Wrapped Around Your Finger

The temperature took a dip here Thursday evening, and has kept falling, even further than was projected. That means the heat is on and my space heater is back at work here in the kitchen/office, as I try to get the kitchen cleaned and the bed linens laundered. I slept later than I’d intended this morning–not a big deal, just got me off to a later start on my day than I’d wanted–and am now in the process of getting the things done that were on my Saturday agenda. I remembered that the last cold snap, coupled with my illness, had knocked me off my daily abdominal workout plan, so I got that started again this afternoon after running my errands, and it really is amazing what a difference that makes. I have an errand to run on Monday, but tomorrow if I rise early enough to get the things done that I want to, I am going to venture out into the cold temperatures and head to the gym to lift weights, stretch, and get on the treadmill. (I have all those lovely films on Starz to watch; movies I want to rewatch and others–like Friday the 13th–that I’ve never seen. Yes, I’ve never seen any  of the Jason movies, can you believe that? Shame on me! Bad, bad Gregalicious!)

Also, when I was talking about watching The Towering Inferno, I neglected to mention that the film was based on two books (I am a firm believer in mentioning the source material; so many people don’t know films were based on books, which is a shame). Two novels about fires in skyscrapers were released in the same year, so when the film was being prepared Irwin Allen bought the screen rights to both books to protect against another similar, competitive film being made. The two books were The Tower by Richard Martin Stern (which I did read) and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson (I didn’t see any need to read a second book about a fire in a skyscraper). Whew. I feel better having giving them credit now.

As you are probably aware, the Short Story Project is really proceeding apace. Last year I tried to read a short story a day for January; I am reading a lot more than two a day this year, particularly since I decided to expand the project to last the entire year. In fact, blogging only once a day (although I blogged twice yesterday) isn’t enough for me to devote an entire entry to simply one story; I am having to at the very least double them up per entry, and I am still getting behind on the blog entries! Madness!

But after these three stories, I am caught up through Saturday.

Whew! The pressure is so intense.

These next three stories, of course, are from Sarah Weinman’s anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives. The first is Helen Nielsen’s “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.”

It was exactly ten minutes before three when Loren returned to  her apartment. The foyer was empty–a glistening, white and black tile emptiness of Grecian simplicity which left no convenient nooks or alcoves where a late party-goer could linger with her escort in a prolonged embrace, or where the manager–in the unlikely event that he was concerned–could spy out the nocturnal habits of his tenants. Loren moved swiftly across the foyer, punctuating its silence with the sharp tattoo of her heels on the tile and the soft rustling of her black taffeta evening coat. Black for darkness; black for stealth. She stepped into the automatic elevator and pressed the button for the seventeenth floor. The door closed and the elevator began its silent climb. Only then did she breathe a bit easier, reassuring herself that she was almost safe.

There was an apex of terror, a crisis at which everything and every place became a pulsing threat. Loren wore her terror well.

Loren, you see, is a second wife; thoroughly organized and ruthlessly efficient as a secretary, she first became the other woman when he was married to another woman. When that marriage inevitably ended in divorce, Loren not only got her man but she also got a big promotion. But Loren, you see, has a secret past she doesn’t want her husband to know about, lest he might go back to his former wife. And when the man who knows her secrets shows up–in the company of the first wife–she knows she has to do something about it. So, thoroughly organized and ruthlessly efficient, Loren comes up with a plan. But…even the best planner can get caught off-guard by a twist of fate they never foresaw, never considered. And as the suspense rises, as does Loren’s paranoia and fear…well, what a fantastic story.

The next story is by Dorothy B. Hughes, the master of suspense who crafted such brillaint novels as In a Lonely Place, The Blackbirder, and The Expendable Man, amongst others. I can attest to the particular brilliance of the first and third mentioned novels; the middle is in my TBR pile. Her other books are sadly out of print, and hard to find; but I am on a quest to read her entire canon, and I will not be denied.

Her contribution in this collection is a strange little story called “Everybody Needs a Mink.”

One was dusty rose brocade, tranquil as an arras in a forsaken castle. One was a waterfall of gold, shimmering from a secret jungle cache. And there was, of course, the stiletto of black, cut to here and here–the practical one, as it would go everywhere–and she had the black evening slippers from last year, like new for they only went to the New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras dances at the club, and the annual office executive dinner at the Biltmore. With her pearls, single strand, good cultured, Christmas present two years ago from Tashi–black and pearls, always good.

She selected the gold. She’d dash down to Florida and pick up a copper tan before the Christmas party, or maybe Hawaii. Or a week in Arizona, quite chic. She could buy gold slippers and hunky gold jewelry. When you were selecting, you didn’t have to think practical, you could let yourself go.

This is an excellent character study of the interior life of women, or at least this woman, shopping the before school sales for her children at a department store in Manhattan, pretending that she’s a socialite with money to burn, trying on clothes she couldn’t possible afford and pretending for a moment, before she has to get back to reality, get the sale items for her kids and catch the train to her little suburb north of the city, Larksville-nearly-on-the-Hudson and her life as a middle-class wife and mother who must scrimp and save…but she tries on a mink, encouraged by an older man. an eleven thousand dollar coat, which he buys for her without her knowledge and then disappears. Terrific stuff.

The last story to catch me up on the Short Story Project is a deeply disturbing little tale called “The Purple Shroud” by Joyce Carrington. Originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, it won the Edgar for Best Short Story for 1972. Dark, told in a distant, observational voice, it’s the kind of dark little story with a twist that would have been perfect for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Mrs. Moon threw the shuttle back and forth and pumped the treadles of the big four-harness loom as if her life depended on it. When they asked her what she was weaving so furiously, she would laugh silently and say it was a shroud.

“No, really, what is it?”

“My house needs new draperies,” Mrs. Moon would smile and the shuttle would fly and the beater would thump the newly woven threads tightly into place. The muffled, steady sounds of her craft could be heard from early morning until very late at night, until the sounds became an accepted and expected background noise and were only noticed in their absence.

Then they would say, “I wonder what Mrs. Moon is doing now.”

You see, every summer Mr. and Mrs. Moon come to an art colony at a remote lake in the woods, and Mrs. Moon weaves while her husband George instructs others in art, because he is the best instructor the art colony has ever had. But George has a bad habit of having affairs with young girl students at the colony every summer, ending them when it’s time to go home again, of course, and everyone knows and kind of feels sorry for Mrs. Moon, but this summer…this summer it’s different.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Time Will Reveal

Last night I got home from work early; after stopping at the grocery store to alleviate some of the errands I must run today. I cleaned the living room and worked on organizing the books some, did some laundry, and did the living room floor, as well as laundered the living room blankets and vacuumed the love seat and my easy chair. Mindless chores, as I mentioned on both my panels at Comic Con last weekend, are marvelous for brainstorming and thinking; which I did a lot of. The Short Story Project is also inspiring me, which is really cool, too. The Facebook ban is freeing me up to do a lot more reading, a lot more brainstorming, and so really, I have to thank not only the Puritan trash who keep reporting my pictures of shirtless men but the equally puritanical censors at Facebook, whose word is law and cannot be questioned. As I mused early on in the ban, all this is really succeeding in doing is breaking me of the Facebook habit. How horrible! What a punishment!

Assholes.

So, last night I repaired to my easy chair once I had made myself something to eat and the living room was cleaned and organized. I started looking through my Amazon Prime app on the Apple TV–I can’t tell you how nice it is to have that app now, so I don’t have to switch over to the Prime function of the TV, which doesn’t work as well–and realized that I had subscriptions to both Acorn and Starz through it! I found a bunch of wonderful movies that I’d like to see again, or haven’t seen and want to, on the Starz menu; likewise for some series on Acorn. I settled in with my book and started watching The Towering Inferno, which I had actually never seen. Highly entertaining, badly acted, and starring a smorgasbord of Oscar winners and other interesting casting choices (O.J. Simpson! Mike Lookinland! Soap diva Susan Flannery! Susan Blakely! Richard Chamberlain! Robert Vaughn!), I kept rolling my eyes at the terrible dialogue and immensely stupid situations, not to mention the insane solutions to the fire they kept coming up with–um, it was an electrical fire; yes by all means use water so people will get electrocuted. 

Seriously.

I also noticed a rather obvious theme that runs through all disaster movies–human hubris, and human greed and incompetence always seem to play a part in the disaster. To bring the construction in under budget, Richard Chamberlain cut corners in safety features  as well as in the specifications for electrical wiring. In The Poseidon Adventure the ship is top-heavy because they didn’t take on enough ballast-in fact, removing some–to try to make it to their final port on time as they are running behind; which of course made the ship prone to capsizing in the case of a tidal wave. But next up on my Starz viewing is the 1969 film Airport, based on the Arthur Hailey novel and the blockbuster hit that really kicked the Disaster Movie craze of the 1970’s off–even though the movie is about more than just the imperiled airplane. I’ve not seen this movie, or reread the book, since I myself worked for an airline at an airport; this could make it really interesting.

As for the Short Story Project, I may have mentioned sometime this week that I discovered a collection of Ross MacDonald short stories on my shelves that I’d forgotten I had, The Archer Files.  I read the first two stories in that collection this week. I came to MacDonald rather late in life; I became aware of him in the 1970’s, but his book covers, with their lurid scantily clad women and back cover blurbs that promised machismo and tough guy behavior, didn’t interest me. I didn’t start reading MacDonald until years later, when Christopher Rice recommended him on a panel we both were on. I’d come to love John D. MacDonald in the 1970’s, and so I decided to give Ross a whirl. I think the first one I read was The Drowning Pool, and after that, I was completely in on Ross MacDonald. I have also come to a great appreciation for the extraordinary talent that was his wife, Margaret Millar…I love to imagine what their dinner conversation was like.

the archer files

The two stories, “Find the Woman” and “Death by Water,” were not originally written or published as Archer stories; they were adapted and turned into Archer stories later, after MacDonald was dead and this was authorized by the estate. The stories work as Archer stories, which is really all that matters. I’ve not yet read any of his non-Archer novels, but some of them are in the TBR pile; I’ll be curious to see if there’s a stylistic difference, or a significant change in voice.

I sat in my brand-new office with the odor of paint in my nostrils and waited for something to happen. I had been back on the Boulevard for one day. This was the beginning of the second day. Back in the window, flashing in the morning sun, the traffic raced and roared with a noise like battle. It made me nervous. It made me want to move. I was all dressed up in civilian clothes with no place to go and nobody to go with.

Then Millicent Breen came in.

I had seen her before, on the Strip with various escorts, and knew who she was; publicity director for Tele-Pictures. Mrs. Dreen was over forty and looked it, but there was electricity in her, plugged into to a secret source that time could never wear out. Look how high and tight I carry my body, her movements said. My hair is hennaed but comely, said her coiffure, inviting not to conviction but to suspension of disbelief. Her eyes were green and inconstant like the sea. They said what the hell.

That is how “Find the Woman” opens, and what a great example of the hardboiled, noirish style of crime writing. Not a lot of words, not a lot of sentences, and yet we get a strong sense of Archer’s character, just out of the war and chafing restlessly at his new life and existence, and the danger inherent in Millicent Breen. She is beautiful, older, sexy and dangerous; she wants Archer to find her daughter, a movie starlet who has disappeared, and this leads Archer into the  dangerous world of movie stars and film people, of love gone astray and a slightly sexist depiction of restless women who might love but need someone in their bed every night. I enjoyed it, not only as an example of the writing style but as a time capsule; it was easy to picture this in black-and-white, with Bogart as Archer and maybe Myrna Loy as Millicent Breen.

He was old, but he didn’t look as if he were about to die. For a man of his age, which couldn’t have been less than seventy, he was doing very well for himself. He was sitting at the bar buying drinks for three young sailors, and he was the life of the party in more than the financial sense. In the hour or so that I  had been watching him, he must have had at least five martinis, and it was long past dinner time.

“The old man can carry his liquor,” I said to Al.

“Mr. Ralston you mean? He’s in here every night from eight to midnight, and it never seems to get him down. Of course some nights he gets too much, and I have to take him home and put him to bed. But next day he’s bright as ever.”

And so begins “Death by Water.” Again, note the writing style; the sparse use of words to get a point across, the inherent toughness in the words chosen and how they are put together. Mr. Ralston ends up dead later on, of course; drowned in the swimming pool, and Archer is on the case. It’s a great little crime procedural, with Archer taking mental notes as he talks to witnesses and the people involved, and once the case is actually solved, it’s pretty clear that the solution was right there in front of our faces all along. Well done!

And now, back to the spice mines with me. Paul’s going into the office, I have some errands to run, and we’re going to go see I, Tonya tonight; I intend to do a deep, overdue cleaning of the kitchen today as well, around writing and editing.