Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)

I am the first to admit that I am a crime writer who was always kind of meh about Sherlock Holmes. I read some of the novels and some of the stories when I was in junior high, and while I enjoyed them somewhat, I was never particularly driven to go on to read the rest. I did read the Nicholas Meyer pastiches in the 1970’s–The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution, The West End Horror–but was never particularly driven to go back to Doyle. I never actually went back to Doyle (until recently; bear with me) but Holmes is so ubiquitous, so part of the crime fiction zeitgeist that it was impossible not to be aware of him and iconic parts of his canon, even the ones I’d not read–Irene Adler, Professor Moriarty, Mary who married Watson–and of course, like many others, I’ve watched a great deal of the Holmes film canon, including Young Sherlock Holmes, and am a big an of the Benedict Cumberbatch interpretation; we even watched the first few seasons of the Americanized Holmes, Elementary. But for the most part I’ve avoided pastiches and the originals, with the exception of a story here and there by one of the modern-day aficionados who worship at the altar of Sherlock.

I have always known that my lack of Sherlockian knowledge was perhaps detrimental to my career as a crime writer. Several years ago, I managed to find a gloriously beautiful hardbound edition of the Baring-Gould The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and I have periodically dipped into it; no more so than when I was tasked to write my own Sherlock story, which became “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy.” Writing the story, putting my own interpretation on someone else’s characters and breathing life into them to try to make them engaging and new while respecting the originals was quite a challenge for me, one at many times I felt I was not equal to bringing to fruition. The story was written and then revised with editorial input, which made the story much stronger (in my opinion) than how I’d originally envisioned it, and it also unlocked potential in my creative brain: I want to, and plan to, return to the New Orleans of 1916 that I created for iteration, and even see how some other historic stories about New Orleans could easily fit into my Sherlock world, could prove to be cases for the great brain residing at 821 B Royal Street in the French Quarter.

I also decided that reading Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series was long overdue.

And seriously, what a treat it was.

Dear Reader,

As both I and the century approach the beginnings of our ninth decades, I have been forced to admit that age is not always a desirable state. The physical, of course, contributes its own flavour to life, but the most vexing problem I have found is that my past, intensely real to me, has begun to fade into the mists of history in the eyes of those around me. The First World War has deteriorated into a handful of quaint songs and sepia images, occasionally powerful but immeasurably distant; there is death in that war, but no blood. The twenties have become a caricature, the clothing we wore is now in museums, and those of us who remember the beginnings of this godforsaken century are beginning to falter. With us will go our memories.

I do not remember when I first realized that the flesh-and-blood Sherlock Holmes I knew so well was to the rest of the world merely a figment of an out-of-work medical doctor’s powerful imagination. What I do remember is how the realisation took my breath away, and how for several days my own self-awareness became slightly detached, tenuous, as if I too were in the process of transmuting into fiction, by contagion with Holmes. My sense of humour provided the pinch that woke me, but it was a very peculiar sensation while it lasted.

Now, the process has become complete: Watson’s stories, those feeble evocations of the compelling personality we both knew, have taken on a life of their own, and the living creature of Sherlock Holmes has become ethereal, dreamy. Fictional.

I first discovered Laurie R. King’s work with her Kate Martinelli series; I received a review copy of Night Work when I was editor of Lambda Book Report. I wasn’t familiar with the series, which caught me off guard–how did I not know about a crime series with a lesbian police detective as the protagonist?–and the book itself caught me completely off-guard. It was brilliant, so strongly written and the characters so real I was quite literally shocked to find out, many years later, that King was not herself a lesbian. I went back and read the entire series, loved each one, and was saddened when King ended the series with Book 5, moving on to a new series with Mary Russell–a series so completely different and disparate from the Martinelli series I didn’t see how it could work…and then add in the fact that it was actually a Holmes pastiche, and well, I wasn’t terribly interested.

It was sometime during the past year while working alongside King on the Mystery Writers of America board of directors (I will never get used to the big names I rub elbows with through my years of volunteering with MWA), and in the wake of my own Sherlockian writing experience, I thought, you love and admire her as a writer AND as a person, you should read her Mary Russell series.

It was quite literally one of the smartest decisions I have ever made.

I finished reading Book One of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and as you can see from the above paragraphs, immediately I was immersed in the story. The voice, the style, everything about the character and the story was as far removed from the more hard-boiled, gritty Martinelli series, but the intelligence and warmth and humor was still there–only in a completely different manne, a completely different way. You could read a Kate book and then a Mary and easily believe it was two different authors, they are so different. This is genius, by the way; the ability to create such completely different worlds, completely different characters, completely different voices? And I was riveted by Mary Russell. By the end of the first chapter I was crazy about her–she reminds me of two of my favorite female series characters of all time, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody and Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow–and her warmth and intelligence and humor…she was more than a match for Holmes, and by seeing Holmes through the eyes of an intelligent, independent woman rather than an admiring doctor also helped greater humanize Holmes himself, something I never got from the Doyle works (but that could also entirely be my own failing; I am going to leisurely revisit Doyle this year methinks), and I also found myself caring about them deeply–not just about the case, but about them as people.

So, if you’re avoiding this series because you aren’t a Sherlockian, you’re being ridiculous because you can have no knowledge of Holmes whatsoever to enjoy this, and I can’t see how you can’t enjoy this if you are a Sherlockian. This is a version of Holmes that deserves to be shared on a screen–television or theater, it doesn’t matter–and I can also see any number of today’s younger actresses playing this role. And while I have only seen the television adaptation of The Alienist, but the young female detective played so brilliantly by Dakota Fanning, Sara Howard, seems to also have a lot in common with Mary Russell.

I cannot wait to read the next A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and not just because of that great title resonating with me (I’ve always wanted to write a history of the 16th century by exploring the many powerful regnant women, pilfering that title from the John Knox tract denouncing the most ‘unChristian’ fact of so many powerful women on the scene at the same time).

Color me a big fan!

He Can Put His Shoes Under My Bed Anytime

As Constant Reader might remember–or if you don’t, here’s the reminder–I’ve been tasked with writing a Sherlock Holmes short story. Being quite mercenary–I rarely turn down opportunities to make money–I of course said yes; I am not a Sherlockian by any means, but it was precisely this lack of knowledge regarding perhaps the greatest private detective in the history of crime fiction (along with the offer of payment) that also was part of my inspiration to respond to the querying email with a most enthusiastic yes, of course I would love tofor there is also nothing such as the combination of payment AND a challenge to my writing skill and ability that I will welcome most gratefully.

Which, of course, was immediately followed by what the fuck were you thinking?

Now, I read most of the Holmes stories when I was in junior high, and they never really took with me. I enjoyed them, don’t get me wrong, but I never became what I call a “Sherlockian”; an enormous fan who devours any and all Holmes-related materials, whether they were written by Doyle himself, or the pastiches/homages, or any of the scholarship. I’ve watched some of the films, yes, and enjoyed both Sherlock and Elementary, even though we gradually lost interest in the latter and stopped watching. I also read the Nicholas Meyer “new cases” published in the 1970’s, The Seven Per Cent Solution and The West End Horror (I believe he’s published yet another one, as well). And a few years ago I bought the definitive annotated Holmes two volume set on eBay. So I figured I could reread some of the original stories, ask some of my friends who are deep into Sherlockiana to help if I needed it (both said yes, because writers are often very kind and generous people–side-eye at Romance Writers of America), and then I remembered a story I meant to read for last year’s Short Story Project, “The Case of Colonel Warburton’s Madness,” by Lyndsay Faye, which was a Sherlock Holmes story originally published in an anthology called Sherlock Holmes in America, and reprinted in The Best American Mystery Stories 2010, edited by Lee Child. I got the book down from the shelves yesterday and started reading.

My friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes, while possessed of one of the most vigorous minds of our generation, and while capable of displaying tremendous feats of physical activity when the situation required it, could nevertheless remain in his armchair perfectly motionless longer than any human being I had ever encountered.  This skill passed entirely unnoticed by its owner. I do not believe he held any intentions to impress me so, nor do I think the exercise was, for him, a strenuous one. Still I maintain the belief that when a man has held the same pose for a period exceeding three hours, and when that man is undoubtedly awake, that same man has accomplished an unnatural feat.

I turned away from my task of organizing a set of old journals that lead-grey afternoon to observe Holmes perched with one-leg curled beneath him, firelight burnishing the edges of his dressing gown as he sat with his head in his hand, a long-abandoned book on the carpet. It was with a view to ascertain that my friend was still alive that I went so far against my habits as to interrupt his reverie.

Isn’t that a wonderful start? And very Doyle-ish, yet uniquely Lyndsay Faye’s style. Lyndsay is a dear friend–and one of the people who agreed to advise me on my story–and we’ve known each other for years. I first saw her at the first Edgar banquet I attended; she was a finalist for Best Novel for The Gods of Gotham, which was fantastic and you should read it–and again more recently for her novel Jane Steele. We later were both on a judging panel for the Edgar for Best Short Story and became friends; I later recruited her for the Mystery Writers of America board of directors, and we’ve been buds ever since.

The story is truly fantastic, and as I read it–it’s a reminiscent story, in which Watson recounts an old story to Holmes from his days traveling in the United States, and this story is set in San Francisco. Colonel Warburton was a war veteran of both the Mexican War and the Civil War who’d made a fortune and built himself a mansion in San Francisco. But now in his latter years he fears he is losing his mind, having flashbacks to his war days, and Watson never really quite figured out what was going on in the Warburton mansion–but in relating his story and observations, he delivers the missing piece to solve the puzzle to Holmes’ brilliant deductive mind.

And thus, I realized that my fears–ever-present, of course–of imposter syndrome and so forth, which had been swirling around in my head about writing this story, began to disappear. I also grabbed one of the annotated volumes and started reading another Holmes story–and the idea that I had, “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy”, began to take even better shape in my head…and I decided that today, as part of my writing, I would attempt to start writing the story. Which is very exciting, I might add.

Yesterday was a most productive day here in the Lost Apartment. I got a really good night’s sleep Froday night, and woke up aflame to get shit done yesterday. I cleaned, I organized, I filed, I did laundry, I cleaned the floors, I did the dishes and I read and I wrote and I did all kinds of things that made me feel quite accomplished by the time I plopped down in my easy chair to relax for the evening and watch television. Paul had gone into the office for the afternoon, and went out for the evening with friends, so I was pretty much alone all day yesterday and was able to accomplish a lot–not having an LSU football game to get stressed over was a big part of my getting so much done. The Saints are playing Minnesota today in the play-offs; I’m debating whether I should watch with my full attention, or stay here in the kitchen writing, checking in on the score periodically. I should, of course, stay in here writing. I need to get further along with Bury Me in Shadows, of course, and of course there’s the Sherlock story, and some website writing I agreed to do by a week from Monday.

So, on that note, I need to head back into the spice mines. I didn’t sleep as deeply last night as I did on Friday night, but it’s okay; I’m neither tired, nor exhausted; I actually feel rested if not completely awake this morning. Perhaps once I finish my second cup of coffee, and sort through my emails, I’ll be more awake.

So, it is off to the spice mines with me now, Constant Reader. Have a lovely Sunday!

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Land of Confusion

Wednesday, and my body clock  has apparently, finally, after all these years, adjusted back to getting up early the first two days of the week. This morning I woke up again around four, went back to sleep, woke up again around six, and then fell asleep again so that I could wake up just after eight feeling rested and refreshed. Which is cool and lovely, since today is a half-day for me and I can get sort of caught up on things around the Lost Apartment. The kitchen sink is full of dirty dishes, and there are two loads of laundry in some sort of the process of being laundered; the living room is a mess, and so forth. I can also run get the mail after work, and stop at the grocery store for a minor grocery run as well.

Pulling Bury Me in Shadows together is proceeding apace; by the end of this evening I hope to  have over half of it done, with the corrections and additions made that need to be made. This does put me right on schedule for turning it on Monday of next week, which is lovely. It feels good to be producing again, and of course, the whole “Moist Money” thing was really cool this week, too–that’s two short stories I’ve placed over the last few months, which is truly a lovely thing to contemplate. I put some more out for submission earlier this week, too, so hopefully there will be more good news in the future….

..or devastating confirmations of my imposter syndrome. We’ll see how it goes.

Yesterday Facebook memories reminded me that nine years ago was the day we brought Scooter home from the Cat Practice for a two week trial, to see whether we wanted to adopt him or not. He was home with us for exactly two hours before we decided he was a keeper, and went back the next morning to finalize the adoption. It’s so funny; over the years neither Paul nor I had ever had a cat; I’d had roommates with cats, but for the most part they were distant and aloof and rarely seen. Friends had cats, but we were both more dog people, and the sad truth is, we only acquired Skittle when we lived in the carriage house because we had a mouse. Owning Skittle turned us both into cat aficionados; whenever we visit anyone who has a cat, Paul will spend most of the night trying to befriend the cat. Skittle’s untimely demise from cancer was devastating to both of us; Paul was so torn up over it we weren’t sure we’d get another cat. But the Lost Apartment felt so empty without one…when I went back to the Cat Practice to pick up Skittle’s ashes, there was a cat up for adoption in one of the cages behind the front desk–an orange cat whose name was Texas. He was very sweet, and I told Paul that night about him, as Paul was already looking into getting another cat. “Why don’t you go down there and take a look at Texas?” I told him, and so Friday morning before work he walked down there and did, indeed, take a look at Texas. He emailed me when he got to his office and we decided I’d pick Paul up later that afternoon and we’d go get Texas for a trial. I remember letting him out of the carrier, and Scooter immediately, timidly his under the coffee table. He stayed there for a while, with Paul teasingly saying “now, if all you’re going to do is hide under the table we’re not going to keep you.” We turned on the television and started watching….and before long he came out, climbed up onto Paul’s chest, purring and cuddling, and we were his.

And have been, ever since. Nine lovely years. He’s such a sweet cat, too. I finally wrote him into the Scotty series–he’s Taylor’s cat, but Scotty and the boys are all wrapped around Scooter’s paws, the same way we are. It’s always lovely, you know, to come home from a day at work (especially on those shitty days) and have a cat climb into your lap, purring and wanting to cuddle and offering no-strings affection.

We got caught up with The Righteous Gemstones last night, which I am enjoying a lot more than I ever thought I would, and also started watching On Becoming a God in Central Florida–which I’m not so sure about whether we’ll continue watching. The first episode just made me feel incredibly sorry for the main characters, although I didn’t see the shocking death coming. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a comedy–perhaps a dark comedy?–or not, but it didn’t feel funny to me; I don’t like humor where poor people are the butt of the joke , and that’s how it seemed to me…I hate seeing even dark humor where the dreams of poor people to better themselves are mocked or belittled. I don’t care for that, because all I wind up doing is feeling sorry for them. I’ll probably give the show another episode or two, but if that’s all it’s going to be I don’t think we’ll finish watching–but Kirsten Dunst is terrific in the lead role.

I also finished reading “Murder in Basin Street” in Ready to Hang and am now onto the next famous murder, “Juliette and the Kind Doctor,” which seems like an almost perfect story to adapt into a fictional novel. As I read more and more New Orleans history, it’s astonishing to me how dark that history is; almost from the very beginning. I am definitely most likely going to wind up writing historical fiction about New Orleans at some point, I suspect; I see many hours in the archives at the Historic New Orleans Collection, the Williams Center, and the Tulane Louisiana Historical Research Association in my future. There’s just such a rich history to explore and dive headlong into….and as a history addict, I can get lost in such research for years.

Which reminds me, I have been asked to write a story for an interesting anthology; a book of Sherlock Holmes stories where the only requirement is that it can’t be set in England and Holmes/Watson cannot be English. My first thought on reading the email was I can’t write a Holmes story–I haven’t read Doyle since I was a kid and immediately thereafter, Oh, I can set the case in Storyville in the 1910’s and I can use that title I’ve been sitting on for years–“The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy!” 

Naturally, this made me very excited, and now I have to not only do some more research on the time period, but I need to go back and reread some Holmes stories, to get not only a feel for the character that isn’t influenced by either television series (Sherlock with Cumberbatch and Elementary), but it more Doyle-influenced. I’ve never been much of a Sherlockian; I did enjoy reading the stories when I was young, and I read the Nicholas Meyer pastiches in the 1970’s (The Seven Per Cent Solution and The West End Horror), but other than watching the TV series and the occasional film (Spielberg’s Young Sherlock Holmes and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, with Robert Downey Jr, which was really just Holmes as Tony Stark in the nineteenth century), my interest in Holmes and Doyle is fairly minimal. Will writing this story turn me into a Sherlockian? I’ve already recruited some of my avid Sherlockian friends to give me advice and perhaps read early versions, to see if I am getting it right.

And stranger things have happened.

And on that note, I’ve got some emails to answer. Back to the spice mines with me!

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Baby, Come to Me

Yesterday was had a rather intense storm here in New Orleans; there was flash flooding all over the city, cars ruined, water inside buildings; that sort of thing. I don’t know if my street flooded or not (guess I’ll find out if my car got ruined tomorrow morning when I am ready to go to work), but we certainly were lucky and didn’t get water inside of our house. The rain is going to continue some today; there’s an advisory for everyone to stay inside and off the roads, just in case. We get these kinds of storms and flash floods every once in a while–the price of living in a low lying city surrounding by water where parts of the city used to be swamp and are now floodplains, and our pumping system tends to get overwhelmed when we get a lot of water in a short period of time. I’ve been caught out in these storms before, having to wade through water up to my hips at times. My car was flooded when I was on my way home from work the first year we lived here and I got caught in one of these storms. There’s no point in railing against these storms and short-term floods; they happen periodically and you have to deal with them, unfortunately. Last night was also supposed to be White Linen Night, an annual event every August in the Arts District where all the galleries serve food and alcohol, booths are set up on Julia and Magazine streets to sell food and drink, and people wearing white go from gallery to gallery looking at (and hopefully buying) art. Satchmo Fest was also this weekend; clearly, both annual events were cancelled yesterday because of the deluge. I ran my errands early–thank God–and so intended to spend the rest of my day inside and working on the line edit, doing some writing, and reading as well. I did no line editing and no writing yesterday; instead, I was caught up in the last half of Lyndsay Faye’s staggeringly brilliant The Gods of Gotham, and could not put it down until it was finished.

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When I set down the initial report, sitting at my desk at the Tombs, I wrote:

On the night of August 21, 1845, one of the children escaped.

Of all the sordid trials a New York City policeman faces every day, you wouldn’t expect the one I loathe most to be paperwork. But it is. I get snakes down my spine just thinking case files.

Seriously, is there anyone who enjoys paperwork?

The Gods of Gotham is the perfect historical crime novel. I’ve read a number of them, and there are some truly excellent ones (one of my favorite novels of all time is The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy, set in the 1930’s), but I’ve also staggered my way through some seriously bad ones. But even with the bad ones, I always have tremendous respect for the writer for even trying; I can’t imagine trying, much as I love history, because there are so many gaps; so many things to research, from small to large, intricate intimate details that may be impossible to find out–or you might find them out when it’s too late. To be truly successful, a historical piece of fiction has to be completely immersive; the author has to bring that world to life but make the reader understand it and how it was to live in that period without giving in to the temptation to put everything you’ve researched into the book/story, aka hitting the reader over the head with a history lesson. Writing a convincing, involving story with characters the reader can identify with, appreciate, and root for, is hard enough without setting it in another time period.

Lyndsay Faye has managed this incredible juggling feat, and pulled it off with aplomb. The Gods of Gotham is set in New York City (obviously) in the late summer of 1845; when the city has newly created a police force, identified by the copper stars they wear (which, obviously, is where the slang term copper, and its derivative, cop, came from; this is clearly made obvious throughout the story without Faye stopping to explain; a lesser writer certainly would have made that egregious take-the-reader-out-of-the-story error). Our hero, Timothy Wilde, is a bartender when the story opens; his older brother, Valentine, is a good-time Charlie who likes to get wasted, frequents whorehouses, and also works as a fireman. The relationship between the brothers isn’t great; they lost their parents to a fire when they were children, and they butt heads alot. Valentine is also involved with the Democratic Party. After an enormous fire leaves Timothy jobless and homeless and broke, he rents a room from a widowed German baker, Mrs. Boehm, and is then pressured by his brother into becoming a copper star; a beat cop in the newly formed city police, which not everyone in the city wants or approves of. Soon, Timothy is wrapped up in a bizarre mystery involving a child prostitute he runs across one night; wandering the streets in a nightdress, covered in blood; and soon the investigation expands to involve a possible serial killer of child prostitutes. Politics, nativism, religious and ethnic and racial bigotry all play a part in this tale; as do sexism.

The truly great historical novels not only shine a bright light on the past, but thematically show how little has changed over time. The Gods of Gotham could easily be set in the present day, with Timothy Wilde as a modern police detective. The bigotry against the Irish and Catholics could easily be translated to Middle Eastern refugees and Muslims; it is truly sad to read and see how we as a society and a people fail to learn from the mistakes of the past, repeating the same errors over and over to our own disgrace. Faye has brought New York of 1845 vividly to life with careful brush strokes that never are too big or too broad or invasive to the story; her city streets are alive with noise and people and sights and sounds and smells. Her characters are all-too-real; even the worst of her villains (particularly the diabolical madam, Silkie Marsh) are believable three-dimensional and live and breathe on the page.

I hated seeing the book end, quite frankly; but there are two more Timothy Wilde novels to savor and look forward to, as well as her Edgar nominated Jane Steele (The Gods of Gotham was also an Best Novel Edgar finalist), and her Sherlock Holmes work. (And yes, my recent interest in Holmes was triggered by Lyndsay’s interest in Holmes…and there were times when this book itself reminded me of, in the best possible ways, of Nicholas Meyer’s Holmes pastiches from the 1970’s, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The West End Horror.)

The Gods of Gotham, if you haven’t read it yet, needs to be added to your TBR pile immediately.