The Calm Before the Storm

Alfred Hitchcock was a great film director, and was responsible for some of the best movies ever made, from Rebecca through Notorious through North by Northwest to Vertigo to Strangers on a Train to The Birds to Psycho; the list of great Hitchcock films goes on and on and on and has been studied by film academics and written about; you certainly cannot forget Truffaut/Hitchcock, either. Lost in the discussions of his abilities as a filmmaker (and how he was somewhat abusive to his leading ladies) is his contributions to the culture in other ways. Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran for years; an anthology show like The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone, he presented bizarre stories (often based on short fiction; perhaps the most famous episode of all was based on a Roald Dahl short story in which a wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, which she then cooks and serves to the investigating police officers) on a weekly basis and the show ran for a long time. (It’s available to stream now, and I keep meaning to dive back into the show.

But Hitchcock also was a master, before it was a thing, of licensing his name out for use; his name meant something as a master director of film suspense, and in addition to the television series there were also anthologies, also published under the aegis of Alfred Hitchcock Presents–my grandmother used to buy and read them; so did my parents–and even today one of the best short story markets for crime is Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. There were anthologies for adults, anthologies for teens and anthologies for kids.

And there was also The Three Investigators.

3 investigators 1

Bob Andrews parked his bike outside his home in Rocky Beach and entered the house. As he closed the door, his mother called to him from the kitchen.

“Robert? Is that you?”

“Yes, Mom.” He went to the kitchen door. His mother, brown-haired and slender, was making doughnuts.

“How was the library?” she asked.

“It was okay,” Bob told her. After all, there was never any excitement at the library. He worked there part time, sorting returned books and helping with the filing and cataloguing.

“Your friend Jupiter called.” His mother went on rolling out the dough on the board. “He left a message for you.”

“A message?” Bob yelled with sudden excitement. “What was it?”

“I wrote it down. I’ll get it out of my pocket as soon as I finish with this dough.”

“Can’t you remember what he said? He may need me!”

“I could remember an ordinary message,” his other answered, “but Jupiter doesn’t leave ordinary messages. It was something fantastic.”

“Jupiter likes unusual words,” Bob said, controlling his impatience. “He’s read an awful lot of books and sometimes he’s a little hard to understand.”

“Not just sometimes!” his mother retorted. “He’s a very unusual boy. My goodness, how he found my engagement ring, I’ll never know.”

She was referring to the time the previous fall when she had lost her diamond ring. Jupiter Jones had come to the house and requested her to tell him every move she had made the day the ring was lost. Then he had gone out to the pantry, reached up, and picked the ring from behind a row of bottle tomato pickles. Bob’s mother had taken it off and put it there while she was sterilizing the jars.

“I can’t imagine,” Mrs. Andrews said, “how he guessed where that ring was!”

“He didn’t guess, he figured it out,” Bob explained. “That’s how his mind works…Mom, can’t you get the message now?”

“In one minute,” his mother said, giving the dough another flattening roll. “Incidentally, what on earth was that story on the front of yesterday’s paper about Jupiter’s winning the use of a Rolls-Royce sedan for thirty days?”

And that is how The Three Investigators series (technically, in the beginning  “ALFRED HITCHCOCK and the Three Investigators”) began. While it’s not as smooth, per se, as the opening of the Trixie Belden series in The Secret of the Mansion, this is also a dramatically different series, and will always have a place in my heart as one of the best series for kids–if not the best–ever published. It never reached the same heights of popularity as Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys; which was a shame, because it was a much better series than either of those. For one thing, the Three Investigators actually considered themselves to be professional detectives; Nancy and the Hardys, amongst with most of the others, were strictly amateurs (although in the Kathryn Kenny books, “the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency” became kind of a running gag or thing; it was what Trixie and Honey decided they wanted to be when they grew up; and frankly, I’ve always kind of wanted to see a Trixie-as-an-adult hard-boiled series). And while this opening is a little longish about getting to the point, it eventually does; Bob is a highly excitable young man who works at the library, and this is also our first look at Jupiter Jones, and one of the best things about the series is Jupiter; he is the central character and there would be no Three Investigators without him–and he is one of the most remarkable, and original, characters in kids’ mystery series fiction.

I always thought of Rocky Beach as a sort of stand-on for Long Beach in this series; this is where the boys live, and it’s just south of Los Angeles and a drive to Hollywood. This is where the three boys who make up the titular team of the series live; the third investigator, whom we have yet to meet in this opening, is Pete Crenshaw. And that bit about the contest and the Rolls-Royce? It’s very important. Access to a vehicle, and someone to drive them around, is an integral part of the creation of this investigative agency; they can’t always count on getting rides or paying for cabs or only involving themselves in cases they can investigate on bikes; this is the impetus Jupiter has been looking for to open the agency. Jupiter’s message to Bob is impenetrable to his mother; but it makes perfect sense to Bob–and therein lies another one of the great charms of this series: Jupiter lives with his uncle Titus and aunt Mathilda; the couple own and operate the Jones Salvage Yard, a sprawling junkyard where they repurpose other’s people things, or fix them. Jupiter himself is quite adept at wiring and repairing things; just one, as we the readers will find out, of his many skills. Hidden deep within the salvage yard is the wreck of a mobile home, which the boys use as “headquarters”; over the years Jupiter has managed to hide the mobile home behind piles of junk. The yard is also surrounded by an enormous, tall wooden fence, and Uncle Titus has encouraged local artists to paint murals on the fence. With the help of Bob and Pete, Jupiter has created “secret entrances” into the salvage yard, with tunnels through the piled up junk; that way the boys can come and go as they please without having to use the main entrance. They also have a covered workshop in another area hidden from view; Jupiter’s message to Bob is simply Red gate rover, come over come over, the presses are rolling. Bob knows this means,  come to headquarters, use red gate Rover, and we’re printing our business cards. 

“Red Gate Rover” means use the entrance through the fence that is a mural of a team of firefighters fighting an enormous blaze; there’s a dog watching them, and the knothole in the dog’s eye will spring the hidden gate open. And sure enough, once he gets there, the printing press is rolling and Jupiter presents him with a card, that reads:

THE THREE INVESTIGATORS

We Investigate Anything

? ? ?

–and also has their names. Jupiter is, naturally, the first investigator with Pete as second; Bob is Records & Research, since he works in the library and is their best writer; it is his job to write up their cases. As such, and with an understanding that all cases also need to be introduced as well as get sufficient publicity for their agency to get clients, Jupiter has decided on two things: to ask Alfred Hitchcock to introduce their cases, and offer to help find him a truly haunted house, as he is looking for one for his next film. Using the Rolls-Royce, driven by a very proper British chauffeur named Worthington, Jupiter and Pete call on Mr. Hitchcock at the studio. (The Rolls-Royce, by the way, has every luxurious amenity available to a limousine in that time; and is gold-plated, which sticks out. It was originally commissioned by a Saudi oil millionaire.) They bluff their way in–partly because Jupiter pretends to be Hitchcock’s nephew, even arranging his face to imitate his expressions and voice and patterns of speech–but Hitchcock isn’t that interested in introducing their cases, but has no worries about them looking for a haunted house for him. (While they are calling on Hitchcock, Bob has gone to the library to research something–Jupiter writes the words Terror Castle on the back of one of their business cards and offered no explanation.) But when Jupiter does his impression of “Hitchcock as a 13 year old”, Hitchcock is offended and promises to introduce the first case as long as Jupiter will never do the impression again (and, it is to be noted, the introduction and afterward, as supposedly written by Hitchcock, is clearly done so grudgingly; this was a genius touch by author Robert Arthur–and over the course of the series Hitchcock not only grows fond of the boys but starts sending clients their way).

The thing I loved perhaps the most about this series (outside of the wonderful titles for the books) was they actually were investigators. They actually solved the mysteries they were investigating–well, Jupiter did, mostly–through observation and interpretation of data. Jupiter was, in many ways, kind of a young Sherlock–and he often referred to Holmes. Another thing that was very clever about the series is that the stories were rarely, if ever, told from Jupiter’s point of view; Bob and Pete were always the point-of-view characters, representing the reader, who also couldn’t figure out what was going on. Since it mattered for suspense and storytelling to not know what Jupiter was thinking, Bob and Pete stood in for the reader, confused by the cryptic things Jupiter said–or casually observing Jupiter noticing something that didn’t make sense.

Another thing that, in my opinion, makes the series stronger than others is it is made, very plain, from the very beginning that fat-shaming is a bad thing. Jupiter is described as stocky or husky; he deeply resents being called fat, and whenever someone cruelly makes such an observation, both Pete and Bob always get angry and jump to his defense (Jupiter was also a child star, playing Baby Fatso in a Little Rascals type television show; his being a fat child made him the butt of the jokes in the show and he DESPISES being laughed at)–compare that to how Bess is frequently mocked for being hungry and chubby in the Nancy Drew books, or the depiction of the Hardy Boys’ supposed best friend Chet Morton as an always-hungry, overweight comic relief and foil they always laugh at–yeah, not cool, Stratemeyer Syndicate, not cool at all.

The first Three Investigators story I read was The Mystery of the Moaning Cave. We were in Alabama one summer, and staying with a cousin of my mother’s who had a son my age who also loved to read, and loved mysteries. He had a stack of library books, and I picked up my very first Hardy Boys read, The Mystery of Cabin Island, out of the stack. I was two chapters in when he finished reading his book (The Mystery of the Moaning Cave) and asked me to swap books with him. I was enjoying the Hardy Boys, but the cover of the Three Investigators book he was offering me was tantalizing, plus that title! How could a cave moan? I started reading, and was soon swept up in the story–which remains, to this day, one of my favorites in the series. It reminded me of another book I greatly loved as a child, The Mystery of the Haunted Mine, but the problem was my library didn’t have any of these books, and I could never find more of them anywhere. In junior high a friend of mine was a fan of the series, which led me to reread The Mystery of the Moaning Cave, which I loved all over again, and then its predecessor, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock, which was also amazing. I eventually discovered, on a birthday trip to Toys R Us, an entire shelf of the books; I got five–The Secret of Terror Castle, The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, The Secret of Skeleton Island, The Mystery of the Laughing Shadow, and The Mystery of the  Coughing Dragon. 

I honestly don’t recall how I was able to collect the rest of the series, or where I got them or what order in which I read them, but I did eventually read the entire series. Later, the series moved on to other authors other than Robert Arthur and the quality became more hit-and-miss, but even the worst Three Investigators case was better than the best books in other series. I still love the Three Investigators, and occasionally will take one down to reread it, again marveling at how well constructed the books are; how tight the plots and how strong the characterizations. I also loved how something small and simple, like the search for an escaped parrot (The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot) would lead to a massively complicated and interesting case about a massive art theft, or the search for a missing cat with mismatched eyes turned into The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, or a near car crash led them to a small European principality and international espionage in The Mystery of the Silver Spider. Their cases inevitably started small, but eventually grew into something major; like they grabbed onto a loose, seemingly unimportant thread that unraveled a much larger case.

One thing that always amused me was how adults rarely, if ever, took them seriously. Jupiter’s aunt and uncle, and the parents of Pete and Bob, always looked at their “firm” as a “little mystery-solving club”. Inevitably the adults who pooh-poohed their abilities had to eat their words. I also loved that Jupiter wasn’t athletic but was smart. I identified with that a lot more than I did with the Hardy Boys, who were literally good at everything they tried.

The death of Alfred Hitchcock was an enormous blow, and the publisher–Random House, I believe–introduced a mystery writer for a while to replace Hitchcock, but the quality was already starting to decline, and eventually even the fictitious mystery writer, Robert Sylvester, was replaced by another fictitious entity; but the book in which the switch was made didn’t avoid the truth of Hitchcock’s death, and they actually handled it very well.

And some of the earlier books are seriously dated now; The Secret of Terror Castle centered on the home of a silent film horror star whose career was derailed by his speaking voice when talkies came; obviously, that would have happened around ninety years ago now, so there wouldn’t be any contemporaries still alive. Likewise, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock centered on someone who was a sound effects expert for radio suspense shows–which would, at best, have been seventy years ago now.

I’ve never believed this series was as popular as it deserved to be, nor did it get the attention it truly deserved. The books have been out of print for awhile now–maybe you can get used copies, there may even be ebooks now, I don’t know–but they should still be available. I would love to write one of these, to be honest.

They were the shit, y’all.

You Belong to the City

Saturday morning and I have sooooo much to do it’s terrifying. Tonight we have tickets to the ballet; Les Ballet de Monte-Carlo, to be precise. They are performing Romeo and Juliette. I have, as I have said before countless times, never seen ballet performed live. I am very excited, obviously. I have an idea for a ballet noir–I have so many ideas, really–and I love that I merely mentioned this one night while watching the superb ballet documentary Bolshoi Babylon, and that he remembered, with the end result we have the tickets for tonight.

He really is quite a dear.

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I am writing so many things right now, and working on so much, that it can overwhelm me a bit when I stop to think about it; therefore it’s best not to think about it. The Scotty novel is going to be the most complex plot I’ve written since Mardi Gras Mambo, which means I have to really be careful and pay attention in order to prevent enormous mistakes and errors as I go along. The short stories I am writing…it’s interesting, but in some cases it’s so much easier to just have an idea and then write to figure it out; sometimes when I finish the first draft and get to the end I know what has to be fixed, added, and changed; in other cases, I literally have no idea. My writing process is so bizarre and different than anyone else’s, and I cannot say I honestly recommend the way I do things to any beginning writer.

Take, for example, a story I wrote and submitted to the MWA Anthology Ice Cold numerous years ago. The anthology was for stories set during the Cold War, and I decided to risk writing a story with a gay theme, even if that theme was buried deep inside the story until about the middle. I also started with an image; a man in the depths of winter, standing on a stone bridge over Rock Creek in Rock Creek Park in Washington DC, dropping a gun into the cold, gray water. Stubbornly,  I held onto that image as the opening of the story through numerous revisions and rewrites. The story was rejected; and I’ve tried revising it again and again. It was recently rejected by another market, with a lovely note: You’re too good of a writer to get a standard rejection letter. This story moved too slow, but do send us more of your work. (And it is a sad indication of this ego-destroying business that said email made my day: they like me! They like my work!) And yet the best part of that rejection email was this minor, five word piece of feedback: this story moved too slow. As soon as I read that I realized that the structure of the story was its ultimate failing: the dropping of the gun into the creek wasn’t where the story began, so I am going to revise the story another time, reordering the events of the story. Maybe it doesn’t even begin where I’m thinking it does now; but I won’t know until I start working on it again.

Likewise, another story I am in the midst of writing right now opens with the sentence The ID’s were fake but no one seemed to care. It’s a great opening line, and it was the first thing to come to mind when I started writing the story, and it just evolved from that opening line; I wasn’t really sure what the story was, but I wanted to use that as an opening line, and so I started writing there. Am I tied to that as the opening line? I tend to be a bit stubborn about these things…which is definitely a fault of my own. I was so determined, for example, that the WIP must begin at a certain place that I was trying to make it work–but soon realized that its Chapter One was really Chapter Three, and a lot of the things I was doing were trite and cliche; so I moved the timing of the story back a few weeks. Sometimes, being stubborn is not a plus for a writer.

I am also going to, in today’s edition of the Short Story Project, talk about two Daphne du Maurier short stories that I read for the first time this week, from the New York Review of Books collection Don’t Look Now and Other Stories. As I have said before, I’ve not read all of du Maurier’s work; I hold back because I don’t ever want to run out of things of hers to read. I have several of her short story collections on hand (my favorite, of course, being Echoes from the Macabre, which I read first when I was a teenager, shortly after I read Rebecca for the first time–which also reminds me, I am terribly overdue for a reread of Rebecca), but unfortunately the problem with du Maurier collections is they often overlap; stories tend to appear in more than one collection: “Don’t Look Now,” for example, not only is in Echoes from the Macabre but headlines this particular volume; “The Birds”, which I talked about the other day, also appears in both.

Today’s stories, though, are of a type: “Indiscretion” and “Ls Sainte-Vierge” are both relatively short, and, like several of her other stories, wait until the very end to twist and shove the knife into your throat. This is not easy to do, and I’ve tried it with stories with little to no success; I think my best successes with these style have been “Keeper of the Flame” and “Annunciation Shotgun.”

“La Sainte-Vierge” doesn’t even seem all that dark, through most of it:

It was hot and sultry, that oppressive kind of heat where there is no air, no life. The trees were motionless and dull, their drooping leaves colorless with summer dust. The ditches smelt of dead ferns and long-dried mud, and the grasses of the fields were blistered and brown. The village seemed asleep. No one stirred among the few scattered cottages on the hill-side; strange, uneven cottages, huddled together for fear of loneliness, with white walls and no windows, and small gardens massed with orange flowers.

A greater silence still filled the fields, where the pale corn lay heaped in awkward stacks, left behind by some neglectful laborer. Not even a breeze stirred the heather on the hills, lonely treeless hills, whose only dwellers were a host of bees and a few lizards. Below them the wide sea stretched like a sheet of ice into eternity, a chart of silver crinkled by the sun.

It’s set in a small fishing village on the coast of Brittany; the point-of-view character is Marie, a fisherman’s wife who is very young and desperately in love with her husband. He is about to go out on another fishing voyage, and she has these terrible premonitions that something terrible is going to happen. He brushes aside her concerns repeatedly, telling her she’s completely foolish and superstitious (never a good sign in any story, let alone a duMaurier), so after he leaves in the evening to get the boat ready, she creeps out of the house to a local church to pray to a statue of the Virgin. Du Maurier’s description of the poor village’s cheap and tattered statue and the church is which it resides is morbid, sad and a bit tragic; yet as Marie prays the moonlight comes into the church and transforms the statue before her believing eyes, and she is shown a vision in her religious ecstasy. Happy and content, she returns to her home…but that something terrible the story has foreshadowed all along does occur, just not what she, or the reader, could have possibly seen coming.

The other story, “Indiscretion,” is equally marvelous in the same way but different; this story, in structure and ending, reminded me a lot of de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.”

I wonder how many people’s lives are ruined by a momentary indiscretion? The wrong word at the wrong time–and then finish to all their dreams. They have to go on living with their tongues bitten a second too late. No use calling back the spoken word. What’s said is said.

I know of three people who have been made to suffer because of a chance sentence flung into the air. One of them was myself; I lost my job through it. The other fellow lost his illusions. And the woman…well, I guess she did not have much left to lose, anyway. Maybe she lost her one chance of security. I have not seen either of them since. The curt, typewritten letter came from him a week later. I packed up then and came away from London, leaving the shreds of my career in the waste-paper basket. In less than three months I read in a weekly rag he was claiming a divorce. The whole thing was so needless, too. A word from me–a word from her. And all through the sordid little street that runs between Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square.

This story basically is about fate and coincidence conspiring to wreck the lives of three people who, again, never saw it coming; and how happiness can be destroyed in just a matter of seconds. It’s bitter and sad and melancholy, like most of du Maurier’s work; but it also works beautifully, and her gorgeous writing style contributes to its terrible beauty.

And now, back to the spice mines.

 

Saving All My Love For You

Saturday morning. I have an eye appointment in Metairie this afternoon, but I definitely need new glasses. I also have to get groceries this morning (ugh), and I should probably figure out some time to go get the mail as well. Heavy sigh; the house is also a mess and this kitchen needs a-cleanin’. Paul’s going into the office today, so I’ll be alone; I am hoping, after I get home, to spend some time writing. I was very tired and didn’t feel good yesterday; my throat’s kind of sore this morning as well; I woke up a lot last night, but I did sleep. Tomorrow I am going back to the gym to get my workouts going again, so hopefully that will help in the sleep department. I’ve noticed that I’m not sleeping as well since Carnival started and I stopped having time for working out.

I can’t not sleep. I have too much to do and I can’t be tired. Yesterday was my short day at the office and after I got home, I didn’t feel well and was too tired to do anything besides sit in my easy chair and watch Adam Rippon videos on Youtube. (I told you I was stanning.) Then it was time to watch the Olympic figure skating, which was terrific. Very proud of our US skaters! Nathan Chen had six quads in his program, and made Olympic history, and young Vincent Zhou skated magnificently as well. All three of our skaters wound up in the Top Ten, which was terrific, and Nathan came close to medaling. If only he’d turned that second quad in his short program into a combination jump and gotten points for it, he would have. He had the highest score in the long program. Had they both skated clean short programs, they both would have medaled. So, there’s a lot of hope there for the future. Part of the fun of the Olympics is also seeing the future of the sport out on the ice as well–the silver medalist, Shoma Uno, is very young as well, and there was a young Russian who is very artistic. Worlds this year will be very fun to watch.

Oh, Adam. What would it have meant to fifteen year old me, deeply closeted and terrified someone might find out who I really was, to see you skate at the Innsbruck Olympics in 1976? Watching you this past week brought tears to my eyes every time; my heart was in my throat every time you went into a jump. You made me laugh in your interviews, you made me cry with your oh-so-beautiful skating. I can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally invested in seeing a skater do well? Michelle Kwan, whom I loved and still miss? Rudy Galindo in 1996? And how happy and proud to see all the love for you, to the point where even the trash tweeting shit about you could just make me smile and think he has a bronze medal, and you have your phone and bitterness. I feel SORRY for you that you can’t find joy in this, what a sad, bitter, pathetic life you must lead. Especially the gay Republicans, so desperate for the love and acceptance they’ll never get from their abusive relationship with a party that hates them. Adam is a star; will be a star, and he’ll always, always, have these Olympics, three gorgeous performances, and a bronze medal. No one can ever take that away from him with petty nastiness.

Watching Adam and his great joy in his sport and doing his best also made me realize something; it’s about doing something you love, and doing your best. I had already realized that I had lost my joy in writing sometime ago; I’m not sure when it went from being something I loved doing to an odious chore. But this year I’ve rediscovered how much I love it, how much I’ve missed it; how I love creating characters and telling stories and expressing myself on the page. I was already getting there on my own, but watching Adam, seeing him, took me to that final place. It’s not about medals, it’s not about awards, it’s not even about money; it’s about joy in doing something you love.

Thanks, Adam, for that–and for making me realize how I’ve been neglecting my eyebrows.

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I also read some more short stories.

To be fair, I had already read Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds”; her Echoes from the Macabre: Selected Stories is one of my favorite single-author collections of all time. But it had been awhile since I’d read this story; I knew it was vastly different from the Hitchcock film based on it, so I read it again.

On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft. The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden red, and the hedgerows were still green. The earth was rich where the plough had turned it.

Nat Hocken, because of a wartime disability, had a pension and did not work full-time at the farm. He worked three days a week, and they gave him the lighter jobs: hedging, thatching, repairs to the farm buildings.

Although he was married, with children, his was a solitary disposition; he liked best to work alone. It pleased him when he was given a bank to build up, or a gate to mend at the far end of the peninsula, where the sea surrounded the farm land on either side. Then, at midday, he would pause and eat the pasty that his wife had baked for him, and sitting on the cliff’s edge would watch the birds. Autumn was the best for this, better than spring. In spring the birds flew inland, purposeful, intent; they knew where they were bound, the rhythm and ritual of their life brooked no delay. In autumn those who had not migrated overseas but remained to pass the winter were caught up in the same driving urge, but because migration was denied to them followed a pattern of their own. Great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling in the sky, now settling to feed on the rich, new-turned soil, but even when they fed it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire. Restlessness drove them to the skies again.

One of the best parts of the film is that there’s no explanation why the birds have turned on humans; they just have, and there’s no way of knowing if they’ll ever go back to normal. The end of the movie is kind of left hanging; when I saw it the first time when I was a kid I was deeply dissatisfied with how the film ended. But there wasn’t really any way to end the film, and du Maurier herself gave no clues to what was going to happen at the end of her story. The story ends much the same as the movie; no end to the menace in sight, and even more chilling–I don’t remember if this was in the movie–but the BBC had stopped broadcasting; the horrifying part of this story is the incredible sense of isolation the family feels–are they the only people left alive in the world? On that level, the story is even more disturbing than the film; in the movie there are other people all around in the town. The story is set out in the country…and du Maurier never lets the reader know. The way the horror builds is almost unbearable; her mastery is truly amazing.

I also went back to the Laura Lippman well for “Easy As A-B-C’, from her collection Hardly Knew Her.

Another house collapsed today. It happens more and more, especially with all the wetback crews out there. Don’t get me wrong. I  used guys from Mexico and Central America, too, and they’re great workers, especially when it comes to landscaping. But some contractors aren’t as particular as I am. They hire the cheapest labor they can get and the cheapest comes pretty high, especially when you’re excavating a basement, which has become one of the hot fixes around here. It’s not enough, I guess, to get the three-story rowhouse with four bedrooms, gut it from top to bottom, creating open, airy kitchens where grandmothers once smoked the wallpaper with bacon grease and sour beef, or carve master bath suites in the tiny middle rooms that the youngest kids always got stuck with. No, these people have to have the full family room, too, which means digging down into the old dirt basements, putting in new floors and walls. But if you miscalculate–boom. Nothing to do but bring that fucker down and start carting away the bricks.

The premise of this story; a guy who owns a construction company is hired to renovate his grandparents’ old house for a young woman he finds attractive, despite his many years of marriage–is pretty clever. It also has a lot to say, in a very sly way, about gentrification and how old neighborhoods and their character are ruined by it; this is something going on to a very large extent in New Orleans, and has been for quite some time, and there’s a strong sense for us locals that with these changes, some of what made New Orleans so special, unique and different, is also being lost. Lippman inhabits the voice of this middle-age blue-collar man perfectly; she never once slips and makes an error that jars the reader out of the voice. And as the story builds to its own inevitable dark climax, you really can’t stop reading because you really aren’t sure how she is going to finish playing her cards. That’s the great joy of Lippman, and what makes her special and unique as a writer; you’re never really sure how this is all going to play out, but she never deliberately misleads you, ever–she doesn’t cheat, and once you get there, you think, yes, that’s the only way this could end.

Seriously, her new novel dropping this week, Sunburn, is definitely one of her best; check it out, if you haven’t already.

And now, I’ve got a jam to get Scotty and the boys out of.