anthony Award (and can be read on her website at www.susannacalkins.com).

Susanna says: “A POSTCARD FOR THE DEAD” is my second published short story. When I saw the call for the Bouchercon anthology, on a whim I began to read through 1920s Florida newspapers, since I was already researching the Roaring Twenties for my Prohibition-Era novels. There, I stumbled across the rather odd story of Lena Clarke, a postmistress who had embezzled huge amounts of money from the Post Office and then framed a local playboy for the crime. What struck me most about this story was how Lena gave her testimony in court using a crystal ball, having been part of a wild West Palm Beach Bohemian set, before being declared insane. Although I altered the case substantially in my version, I retained the embezzlement aspect and of course the crystal ball. After a little more digging, l discovered that Lena’s brother had died of a snakebite, which just seemed too Florida of a detail not too include. I thought about setting the story in a courtroom, but given that my FIRST short story, “The Trial of Madame Pelletier” featured, well, a trial, I thought I’d better frame it a little differently.

Calkins author photo outside

West Palm Beach, Florida

July 1921

Lily Baker peered inside her mailbox before reaching in to retrieve her mail. Back when her half-brother had been West Palm Beach’s postmaster, he had delighted in leaving snakes in mailboxes as pranks. Of course, the last laugh had been on him, when he had died of a snake bite last Christmas.

There was only one piece of mail today, though—a postcard featuring a swanky hotel in Orlando, a city she’d never been. She turned it over to read the message but was surprised to find it blank. Only her name and address had been printed on the postcard, in careful block letters.

Curiously, she studied the card. The stamp had been cancelled in Orlando two days before. July 27, 1921. Flipping the card back over, she looked at the picture more closely. The hotel was the San Juan, which the postcard informed her had been built in 1885 by C.E. Pierce. Built for the filthy rich, from the looks of it.

#

Lily was still by her mailbox when she saw Officer Danny Jamison coming down the street on his bicycle.  She had known Officer Jamison since they were kids—he’d been just one year ahead of her in school. After high school they’d gone in different directions, although on occasion their paths crossed. She was about to wave as he passed by, when instead he stopped in front of her and dismounted his bike in one easy move.

“Hey Lily,” he said, leaning his bike against her palm tree. “Your sister around?”

Lily shifted from one foot to the other. Why was Danny asking after Junie? Though she and her older half-sister had lived together since their parents had passed away a few years before, Junie tended to be tight-lipped about her goings-on. But Lily would catch whispers about illicit gin, late night séances, Ouija parties, and other secret doings connected with West Palm Beach’s furtive Bohemian scene. A far cry from her day job heading the town’s Post Office, which Junie had taken over from their brother some eight months before.  “She must have left for work early,” Lily said.  “I didn’t see her this morning.”

“I see. But you saw her last night?”

Great beginning, right? It’s a terrific story, but what I think I enjoyed the most about it was the narrator’s voice; I really liked the character of Lily, how Calkins gradually let us into Lily’s life, and through character, built a very clever crime story.