Mary Mary

I have always loved strong female characters, having cut my reading teeth on Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Vicki Barr, the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, and Cherry Ames, just to name a few. As an adult reader of mysteries, two of my favorite series are Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series (simply the best) and Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series (also a gem of a series); primarily because I love the characters of Amelia and Meg both so very much. They are both fiercely intelligent women with a very dry sense of humor, and are the kind of strong women that everyone around them comes to depend on for support–and droll wit. The death of Dr. Barbara Mertz (who wrote as Peters AND as Barbara Michaels) ended the Peabody series forever, much to my heartbreak; the Meg Langslow series is going strong still, so I am hopeful that I will have years and years of reading pleasure yet to come from Donna.

And then, last year I discovered Mary Russell.

The envelope slapped down onto the desk ten inches from my much-abused eyes, instantly obscuring the black lines of Hebrew letters that had begun to quiver an hour before. With the shock of the sudden change, my vision stuttered, attempted a valiant rally, then slid into complete rebellion and would not focus at all.

I leant back into my chair with an ill-stifled groan, peeled my wire-rimmed spectacles from my ears and dropped tjem onto the stack of notes, and sat for a long minute with the heels of both hands pressed into my eye sockets.

I was already a fan of Laurie R. King from her brilliant Kate Martinelli series, about a lesbian police detective. (If you’ve not read that series, you need to–it’s one of the best of the last thirty years.) I was reluctant to read the Mary Russell series, as Constant Reader may remember from my previous posts about earlier books in this series; for any number of reasons, but primarily not ever really getting into the Sherlock Holmes/Conan Doyle stories. This shifted and changed when I was asked to contribute a Sherlock story to Narrelle Harris’ The Only One in the World anthology; this required me to go back and do some reading of Doyle, and having worked with Laurie R. King on the MWA board, I decided to give her feminist take on Sherlock a go.

And I have not regretted that decision once.

Mary has stepped up to replace Amelia Peabody as one of my favorite on-going series; I love the character–a strong-minded, fiercely independent woman of no small intelligence who is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Mr. Holmes. Theirs is, despite the age difference, a true partnership of equals; I love that Holmes, in King’s interpretation of him, isn’t quite so misogynistic or incapable of feeling–which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a male-written version. I like King’s Holmes; the strong female character who is his equal was the perfect solution to whatever misogynistic issues I may have had with other interpretations. I also love that Russell is also pursuing a life of the mind; her studies into theology at Oxford are not just asides to add color and flavor to the character but are just as important to whom she is as a character as the love interest/relationship with Holmes. As I also have an amateur’s curiosity into the history of Christianity and how the faith changed and developed throughout the centuries following the New Testament stories…how that was shaped and influenced by men with not the purest of motives…is something I’ve always been interested in.

I think the first book that challenged Christian orthodoxy in a fictional form that I read–the first time I became aware of the possibilities that the BIble wasn’t actually the pure word of God and had been edited and revised repeatedly in the centuries since Christ ostensibly lived, died and was resurrected–was, of all things, a book by Irving Wallace called The Word (Wallace isn’t really remembered much today, but he wrote enormous books of great length that were huge bestsellers, and the subject matter and style of the books was essentially that they were very bery long thrillers: The Prize was about the maneuvering to win a Nobel; The Plot was about an international conspiracy to kill JFK; The Second Lady was about a Soviet plan to kidnap the First Lady and replace her with a lookalike who was a Soviet agent; etc etc etc). The premise of The Word is simply that a new testament, a document hidden away for centuries in a monastery in Greece, claims that not only did Jesus not die on the cross but went on to live for many decades, preaching his own ministry and even visiting Rome. This, of course, is a cataclysmic document–it would change everything everyone had ever known and believed…if it is indeed authentic.

I’ve always loved a good thriller with a base in theology, ever since; and A Letter of Mary is just that, even if more of a mystery than a thriller. The role of Mary Magdalen has been questioned a lot in the last few decades–not the least reason of which is Holy Blood Holy Grail–an interesting concept if one that has been proven to based in a falsehood in the times since (or was THAT part of the Vatican’s plot?)–which inevitably led to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I don’t find the idea that the Magdalen was a beloved disciple of Jesus–and that she may have been his favorite–a reach; likewise, there’s nothing I’ve ever seen in the actual New Testament that essentially says she was a prostitute, a “fallen woman.”

This book begins with Russell despairing over her research only to receive a letter that she and Holmes are going to be receiving a visitor–someone they met during their time in the Holy Land some time earlier–glossed over in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice but apparently explored more deeply in O Jerusalem! The visitor, an older heiress of no small means who is fascinated with archaeology and has been funding digs in the Holy Land, presents the pair with a gift as well as an ancient letter, unauthenticated, which is ostensibly a letter from Mary Magdalen some years after the death of Christ, written to a sister as the city of Jerusalem falls under seige by the Romans during the Jewish Wars, around 70 AD, that saw the sack of the city and the start of the diaspora; which makes it very clear that, if authentic, the Magdalen was one of the disciples and heavily involved in the ministry of the Christian church. Their guest returns to London, and is killed when she is stuck by a car the following day. Holmes and Russell sniff around the crime scene and find evidence that the old woman was murdered…but by whom? Why? Is this about the letter from Mary?

King always tells a great story–you never can go wrong with one of her books, really–and the characters are so well-defined, so real, that even if she didn’t tell a great story, you want to read about those characters more, get to know them better, and cheer them on to their successes and sympathize with their failures. Her writing style is also a joy to read; the Mary Russell voice is so different and so clearly distinct from Kate Martinelli that you can’t not marvel at her mastery.

The next book in the series is The Moor, and I am really looking forward to it.

We All Stand

As I have attested to many times in this blog (and its predecessor over at Livejournal), when I was a child I always lost myself in books. I especially loved my Scholastic Book Club mysteries and other stand-alone mystery books for kids I’d find in the library, either at my elementary school or the Tomen branch of the Chicago Public Library on Pulaski, a few blocks from our apartment. My first series book reads were Trixie Belden (The Red Trailer Mystery) and one of The Three Investigators books; I later discovered Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, as well as all the other series books published by Grosset & Dunlap or Whitman. The Nancy Drew books, before the title page and it’s facing page that usually depicted an illustration of a scene from the book itself, almost always had a page listing the entire series….but below that was a list of titles for another series, ostensibly by the same “author”, Carolyn Keene (who was fictitious). That series was The Dana Girls, and their titles were all, for the most part, different and strange (the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series also went through a period of strange titles, usually within the first twenty volumes, before settling into the traditional “The Mystery” or “The Secret” or “The Clue” titles)–like By the Light of the Study Lamp, In the Shadow of the Tower, The Portrait in the Sand, A Three-Cornered Mystery, etc., mixed in with the more traditional type titles. My very first Dana Girls mystery that I actually read was The Secret in the Old Well, which was actually where some stolen mink furs were hidden…the stolen furs had stripes that formed an X on the sleeve. I don’t really remember much else about the plot of the book, but it was entertaining enough, if not of the same quality as the other series I was reading.

The Dana Girls, despite being by the “author” of the Nancy Drew series, never quite caught on the same way the Nancy Drew books did. The Dana Girls series was cancelled three times, and when brought back for that third chance, the earlier books in the series were abandoned as being beyond saving through revisions or simply not worth the cost. The rebooted series, with white covers, started with Mystery of the Stone Tiger, which originally was volume 25 of the original series. The original series counted thirty titles; the new relaunched series eventually reprinted and slightly revised numbers 17 through 30–but skipped The Clue of the Black Flower for some reason, before starting to publish new titles with The Curious Coronation. Three more new titles were published with two more planned when the series was canceled; the final two (The Strange Identities and The Thousand Islands Mystery) were never published. Those four new titles in the rebooted series had very limited print runs and are very hard (and expensive) to find; I finally tracked down affordable copies in good condition in the years after Katrina, when I discovered eBay and became obsessed with finally finishing my collections.

So, why were the Dana Girls never as popular as the other series? The books were simply not as good; the ghostwriters hired (both Mildred Wirt Benson, who ghosted many Nancy Drews, and Leslie McFarlane, who ghosted many Hardy Boys) were ambivalent about the series; McFarlane apparently admitted in his memoir The Ghost of the Hardy Boys that he actively hated writing the Dana Girls books and finally refused to do any more; the paycheck no longer being worth it to him.

Unlike Nancy and the Hardys, the Danas were orphans who attended an elite boarding school, the Starhurst School for Girls, just outside the town of Penfield. They were from Oak Falls, where they lived during school holidays with their spinster aunt Harriet, who kept house for their bachelor uncle, Ned, who was captain of the steamship Balaska. Why the girls were sent away to school is never explained; why their aunt couldn’t raise them at home while going to public school was never explained. Starhurst was certainly a fine school, but even that excuse was never really given in any of the books that I can recall; nor was there any explanation of why both Ned and Harriet remained single. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Ned and Harriet to be a married couple rather than unmarried older brother and sister? Who paid for the Danas to go to this expensive school? And what exactly happened to their parents? We always knew Nancy Drew had been motherless since she was three (although we never know Mrs. Drew’s first name, how she died, or meet any of Nancy’s relatives from her mother’s side; the woman remains a cypher), but all we ever know about the Dana Girls’ actual parents is they both died when the girls were relatively young.

I think another reason the books never caught on was partly because the sisters had no connection to crime-solving in any way; Nancy’s father was a famous attorney, while the Hardy Boys’ father was also a former police detective and a world-famous private eye–so successful that he could afford his own plane–and so it was only natural that they started out solving crimes to help their parents–Nancy’s first case being about a missing will and her second also involved her father, while the Hardys’ first case was not only helping out their father but a friend. The Danas had no connection to the world of crime-solving, so when mysteries dropped into their lap it didn’t really make a lot of sense, and their friends rarely commented on the frequency with which the sisters seemed to attract the attention of criminals or stumble over a crime. Admittedly, their first case in the original series, By the Light of the Study Lamp, came to them organically; a close friend’s brother has disappeared as well as their inheritance, and so naturally they want to help out Evelyn Starr, whose family originally owned the estate, Starhurst, that now houses the school….which again begs the question: how old is the school, and how long has it been there? In that first book Evelyn talks about growing up there….so why on earth would the Danas’ only living relatives send them away to a school where the paint is hardly dry? Having the books set at a posh boarding school also proved how smart the Stratemeyer Syndicate was in having very little to do with Nancy’s education (she never goes to school–although I have to say it’s very strange that a successful lawyer wouldn’t send his daughter to college) and likewise, there’s only brief mentions of school attendance in the Hardy Boys books. Having the Danas be at a boarding school limited the plots by containing them in and around the campus and the school; later books in the series became travelogues in which the girls traveled all over the world to solve mysteries, sometimes around school trips, so their friends and Mrs. Crandall, the headmistress, could be also be involved. The so-called “travelogue” books in the Hardys and Nancy Drew series weren’t as well-liked or as popular as the ones where they didn’t travel; sending the Danas all over the world also didn’t really work.

“Jean, you’ve been playing with that old machine for over an hour. When are you going to study? Time’s almost up.”

The Dana sisters, Louise and Jean, were alone in their rooms at Starhurst School for Girls. During the entire study period, Jean, the younger, fair-haired one, had been absorbed in a queer-looking contraption she was trying to build.

“Oh, one may always study,” she laughed in reply to her sister’s question. “This invention of mine is too important to wait.”

“Invention!” exclaimed Louise, peering skeptically at the odd collection of springs, boxes, rollers, and piano keys. “So that’s what it is? I thought you were trying to build a piano!”

“Well, you might call it a sort of super piano,” Jean laughed good-naturedly. “At least that’s the general idea.”

The idea behind Jean’s machine is that when you play the keys, it somehow transcribes the notes onto sheet music, so to simplify song-writing (although it didn’t appear to have a correction mechanism, and how could something small enough to do this have enough piano keys?). Naturally, their nemesis, wealthy bitch Lettie Briggs, the long-running villain of the series, tries to steal the idea and have it copyrighted before Jean can make the thing work; she’s caught, as she always is, and lightly punished (some of the things she does out of spite and her jealousy of the sister are borderline, if not outright, criminal; she never gets severely punished for anything she ever does, so naturally she never learns her lesson and continues being a manipulative, thieving, jealous bitch. When I originally read the series as a child, Lettie was so bad at her ‘pranks’ I eventually began feeling sorry for her and wondering why she was the way she was; I became more interested in her than the Danas and their friends, to be honest; I should do a parody series from Lettie’s point of view, but since the series wasn’t popular and isn’t really remembered today the appeal would be limited, I would imagine). The mystery the girls are looking into is the disappearance of a passenger on their uncle’s last voyage–although why a passenger vanishing and not disembarking would reflect badly on the captain or the steamship company doesn’t really make sense. It’s certainly strange, and worth looking into, but the driving force behind the narrative seems to be saving Uncle Ned’s reputation, and that of the company he works for. They soon trace the woman to a house near Penfield, where they are greeted by a horrifically racist depiction of a Chinese servant, complete with dialogue that turns his R’s into L’s, and adding the long e sound to words, like “Takee” instead of “take,” and it’s clear the missing woman lives in the house or is related to the man living there, as there is a photo of her on the piano the girls slip out to show their uncle, who positively identifies her, before returning it to its place on the piano; they return later when the master of the house is home, who claims “Katherine” is his six-year-old daughter, and the photo is now gone. Mysterious, indeed, and the Danas don’t like being lied to, of course. So, they are on the case.

And like with their contemporary teen detectives at the Stratemeyer Syndicate, solving the case has more to do with luck and weird coincidences than any actual brainwork (which is why I always preferred The Three Investigators and Ken Holt), but the Dana sisters were entertaining enough, and I read most of the books in the series.

1963

And now it’s Saturday. It’s still cold in New Orleans and we still don’t have any heat but it’s not as bad as Texas by any means, and we never lost either power or water pressure. So far we haven’t had a rolling blackout, either–although they were threatened. I spent most of yesterday unpacking and repacking condom packs, while watching history videos on Youtube, done by a local New Orleanian–someone I do not know–correcting revisionist history; it began with his lengthy video on the Confederate propaganda movie Gods and Generals–which I have never seen; I tend to avoid Civil War films because they are all-too frequently Lost Cause narratives at best or defenses of white supremacy at worst–even the ones that don’t center Confederate stories. I have no desire to see either. I was raised on the Lost Cause false-narrative, and I am still kind of bitter about being taught false narratives as truth as a child. I also resent having had to spend so much of my adult life correcting everything I learned that was wrong and/or incorrect; relearning American history without the rose-colored glasses of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny firmly placed on my nose and eyes.

Writing Bury Me in Shadows, methinks, is in some ways for me kind of a reckoning with that “heritage.”

The cold is going to continue through this weekend, but tomorrow is supposed to be relatively normal late winter weather for New Orleans. It will be nice to get back to normal. It’s currently forty degrees and sunny outside, and I’ll take it, thank you very much.

Today I am going to spend most of the day rereading and revising my manuscript. I want to be able to get through the entire thing in one sitting–this way I can catch most of the repetition, and I am going to also be starting to sprinkle the new stuff through the manuscript that needs to be added. I am hoping that on Sunday I can go to the gym and start inputting the changes; Monday I will assess as to whether I believe I can finish before the deadline or not. (I am a firm believer in not waiting until the last minute to let my publisher know the manuscript will be late.) I mean, I do have another full weekend to get it all done, but it’s not going to be super easy. I have to write an entire season of a podcast–or at least, significant excerpts from said podcast–and there’s at least one more chapter that needs to be written. (Depends on the inputted changes I am going to be making as I go; the goal is to make writing that last chapter really easy by making it a “now that everything is over and has been resolved” kind of chapter.)

It’s going to be lovely to be done with the book, to be honest. I started writing this version in the summer of 2015; I wrote the entire first draft in slightly less than one month–without the last chapter; I never did write the last chapter because I knew I was going to have to make changes to the story and why write something I might have to throw completely out? I have always tried to be efficient with my writing–not going off on tangents, not writing things that will have to be cut out later (it’s so painful cutting out entire scenes and chapters)–and knowing that I couldn’t really write the final chapter until I was absolutely certain about the story itself. I know the story now–this is like the eighth draft, seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that took this many drafts (novels, at any rate; I have short stories that have been through eight or more drafts, seriously). I am looking forward to moving on from it at long last; I want to start planning the writing of Chlorine next, while also finishing some short stories and putting together some proposals for other ideas I have. If all goes well, I will be able to write a first draft of Chlorine in April, a first draft of the next Scotty in May, and then spend the summer revising and rewriting both. I’d like to spend the fall finishing other odds and ends I have in my files–“Never Kiss a Stranger” has been crying to me from the files to be finished, for one, and there are a couple of other novellas and short stories I want get done. Granted, if any of the proposals sell I will have to change my writing schedule, but if none of them do sell…well, I have plenty on hand for me to write.

I may even start a new series. I’ve been thinking that a gay cozy mystery might be fun to write. I love puzzles and lots of suspects and things; I’d love to do something along the lines of James Anderson’s The Case of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy, which is probably my favorite cozy mystery of all time; a big mansion, secret passages, jewel thieves, international espionage–all taking place over a house party weekend at an English country home. I’ve always felt it was a shame that those wonderful old classic home house party/small village mysteries the British wrote that I loved to read really couldn’t be replicated in the US…and then later realized that is because those stories are completely rooted in the British class system and what would be comparable here and then…yeah, you see where this went, don’t you? Although some day I will figure out how to do one of those…

I WILL. And it will be marvelous.

I also need to reread The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy again. It’s really quite marvelous; I do hope it holds up.

I’ve also been sort of paging through/rereading the Three Investigators’ The Mystery of the Fiery Eye, which in some ways was a tribute to Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone–which I also did with my own Vieux Carré Voodoo–while not finishing the Dana Girls’ The Clue in the Cobweb. I also keep meaning to get back into reading short stories, since my mind is in that weird “I need to finish my book” place where I can’t focus on reading anything new (once the book is done, I am going to spend some serious time with Jess Lourey’s Unspeakable Things, which I had started reading before locking into “finish the book” mode), so it’s either short stories or rereads until I turn this manuscript in. Anyway, that’s one of my favorite Three Investigators books because it, too, involves a treasure hunt with vague clues (or rather, a riddle of sorts) the boys have to figure out in order to find their new young friend August’s inheritance, the Fiery Eye, a cursed jewel stolen from an idol in a fictional southern Asian nation (Constant Reader will note that Vieux Carré Voodoo also involved the need to solve a riddle to find a cursed jewel stolen from a temple in a fictional southeast Asian country). I also recently–and I don’t remember if I shared this here or not–had the epiphany that the Scotty series, in some ways, is in and of itself a tribute to The Three Investigators…if they were adults and gay and in a “throuple”, as such relationships are called nowadays (I first heard the term in a CDC training). It also occurred to me that many kids’ series involve the main character and two close friends–or if the main characters are a pair (the Hardys and the Danas) they’re inevitably given a close pal who shares their adventures (in fairness, the Dana sisters have several friends who fill that role; some of the books involve several of their friends, but the only one whose name I can recall now is Evelyn Starr–although I believe they also had a friend named Doris Garland, but I am not sure about that name). As I thought about this more, I had to wonder if this was an attempt to steer the books away from homoeroticism or the undercurrent of the main character and his/her best friend being more like a couple then as friends….but I also can’t imagine that being a concern when these books were first conceived? (Although Trixie Belden and her best friend Honey Wheeler certainly play out the butch/femme lesbian dynamic rather convincingly–which I think why in later books in the series they played down Trixie’s “tomboyishness” and tried to make her more of a girly-girl.) Nancy Drew’s first four books featured her and her dear friend Helen Corning; in book five Helen vanishes (she shows up in a couple of later books) and is replaced by cousins Bess and George (again, the butch/femme dynamic at play, even though they are made cousins to avoid such thinking…but George is so damned butch and Bess so femme people made the connection anyway). The Hardys have Chet Morton, who is relentlessly fat-shamed and mocked throughout the entire series (Frank and Joe sometimes aren’t the wonderful boys they are made out to be). I have certainly made note of the homoerotic undercurrent in the Ken Holt series (with his best pal Sandy) and the Rick Brant series (with his best pal Scotty) before; there is none of this in the Three Investigators series because there are three of them, and they are vaguely around thirteen; it is doubtful any of them have gone through complete puberty yet because they still think of girls as kind of alien creatures, which really plays strangely in the series where the male leads are in their later teens….the chasteness of the Hardys with their token girlfriends–like Nancy, Bess and George with their token boyfriends–never quite rings true to me. They don’t even kiss! That probably has more to do with their target audience (nine to thirteen year olds) than anything else, but even when I was a prepubescent kid it struck me as strange.

I still want to try writing my own middle-grade series for kids; I think I may take a month this summer and try to write one and see what happens. I’ve been planning such a series since I was a kid, after all, and my writing career lately has seemed to be all about writing the things I’ve been leaving on the back burner simmering for years.

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. My book is calling to me, and I want to read some short stories with the rest of my morning caffeine. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader–and friends in Texas, hope you’re doing okay. I’ve been thinking about all y’all this past week.

If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got The Time

One of the things I find fascinating about many people is their dedication to nostalgia; their insistence that some past time of their life was somehow this incredibly magical time of innocence (which it could conceivably have been); a utopia paradise of some sort where everything was right with the world and everyone was so happy and–you get the picture. It’s like how people glowingly refer to high school as one of the “best times of their lives” (which, frankly, is terribly sad and tells me more about their present circumstances than I’d care to know); the past wasn’t magic and neither were our childhoods. If they mean I liked life better before I knew how awful it can be, that I can understand–and I do think that is what they actually mean, even if it isn’t what they are actually saying: they preferred life when the bills and putting food on the table was someone else’s responsibility; when the biggest worries were who will I go to the Homecoming dance with and I have to study for that History test and so forth. But my teenaged years weren’t halcyon and rosy. The 1970’s was a very strange decade of reaction to the 1960’s–and for a queer kid, first trapped in a middle to upper middle class suburb of Chicago and then a small rural town in Kansas, it was hard. I’ve no desire to ever relive high school or go back to being a teenager. Sure, it might be easier to be a queer teen  in a Chicago suburb now–but I suspect it’s not that different in a rural high school in Kansas now than it was forty years ago.

Reading was always my escape from the pressures of a world into which I really didn’t fit–and one that from my earliest memories as a child I knew I didn’t belong in. Reading was a godsend for me, and I read ravenously. I was always being told to go outside and play instead of reading; the most effective punishments were the ones either prohibiting me from reading or limiting how much I could read, and the earliest signs of my obsessive/compulsive disorder were evident with my discovery of the mystery series for kids, which was the next gradual move for me as a reader from the Scholastic Book Fair mysteries. My goal has always been to finish collecting all the series I read and collected as a child: the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls, The Three Investigators and Trixie Belden, as well as the lesser known ones like Biff Brewster, Ken Holt (over whom I had a weird bonding moment with James Ellroy), Rick Brant, Vicki Barr, Judy Bolton, Cherry Ames, Kay Tracey, and Connie Blair. (I also collected the Chip Hilton sports series.) I still have the copies I had as a child, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I discovered eBay and tried to finish collecting the series. I don’t have room in the Lost Apartment to display them proudly in a bookcase–I have far too many books; and many of them are boxed up and stored–but I refuse to rid myself of them, because I keep holding out hope that someday I will live in an apartment or condo or house where I can have a room filled with bookcases that will also serve as my office.

But eBay gradually led me to collectors’ and fan pages of these books on Facebook..occasionally someone on one of those pages will be selling a copy of something I need to complete my collections.  There is a generic page for series books in general, and then there are individual pages for Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, respectively–and probably still others for the other series that I don’t know about. I know there are also fan websites and serious scholarship on the kids’ series–some of them make for interesting reading, if you have some free time (or are wasting time you should be spending on writing). Some of the fan websites also have conferences and trips–the Nancy Drew group, for example, has an annual trip to where one of the books was set, and tours and so forth to visit the places Nancy also went to look for clues in the course of her investigation. (They were in New Orleans a few years ago; I was going to register–it’s not cheap–until I realized it was more about being a fan than anything else.)

And boy, do these people take their series fandom seriously. I’m not as rabid or as devoted as the majority of them; periodically I might reread one of the series books (I’d love to write an essay about the Ken Holt series, which was darker and more hard-boiled than any of the others; which was why James Ellroy and I bonded over them–which is still so weird to me), but I don’t reread an entire series from beginning to end, and while I used to remember plot details quite vividly, as I’ve gotten older those memories are fading.

I’ve not watched the new CW series Nancy Drew–well, I watched the first episode but didn’t keep watching; primarily because I haven’t had time and Paul and I usually watch shows together–at least, I like to give him a chance to watch something I might enjoy before moving on to watch it on my own (like Riverdale). Maybe he’ll be interested in Nancy Drew, maybe he won’t; I thought he’d like Riverdale but he didn’t. Maybe Nancy Drew is something I’ll wind up watching while he’s working in the evenings; I don’t know. But I’ve also not seen the recent film adaptation, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, either. But boy, do these Nancy Drew fans take their Nancy Drew seriously. They were outraged that Nancy Drew had sex in the first episode (because Nancy of course never had sex in the series; I don’t even think she even enjoyed a chaste kiss from Ned in all 58 of the original books) and Ned Nickerson was black! Nancy Drew was not only having sex but she was having sex with a black teenager!

The pearls were clutched so tightly! And if you stuck a piece of coal up these people’s asses, it would have come out a diamond. There was a lot of moaning and whining about people’s childhoods being ruined (really? Mine is still just fine) and the “horrors of political correctness” and on and on and on. In other words, Nancy should be a virgin and only know white, straight, cishet people. Got it.

Anyway, Hulu recently announced that they are doing a Hardy Boys series; however, instead of Bayport the town is Bridgeport; their first case is their mother’s murder; and rather than being 18 and 17, their ages will be 16 and 12. Their father is off investigating the murder and so he deposits them with their aunt in Bridgeport, but they soon realize their mother’s death is somehow connected to the town–and everyone in town is a suspect.

Yes, these are significant changes to the original canon of the Hardy Boys, but also remember: The Mickey Mouse Club did two serialized versions of the Hardy Boys, making them also about 13 and 14. The Hardy Boys fans are fan with this, of course, and with the other changes Disney made…so what’s the problem? As someone pointed out, in response to all the whining and moaning about ruining characters and childhoods and “political correctness”, someone also commented, grumpily, “I suppose Chet will be slim, gay, and black”–which actually sounded kind of good to me, frankly. The character of Chet is overweight and loves to eat (kind of like Bess in the Nancy series) and also like Bess, his appetite and weight are the subject of lots of jokes, teasing and sometimes humiliation. Not really cool, if we’re being completely honest.

And yes, all of these people are grandparents with graying hair and are white people. All of this whining and complaining over two television series based on characters that have evolved and changed and been rewritten multiple times in the nearly hundred years they’ve been around–to appeal to  new generations of readers. The original versions of the books were all revised in the 1950’s and 1960’s because they were loaded with racial and ethnic stereotypes that were beyond offensive; naturally, the nice old white people prefer the original texts (big shock, right?).

And if any kids’ series need to be turned into television programs, can I vote for The Three Investigators and Encyclopedia Brown?

I am really tired of this whole “you’re ruining my childhood” nonsense. Unless they are traveling back in time to do so, your childhood hasn’t changed.

I’ve always wanted to write a book about kids’ series fans and conventions; I might just have to now. I mean, I get it–people don’t like change, and something that was beloved when you were a child you want frozen in amber forever. But I just wish these people would unpack their issues with the updates and changes–and nothing gets my gorge going more than the ever popular whine of every racist, misogynist, and homophobic piece of shit out there: politically correct. Sorry you don’t feel safe expressing your hateful bigoted opinions any more without consequence.

I’ve also always wanted to write my own middle-grade series; I used to think about that all the time when I was a kid, even up to coming up with characters and titles for the books in the series because of course I did. I don’t know if I can write middle-grade or not; but it’s worth a shot sometime.

And of course, I can talk for hours on the subject of the kids’ series. Perhaps someday I will.

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Mighty Love

I love nothing more than a great ghost story (which is why, although I loved the book, I was enormously disappointed with Peter Straub’s Ghost Story; it’s an amazing novel and a horror classic and one of my favorite horror novels of all time, but it is emphatically not a ghost story). I’m not sure why I love them so much, but even as a kid, reading the mysteries for kids I always gravitated towards the ones with some kind of ghostly title: The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, The Haunted Fort, The Phantom of Pine Hill, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, The Haunted Showboat, The Ghost in the Gallery, etc. The ghosts and hauntings in these books were never real–just like the ghosts and monsters on Scooby Doo Where Are You? weren’t–but I still was drawn to them.

There was an ABC Movie of the Week when I was really young that I absolutely loved: The House That Would Not Die. It starred Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who moved into a house she’d inherited from a relative, along with her niece, and of course, the house turned out to be haunted. The story was terrific and it scared me a lot–and you can never go wrong with Barbara Stanwyck; I may even have watched it with my grandmother, who was a big Stanwyck fan. A few years later, we were somewhere–some people my parents knew had invited us over for dinner, and before and after, as the adults, my sister and I were deposited in the den to watch television and entertain ourselves while behaving. They had books, which I gravitated towards, I pulled down a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and found a ghost story inside. As I started reading, I was drawn into it and I realized it was the same plot, the same story, of the TV movie I’d liked, and kept reading. I read the entire thing that evening–it was condensed, after all–and thought, oh, I’d like to see that movie again.

Flash forward and I am in college, browsing in a second-hand bookstore when I find a worn paperback copy of the book. Pleased and delighted at the opportunity to not only read it again but read the entire version? For fifty cents? Absolutely.

It was Ammie, Come Home, which is one of my favorite ghost stories, and favorite novels, of all time. It was written by Barbara Michaels–for another dollar I picked up two more of her novels, Witch and House of Many Shadows. I loved all three books, but I’ve always preferred Ammie, considered it my favorite. Over the years Michaels–and her alter-ego, Elizabeth Peters-became one of my favorite writers of all time. I love her books, no matter what the name or brand or whatever you want to call it; they are all witty, with strong, likable female characters, there’s some little dash of romantic interest involved in all of them, and a very strong suspense component. The Peters novels were more mysteries; the Michaels sometimes involved the supernatural, and sometimes they didn’t.

But, oh, how I love Ammie, Come Home, and I recently, during my isolation, took it down and made it a part of this year Reread Project.

Ammie Come Home Barbara Michaels Fawcett Crest 1968 harry bennet cover art

By five o’clock it was almost dark, which was not surprising, since the month was November; but Ruth kept glancing uneasily toward the windows at the far end of the room. It was a warm, handsome room, furnished in the style of a past century, with furniture whose present value would have astonished the original owners.. Only the big overstuffed sodas, which face one another before the fireplace, were relatively modern. Their ivory brocade upholstery fitted the blue-and-white color scheme, which has been based upon the delicate Wedgwood plaques set in the mantel. A cheerful fire burned on the hearth, sending sparks dancing from the crystal glasses on the coffee table and turning the sherry in the cut-glass decanter the color of melted copper. Since her niece had come to stay with her, Ruth had set out glasses and wine every evening. It was a pleasant ritual, which they both enjoyed even when it was followed by nothing more elegant than hamburgers. But tonight Sara was late.

The darkening windows blossomed yellow as the streetlights went on; and Ruth rose to draw the curtains. She lingered at the window, one hand absently stroking the pale blue satin. Sara’s class had been over at three-thirty…

And, Ruth reminded herself sternly, Sara was twenty years old. When she agreed to board her niece while the girl attended the Foreign Service Institute at a local university, she had not guaranteed full-time baby-sitting. Sara, of course, considered herself an adult. However, to Ruth her niece still had the touching, terrifying illusion of personal invulnerability which is an unmistakable attribute of youth. And the streets of Washington–ven of this ultrafashionable section–were not completely safe after dark,

Even at the dying time of year, with a bleak dusk lowering, the view from Ruth’s window retained some of the famous charm of Georgetown, a charm based on formal architecture and the awareness of age. Nowadays that antique grace was rather self-conscious; after decades of neglect, the eighteenth century houses of the old town had become fashionable again, and now they had the sleek, smug look born of painstaking restoration and a lot of money.

Ammie, Come Home is possibly one of the best constructed, if not the very best, ghost stories I’ve ever read. As you can see from the opening paragraphs, Michaels does an exceptional job of setting everything up, giving us insights into her main character, Ruth Bennett, and her relationship with her niece. We go on to find out that Ruth is probably in her mid to late forties, was widowed in World War II, never remarried, and for the most part, it’s implied that her husband’s death pretty much was the end of any romance in her life; something she isn’t terribly interested in. This is, of course, foreshadowing–but not the way the reader might think. Yes, in the opening scene of the book, which features her niece Sara getting a ride home from one of her professors, that ah, yes, Ruth and Dr. Pat MacDougal are going to fall in love-but there’s more to Ruth’s history than that, which of course is the mark of the truly terrific writer. We also glean that childless Ruth has grown deeply fond of her niece Sara–and disapproves of Sara’s boyfriend Bruce (mainly because of his youth, the way he dresses, and what she thinks of as his smug superiority).

(This last, by the way, is the only part of the book that feels dated. Written and originally published in the 1960’s, Sara and Bruce are both college students and Pat works at a college–he’s a cultural anthropologist with a specialty in superstitions and rituals–so, as anyone who knows anything about the 1960’s knows, it was a decade of youthful rebellion and anti-establishmentarianism. There are occasional asides from both Ruth and Pat about the generation gap–this was also the first time this phrase was used, during this period–where the kids want to make change. There are a few mild arguments over that, but it’s always very good natured and never gets very deep. But the very generation gap is part of the structure of the novel; when strange things start happening in Ruth’s home, particularly involving Sara–Ruth and Pat immediately think of mental illness; Bruce is the only one open-minded enough to see the truth; that the house is haunted by a malevolent spirit–and there may even be more than one.)

It’s also very clever of Michaels to use that generational divide to explore the notions of the supernatural and a spirit world–because Bruce is given a forty-eight hour deadline to convince the older two in their quartet that Sara isn’t mentally ill but is being haunted. So, as Bruce convinces them–helped by more apparitions and events in the house–the reader is also being convinced that what’s going on in the house is supernatural in origin. How she does it is a master class in suspense/horror writing; and there are some lines that just the reader to the bone: And what looked back at her through Sara’s eyes was not Sara.

The ghost hunters eventually get to the bottom of the haunting of the old house in Georgetown by finding out the deeply hidden truth about what happened there centuries earlier, and finally freeing the spirits trapped to the house.

And maybe the creepiest, yet saddest, thing is the disembodied voice they hear, over and over, in the back yard, calling Ammie….come home…..come home…..Ammie…. —which is described as “it sounded like what the wind would sound like if it had a voice.”

And despite the dated 1960’s references, the book still holds up, over forty years later.

I rediscovered Michaels in the mid to late 1980’s, which was when I also discovered that she also wrote the Elizabeth Peters novels, and that the absolutely delightful Crocodile on the Sandbank, which I’d loved, wasn’t merely a stand alone, but the first book in a long-running, and completely fantastic, series featuring heiress Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband Emerson. There isn’t a single dud in the Amelia Peabody series–and there are smart, funny, clever, and intricately plotted–and over the years the Peabody-Emerson clan had children, raised them, and those children grew up to be involved in the adventures of their parents–and every book, save one, actually took place in Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century. I need to reread Crocodile on the Sandbank, and in fact, would love to revisit the entire series. She wrote two other series as Elizabeth Peters as well–the Vicky Bliss series and the Jacqueline Kirby–as well as stand alones; every Peters novel is a gem, as is every novel she wrote as Barbara Michaels.

And now back to the spice mines.

U Got the Look

This week, The CW debuted a new version of Nancy Drew. I sort of watched it Thursday night, and will probably watch again so I can pay better attention. It’s definitely a reboot, with a lot of changes–Nancy’s mom died much later in her life, for example, and there’s no Bess. The story is also set in Horseshoe Bay rather than River Heights, and Nancy has hung up her sleuthing cap since her mother’s death and is now working as a waitress in a diner. George Fayne isn’t a close friend but now her boss, and they don’t get along–I expect that to change. Ned Nickerson is not white–a change I liked a lot–and prefers to go by Nick. It’s also a bit more in the vein of Riverdale than the classic Nancy Drew stories, but let’s face it–the real Nancy as originally written is kind of insufferable–bit more on that later.

I’m also sure these changes will enrage the Nancy Drew fanbase–anything other than the way she was originally written by a lot of ghostwriters generally sets them off. I am not such a purist–I recognize that changes have to be made for a different medium, for one thing, and for another–as I said earlier, Nancy was a bit insufferable as originally written.

I did enjoy the movie a few years ago with Emma Roberts (it might be the only time I’ve ever actually enjoyed an Emma Roberts performance, frankly); a lot was changed from the books to the series.

Nancy Drew and I go back to my fifth grade year at Eli Whitney Elementary in Chicago. I was already reading as many mysteries as I could get my hands on–those Scholastic Book Fairs were my favorite part of school–and I was checking out as many mysteries from the library as I could. (This was also the period of time when I discovered Phyllis Whitney’s mysteries for children; the first I read was The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye.) My fifth grade teacher had a big table in the back of the room with books for kids on them; we were on the honor system. We could borrow a book but we were supposed to return it when we finished reading it. The first day of school I wandered back there and looked at the books on the table; the first title to jump out at me was The Secret of Red Gate Farm. Above the title was NANCY DREW MYSTERY SERIES, and on the cover was a picture of a girl with wavy blonde hair, wearing a sweater and a long skirt, hiding behind a tree and looking, her mouth wide open in shock, fear or surprise, staring at the entrance to a cave  as some strangely robed figures entered it. I took it back to my desk, and started reading it.

red gate farm

“That Oriental-looking clerk in the perfume shop certainly acted mysterious, ” Bess Marvin declared, as she and her two friends ended their shopping trip and hurried down the street to the railroad station.

“Yes,” Nancy Drew answered thoughtfully. “I wonder why she didn’t want you to buy that bottle of Blue Jade?”

“The price would have discouraged me,” spoke up Bess’ cousin, dark-haired George Fayne. Her boyish name fitted her slim build and straight-forward, breezy manner. “Twenty dollars an ounce!”

“Oriental-looking.”

Sigh. The great irony is that both the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series were rewritten and revised to remove racist stereotypes and language…

Anyway, The Secret of Red Gate Farm enthralled me, as Nancy and her friends tried to help a young girl and her grandmother save Red Gate Farm from mortgage foreclosure while also trying to expose a ring of counterfeiters. There was a list of intriguing-sounding Nancy Drew titles on the back of the book, and back on the table in my fifth grade classroom there were three more titles: The Mystery at Lilac Inn, The Haunted Showboat, and The Clue of the Leaning Chimney. As I scoped around, there was another series novel, but it wasn’t Nancy Drew; it was the Dana Girls The Secret of the Old Well, allegedly written by the same person: Carolyn Keene.

Nancy Drew introduced me to the world of Grosset & Dunlap series–which were actually all produced, for the most part, by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. I eventually found myself reading–and collecting–many of those series, including the Hardy Boys, Dana Girls, Ken Holt, Rick Brant, Biff Brewster, Chip Hilton, and Judy Bolton, among others–I also wound up collecting Trixie Belden and the Three Investigators, too.

I always wanted to write a series like these when I was a kid; I even came up with a list of about forty titles I could use. I wrote one, actually, when I was in the fifth grade–called The Secret of the Haunted Mansion–which, to the best of my recollection, might be the first fiction I ever wrote; alas, it is lost in the mists of time. Periodically, I come back to the thought of writing such a series, but I don’t know that there’s a market for them anymore. Most of the series have gone out of print, with only Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, as far as I know, still available; Trixie Belden might be but I’m not sure. I still collect the books–it really pleases my OCD to have the series completed. I’m still missing a few from some of the harder to find series–like Biff Brewster and Ken Holt, and I do think I am missing a couple of Judy Boltons and Dana Girls as well–but I’ve stopped scouring eBay over the last few years because, well, money.

But at some point, I imagine I will go back and try to complete the series.

I do credit these series with a lot of my devotion to the world of crime and crime writing; while I always loved mysteries, it’s entirely possible I would have moved on to something else had I not discovered, and become addicted, to these series. These series led me eventually to Agatha Christie, Mary Stewart, Charlotte Armstrong, and Ellery Queen; and those authors eventually led me to others…and wanting to write crime fiction of my own.

So, thank you, Nancy Drew. It’s kind of your fault.