Cruel Summer

As far as summers go, I’d say this is one of the cruelest of my life thus far. (Nothing, however, including this one, has been as bad as 2005; let me make that very clear–but this one also isn’t over yet and apparently the Saharan dust storm that was hindering the formation of hurricanes is over now. Yay.)

I read an interesting piece on Crimereads about Robert S. Parker and his creation of his iconic character, Spenser, which put me back in mind of how I came to create MY character, Chanse MacLeod–who I have been thinking about lately ( I’ve decided that rather than writing novels about him I’m going to work on some novellas, and then put four of them together as a book; currently the working titles for the first three are “Once a Tiger,” “The Body in the Bayou,” and “The Man in the Velvet Mask”–I still need a fourth, and it’s entirely possible that any of these could turn actually into a novel, and I do have some amorphous ideas about what the fourth one could be), and reading this piece, which is excerpted from a scholarly tome about the genre I would like to read (Detectives in the Shadows: A Hard-boiled History by Susanna Lee), made me start thinking about how I created Chanse, and the entire process that the series actually went through over the years of his development.

It also made me think about looking at Chanse, the series, the characters, and the stories I chose to tell in a more critical, analytic way; I am not sure if I can do this, actually–while I’ve not published a Chanse novel since Murder in the Arts District back on October 14, 2014 (!!! Six years? It’s been six years since I retired the series? WOW)–which means I do have some distance from the books now, I still am the person who wrote them…even though I barely remember any of them now; I cannot recall plot points, or character names, outside of the regulars who populate every one of the books (I also cheated by using some of the same regulars in the Scotty series; Venus Casanova and Blaine Tujague, the police detective partners, appear in both series; and Paige Tourneur, Chanse’s best friend and a reporter, originally for the Times-Picayune who eventually moved on to become editor of Crescent City magazine, also turned up in the Scotty series, in Garden District Gothic and then again in Royal Street Reveillon. Serena Castlemaine, one of the cast members of the Grande Dames of New Orleans, who shows up in the most recent two Scotty books–the same as Paige–is a cousin of the deceased husband of Chanse’s landlady and erstwhile regular employer, Barbara Palmer Castlemaine).

I first created the character of Chanse MacLeod while I was living in Houston in 1989, and the series was intended to be set in Houston as well. I didn’t know of any crime novels or series set in Houston, one of the biggest cities in the country, and I thought that was strange (and probably wrong). Houston seemed like the perfect city for a crime series–huge and sprawling, economically depressed at the time but there was still a lot of oil money and speculators, con artists and crime–and the original story was called The Body in the Bayou (a title of which I am very fond, and is currently back in the running to be the title of a Chanse novella), because Houston also has bayous. I was reading John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series at the time, and loving them–I particularly loved the character of Travis McGee–and how twisty and complicated (if sometimes farfetched) the plots of the novels were. I had read The Dreadful Lemon Sky when I was thirteen, and liked it; but promptly forgot about MacDonald and McGee; a Book Stop in Houston that I frequented reminded me of them and I started picking them up. I had also discovered Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky by this time, and was falling in love with the crime genre all over again, developing a taste for the more hard-boiled side I disliked as a teenager. This was when I decided to try writing in this field again–for most of the 1980’s I was trying to write horror and science fiction (and doing so, very badly).

But coming back to the field that I loved as a kid, tearing through the paperback stand alones from Scholastic Book Club and all the series, from Nancy Drew to the Three Investigators to Trixie Belden before graduating on to Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner, seemed preordained, and also seemed somehow right; writing mysteries, or crime fiction, seemed to me the right path to becoming a published author (turns out, that was the correct assumption for me to make, and one that I have never regretted).

Chanse was originally, as a straight man, a graduate of Texas A&M and a two year veteran of the Houston Oilers; an injury eventually led to early retirement and joining the Houston PD, where he only lasted another three years before quitting and getting a private eye license. He had a secretary, a woman of color named Clara, who was heavyset and in her early fifties. That was about as far as I got; I think I wrote a first draft of a first chapter which established him as having his office near NASA, in Clear Lake (which was near where I lived) and his first case was going to involve a wealthy oil family in River Oaks. Chanse was also six four, dirty blond hair, green eyes, and weighed about two-twenty. When I fell in love with New Orleans four or five years later, I started revising the character and started writing The Body in the Bayou while I lived in Minneapolis. By this time I’d discovered that gay fiction was actually a thing, and that queer mysteries actually existed: Joseph Hanson, Michael Nava, RD Zimmerman, etc. I wanted to write about New Orleans, and I wanted to write a more hard-boiled, MacDonald like hero than what I was reading. (Not that Hanson, Nava, and the rest weren’t doing hard-boiled stuff; they were–I just wanted to subvert the trope of the straight male loner-hero detective.)

Chanse was definitely a loner, and after I moved to New Orleans I once again started revising the manuscript and story that eventually became Murder in the Rue Dauphine. He was cynical about life, love and relationships, even as he was slowly inching his way into a relationship with a flight attendant named Paul Maxwell; he had only two friends, really: Paige Tourneur, who’d been his “beard” while he was at LSU and in a fraternity and was now a reporter for the Times-Picayune; and Blaine Tujague, a former one-night stand and fellow gay man on the NOPD (I changed his backstory to having attended LSU on a football scholarship and a career-ending injury in the Sugar Bowl at the end of his senior year, which led him to joining NOPD, where he lasted for two years before going out on his own). He also lived in a one bedroom apartment on Camp Street, across the street from Coliseum Square in a converted Victorian, the living room also served as his office–and that was the same place where Paul and I lived when we first moved to New Orleans.

The series and the character evolved in ways I didn’t foresee when I first imagined him as that straight private eye in Houston; or even when I rebooted him into a gay one in New Orleans. The original plan was to have him evolve and grow from every case he took on–which would parallel some kind of personal issue and/or crisis he was enduring as he solved the case–the first case was about his concerns about getting involved in a serious relationship as he investigated a case that made him realize he was very lucky to have found someone that he could be with openly; the second case was about investigating someone who wasn’t who they claimed to be while at the same time he was finding out things about Paul’s past that made him uncomfortable. Katrina, of course, came along between book two and book three and changed everything; I know I also wrote another that dealt with the issues between mothers and children which made him reexamine his own relationship with his mother.

The great irony is I probably need to revisit the books to talk about them individually, or to even take a stronger, more in-depth look at the character; maybe that’s something I can do (since I have ebooks of the entire series) when I am too tired to focus on reading something new or to write anything.

And it’s really not a bad idea to reexamine all of my books and short stories at some point, in order to get an idea of what to do (and how to do it) going forward.

And now back to the spice mines.

Young Offender

Looks like we made it to Friday again, Constant Reader, and believe you me, these small victories matter.

I kept thinking, last night, for some reason all evening long that it was Friday, and I’m not exactly sure why that was, to be honest. I was well aware all day, as I made go-bags for syringe access for three hours and then came back home for more condom packing (it’s not as dirty as that sounds) that it was Thursday. I’m really not sure at what point in the evening my mind decided it was Friday. AT some point while Paul and I binged this marvelous Belgian/Netflix scifi thriller called Into the Night (a Scandinavian show called The Rain didn’t last an entire episode) I realized that tomorrow (today) was actually Friday and it was quite a jolt.

It’s raining this morning–there’s a tropical storm out in the Gulf heading for Texas–Hannah, I believe is her name–and it’s heading for the southern coast of the state. We’ll be getting rain from the system apparently all weekend–they’re thinking it’ll be spread out over the weekend rather than all at once so there’s no chance of flooding, or very little, at least–so it’s a good weekend for camping out inside. I am working from home today–lots of condom packing to do (again, not as dirty or fun as it sounds)–and some other things I need to get done today for the day job. I slept pretty well last night–although at some point Scooter cuddled up to me and woke me up with his purring, and he never stopped the entire time he was lying curled up inside my arm. The coffee is helping, as it always does, but I always wonder what it’s like to be one of those people who wake up instantly.

I will never know, apparently.

Into the Night is quite entertaining, I have to say. The episodes are all between thirty-three and forty minutes long, and the premise is relatively simple. A flight to Moscow at Brussels Airport has started it’s boarding procedure when a crazed man grabs an automatic (or semi-automatic) weapon from a military guard and runs down the jetway and forces the pilot to take off, with about ten or so passengers on board. He has a crazy story that is hard to believe–he works for NATO, and something has happened to the sun so that when it rises, everyone dies when exposed to the sunlight. It sounds crazy, but slowly they begin to realize he is right, and they have to keep flying west to stay in the dark. They also face almost every possible crisis an airplane could face–I told Paul at one point, “This is like every Airport movie ever made”–but it’s done incredibly well, and the tension is completely dialed all the way up. There are only six episodes to this first season, and we made it through the first four–and stayed up later than we should to watch the fourth (hence my shock when I realized it wasn’t Friday night, but then didn’t care and watched the fourth anyway), and I am looking forward to finishing it tonight.

This weekend I intend to reread Bury Me in Shadows and also work on trying to sew together all the pieces of “A Holler Full of Kudzu.” I still want to finish reading Cottonmouths–and I have S. A Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland on deck as well. I was also thinking I might want to reread a Travis McGee novel this weekend; those novels were a huge inspiration to me when I was creating Chanse, after all, and I really enjoyed them when I first read them. I know there are sexism issues with the books–as there is with most everything from that time period–but I think it will be interesting to reread one and catch it this time; plus I loved the writing style and the voice of Travis McGee so much I want to see if I still feel the same way now that I am thirty-some books into my own career.

I also want to reiterate that my inability to finish reading Cottonmouths is not an indication of its quality at all; it’s amazing, but I only have a very short period of time to read every day, and I am always afraid that if I start reading it I won’t want to put it down–and that is very likely, as it is very good and I know myself–and if I do that I won’t get the things done I need to get done which will cause me stress. I used to do this thing where I would read for an hour and then write for an hour and go back and forth…well, would try anyway, because as soon as the book grabbed me it was all over.

And on that note, I’d best head into the spice mines.

All the Gold in California

I often talk about how my education in the so-called “classics” is somewhat lacking; this is also true, not just of the great canon of literary fiction, but within my own genre as well (which is why I never pose as an expert on crime fiction; I am not one). I had never read Ross MacDonald–I was aware of him, and Lew Archer–but never had any real desire to read him until I was on a panel with Christopher Rice, who mentioned MacDonald as one of his favorite writers and an inspiration. Hmmm, I thought, perhaps I should give MacDonald a try.

So, in the years following that panel, I started reading the Archer novels, and enjoyed them tremendously. I’ve not read all of them, and I’ve not read any of his stand-alones…but what I liked the most about them was the style; how MacDonald put words and sentences together to create not only character, but mood and a kind of dark, noir-ish hard-boiled sensibility that I really admired. Early in my writing career, I patterned Chanse–both character and series–after John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series; later, after I started reading Ross MacDonald, I tried to see if I could create my own version of that sensibility and writing style; influenced by both MacDonalds but trying to create my own version, if that makes any kind of sense. I’d say Murder in the Irish Channel came the closest of any of the books to perfecting that style; I don’t know if Murder in the Arts District  replicated the feat (which means I am going to have to reread it, even if cursorily, damn it).

There’s nothing more tedious than rereading your own work.

But I recently decided it was past time to give one of Ross MacDonald’s stand-alones a shot, and chose The Ferguson Affair.

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The case began quietly, on the women’s floor of the county jail. I was there to interview a client, a young nurse named Ella Barker who had been arrested on a stolen-property charge. Specifically, she had sold a diamond ring which was part of the loot in a recent burglary; the secondhand dealer who bought it from her reported the transaction to the police.

Our interview started out inauspiciously. “Why you?” she wanted to know. “I thought people in trouble had a right to choose their own lawyer. Especially when they’re innocent, like me.”

“Innocence or guilt has nothing to do with it, Miss Barker. The judges keep an alphabetical list of all the attorneys in town. We take turns representing defendants without funds. My name happened to be next on the list.”

“What did you say your name was?”

“Gunnarson. William Gunnarson.”

“It’s a funny name,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

Reading books written in the past–no matter how far back–can often be jarring. One has to take into consideration the context of the time in which the book was written; The Ferguson Affair, for example, was published originally in 1960, and if you don’t think the world and society and culture have changed dramatically in the time since the final full year of the Eisenhower administration, you might want to think again. The book was published the year before I was born, so technically the book is only slighter older than I am, and it came out in a world without color television, cable, cell phones, etc. Technology had advanced so far in those fifty-nine years it might as well have been published a hundred years ago.

The Ferguson Affair was published in the midst of the period when he was producing the Lew Archer novels, and a lot of the Archer hallmarks also appear in this book; a complicated, winding plot that begins as something very small–in this case, the arrest of Ella Barker for pawning stolen property–and then continues, over the course of the investigation, to expand outwards into something much bigger, most dastardly, and more deadly. William Gunnarson, the main character of the book, is an attorney in a small California city named Buenavista, reminiscent of the town of Santa Teresa where some of the Archer books are set (and was later borrowed by Sue Grafton for her Kinsey Millhone books in a homage to MacDonald). Gunnarson is married and his wife is nine months pregnant and ready to give birth at any moment; more on that later. He is interviewing his client when word comes that someone had tried to kill the pawnshop owner who turned her in; Gunnarson is allowed to ride along to the pawnshop, which is on Pelly Street–clearly the wrong side of the tracks, and the Latin side of town. Ella was given the diamond ring she pawned for her engagement to Larry Gaines, the lifeguard at the fancy Foothill Club (the Buenavista country club), after discovering he was stepping out on her with retired screen star Holly May. The ring was loot from a robbery; the police suspect Ella knows more about the gang of robbers than she is letting on–because the victims of the robbery have all been patients at the hospital where she works as a nurse.

The book proceeds from there, with twists and turns involving kidnapping and extortion, murder and robbery; and while it is a fun ride as all MacDonald novels are, there is definitely some 1960’s era um, that’s a bit racist stuff when it comes to the Latinx people he comes into contact with over the course of the story.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration how Gunnarson treats his pregnant wife, Sally. Nine months pregnant and about to give birth at any given moment, he can’t be bothered to call her to tell her he’s coming home late for dinner which she is preparing. He never checks in on her to see if she’s okay; and in fact, he’s not around when she finally does go into labor, and someone else has to make sure she gets to the hospital in time for the birth. There’s none of the modern sentimentality about pregnancy and childbirth; he actually teases and mocks her about being so pregnant during the brief time he gives her any attention at all.  I’m not really sure why it was necessary for her to be pregnant, to be honest; it bore no relation to the story in any way, and all it did was make Gunnarson seem, to my modern eyes, like an asshole.

It did occur to me that this story could have just as easily been an Archer novel/story; only set in the past, to give a key insight into who Archer was as a character, and how he developed. I could totally see this being Archer’s marriage, and Archer being the kind of husband who would always put his wife and family last; as was expected of men at the time, and the wife getting tired of it and divorcing him. (I am not an Archer expert; I’ve read some of the books, not all, and while I do enjoy them when I do read them, I don’t have details memorized. I do seem to recall that Archer had been married and divorced; I think his ex-wife is mentioned a few times…but like I said, this works as an early Archer story, but back then it wasn’t common for series books to be written out of order; maybe that was why this wound up not being an Archer? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting theory.)

Reading the book, though, made me think more about writing another Chanse novel, which I think may happen at some point in the next few years. I’d recommend it to you if you’re a MacDonald fan and want to achieve completion with his works; it’s probably not the best place to start with MacDonald if you haven’t read him before.

When Smokey Sings

And just like that, the vacation is over and it’s back to work with me.

Heavy heaving sigh.

But in all honesty, it feels like I haven’t set foot in the office for months. It also feels like I haven’t written anything in months, either.

But let’s face it, and be honest with myself: yesterday was also the first time I have felt human,  or like myself, in weeks. I managed to get good sleep almost every day for the last five or six days; it’s amazing what a difference good sleep can make in one;’s day to day life. Even this morning, despite being untimely ripped from my bed–I’m not sleepy or tired; just not fully awake yet, and the coffee–with an assist from a shower–will change that all fairly rapidly.

I started –and finished–Richard Stark’s The Hunter yesterday, and I’m not quite sure how I felt about it. I thought it was written very well–the pacing was particularly good–but…it’s a 1962 novel, and that shows with misogyny and a couple of homophobic slurs, as well as some seriously questionable sexualization. But it’s also a pulp novel from the early 1960’s; Stark was a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, and it read very quickly and very fast….the main character, Parker, is described as an anti-hero; I’d say he’s more of a sociopath than anything else, really, although I do suppose to that does make him a bit of anti-hero….I am still thinking about the book, and will write more about it at another time, most likely. After I finished reading it, I moved on to The Ferguson Affair by Ross Macdonald. I don’t think I’ve read it before–to date, to the best of my knowledge I’ve not read any of Macdonald’s non-Archer novels, and that very much is what this one is; but it’s got Macdonald’s trademark writing style, and I am enjoying it. I think the Parker novel inevitably led to the Macdonald, really–there were some things about Parker that reminded me of both Macdonalds, Ross and John D.; I actually was looking for a non-McGee novel of John D. MacDonald’s to read, and finally decided on the Ross Macdonald The Ferguson Affair. As I read the book, it reminds me of something I’ve read before–perhaps not another Macdonald novel, but perhaps one of the Lew Archer short stories I read in The Archer Files last year when I was doing the Short Story Project.

I also had to do the editorial notes on my story “The Dreadful Scott Decision,” which is appearing in the anthology The Faking of the President, edited by Peter Carlaftes of Three Rooms Press–they also published Florida Happens last year–and got that turned in; I also saw the cover, which was shared on Facebook. I do like this story that I wrote; it wasn’t one of the easier ones to do. Primarily the reason it took me so long–other than I was writing Bury Me in Shadows at the same time–was because it was so difficult to come up with an idea for what I was going to write. Ordinarily I like writing stories to order–trying to come up with a story that fits a theme (and I usually will push those limits) is always a fun challenge; this one was a bit more difficult, and I am really happy with what I finally managed to come up with. I did worry, as the deadline loomed, that the story wasn’t going to come together properly; I always have that fear, it’s the flip side (or a primary symptom) of Imposter Syndrome. But it’s finished, the editor liked it, and I got my corrections done….now I just have to figure out how to write this Sherlock Holmes pastiche I agreed to write. I already have the idea, and how I want to do it, and where it’s set and the title, which I love….I just now have to figure out the story itself.

I also figured out how to revise two short stories I’ve been unable to get; one was simply because in order for the story’s title to work, one of the characters had to be a moron; and the other because it was a little too, shall we say, spot on? It’s also a great title, and I think it’s a great story; I just have to revise it and change some of the things in it before I make one last try to get it published somewhere.

It’s actually been a pretty good year, career-wise, for me so far….and with only two months left to go–what can I accomplish in the meantime?

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines with me.

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Carrie

Saturday morning and yet another, amazing night’s sleep. I didn’t get up until ten this morning! That’s like two days in a row, and I could have easily stayed in bed had I not realized that I will eventually have to start getting up early again and going to work next week. Tomorrow I’m going to set my alarm and get up around eight or nine, just to get back into the habit.

I’ve also reached the point where I am no longer sad not to be at Bouchercon this weekend anymore. I think I just finally got numb, stopped feeling sorry for myself, and started being happy for my friends and glad they’re having a great time over there. After all, there’s no point in being sad, really–it doesn’t make anything better, does it?–and there’s really no sense in being sad or upset over things you have no control over. Those are the things you just have to accept.

You don’t have to like them, though.

Last night we binged the rest of the available episodes of Castle Rock, and Lizzy Kaplan is just killing it as Annie Wilkes. She should at least get an Emmy nod for the performance; I won’t go out on a limb and say she should win since there are so many incredible television shows and performances out there now, between all the streaming services and so forth. This truly is an extraordinary time for television shows. I love that the writers have dragged Jerusalem’s Lot and the Marsten House into this season; there’s something strange going on in the basement of the Marsten House but we aren’t really sure what it is yet…this season is making me want to revisit Stephen King’s work, which is precisely what I don’t need to do; my TBR pile is massive enough as it is without going back and rereading some of my favorite Stephen Kings. Over the last year or so I’ve reread Pet Sematary, The Shining, and ‘salem’s Lot as it is; I’d love to reread Firestarter before reading The Institute–which I think is going to be my Thanksgiving week treat.

I think my next read–after a careful examination of my bookshelves, is going to be Richard Stark’s The Hunter. Stark of course is one of Donald Westlake’s pseudonyms, and my education in Westlake (and Lawrence Block, while we’re at it) is sadly lacking. I also never read the Ed McBain novels (but I did read Evan Hunter when I was in my twenties). As I said, my education is classic crime writers of the 20th century has been sadly neglected; and I’d also like to read Ross Macdonald’s stand alones, and I’d love to immerse myself in a reread of the John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee novels (and finish reading through his stand alones as well). I also need to finish the canons of Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong and Dorothy B. Hughes.

And of course, there are all those wonderful writers of color I need to read. And queer crime writers. And…

Heavy sigh.

I did manage to finish reading  Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia yesterday, and I enjoyed it tremendously. It was a very different approach to a vampire novel, and while I don’t know that I would necessarily classify it as a horror novel–not all vampire novels are horror novels–it really is quite good. It’s more suspenseful and, much as I hate to say it, it’s almost closer to a crime/suspense novel with paranormal elements than it is a horror novel. I do highly recommend it–I’ll write an entry about it at some point this weekend, perhaps even later today–and it’s precisely the kind of novel that is needed to reinvigorate the horror genre. I’ve been saying for quite some time that it’s the so-called minority writers (writers of color, queer writers) who are currently injecting new blood into, and revitalizing the crime genre–I would say that’s also the case with horror. The problem with genre fiction is that it tends to stagnate periodically and become repetitive and somewhat stale, until something comes along, shakes it up, and turns it upside down. The rise of the hardboiled female private eye novel in the 1980’s was the kick in the pants crime needed to breathe new life into a genre that was getting a bit stale; I think it’s the marginalized writers who are doing it now.

Look at me, generalizing about horror–a genre I am hardly expert in. As I always say, I’m just a fan with horror.

But I am hardly an expert in crime fiction, either. There are positively libraries of things I don’t know about crime fiction.

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely day. Constant Reader.

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Me and Mrs. Jones

So, the vacation is going swimmingly so far. Yesterday I simply ran errands–prescriptions, making groceries, picking up the mail–and once I got home and put the groceries away, I decided to take the rest of the day off. Being out in the heat and humidity, even for that brief period of time, was exhausting and draining.

I also kept thinking it was Saturday–as the above is my usual Saturday routine–and actually went upstairs after putting the groceries away to start stripping the bed linens for laundering them before realizing, dude, it’s only Wednesday.

So, I retired to my easy chair and finished reading Mickey Spillane’s I the Jury.

And wow, do I ever have some thoughts about that book.

When Sarah Weinman brought up Mickey Spillane on Twitter the other day  by asking if Mickey Spillane was camp, I responded with oh god yes, which led to  further conversation with the end result that I decided to read, at long last, a Mickey Spillane novel; I just happened to have a copy of I the Jury on hand. (My references to Spillane being camp had everything to do with his image, reflecting back when Spillane was a public figure and doing everything from print ads to commercials; I’d also briefly watched the Mike Hammer television series starring Stacy Keach) I’d gotten a copy of I the Jury after reading an appreciation of Spillane somewhere (Crimereads? Perhaps) which made a very strong case that Spillane and his work was dramatically underrated in the crime genre, and was long overdue a study and another look;  furthermore, he was vastly more important to the genre than he was ever given credit for. I’d never read Spillane, primarily because as a gay man I was clearly not the target audience for his work; as I’ve said before, many times, I stopped reading crime novels in the 1970’s because I was very tired of the many, over-worn tropes of the genre and the toxicity of the fragile masculinity contained within the majority of the books/series.

The cover of my copy of the book also contains the tag line: Before there was Jack Reacher…there was Mike Hammer.

An intriguing bit of marketing by the publisher, don’t you think? I have greatly enjoyed Lee Child’s Reacher series, and think it is one of the best of our modern times; however, I also stopped reading the series over ten years ago. This has, by the way, nothing to do with the quality of the series or the character or the writing, but more to do with falling behind in my reading of the series and the next thing I knew, I was five or six books behind and I gave up on even attempting to catch up; this has happened with numerous other writers and series I enjoy, so this is not a shot at Lee Child, whom I also like personally.

It’s just one of those things that can happen with prolific writers.

But in reading the book, I don’t really see the correlation between the two characters, other than, perhaps, their size. Reacher is an enormous man who takes up a lot of space; so is Hammer. But Reacher is more of a philosopher than Hammer–I’d say Reacher owes more to John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee than to Mike Hammer; although I suppose it could be argued that MacDonald and McGee may have been influenced by Spillane and Hammer.

I would also argue that Spillane also owes an enormous debt to Dashiell Hammett and The Maltese Falcon, because there are some similarities in plot and structure.

I did start taking notes and writing down ideas, because I would really like to write a critical essay on I the Jury, because there’s an awful lot there–misogyny, homophobia, racism–that, while it may reflect the time in which it was written and published (1947), is problematic for the modern, present-day reader. Hammer is, in some ways, the embodiment of a masculine ideal that is very problematic, a personification of the type of a toxic masculinity that might not have ever truly existed, even in that time. The books were wildly popular, and I also believe the popularity of the books can be tied into the societal and cultural definition of what a man was supposed to be, but so rarely was in reality.

And frankly, the PTSD from World War II drips from every page.

The book is highly reflective of its time, and I think writing about it critically, both as a product of its time as well as through a modern lens, could make for a fascinating and interesting essay. We shall see.

I also started reading Angie Kim’s debut novel, Miracle Creek, yesterday, and while I only managed to get through the prologue, I was blown away by it completely, and look forward to delving more deeply into it during the course of today.

I am rather enjoying this life of leisure. I did do some other things around the house yesterday, starting reorganization/cleaning projects that can be leisurely finished over the course of my vacation.

And now, it’s time to repair to my easy chair with Ms. Kim’s novel.

Have a lovely holiday, Constant Reader, and I will speak with you again on the morrow.

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Little Willy

Today’s title song always kind of amused when it was a hit; I was a tween at the time and since willy is also a euphemism for…well, you can see where this is going.

I found it highly (if more than a little bit juvenile) amusing that someone wrote a song about a small penis.

Hello, Monday morning of my sort-of-vacation! The vacation starts Tuesday evening when I get off work, actually, but it’s also kind of lovely to know I only have to work my two long days at the office this week before I can lounge around the house and do what I want when I want to do it. How lovely, right?

I did manage to squeeze out about thirteen hundred words or so on the WIP, and I also printed out the pages of the manuscript i am suppose to be dedicating myself to finishing in July. (I’ve already redone the first four chapters of it before I had to push it to the side for Royal Street Reveillon, whose time had come.) I did look at the first few pages again, and liked what I was reading. So, I’m still undecided about what to do. Should I push through on the WIP, getting that first draft finished, or should I get back to work on what I scheduled myself to do for the month of July? Truth be told, I am actually thinking that what with the five day vacation looming, I could theoretically go back and forth between the two; but the voices are so terribly different, I’m not sure how well that would work.

Yet another example of why writers drink.

I started reading Mickey Spillane’s I the Jury yesterday as well. It’s a short novel, really, and I can’t imagine it taking a long time for me to finish. I’ve never read Spillane, but of course I know all about him, his writing, his character Mike Hammer, and everything he kind of stood for. Spillane was one of the last writers who kind of became a folk hero/celebrity of sorts; it was a lot more common back in the 1950’s and 1960’s; Hemingway, Spillane, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer all were celebrities of sorts; I believe Spillane even played his own character in one of the film versions of his work. He also used to regularly appear in commercials and advertisements as Mike Hammer in the 1970’s, which is kind of hard to imagine now. It would be sort of like Stephen King being hired to do commercials and print ads for, I don’t know, Jim Beam? The author as celebrity is something I’m not sorry we’ve gotten away from as a society and a culture, quite frankly. The idea behind reading I the Jury as part of the Diversity Experiment is precisely because it’s the kind of book I’d never really read; Sarah Weinman asked the other day on Twitter if Spillane counted as camp (I personally think it does; my responses was something along the lines of “Imagine Leslie Nielsen playing him”) and then realized I needed to read at least one of the books, as part of the Diversity Project.

But Gregalicious, you might be wondering, why are you reading a straight white male novelist writing about what basically is the epitome of toxic masculinity in his character Mike Hammer?

Well, first of all, the name of the character itself: Mike Hammer. It almost sounds like a parody of the private eye novel, doesn’t it, something dreamed up by the guys who wrote Airplane! and not an actual novel/character to be taken seriously. We also have to take into consideration that Spillane’s books were also, for whatever reason, enormously popular; the books practically flew off the shelves. (Mike Hammer is actually one of the best gay porn star names of all time; alas, it was never used in that capacity.)

But it’s also difficult to understand our genre, where it came from, and how far it has come, without reading Spillane; Spillane, more so than Hammett or Chandler, developed the classic trope of the hard-boiled male private eye and took it to the farthest extreme of toxic masculinity. Plus, there’s the camp aesthetic I was talking about before to look for as well.

Chanse was intended to be the gay version of the hardboiled private eye; I patterned him more after John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee than anything or anyone else. But reading a macho, tough guy heterosexual male character from a toxic masculine male author is also completely out of my wheelhouse; and therefore, it sort of fits into the Diversity Project along the lines of well, the idea is to read things you don’t ordinarily read; not just writers of color or different gender identities or sexualities than your own.

And there’s also an entire essay in Ayn Rand’s nonfiction collection of essays on art devoted to Mickey Spillane; it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever read any of Rand’s fiction that she was a huge fan of Spillane. Given what a shitty writer Rand was, that’s hardly a ringing endorsement–but it also gives me something else to look out for as I read Spillane’s short novel.

There’s also a reference to Spillane in one of my favorite novels, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show–in which some of the  boys are wondering if blondes have blonde pubic hair, and “the panty-dropping scene in I the Jury” is referenced.

Interesting.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)

WE MADE IT! Constant Reader, we have survived another week and it’s finally Friday! Huzzah!

Looking forward to the weekend always reminds me of my mom warning me, when I was an impatient teenager and counting the days till summer vacation, don’t you know you’re just wishing your life away?

But now, whenever I hear her voice in my head reminding me of that, I think, yeah, well, we’re all going to die someday anyway. Not looking ahead to the weekend isn’t going to make me live longer.

Sometimes, when I have those down days and I wonder why I ever thought I should write fiction–or anything, really–I think things like look at all the books you’ve written and published! Look at all these award nominations–you’ve even won a few! And still you have a day job. Why do you try? Why do you keep writing books? If you haven’t broken out and become successful (even by your own modest standard) by now, why do you think it still might happen?

And then I remember John D. MacDonald wrote a lot of books, but didn’t break out and hit bestseller lists until he was about forty or so books into his career, when he hit upon Travis McGee. He was certainly successful prior to McGee; but McGee was the big break that enabled him to stop writing two or three books a year and settle into just one. His pre-McGee pulps were also quite good; I certainly have enjoyed the ones I’ve read. But I hold on to that with both hands: John D. MacDonald didn’t hit the Times best seller list until he was over forty novels into his career.*

So, there’s still hope for me…if I can figure out how to write as well as John D. MacDonald.

So, this is something to keep in mind as I move into the weekend and try to decide what I’m going to write once the Scotty is finished. I think the WIP, which needs to be deconstructed and revised almost entirely from scratch, might have to take a backseat for a while to something else. I’d like to do Bury Me in Satin, but I am also interested in writing a short and nasty noir, which would inevitably be Muscles. 

Sigh.

Seriously.

AH, well, back to the spice mines.

*this may be incorrect; but I believe it’s true.

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Baby-Baby-Baby

John D. MacDonald is one of my favorite authors. Period.

I first read MacDonald when I was about thirteen: The Dreadful Lemon Sky. I didn’t care too much for it on my first read; I was coming off reading Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner and Charlotte Armstrong, and was deep into my Victoria Holt/Phyllis Whitney phase, so I was confused–this isn’t a mystery at all, I remember thinking as I read it…and ironically, it was this enormous disappointment that led to me moving away from reading mystery/crime novels for a very long time.

When I was about sixteen, I bought a couple of ratty old MacDonald paperbacks for a dime each at a flea market: Murder in the Wind, The Crossroads, and The Drowner. These were three of his stand-alones from his pulp days, before he started writing the Travis McGee series, and I loved all three of them. This was my first experience with pulp fiction/noir; it was shortly after this that I went on my James M. Cain kick, and slowly came to an appreciation of the less-traditional style  of  crime novel. Years later, when Grafton, Muller and Paretsky brought me back into reading crime, I remembered how much I’d enjoyed those pulpy MacDonalds and decided to give Travis McGee another try. I bought another copy of The Dreadful Lemon Sky, and this time, the character caught on with me–and soon I was tearing through the entire series. The earlier MacDonald novels had all mostly gone out of print, but he periodically was still writing stand-alones; still dark and twisty and noir and pulpy, but these novels had more heft–Condominium, One More Sunday, Barrier Island–and I think those later three don’t get the credit they deserve.

In the last few years I’ve been acquiring used copies of those old MacDonald pulp stand-alones–and while they are dated, they are still compelling reads. And yes, as I have said before, Chanse MacLeod owes a lot to Travis McGee.

So, you can IMAGINE my thrill that the MacDonald Estate allowed me to reprint one of his stories in Florida Happens.

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From his website: This website is devoted to John D. MacDonald, author of 78 books, including the famous Travis McGee series.  JDM is well-known in mystery fiction writing, especially for his books with Florida as a setting.  Most of the current Florida mystery writers acknowledge JDM’s impact on their writing.

Born In Sharon, Pa., MacDonald , as a young boy, wished he had been born a writer, believing that they were a separate “race,” marked from birth.  But two years of  writing 10 to 12 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week, in 1945 and 1946, convinced him otherwise.

By the time he died he had published 78 books, with more than 75 million copies in print.

He married Dorothy Prentiss in a secret ceremony in 1937 in Pennsylvania  and a public wedding was held in Poland, N.Y.  in 1938.

He graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in business in 1939 and then went to Harvard to work on an MBA. His son, Maynard, was born that year.

He worked at several menial jobs after earning his MBA in 1939.

MacDonald then served in the Army beginning in 1940 at the Rochester N.Y Ordnance station.  He was sent to  India in late 1943, and was accepted in the OSS in late 1944 . He  was sent  to Ceylon  where he was the Commander of Detachment 404.  He was not a spy, however, but served in the Ordnance areas.

He wrote nearly 450 short stories, and published his first novel ,The Brass Cupcake, in 1950 (complete bibliography here) He continues to earn praise from millions of readers and lasting respect from fellow authors. He was given the Grandmaster Award in 1972 by the Mystery Writers of America; the Ben Franklin Award (1955);and was Guest of Honor at Bouchercon in 1983. Numerous other awards and Honorary Doctorates were given to him as well.

Perhaps the greatest testament to his writing, now decades  after his death in 1986, is that his books continue to sell, movies continue to be planned, and the internet continues to serve as a place to discuss his work and related matters.  See the Facebook Busted Flush group.

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The story is “Hangover.”

He dreamed that he had dropped something, lost something of value in the furnace, and he lay on his side trying to look down at an angle through a little hole, look beyond the flame down into the dark guts of the furnace for what he had lost. But the flame kept pulsing through the hole with a brightness that hurt his eyes, with a heat that parched his face, pulsing with an intermittent husky rasping sound.

With his awakening, the dream became painfully explicable—the pulsing roar was his own harsh breathing, the parched feeling was a consuming thirst, the brightness was transmuted into pain intensely localized behind his eyes. When he opened his eyes, a long slant of early morning sun dazzled him, and he shut his eyes quickly again.

This was a morning time of awareness of discomfort so acute that he had no thought for anything beyond the appraisal of the body and its functions. Though he was dimly aware of psychic discomforts that might later exceed the anguish of the flesh, the immediacy of bodily pain localized his attentions. Even without the horizontal brightness of the sun, he would have known it was early. Long sleep would have muffled the beat of the taxed heart to a softened, sedate, and comfortable rhythm. But it was early and the heart knocked sharply with a violence and in a cadence almost hysterical, so that no matter how he turned his head, he could feel it, a tack hammer chipping away at his mortality.

His thirst was monstrous, undiminished by the random nausea that teased at the back of his throat. His hands and feet were cool, yet where his thighs touched he was sweaty. His body felt clotted, and he knew that he had perspired heavily during the evening, an oily perspiration that left an unpleasant residue when it dried. The pain behind his eyes was a slow bulging and shrinking, in contrapuntal rhythm to the clatter of his heart.

He sat on the edge of the bed, head bowed, eyes squeezed shut, cool trembling fingers resting on his bare knees. He felt weak, nauseated, and acutely depressed.

This was the great joke. This was a hangover. Thing of sly wink, of rueful guffaw. This was death in the morning.

Great, terrific writing.

And now I can say I edited an anthology with John D. MacDonald as a contributor.

I may never stop being thrilled.

Typical Male

The male gaze.

Per Wikipedia (which isn’t always accurate):  In feminist theory, the male gaze is the act of depicting women and the world, in the visual arts and literature, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer.

Or, as Laura Lippman likes to quip about crime fiction written by men: A beautiful woman is dead and a man feels bad about it.

Lippman is joking, sort of; much of male-centered crime fiction can be boiled down to that sentence. The sexualization of women in crime fiction, particularly in hard-boiled fiction or noir, has been a thing since the early pulp days; classic English crime fiction, like that written by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers and their other contemporaries, probably didn’t sexualize their women characters…although I do seem to recall that Arlene Marshall in Christie’s Evil Under the Sun was not only sexualized, but also highly misunderstood; it isn’t until Poirot solves the crime at the end of the book that we finally begin to understand Arlene as something other than a sex object who devours men like a praying mantis; the Christie version of a femme fatale being softened, as it were, in the final reel.

It is surprising to read books published in prior decades with their attitudes towards women–sometimes my jaw literally drops at how writers used to describe women, reducing them to their sexuality and their sex appeal; older, or less attractive, women, are written about in an almost contemptuous manner. This still pops up from time to time in modern fiction, but it’s not nearly as common as it used to be.

I was sitting at a literary luncheon, for example, while the speaker was talking about his admiration for John D. MacDonald–an admiration I share–and in particular, about MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. I was nodding and smiling when a female author friend leaned over and whispered to me, “I wonder if he’ll mention McGee’s magic wand.”

I was startled at first, and then I stifled a laugh–it wasn’t the appropriate time in the talk to laugh–but the more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. One of the major things about Travis McGee, and the novels written about him, was how he ‘sexually healed’ the damaged women he was assisting during the course of the book; even his friend and cohort often referred to him as a ‘knight-errant coming to the rescue of the lady.’ It never really dawned on me, when I was reading the books–either the first time or any of the successive times I’ve reread them–that he was actually fucking them back to good emotional and mental and physical health; I always thought, since it usually involved them going sailing on his houseboat and fishing and doing the mindless, physical work while relaxing and getting tan and enjoying life away from the worries and problems of the world and day-to-day life.

I missed the bit about the magic wand because I’m gay and it never crossed my mind.

Which is doubly ironic, considering how much MacDonald and McGee influenced my Chanse MacLeod character and the series I wrote about him; but despite the influence in the creation of the character/series, my series was dramatically different from MacDonald’s.

Being a gay crime writer, while limiting in many ways, is incredibly freeing in others. I fully acknowledge that my books are firmly centered in the gay male gaze; that when I write either Chanse or Scotty, I often devolve in description of male characters the way male writers used to/sometimes still do write about women; their looks, their sex appeal, their fuck-ability factor. Sometimes I wonder if that’s what people mean when they talk about my books being all about sex; because Chanse and Scotty view men as sexual beings and that is something readers aren’t accustomed to seeing?

Perhaps.

Something to ponder.

Today’s short story is “Born of Man and Woman” by Richard Matheson, from  The Best of Richard Matheson collection:

X–This day when it had light mother called me retch. You retch she said. I saw in her eyes the anger. I wonder what it is a retch.

This day it had water falling from upstairs. It fell all around. I saw that. The ground of the back I watched from the little window. The ground it sucked up the water like thirsty lips. It drank too much and it got sick and runny brown. I didn’t like it.

Mother is a pretty I know. In my bed place with cold walls around I have paper things that was behind the furnace. It says on it SCREENSTARS. I see in the pictures faces like of mother and father. Father says they are pretty. Once he said it.

And also mother he said. Mother so pretty and me decent enough. Look at you he said and didn’t have the nice face. I touched his arm and said it it alright father. He shook and pulled away where I couldnt reach. Today mother let me off the chain a little so I could look out the little window. Thats how I saw the water falling from upstairs.

Richard Matheson isn’t as well known as he should be; he is a giant in the horror community and deservedly so, but he should also be highly acclaimed as one of the great writers of any genre from the twentieth century. His novels were filmed frequently–so even if you don’t think you know his work, you do. SOme of the films based on his novels include The Incredible Shrinking Man, Legend of Hell House, I Am Legend (The Omega Man), Somewhere in Time, Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come, and countless others. His short stories were often adapted for episodes of Twilight Zone or Night Gallery–probably the most famous being “Nightmare at 50,000 Feet.” Just a creative genius.

This story is chilling, absolutely chilling. We never really know much about the poor young man (or woman) chained in the basement of this family’s home; other than he was born of their union and something went terribly wrong. He is treated terribly and not educated well and they feed him, but they also are so repulsed and horrified by him that they beat and abuse him and keep him chained against the wall…but as the story progresses his pathetic need for love and company turns.

And it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the rest of his family…who are about to become his victims.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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