Think of Laura

Zulu is passing now; I can hear the drums of the marching bands. It’s a gorgeous morning, the sun is shining and I am betting the crowds up at the Avenue are deep; they certainly were last night for Orpheus. Paul and I both have to work tomorrow, so we’re ending our Carnival early; taking today to rest and recover so we can hit the ground running on Ash Wednesday. I also have a lot of things to do today; emails to answer, things to write, things to edit, things to read, a kitchen to clean. Even though it was abbreviated this year (I was in Alabama for the first weekend of parades), I enjoyed every bit of Carnival this year; and am already melancholy to see it end as always.

I’ve also been enjoying the hell out of the Winter Olympics, and like millions of people worldwide I am–what’s the word kids use now? Oh yes–stanning Adam Rippon. As a long time figure skating fan, I’ve known of Adam long before these games; I remember when he had a mop of floppy curls; when gossip websites were pairing him and Ashley Wagner as a couple (I rolled my eyes every time I saw the photos), and I remember when he came out. I blogged about homophobia in figure skating a while back; when Adam came out while still on the Olympic eligible circuit I thought to myself you’re never going to win anything now; so I was pleasantly surprised to see him win US Nationals and make the world team in 2016; he missed last season with a broken foot, and this season he is full-on out: his short program is to gay club music, and his long program, as everyone saw the other night, is breathtaking. I’m so happy for both him and Mirai Nagasu, who became the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics that same night; they earned bronze medals as part of the team competition, and I couldn’t be happier for both of them–all of the Americans on the team, to be honest. Adam is so funny and refreshingly himself; a big personality and a natural wit he doesn’t try to hold back, and that honesty…I just can’t get enough. I had tears in my eyes when he finished his long program the other night; Paul and I both screamed when Mirai landed the triple axel. Seeing the trashy homophobes on Twitter trashing him or going after him makes my blood boil; I’ve resisted the urge to reply to them He’s got an Olympic medal and you’re a fifth-rate Twitter troll. Congratulations.

So. There’s that.

And in other news of the fabulous, the lucky world of readers can look forward to the upcoming release of a new Laura Lippman novel, Sunburn. I got an ARC at Bouchercon and read it in one sitting on a rainy Saturday back in October.

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It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him. Pink, peeling. The burn is two days old, he gauges. Earned on Friday, painful to the touch yesterday, today an itchy soreness that’s hard not to keep fingering, probing, as she’s doing right now in an absentminded way. The skin has started sloughing off, soon those narrow shoulders won’t be so tender. Why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake?

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that. They’re building a big by-ass so the beach traffic won’t have to slow for the speed trap on the old Main Street. He saw the construction vehicles, idle on Sunday, on his way in. Places like this bar-slash-restaurant, the High-Ho, are probably going to lose what little business they have.

High-Ho. A misprint? Was it supposed to be Heigh-Ho? And if so, was it for the seven dwarfs, heading home from the mines at day’s end, or for the Lone Ranger, riding off into the sunset?  Neither one makes much sense for this place.

Nothing about this makes sense.

Laura Lippman has been one of my favorite writers since I read Baltimore Blues years and years ago. I tore through her Tess Monaghan series, and she very quickly became one of my buy in hardcover authors. I’ve never regretted making that switch, and as she has expanded her skills and pushed herself with her exceptionally brilliant stand alone novels, I’ve never once quibbled but I want another Tess novel! (I do, always, but the stand alones are so fucking fantastic that it doesn’t matter–I really just want a new Lippman, and wish she was on a yearly schedule rather than an eighteen month one.)

Laura’s career trajectory has been most impressive from a writing perspective; because as a writer of stand alones, she has gone from being a literary crime writer to a literary writer about crime, if that makes sense. Each of her stand alones are unique and different from the others; about as far removed from her series as any novels can be and still be by the same author. Each one of these novels are rare pearls, individual and vastly different from the others; different themes, different explorations, different everything. The one common thread that runs through these novels is that they are, for the most part, about women, and what women face in their lives; how they deal with crimes and tragedies that take them out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. Laura also regularly experiments with form and voice and tense; enormous, dangerous risks as a writer that she somehow always manages to pull off, make engaging and enjoyable, and always manages to tell a story that makes a very compelling point.

Sunburn,  her latest, is as different from anything she has done before as it could be unless she decided to write about vampires or a zombie apocalypse; but she also brings her incredibly powerful sense of empathy to this tale of murder, vengeance, and oh-so-careful planning. The book opens with the main character, Polly Costello, walking away from her husband and child on a beach vacation and winding up in the hard-knock town of Belleville; she is being observed by Adam, who is being paid to keep an eye on her, follow her–but not to become obsessed by her, which is what happens. Their story is told in a very limited third person point of view, alternating between them, and as we slowly get to know them, watch their physical attraction expand and develop into something more, the questions remain: why did Polly walk away from her family and child? How could she do such a thing? Who is this enigmatic redheaded bar waitress?

And just how fucking good does Adam’s grilled cheese sandwich taste?

The prose in this book is lean; not an extra word to be found anywhere, and it is an homage of sorts to the kind of lean, tight, dark noir that the great James M. Cain wrote. (Cain is a hero of mine, and I have always wanted to write something that dark and lean and tight…ironically, one of the ideas I had for such a noir–gay, of course–was also titled Sunburn) I’ve seen, in some of the early reviews, comparisons to Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, which seem obvious; there’s an insurance scam buried deep in the plot, it’s set in a bar/diner, it’s about an unexpected, explosive attraction between a man and a woman; there are side plots that end in mysterious deaths… but if anything, I’d say Sunburn is more reminiscent of Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress than anything else.

The book is extraordinary, and probably Laura Lippman’s best work to date; that wisecracking, tight prose; a complicated and complex plot that grows even more complicated as you read another page; fully developed characters you can help but root for, even if their motivations aren’t exactly pure; and ultimately, the book is about a woman with everything stacked against her all of her life, who  never gives up, and makes plans…risky plans; where she gambles everything, including her own happiness and desire, for her future, yet is flexible and smart enough to always adapt.

Polly Costello is a heroine Cain would have been proud to call his own.

Take the L (Out of Lover)

I love James M. Cain.

I think the first book of his I read was Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, which is way overdue for a reread. I also read The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce back in my twenties, and in recent years read Serenade and The Butterfly. I love Cain’s work, and would read more of it, but much of it is now out of print (other than the big name novels) and hard–even ridiculously expensive–to find from second hand sellers. So, I was very excited to find out that Hard Case Crime had printed an unpublished Cain manuscript–his last novel–and finally sat down to read it this weekend.

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I first met Tom Barclay at my husband’s funeral, as he recalled to me later, though he made so little impression on me at the time that I had no recollection of ever having seen him before. Mr. Garrick, the undertaker, was in the habit of calling Student Aid, at the university, for boys to help him out, but one of those chosen that day, a junior named Dan Lacey, couldn’t come for some reason, and his father asked Tomas a favor to go in his place. Tom, though he’d graduated the year before, did the honors with me, calling for me and bringing me home in a big shiny limousine. But he rode up front with the driver, so we barely exchanged five words, and I didn’t even see what he looked like. Later, he admitted he saw what I looked like–not my face, as I was wearing a veil, but my “beautiful legs,” as he called them. If I paid no attention to him, I had other things on my mind: the shock of what had happened to Ron, the tension of facing police, and the sudden, unexpected glimpse of my sister-in-law’s scheme to steal my little boy. Ethel is Ron’s sister, and I know quite well it’s tragic that as a result of surgery she can never have a child of her own. I hope I allow for that. Still and all, it was a jolt to realize that she meant to keep my Tad. I knew she loved him, of course, when I went along with her suggestion, as we might call it, that she take him until I could ‘readjust’ and get back on my feet. But that she might love him too much, that she might want him permanently, was something I hadn’t even dreamed of.

And so begins Cain’s last novel, The Cocktail Waitress, which is quite an enjoyable read. In that first paragraph, in his terse style, he introduces not only his main character–Joan Medford, the only time Cain has ever told a story from a woman’s first person point of view–and Tom Barclay, who will be the means to her ultimate destruction. Because Cain’s novels are always about doomed people (so pointing this out doesn’t spoil the book), and how they self-destruct by making the bad choices that ultimately lead them to their ruin.

Joan, like Mildred in Mildred Pierce (one of the other Cain novels told from the point of view of a woman; although it’s third person) is dedicated to her child and completely untethered after her abusive husband’s death in a drunk driving accident. His malicious sister, Ethel–she who cannot have a child and therefore is making a play for Joan’s–keeps hinting to the police that Joan had a hand in the accident, which runs her afoul of the police from the very start. A kind policeman recommends to the young woman a job at a place called Garden of Roses–she is behind on the mortgage; the gas, phone and power have all been turned off–where she becomes a cocktail waitress and, like Mildred, now shed of a worthless husband, begins clawing her way out of the hole the husband has left her in. Joan is beautiful, sexy, and smart–but is she a reliable narrator?

And the big surprise in the book–how Joan is ultimately going to be ruined–comes near the end, and requires an understanding of American history.

Quite chilling.

I’d love to see this filmed, actually. It’s a great, meaty role for a young actress, someone like Jessica Chastain, perhaps.

I’ve now started reading Dan Chaon’s Ill Will, which is also quite exceptional.

And now, back to the spice mines.