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.

The Truck Driver and His Mate

And somehow here we are at Friday again. Christ, these weeks seem to last forever, and yet somehow I still manage to get so very little fucking done. It seems as though every Friday morning I find myself staring into the gaping maw of my email inbox, with so many emails to answer and some not only need to be answered by require me to do something; to look something up; to verify something; or make some sort of decision. I’m trying very hard not to make myself crazy (crazier, at any rate) and yet…and other emails are getting pushed down further into my inbox, and I know what I really need to do is reverse the order so that the oldest ones are at the top, but I shudder at the very thought of that. And yet, realistically, I know I have to do that one morning and deal with those emails, because with every day they become that much older.

Yesterday was exhausting. By the time I got home–after making works bags all afternoon for the needle exchange and gathering today’s supplies for condom packing (I have calls to make today, so rather than watching my next selected films–Alien and Aliens back to back on HBO MAX–I will be talking on the telephone as I make my condom packs, at least for part of the day; multi-tasking, as it were). And when quitting time rolls around later this afternoon, rather than curling up with Blacktop Wasteland, as I would much rather prefer, I am going to have to start the heavy lifting on the revisions of chapters one thru ten of Bury Me in Shadows, because in order to remain on schedule with it I need to have that finished by Sunday evening in order to begin work on chapters eleven through twenty.

Heavy heaving sigh.

I wonder if I will ever reach a point in my life where I don’t feel crushing guilt for not responding to emails within five minutes of their reception; for not having the energy after a lengthy day at the office or of doing day-job activities at home to work on my writing or read a book; for not having the drive to get things done, for not always being in motion, for not being, basically, a Stepford wife. My apartment is a disaster area, there’s another load of dishes to be done, and its Friday, the day I usually launder the bed linens. The car has a tire with a slow leak in it, so at some point I need to find the time to head over to a gas station to refill the tire with air, and also need to find the time to take it back into the dealership to have the tire dealt with, as well as have routine maintenance done. I am sleeping deeply and well every night, but so deeply that every morning I could probably, if I could, sleep several hours more and my body harbors a resentment towards my brain for forcing my body out of the bed and pouring coffee down its throat and trying to get some kind of grip on the day ahead. Even as I sit here typing I can see the number changing on the tab where my email inbox is opened; possibly more junk to simply be deleted, but there will inevitably be something in there I need to read, that will need to be responded to, will perhaps require me to think or take some kind of further action.

Partly this malaise I feel this morning is inevitably connected to the relief that the lumps in my pectorals are nothing more than genetic fatty deposits hardening into cysts that do not endanger my health nor require any further action or activity on my part; while I was doing my best to repress those worries and push them down deep into my brain and consciousness, the worry and stress wasn’t gone, and the feeling of relief has released a lot stress I wasn’t aware I was carrying. There’s probably some other sort of cathartic release of pent-up stress and energy I could and should be doing; that might help me get motivated and stop feeling so defeated every day.

And I probably should get back into therapy, if I only could carve that time out in my weeks.

Part of it has to do, I am certain, with the sense that I am not organized; but I am also very well aware that even should I carve a day out to get organized it won’t help at all with the sense of drowning and being overwhelmed; the feeling that I have that each limb and appendage is tied to a horse facing a different direction and someone is about to fire the starting pistol. And yet, even now, as the coffee and caffeine from my first cup courses through my veins and my mind begins to throw off its sluggishness and that melted feeling begins to fade from my muscles, I am aware that all the things that I allow to frustrate me (I wish I had a place where I could spread the manuscript out and piece it back together after tearing it all apart and I wish I had enough space for all my books and I wish I could rearrange my time so that I had time for everything I need to get done and I wish I could stop being so lazy or at least stop imagining and believing that I am lazy and I wish I had more self-confidence and I wish I could I wish I wish I wish) can neither be helped nor changed by simply wishing it to be so, and therefore allowing these immutable, unchangeable facts about my current situation in life to defeat or frustrate me is, ultimately, self-destructive (a regular pattern in my life deeply rooted in my consciousness from being told repeatedly that I was a loser so I started believing it, believed it for years, and revert to that mentality frequently whenever under stress or pressure) and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, instead I should be looking back at this past year and what I have accomplished. I have had any number of successes with short stories, giving the lie to the insidious belief that I am not a good short story writer. Just this week I sold another one, “The Snow Globe”; I had two come out in anthologies around the same time (“The Silky Veils of Ardor” in The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of Joni Mitchell and “The Dreadful Scott Decision” in The Faking of the President); I sold “The Carriage House” to Mystery Tribune and Night Follows Night” to an anthology titled Buried; I pushed myself by writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy,” to The Only One in the World anthology; and my story “A Whisper from the Graveyard” was sold to an anthology I really need to follow up with, as I’ve not heard anything about it in quite some time. I still have two out on submission, but those are both long shots I don’t have a lot of confidence will land–and that is not self-deprecation; both are fine stories, but are undoubtedly buried in piles of hundreds of submissions, hence the strong possibility they won’t be sold. Both stories are works I am pleased with, “Moves in the Field” and “This Thing of Darkness,” and while the short story market has certainly dried up dramatically since I started publishing, I enjoy writing stories and would love to publish more of them.

But I need to get Bury Me in Shadows finished and turned in, so I can get the Kansas book worked on one more time and turned in as well, and then I can get going on Chlorine. I can get everything done that I need to get done, and need to stop allowing negativity to creep into my brain; there’s enough negativity in life already that I don’t need to create my own.

And so I am going to go get my second cup of coffee, and I am going to start digging through the emails. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader, and remember–don’t let anyone, especially yourself, hold you back.