Masculinity is something I’ve always felt I viewed from the outside.
It’s very strange; for someone who doesn’t look back very often and has a rather healthy disdain for nostalgia, for some reason since the pandemic started, I’ve been revisiting my past a lot. I don’t know, perhaps it was triggered by having dinner with an old friend from high school a while back (which also inspired me to write a horribly dark short story); or perhaps it’s because of short stories or novel ideas I’ve been toying with, but lately, I’ve been thinking about my past much more so than I usually do, and what it was like for me growing up. I wrote a Sisters in Crime quarterly column several years ago about the first time I realized, once and for all, that I was indeed different from everyone else–it centered the first time I heard the word fairy used towards me as a pejorative, as well as the first time I was called a faggot. I’ve also been examining and turning over issues of masculinity inside my head for quite some time (most of my life). #shedeservedit was itself an examination of toxic masculinity and how it reverberates through a small community when it’s allowed to run rampant and unchecked: boys will be boys. Some short stories I’ve published have also examined the same subject.
What can I say? My not being the American masculine ideal has played a very major part in shaping my life and who I am; how could it not? I used to, when I was a kid, pray that I’d wake up the next morning and magically be turned into the kind of boy I was supposed to be, the kind that every other boy I knew–from classmates to cousins to everything I watched on television and at the movies.
Society and culture have changed in many ways since I was a little boy who didn’t fit so easily into the conformist role for little boys; roles for male and female were very narrowly defined when I was a child, and children were forced into conforming to those roles almost from birth. Boys were supposed to be rough and tumble and play sports and get dirty and like bugs and frogs and so forth; girls were supposed to be feminine and play with dolls or play house, wear dresses and mother their baby dolls. Boys weren’t supposed to read or enjoy reading (but I was also supposed to get good grades and be smart), and that was all I wanted to do when I was a kid. I used to love Saturdays, when my mother would go to the grocery store and drop me off at the library on her way. I loved looking at the books on the shelves, looking at the cover art and reading the descriptions on the back. I loved getting the Scholastic Book Club catalog and picking out a few books; the excitement of the day when the books I’d ordered arrived and I could go out on the back porch when I got home and read them cover to cover. I was constantly, endlessly, pushed to do more “boyish” things; I played Pee-wee baseball (very much against my will), and later was pushed into playing football in high school–which I hated at first but eventually came to love…which just goes to show, don’t automatically hate something without trying it. But yeah, I never loved playing baseball. I was enormously happy when we moved to Kansas and I discovered, to my great joy, that my new high school didn’t have a team.
One less traditionally masculine thing for me to participate in was always a bonus.
The things that I really wanted to do weren’t considered masculine pursuits, and as a general rule I was denied them as much as possible. My parents forbade me from reading books about girls–Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls, Trixie Belden–which, quite naturally, made me want them more (my entire life the best way to get me to do something is to tell me either not to do it or tell me I can’t do it…either always makes me want to do it). Oddly enough, when my reading tastes became more adult–when I moved from children’s books to reading fiction for adults–they didn’t seem to care that I was reading books by women about women quite so much as they did when I was younger; either that, or they gave up trying as they finally saw me as a lost cause–one or the other; I don’t know which was the actual case. Maybe my embrace of football in high school overrode everything else suspect about me. It’s possible. My family has always worshipped at the goalposts…and I kind of still do. GEAUX TIGERS!
I spent a lot of my early life trying to understand masculinity and how it worked; what it was and why it was something I should aspire to–and never could quite wrap my mind around it. The role models for men always pointed out to me–John Wayne, etc.–never resonated with me; I always thought they were kind of dicks, to be honest. The whole “boys don’t cry, men never show emotions, men make the money and the entire household revolves around their wants and needs” shtick never took with me, and of course, as I never had any real sexual interest in women…the whole “locker room talk” thing was always kind of revolting to me, because I always saw girls as people. It probably had something to do with the fact that I was more likely to be able to trust girls than boys; I had so many boys decide they couldn’t be friends with me anymore because at some point other kids calling me a fairy began having an negative impact on their own lives all through junior and senior high school (to this day, I’ve never understood this; why were we friends before, and what changed? It wasn’t me…I didn’t suddenly switch gears from butch boy to effeminate overnight) it’s little wonder I have difficulty ever trusting straight men…but in fairness, I have trouble trusting everyone. But I never quite understood the entire “boys are studs girls are sluts” thing, but I also never truly understood the dynamics of male/female attraction. Yes, I dated in high school; I dated women in college before I finally stopped entirely. And yes, I also have had sex with women, back then–but never really enjoyed it much.
In all honesty, I still don’t understand masculinity, at least not as it was defined in my earlier decades of life. I’ve never understood the cavemen-like mentality of responding with violence (no matter how angry I get, I never get violent); I’ve never understood the refusal to recognize that women are human beings rather than life support systems for vaginas and wombs and breasts; I’ve never understood the mentality that a man’s desires should trump (see what I did there?) bodily autonomy for women. No man has a right to a woman’s body, nor does any man have a right to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body. Maybe always being an outsider looking in and observing has something to do with my mindset, maybe my difference and always having mostly female friends most of my life is what shaped me into understanding these things.
I also mostly only read women’s books, to be honest. There are some straight male writers I read and admire (Ace Atkins, Bill Loefhelm, Michael Koryta, Harlan Coben, Chris Holm, Stephen King, Jeff Abbott and Paul Tremblay, just to name a few) but I really have no desire to read straight male fantasies that reduce women to caricatures and gay men, if they do appear, as stereotypes; but after I recently read I the Jury by Mickey Spillane, a comment someone left on my post gave me a whole new perspective on how to read such books from the 40’s 50’s, and 60’s; the perspective of reading these books as examples of post-war PTSD…and that opened my eyes to all kinds of questions and potential critical analyses; that the horrors of World War II and what the veterans saw and experienced shaped the development of the culture of toxic masculinity that arose after the war (not that toxic masculinity didn’t exist before the war, of course, but the war experience certainly didn’t help any and it most definitely reshaped what “being a man” meant). I was thinking about doing a lengthier critical piece, on I the Jury, along with the first Travis McGee novel, and possibly including Ross Macdonald, Richard Stark and possibly Alistair MacLean. There’s certainly a wealth of material there to take a look at, evaluate, and deconstruct–and that’s not even getting into Ian Fleming and James Bond.
I’ve also always found it rather interesting that Mickey Spillane was Ayn Rand’s favorite writer. Make of that what you will.And on that note, I am off to bed. The last two days have been long ones, and tomorrow and Sunday will also be long days. I’m planning on driving back to New Orleans on Sunday–timing it so I get back after the parades are over so I can actually get home–regardless of what happens here. It’s not been an easy time here, and I am very tired.
One of the most fun, for me, things about being a writer is being able to pay homage to books and writers I’ve enjoyed or felt a connection to in some way. I do this in at least every book I write–sometimes it’s as little a thing as having one of my characters reading a book I greatly enjoyed–and sometimes it’s a little more sly and tongue in cheek. For one example, I wondered occasionally while writing Bury Me in Shadows if anyone would notice that the name of the plantation house that burned during the Civil Was was Blackwood Hall–I only called it that once or twice; I usually referred to it as “the ruins”–and that it was a ghost story…hence The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, which had always been one of my favorite Nancy Drew mysteries when I was a kid (my favorite books in any series were ones that dealt with ghosts, hauntings, or the supernatural–it never was anything supernatural–in them; even as a kid I had, apparently, this morbid fascination with death and the afterlife that has continued into my adulthood). Vieux Carré Voodoo was also inspired, in some ways, by The Mystery of the Fiery Eye, one of my favorite Three Investigators mysteries–a jewel stolen from an idol that cultists will kill to get back is at the heart of both stories, and I also took inspiration somewhat from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which I had also read and loved as a child.
I’ve not picked up a Nancy Drew mystery in years to read through, until recently. I remember the series fondly–it wasn’t my favorite, nor was the Hardy Boys; but those books were more easily accessible and easier to find in stores and libraries than the other kids’ series, and with the kind of obsessive behavior I’ve always had–which hasn’t tempered much with the passage of time–once I started reading a series I wanted to read (and own) the complete set. This odd childhood obsession has never abated, even as I am now past sixty; I don’t have room to have all my series books out displayed on bookshelves (they are some of the boxes in the attic and the storage unit) and I think I am missing a few volumes from each series I do collect–but without being able to put them out, it’s hard for me to know which ones I am missing, so I’ve kind of held back on collecting them over the last decade or so. Discovering eBay in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was a big impetus in getting me to start collecting (trying to finish collecting) again, but the lack of space for storage–let alone putting them out on display in bookcases–inhibited me and I began to wonder about the advisability and the point of collecting children’s book series if I was simply going to put them in boxes and store them. It seemed kind of dumb, in all honesty, and so I stopped.
But the kids’ series had an enormous impact on me growing up and as a developing writer. I honestly think that The Haunted Showboat, number 35 in the Nancy Drew series, was my first actual encounter with New Orleans and Mardi Gras; it was either the fourth or fifth Nancy Drew mystery I had actually read (I started with The Secret of Red Gate Farm, The Mystery at Lilac Inn, and The Hidden Staircase; I think the next I read was The Haunted Showboat or Password to Larkspur Lane) and I do believe it was Nancy Drew who introduced me to New Orleans (outside of US History; I knew the Battle of New Orleans and the Louisiana Purchase and all of that, but this was my first non-historical introduction to the city).
I used to be able to list the books in order as well as give some background on the story; my memory isn’t quite as reliable on that score as it used to be. I joined some fan groups on Facebook, primarily to see if there were other alternatives than eBay and scouring second hand stores for the copies of the series books I am missing (and that’s a whole other story; there’s definitely a murder mystery novel that can be built around adult fans of kids’ series, seriously), and have been taken aback by the toxicity that can show up in these groups: hatred of anything new or daring or different to do with the characters (they have gone to TOWN on the new television series for both Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys–hating changes and updates with the fiery white hot passion of a dozen burning suns–and it inevitably comes down to ‘political correctness’ and ‘being woke’–despite knowing that all the earlier series books were revised in the 1950s thru the early 1970s to get rid of dated stereotypes and racism), but that is a subject for a different time (I’ve not watched Nancy Drew–literally forgot about it–but I’ve liked The Hardy Boys).
Anyway, as I am writing a new Scotty book, I decided to do some research into Nancy Drew and New Orleans–mainly deciding to reread both books that were set, at least in part, here.
So, I went on line (much easier than going through the boxes in storage–which is yet another example of how stupid it is for me to keep storing books) and ordered copies of both The Haunted Showboat and The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, which, according to a synopsis I read on a Nancy Drew website, had Nancy, Bess and George come to New Orleans–which I didn’t remember. I remembered that the book was about Mrs. Putney being swindled out of her jewelry, and it had something to do with spiritualism, which eventually led Nancy and her friends to the abandoned, haunted Blackwood Hall–but I did not remember them coming to New Orleans. This struck me as strange–I certainly vividly remembered other parts of the story, particularly a scene when Ned and Nancy stumbled into quicksand (which, according to everything I read and saw on television and/or movies as a child, I thought would be more of a danger to me at every point of my life).
Both books arrived on the same day, but since I do remember The Haunted Showboat more than I remembered anything New Orleans with The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, I decided to look through the latter and read the New Orleans section again.
Despite my obsession with collecting and reading the entire series, as I mentioned earlier, Nancy Drew was never my favorite of the kids’ series; I liked The Three Investigators and Ken Holt most of all, and I always thought both Trixie Belden (the original six) and Judy Bolton were better written and more interesting than Nancy (Judy was also a goody two-shoes, but she was more rounded and developed, as were her friends), and looking through The Ghost of Blackwood Hall made me remember why she was never a favorite; the books aren’t very well written. (The original texts were much better than the revised ones, but it was a very low bar to hurdle, seriously.) And yet I had to have all the books and read them all; I watched the 70s television series with pre-Dynasty Pamela Sue Martin; and I still sort of have a soft spot for good ole Nancy; but man, these revised texts are simply terrible–and the later, newer books steadily declined in quality–I remember one where Nancy and her friends, being chased by a bad guy, duck into a room and–this is so stupid, it was even shown as an illustration–hide by sitting in chairs and holding up picture frames because of course the bad guy would look at them sitting still and believe they were a photograph or a painting.
Even as a kid, I knew that was fucking stupid.
Anyway, so Nancy is hired by a jeweler to help out his client Mrs. Putney–who clearly isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed–who is a widow and received a message from “beyond the grave” from her husband that she needed to bury her most valuable jewelry in the woods for safekeeping. (She’s also told to tell “no man or woman” about this; which is why the jeweler brings her to Nancy because she’s a “girl”–but the jeweler is a man…I guess in her mind he doesn’t count because he’s the one who spots that her jewelry is all fake, once she’s reconsidered her stupidity and dug the jewels back up.) There’s a lot of gullibility and superstition in this book, for the record, that doesn’t really make any logical sense. In a weird sequence of events, Nancy winds up with the name of a man from New Orleans who was an accomplished jewelry designer and “capable of making fakes that look real”–so she decides to follow the clue to New Orleans to look for information on the man. Because of course. Anyway, despite the fact that Mrs. Putney isn’t paying for this trip and in fact warns her not to go–Carson Drew, Nancy’s father, decides to foot the bill for her, Bess and George to fly down to New Orleans and follow this laughable clue that could only be a valuable one in a Nancy Drew mystery. (As I was reading this part again, I started thinking about how expensive this would be back then–the revised text was written in 1967, the original in the late 1940’s–and how amazing it was that all three eighteen year old girls had nothing else to do and could hop on a flight to New Orleans just like that; I am sure even back then it was more expensive to buy a ticket at the last minute.)
None of this mattered, of course, to young Greg when he was reading it the first time…and yes, I am being harsh about a kids’ series book which I am clearly too old for, but c’mon. And I knew when I was a kid that the books weren’t well written. (One thing that always annoyed me about this series and the Hardy Boys was they never really deduced anything or solved an actual mystery; really, the books were usually about catching a criminal whose identity was known almost from the start through a series of contrivances.)
Once they are in New Orleans–after Bess tells a strange woman on their flight where they are staying in city: Nancy, seated in front of them, was sorry their hotel had been named. She had wanted to keep their visit to New Orleans as secret as possible. Um, you’re on a flight to New Orleans. So, since it’s too late to call on the suspect’s former boss, they go sight-seeing–but Nancy ducks into every jewelry and/or pawn shop they come upon.
The trip proved to be pleasurable, if not profitable. Their inquiries led them into many sections of New Orleans. The French Quarter, where the buildings were charming in their elegance of a bygone day, interested them most. Beautiful ironwork, delicately tinted plaster walls, old courtyards, once the center of fashionable Creole family life, fascinated the girls.
On a balcony, a brightly-colored parrot chattered at them in friendly fashion. A smiling woman, bearing a basket of flowers, stopped to sell a flower to each girl. On all sides, the visitors saw interesting characters, and heard the soft-spoken dialect which was a blend of French, Cajun, and Gumbo.
GUMBO IS NOT A LANGUAGE.
And since Cajun is a derivative of French…sigh. And by 1967 New Orleans wasn’t really bilingual anymore. It had begun to die out around the turn of the twentieth century, and it’s definitely a rarity here now to find anyone native who speaks both English and French, or speaks French as their first language.
The next day they visit their suspect’s former employer, who knows nothing, and then do some site-seeing before lunch “in a quaint restaurant.”
“New Orleans is wonderful!” Bess exclaimed. Counting on her fingers, she added, “We’ve seen the banana wharf, the market, the garden district, and that old cemetery where all the dead are buried in tombs above the ground.”
“That’s because this place is below sea level,” said George. “Say, do you suppose that guide that we believed the story about the tomb which is supposed to glow at night with an unearthly light?”
“He said spirits come out and weave back and forth like wisps of fog,” said Bess.
“That’s just what they are–fog,” George declared practically.
“Oh, I don’t for a minute believe in ghosts,” Bess replied quickly.
“I wish we had time to go to Grand Isle, the haunt of Lafitte and his men,” said Nancy.
“Who is he?” Bess asked.
“He was a famous pirate,” Nancy replied. “According to tradition, when burying treasure, he always murdered one of his band and left his ghost to guard the hidden loot!”
I guess Bess never studied about the Battle of New Orleans–and no one at either the Stratemeyer Syndicate or Grosset & Dunlap knew that you capitalize “Garden District.” Then comes a really weird section where the girls visit a spiritualist photographer on whose works sometimes “spirit writing” appears. Naturally, Nancy’s image has a warning to stop sleuthing, and then the lights go out and when they come back on, the photographer is unconscious, along with Nancy, are gone! This for me is a particularly weird section. Nancy is the point of view character, even if at a distance. Why would you then switch to Bess and George frantically searching for Nancy rather than showing her capture and abduction and eventual escape? WHY HAVE THE ACTION TAKE PLACE OFF THE PAGE?
Oh, and when Nancy regained consciousness, she was tied up and trapped in a basement near the Quarter.
A basement. Near the French Quarter. In New Orleans, which we’ve already learned is below sea level and therefore bodies can’t be buried in the ground.So of course we have basements.
But Nancy leads the cops back to the house, where all evidence of her being tied up and so forth have disappeared:
To their surprise the policeman remarked soberly, “This isn’t the first time queer things have happened in this section of the city.”
Ah, so it must be the Faubourg Marigny. Lots of queers lived there and in the lower Quarter back then. But I guess the girls should consider themselves lucky that they found an English-speaking cop–who would never say “this section of the city.” He’d name the neighborhood–“this isn’t the first time queer things have happened in the Marigny.” So anyway, the girls decide to go home, and fortunately, there’s a flight from New Orleans to River Heights within an hour. They pack and head for the airport just in time to catch their flight home–when Bess mentions something else mysterious that is going on that she knows about and just hasn’t mentioned before for some reason, and of course, as always, this side story subplot is connected to the main one.
And that’s where I stopped, since that was the end of Nancy’s adventures in New Orleans.
The Haunted Showboat, on the other hand, opens with an immediate eye-roller for New Orleanians:
“Would a trip to the Mardi Gras interest you, Nancy, and also a mystery to solve?” Bess Marvin asked.
Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, so basically Bess just asked her if she would interested in a trip to “the Fat Tuesday.” Yes, I am well aware that outside of New Orleans it’s all lazily considered Mardi Gras, but it’s really Carnival. Mardi Gras is quite literally Fat Tuesday, the final day of Carnival, and while I’ve grudgingly come to accept that there’s no way that people will ever not refer to the entire event as “Mardi Gras”–even I have a tendency to get lazy and say”Mardi Gras” when I mean Carnival–it will never not bother me. Of course, Bess isn’t from Louisiana and she can be forgiven for getting this wrong, and even using “the” as unnecessary definitive article can be forgiven. But–and this is something that always annoyed me about both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys–never is it mentioned in this book that Nancy and her friends have been to New Orleans before, and never was it mentioned on that previous trip in The Ghost of Blackwood Hall that Bess and George have New Orleans relatives.
Wouldn’t you think that would have come up in The Ghost of Blackwood Hall? Of course it didn’t, because when book 25 was written they had no idea that Book 35 would return Nancy and friends to New Orleans and Louisiana. (This kind of continuity thing used to drive me nuts; Nancy and the Hardys were ‘well known’ as amateur detectives, and every book opens with a reference to their first series book as well as the most recent, and closed with a teaser for the next, despite the fact that really, every mystery they solved was a stand alone with no connections to the past or the future. A couple of other continuity errors that always bugged me with Nancy is that Ned is mentioned as her boyfriend in the revised text of Number 5, The Secret at Shadow Ranch even though she meets him for the first time in Number 7, The Clue in the Diary; she finds her dog Togo as a stray at the opening of The Whispering Statue’s original text; but she already has Togo in the revised text of earlier volumes and yes, I am aware that I have spent way too much time in my life obsessing about Nancy Drew and continuity errors in the series–and there are a lot.)
If anything, The Haunted Showboat is actually worse than The Ghost of Blackwood Hall in so many ways, and not just in the aforementioned minor ways. First of all, the cousin of Bess and George’s, who invited them down, is named Donna Mae, because back in the day you could always make your audience know “hey this is set in the South” by giving a female character two first names–and always something Mae. (Ellie Mae Clampett is another example; for the record, out of dozen and dozens of southern women relatives there is exactly one whose name was “Something Mae”.) It takes a while for them to get to Louisiana–Nancy’s car is stolen once, and the replacement is sabotaged–because of course the criminals down in Louisiana will stop at nothing to keep this teenager from the midwest to interfere with their plans!–but there’s one part of their trip that is absolutely hilarious: they drive through Mobile on their way to New Orleans, but somehow get to the Mississippi River before they get to New Orleans or the plantation outside of town they are visiting:
Soon the girls reached the broad Mississippi and gazed at the peaceful, somewhat muddy river.
Nancy then follows the River Road and turns inland. This geography makes literally no sense at all. But..it’s Nancy Drew, and the worst is yet to come.
You see, the Havers–who live at Sunnymead–have two black servants: Mammy Matilda and Pappy Cole. And oh yes, it’s just as racist and horrible as you can imagine–especially when you add in the “voodoo drums” they hear when canoeing through the swamp to get to the wrecked and haunted showboat, the River Princess. Anyway, yes, you can just imagine how dated and awful these depictions are. And everyone calls it “the Mardi Gras,” which no one does in the real world, either. The Quarter is referred to (correctly) as the “Vieux Carré”, but an aside says “or the old city”–it means “old square”, not old city–and of course they have lunch at Antoine’s.
There’s also an Uncle Rufus, who lives in the swamp in a tiny cabin and does voodoo spells.
There’s also a swamp episode and a wrecked, haunted showboat in an episode of Scooby Doo Where Are You?, which I’ve always wondered whether it was inspired (or stolen) from this edition.
So, neither book has aged particularly well–I’m still trying to wrap my mind around Gumbo as a language–and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the racist depictions of Black characters in The Haunted Showboat, but the book is still in print and kids are still reading it. Everyone knows that the original texts of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series were updated in the 1950’s and through the 1960’s to get rid of problematic depictions of non-white characters; it might not be a bad idea for them to do it again now. No one should be reading The Haunted Showboat as it stands today, really.
But it was an interesting time travel to revisit the books again. At some point I’d love to talk about all the kids’ series I read when I was a child, but…time.
I think the first time I ever encountered amnesia as a plot point was in, of all places, Trixie Belden Mystery Number Sixteen, The Mystery of the Missing Heiress. Janey, a young woman who’d been in a car accident and been found wandering aimlessly along Glen Road near the Belden farm, had amnesia–and who she was turned out to be the key to the mystery bedeviling Trixie and the other Bob-Whites.
Amnesia is actually not nearly as common as film and television (especially soaps, where it is one of the handiest tropes at hand, along with evil twins and so on) would make it appear to be, and it’s not as simple as the visual media make it appear. I had to do research on amnesia for Sleeping Angel, and it was very interesting to see how many different types there are, and what causes them–there’s physical trauma to the brain, and then there’s psychological, where something has happened to the person with amnesia that is so traumatic to their very identity that their mind erases it. So, bearing that in mind, I was curious to see how Sandra SG Wong handled the subject in her recent In the Dark We Forget.
I awake with a shiver. Full on, from toes to the tingling roots in my scalp.
Sharp corners dig into my shoulders, down the length of my spine, underneath one set of ribs. My feet twitch. I feel the backs of my shoes slip on something wet
Shoes. Why am I wearing shoes while I sleep?
I push up on my elbows, can’t hold myself up, fall back with a thump onto those sharp corners again. I blink up at a murky sky. My head aches, like I’ve taken a chill. I hear a soft rustling of leaves, a lone chirping bird. My ears are cold. A slight breeze blows grit into my cheek. My eyes widen. Why am I outside?
That sounds like a frigging nightmare, doesn’t it? Imagine waking up somewhere and not only not knowing where you are, but who you are and how you got there. Wong’s main character remembers nothing about herself–her name, where she lives, anything–and is soon found by a charitable passer-by who picks her up and takes her to a local police station, where the mystery around this woman slowly begins to unfold.
The challenge for a writer telling this kind of story is that the reader doesn’t find out anything about the character until the character does herself–which is incredibly hard to do; does the loss of memory affect the person’s personality, their character, who they are themselves? Do they behave differently? What do you do when you start finding out unpleasant things about yourself that you have to face, things you may not want to believe are true?
Wong handles it all with the accomplished skill of a master. We start caring about the character, curious to find out who she is and how this all happened, and Wong keeps the reader on the edge of their seat the entire time. As the truths begin to slowly play out–who she is, what she was involved in, what was going on in her life that somehow wound up with her unconscious in the woods–Wong deftly starts showing us flashes of who the character is, and wisely never gets into the psychological vs physical questions about the amnesia itself. Her main character is also unreliable–not just because of the amnesia, but as we find out ever more about her, and the kind of person she is, we also begin to have to wonder if she’s telling the truth about anything…everything…or something in between.
Beautifully written and dripping with suspense, I greatly enjoyed my first experience with the fiction of Sandra SG Wong, and suspect you will as well, Constant Reader. Get a copy, read it, and thank me later.
I always like Fridays mainly because I can sleep a little later than I am used to–after three completely hideous mornings of getting up at six; it really is relative, isn’t it? I mean, I just get up an hour later than I do on those mornings, and yet it feels like I slept for twenty years or something. Just can me Greg Van Winkle–although I think falling asleep in 2022 for twenty years would be terrifying when you woke up; imagine the leap from 2002 to now.
But for whatever reason I feel good this morning, whether it’s the sleep or whatever, and that’s a very good feeling. I feel rested and relaxed, which is always a lovely feeling, and I am looking forward to a three day weekend. I am going to read and write and do all kinds of things–as always, I have an ambitious plan for the weekend–but tomorrow I am doing some self-care (which is always lovely) before I run my errands, and I am going to try to get that all out of the way tomorrow, so I don’t really have to leave the house much the rest of the weekend, other than going to the gym (oh, yes, that’s on the list for this weekend) and an errand I have to run Monday. I am hoping to start and finish John Copenhaver’s The Savage Kind this weekend, and while I have an enormous TBR pile, I really should just read queer books this month. I think I’ll start revisiting Joseph Hanson, and I’ve also got The Devil’s Chewtoy in the pile as well. And hopefully, I’ll get some writing done this weekend as well. I didn’t work on “Never Kiss a Stranger” yesterday; instead I worked on another project that a publisher has shown interest in, but I need to get it figured out and a draft written. I’d originally planned to get that draft written this month–I am so far off schedule this year that it isn’t funny–but it does interest me and I played around with it a while last night before we finished watching The Victim, which is really well done. We also watched the new episode of Obi-wan Kenobi, and I don’t understand what the on-line bitching by the male virgins in the basement is all about. Why is it so difficult for people to grasp that there would be non-white humans in space in the future as well as a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?
Although I suppose their preference would be an all-white universe.
I was thinking last night–while I was waiting for Paul to come downstairs and watch television with me; as pop culture list videos autoplayed on Youtube while I doom-scrolled on my iPad–about writerly ticks; things I always seem to wind up writing about a lot more than I should; like of course I am reading something Greg wrote, because here is the part where there’s a thunderstorm or ah, there it is–the car accident Scotty gets into in every book (and sometimes Chanse, too) or ah, this must be New Orleans as written by Greg because its all about hot and humid. One of the reasons I do love living in New Orlenas is because I love rain. One of the things I miss the most about my office on Frenchmen Street (besides the awesome street name) is that the building directly behind my actual office had a tin roof, so every time it rained I’d open the window so I could hear the rain drumming on the tin roof. It always made me think of my childhood; my grandfather’s house had a tin roof when I was very young–the barn’s was never replaced–so I can remember listening to the rain while I was lying in bed, all snug and warm and dry; to this day I find a weird emotional comfort when it’s raining outside and I am snug and dry and under a blanket inside the Lost Apartment. I can even remember a scene from a Trixie Belden book–The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island–where Miss Trask was driving Trixie and the other Bob-Whites to Cobbett’s Island for a vacation, and it started raining on them; I was reading it in the car on the way to Alabama from Chicago and ironically, it was raining on the car as I read. I even started writing one of my many attempts to write a juvenile series a la Nancy Drew/the Hardy Boys/Trixie Belden with the characters getting caught in a thunderstorm while driving en route somewhere–I don’t remember anything else, but I remember writing about them riding in the rain….and ever since then, it seems like I write alot about thunderstorms. There’s even a thunderstorm scene in A Streetcar Named Murder, because of course there is.
I always write about rain–and I don’t think i could ever live in a desert climate again because I would miss rain too much.
So, note to self: no rain and no car crash in the next Scotty. We’ll see if I can stick to that.
And on that note, tis off to the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.
The traditional mystery often gets a bum rap by mystery fans. I’m not sure why that is; these books have never gone out of style, have never decreased in popularity, and have always been the backbone of the crime/mystery genre. They are often (wrongly, I think) identified with Agatha Christie–if anything, Christie should be identified with every sub-genre of crime/mystery fiction. She wrote private eye novels (Poirot); dark noir (Endless Night); spy fiction (N or M?, The Man in the Brown Suit, They Came to Baghdad); historicals (Death Comes as the End); and even romantic suspense (as Mary Westmacott). Sure, she often relied on the amateur sleuth–her most famous amateur being probably Miss Marple–but she literally did everything first, really.
Probably why everyone refers to her as the Queen of Crime Fiction.
But the traditional mystery, for some reason, gets short shrift in our modern world, despite being one of the most popular subgenres of crime fiction. Why? I don’t really understand it. Sure, there’s not any blood or sex or violence–the sort of thing generally used to sell everything from television shows to movies to laundry soap and deoderant. Many of us grew up reading books about amateur detectives, from Nancy Drew to the Hardy Boys to Trixie Belden. So why do so many turn their noses up at the traditional mystery, also known as the cozy mystery?
I think it’s much harder to write about crime without using the tough guy male lead (stereotype), blood, violence, swear words, and sex. Is it this lack of the “rougher” aspects of crime that earned these books the nickname “cozy”?
What precisely does the word cozy mean, used as a book descriptor in this way? Ask five mystery fans/writers, and you will get five different answers. It’s often hard to quantify the variety of subgenres within the mystery/crime field. Everything else aside, I think the most important thing, the key, for a mystery novel to get this kind of classification is that the book focuses, on one level, on a sense of community; the reader develops a warm, comfortable feeling, the kind that you usually get from visiting family and friends you don’t get to see all of the time. You open the book and start reading and already feel relaxed and at home; happy to see people you care about, are interested in, and are excited to find out what they have been up to. Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series is an excellent example of this; so is Leslie Budewitz’ Spice Shop mystery series (both series, obviously, are favorites of mine). These books welcome you in, invite you to put your feet up, get comfortable, and spend some time with your old friends you’ve not seen in a while.
This, naturally, is very difficult to establish when writing the first book in a new series of this kind; how do you immediately establish this warm environment where the reader feels comfortable enough to kick off their shoes and relax? It’s not the easiest thing to pull off for an accomplished writer; so it’s all the more remarkable when someone nails it in their very first book.
Mia P. Manansala nailed it in her debut.
My name is Lila Macapagal and my life has become a rom-com cliché.
Not many romantic comedies feature an Asian-American (or dead bodies, but more on that later), but all the hallmarks are there.
Girl from an improbably named small town in the Midwest moves to the big city to make a name for herself and find love? Check.
Girl achieves these things only for the world to come crashing down when she walks in on her fiancé getting down and dirty with their next-door neighbors (yes, plural)? Double check.
Girl then moves back home in disgrace and finds work reinvigorating her aunt’s failing business? Well now we’re up to a hat trick of clichés.
And to put the cherry on top, in the trope of all tropes, I even reconnected with my high school sweetheart after moving back to town and discovered the true meaning of Christmas.
Okay, that last part is a joke, but I really did run into my high school sweetheart. Derek Winter, my first love.
First of all, can we talk about the voice?
It is impossible not to fall in love with Lila’s voice from the very first sentence of the book. She is smart and funny and eminently likable, which is important in a traditional mystery (no one wants to read a cozy whose main character is an unlikable bitch) and much harder to do than most people who don’t actually write books think it is. Lila is a remarkable character; very clear-eyed about what she wants and what she doesn’t, as well as who she thinks she is and wants to be. She’s returned from her big escape to the big city to the small town she wasn’t terribly happy in when she was growing up–her past experiences continually are reminding her, and not in pleasant way, of why she left in the first place. She never intended to return home (as Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again), but she is back and rather than focusing on what she is certain everyone she knows or is related to sees as her “failure,” she intends instead to focus on helping save her aunt’s restaurant business.
The immense strength of this story rests upon those family bonds, and Lila’s recognition of just how important those bonds–family, friends, community–actually are to her; and her growing realization, over the course of the books, that those things she once thought were strangling and restraining her are actually where her own power comes from.
The mystery itself is also strong: Lila’s wretched local ex, whose mother has since married a businessman who rents Tita Rosie’s building to her and is a total dick, has taken to writing shitty reviews of local restaurants, apparently targeting one and trying to destroy its business before moving on to another. Lila’s relationship with him is also strained; and she also doesn’t like the dickish stepfather either. It is while she is serving them lunch that her ex keels over face-first into his plate–dead from arsenic poisoning. In the food Lila fed him, and came from her aunt’s kitchen. The financially strapped business is shut down pending an investigation into the murder and a health department inspection, and there is the very real fear that Tita Rosie may lose her restaurant. Lila takes it upon herself to investigate and find the real culprit, to clear herself as well as her aunt and the beloved family business of any wrongdoing and scandal. The journey, which introduces us to her friends and family, and welcomes the reader into their charming world and community, twists and turns and is full of surprises every step along the way–as Lila also learns just how much the restaurant, her family, and her friends really mean to her.
This book is absolutely charming, well-written, and very fun. I cannot wait to revisit Lila and her crew in the second book, Homicide and Halo-Halo. Mia P. Manansala is definitely one to watch, and it’s going to be fun watching her career reaching even more heights than she has already achieved.
I have always loved strong female characters, having cut my reading teeth on Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Vicki Barr, the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, and Cherry Ames, just to name a few. As an adult reader of mysteries, two of my favorite series are Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series (simply the best) and Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series (also a gem of a series); primarily because I love the characters of Amelia and Meg both so very much. They are both fiercely intelligent women with a very dry sense of humor, and are the kind of strong women that everyone around them comes to depend on for support–and droll wit. The death of Dr. Barbara Mertz (who wrote as Peters AND as Barbara Michaels) ended the Peabody series forever, much to my heartbreak; the Meg Langslow series is going strong still, so I am hopeful that I will have years and years of reading pleasure yet to come from Donna.
And then, last year I discovered Mary Russell.
The envelope slapped down onto the desk ten inches from my much-abused eyes, instantly obscuring theblack lines of Hebrew letters that had begun to quiver an hour before. With the shock of the sudden change, my vision stuttered, attempted a valiant rally, then slid into complete rebellion and would not focus at all.
I leant back into my chair with an ill-stifled groan, peeled my wire-rimmed spectacles from my ears and dropped tjem onto the stack of notes, and sat for a long minute with the heels of both hands pressed into my eye sockets.
I was already a fan of Laurie R. King from her brilliant Kate Martinelli series, about a lesbian police detective. (If you’ve not read that series, you need to–it’s one of the best of the last thirty years.) I was reluctant to read the Mary Russell series, as Constant Reader may remember from my previous posts about earlier books in this series; for any number of reasons, but primarily not ever really getting into the Sherlock Holmes/Conan Doyle stories. This shifted and changed when I was asked to contribute a Sherlock story to Narrelle Harris’ The Only One in the World anthology; this required me to go back and do some reading of Doyle, and having worked with Laurie R. King on the MWA board, I decided to give her feminist take on Sherlock a go.
And I have not regretted that decision once.
Mary has stepped up to replace Amelia Peabody as one of my favorite on-going series; I love the character–a strong-minded, fiercely independent woman of no small intelligence who is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Mr. Holmes. Theirs is, despite the age difference, a true partnership of equals; I love that Holmes, in King’s interpretation of him, isn’t quite so misogynistic or incapable of feeling–which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a male-written version. I like King’s Holmes; the strong female character who is his equal was the perfect solution to whatever misogynistic issues I may have had with other interpretations. I also love that Russell is also pursuing a life of the mind; her studies into theology at Oxford are not just asides to add color and flavor to the character but are just as important to whom she is as a character as the love interest/relationship with Holmes. As I also have an amateur’s curiosity into the history of Christianity and how the faith changed and developed throughout the centuries following the New Testament stories…how that was shaped and influenced by men with not the purest of motives…is something I’ve always been interested in.
I think the first book that challenged Christian orthodoxy in a fictional form that I read–the first time I became aware of the possibilities that the BIble wasn’t actually the pure word of God and had been edited and revised repeatedly in the centuries since Christ ostensibly lived, died and was resurrected–was, of all things, a book by Irving Wallace called The Word (Wallace isn’t really remembered much today, but he wrote enormous books of great length that were huge bestsellers, and the subject matter and style of the books was essentially that they were very bery long thrillers: The Prize was about the maneuvering to win a Nobel; The Plot was about an international conspiracy to kill JFK; The Second Lady was about a Soviet plan to kidnap the First Lady and replace her with a lookalike who was a Soviet agent; etc etc etc). The premise of The Word is simply that a new testament, a document hidden away for centuries in a monastery in Greece, claims that not only did Jesus not die on the cross but went on to live for many decades, preaching his own ministry and even visiting Rome. This, of course, is a cataclysmic document–it would change everything everyone had ever known and believed…if it is indeed authentic.
I’ve always loved a good thriller with a base in theology, ever since; and A Letter of Mary is just that, even if more of a mystery than a thriller. The role of Mary Magdalen has been questioned a lot in the last few decades–not the least reason of which is Holy Blood Holy Grail–an interesting concept if one that has been proven to based in a falsehood in the times since (or was THAT part of the Vatican’s plot?)–which inevitably led to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I don’t find the idea that the Magdalen was a beloved disciple of Jesus–and that she may have been his favorite–a reach; likewise, there’s nothing I’ve ever seen in the actual New Testament that essentially says she was a prostitute, a “fallen woman.”
This book begins with Russell despairing over her research only to receive a letter that she and Holmes are going to be receiving a visitor–someone they met during their time in the Holy Land some time earlier–glossed over in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice but apparently explored more deeply in O Jerusalem! The visitor, an older heiress of no small means who is fascinated with archaeology and has been funding digs in the Holy Land, presents the pair with a gift as well as an ancient letter, unauthenticated, which is ostensibly a letter from Mary Magdalen some years after the death of Christ, written to a sister as the city of Jerusalem falls under seige by the Romans during the Jewish Wars, around 70 AD, that saw the sack of the city and the start of the diaspora; which makes it very clear that, if authentic, the Magdalen was one of the disciples and heavily involved in the ministry of the Christian church. Their guest returns to London, and is killed when she is stuck by a car the following day. Holmes and Russell sniff around the crime scene and find evidence that the old woman was murdered…but by whom? Why? Is this about the letter from Mary?
King always tells a great story–you never can go wrong with one of her books, really–and the characters are so well-defined, so real, that even if she didn’t tell a great story, you want to read about those characters more, get to know them better, and cheer them on to their successes and sympathize with their failures. Her writing style is also a joy to read; the Mary Russell voice is so different and so clearly distinct from Kate Martinelli that you can’t not marvel at her mastery.
The next book in the series is The Moor, and I am really looking forward to it.
As I have attested to many times in this blog (and its predecessor over at Livejournal), when I was a child I always lost myself in books. I especially loved my Scholastic Book Club mysteries and other stand-alone mystery books for kids I’d find in the library, either at my elementary school or the Tomen branch of the Chicago Public Library on Pulaski, a few blocks from our apartment. My first series book reads were Trixie Belden (The Red Trailer Mystery) and one of The Three Investigators books; I later discovered Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, as well as all the other series books published by Grosset & Dunlap or Whitman. The Nancy Drew books, before the title page and it’s facing page that usually depicted an illustration of a scene from the book itself, almost always had a page listing the entire series….but below that was a list of titles for another series, ostensibly by the same “author”, Carolyn Keene (who was fictitious). That series was The Dana Girls, and their titles were all, for the most part, different and strange (the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series also went through a period of strange titles, usually within the first twenty volumes, before settling into the traditional “The Mystery” or “The Secret” or “The Clue” titles)–like By the Light of the Study Lamp, In the Shadow of the Tower, The Portrait in the Sand, A Three-Cornered Mystery, etc., mixed in with the more traditional type titles. My very first Dana Girls mystery that I actually read was The Secret in the Old Well, which was actually where some stolen mink furs were hidden…the stolen furs had stripes that formed an X on the sleeve. I don’t really remember much else about the plot of the book, but it was entertaining enough, if not of the same quality as the other series I was reading.
The Dana Girls, despite being by the “author” of the Nancy Drew series, never quite caught on the same way the Nancy Drew books did. The Dana Girls series was cancelled three times, and when brought back for that third chance, the earlier books in the series were abandoned as being beyond saving through revisions or simply not worth the cost. The rebooted series, with white covers, started with Mystery of the Stone Tiger, which originally was volume 25 of the original series. The original series counted thirty titles; the new relaunched series eventually reprinted and slightly revised numbers 17 through 30–but skipped The Clue of the Black Flower for some reason, before starting to publish new titles with The Curious Coronation. Three more new titles were published with two more planned when the series was canceled; the final two (The Strange Identities and The Thousand Islands Mystery) were never published. Those four new titles in the rebooted series had very limited print runs and are very hard (and expensive) to find; I finally tracked down affordable copies in good condition in the years after Katrina, when I discovered eBay and became obsessed with finally finishing my collections.
So, why were the Dana Girls never as popular as the other series? The books were simply not as good; the ghostwriters hired (both Mildred Wirt Benson, who ghosted many Nancy Drews, and Leslie McFarlane, who ghosted many Hardy Boys) were ambivalent about the series; McFarlane apparently admitted in his memoir The Ghost of the Hardy Boys that he actively hated writing the Dana Girls books and finally refused to do any more; the paycheck no longer being worth it to him.
Unlike Nancy and the Hardys, the Danas were orphans who attended an elite boarding school, the Starhurst School for Girls, just outside the town of Penfield. They were from Oak Falls, where they lived during school holidays with their spinster aunt Harriet, who kept house for their bachelor uncle, Ned, who was captain of the steamship Balaska. Why the girls were sent away to school is never explained; why their aunt couldn’t raise them at home while going to public school was never explained. Starhurst was certainly a fine school, but even that excuse was never really given in any of the books that I can recall; nor was there any explanation of why both Ned and Harriet remained single. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Ned and Harriet to be a married couple rather than unmarried older brother and sister? Who paid for the Danas to go to this expensive school? And what exactly happened to their parents? We always knew Nancy Drew had been motherless since she was three (although we never know Mrs. Drew’s first name, how she died, or meet any of Nancy’s relatives from her mother’s side; the woman remains a cypher), but all we ever know about the Dana Girls’ actual parents is they both died when the girls were relatively young.
I think another reason the books never caught on was partly because the sisters had no connection to crime-solving in any way; Nancy’s father was a famous attorney, while the Hardy Boys’ father was also a former police detective and a world-famous private eye–so successful that he could afford his own plane–and so it was only natural that they started out solving crimes to help their parents–Nancy’s first case being about a missing will and her second also involved her father, while the Hardys’ first case was not only helping out their father but a friend. The Danas had no connection to the world of crime-solving, so when mysteries dropped into their lap it didn’t really make a lot of sense, and their friends rarely commented on the frequency with which the sisters seemed to attract the attention of criminals or stumble over a crime. Admittedly, their first case in the original series, By the Light of the Study Lamp, came to them organically; a close friend’s brother has disappeared as well as their inheritance, and so naturally they want to help out Evelyn Starr, whose family originally owned the estate, Starhurst, that now houses the school….which again begs the question: how old is the school, and how long has it been there? In that first book Evelyn talks about growing up there….so why on earth would the Danas’ only living relatives send them away to a school where the paint is hardly dry? Having the books set at a posh boarding school also proved how smart the Stratemeyer Syndicate was in having very little to do with Nancy’s education (she never goes to school–although I have to say it’s very strange that a successful lawyer wouldn’t send his daughter to college) and likewise, there’s only brief mentions of school attendance in the Hardy Boys books. Having the Danas be at a boarding school limited the plots by containing them in and around the campus and the school; later books in the series became travelogues in which the girls traveled all over the world to solve mysteries, sometimes around school trips, so their friends and Mrs. Crandall, the headmistress, could be also be involved. The so-called “travelogue” books in the Hardys and Nancy Drew series weren’t as well-liked or as popular as the ones where they didn’t travel; sending the Danas all over the world also didn’t really work.
“Jean, you’ve been playing with that old machine for over an hour. When are you going to study? Time’s almost up.”
The Dana sisters, Louise and Jean, were alone in their rooms at Starhurst School for Girls. During the entire study period, Jean, the younger, fair-haired one, had been absorbed in a queer-looking contraption she was trying to build.
“Oh, one may always study,” she laughed in reply to her sister’s question. “This invention of mine is too important to wait.”
“Invention!” exclaimed Louise, peering skeptically at the odd collection of springs, boxes, rollers, and piano keys. “So that’s what it is? I thought you were trying to build a piano!”
“Well, you might call it a sort of super piano,” Jean laughed good-naturedly. “At least that’s the general idea.”
The idea behind Jean’s machine is that when you play the keys, it somehow transcribes the notes onto sheet music, so to simplify song-writing (although it didn’t appear to have a correction mechanism, and how could something small enough to do this have enough piano keys?). Naturally, their nemesis, wealthy bitch Lettie Briggs, the long-running villain of the series, tries to steal the idea and have it copyrighted before Jean can make the thing work; she’s caught, as she always is, and lightly punished (some of the things she does out of spite and her jealousy of the sister are borderline, if not outright, criminal; she never gets severely punished for anything she ever does, so naturally she never learns her lesson and continues being a manipulative, thieving, jealous bitch. When I originally read the series as a child, Lettie was so bad at her ‘pranks’ I eventually began feeling sorry for her and wondering why she was the way she was; I became more interested in her than the Danas and their friends, to be honest; I should do a parody series from Lettie’s point of view, but since the series wasn’t popular and isn’t really remembered today the appeal would be limited, I would imagine). The mystery the girls are looking into is the disappearance of a passenger on their uncle’s last voyage–although why a passenger vanishing and not disembarking would reflect badly on the captain or the steamship company doesn’t really make sense. It’s certainly strange, and worth looking into, but the driving force behind the narrative seems to be saving Uncle Ned’s reputation, and that of the company he works for. They soon trace the woman to a house near Penfield, where they are greeted by a horrifically racist depiction of a Chinese servant, complete with dialogue that turns his R’s into L’s, and adding the long e sound to words, like “Takee” instead of “take,” and it’s clear the missing woman lives in the house or is related to the man living there, as there is a photo of her on the piano the girls slip out to show their uncle, who positively identifies her, before returning it to its place on the piano; they return later when the master of the house is home, who claims “Katherine” is his six-year-old daughter, and the photo is now gone. Mysterious, indeed, and the Danas don’t like being lied to, of course. So, they are on the case.
And like with their contemporary teen detectives at the Stratemeyer Syndicate, solving the case has more to do with luck and weird coincidences than any actual brainwork (which is why I always preferred The Three Investigators and Ken Holt), but the Dana sisters were entertaining enough, and I read most of the books in the series.
And now it’s Saturday. It’s still cold in New Orleans and we still don’t have any heat but it’s not as bad as Texas by any means, and we never lost either power or water pressure. So far we haven’t had a rolling blackout, either–although they were threatened. I spent most of yesterday unpacking and repacking condom packs, while watching history videos on Youtube, done by a local New Orleanian–someone I do not know–correcting revisionist history; it began with his lengthy video on the Confederate propaganda movie Gods and Generals–which I have never seen; I tend to avoid Civil War films because they are all-too frequently Lost Cause narratives at best or defenses of white supremacy at worst–even the ones that don’t center Confederate stories. I have no desire to see either. I was raised on the Lost Cause false-narrative, and I am still kind of bitter about being taught false narratives as truth as a child. I also resent having had to spend so much of my adult life correcting everything I learned that was wrong and/or incorrect; relearning American history without the rose-colored glasses of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny firmly placed on my nose and eyes.
Writing Bury Me in Shadows, methinks, is in some ways for me kind of a reckoning with that “heritage.”
The cold is going to continue through this weekend, but tomorrow is supposed to be relatively normal late winter weather for New Orleans. It will be nice to get back to normal. It’s currently forty degrees and sunny outside, and I’ll take it, thank you very much.
Today I am going to spend most of the day rereading and revising my manuscript. I want to be able to get through the entire thing in one sitting–this way I can catch most of the repetition, and I am going to also be starting to sprinkle the new stuff through the manuscript that needs to be added. I am hoping that on Sunday I can go to the gym and start inputting the changes; Monday I will assess as to whether I believe I can finish before the deadline or not. (I am a firm believer in not waiting until the last minute to let my publisher know the manuscript will be late.) I mean, I do have another full weekend to get it all done, but it’s not going to be super easy. I have to write an entire season of a podcast–or at least, significant excerpts from said podcast–and there’s at least one more chapter that needs to be written. (Depends on the inputted changes I am going to be making as I go; the goal is to make writing that last chapter really easy by making it a “now that everything is over and has been resolved” kind of chapter.)
It’s going to be lovely to be done with the book, to be honest. I started writing this version in the summer of 2015; I wrote the entire first draft in slightly less than one month–without the last chapter; I never did write the last chapter because I knew I was going to have to make changes to the story and why write something I might have to throw completely out? I have always tried to be efficient with my writing–not going off on tangents, not writing things that will have to be cut out later (it’s so painful cutting out entire scenes and chapters)–and knowing that I couldn’t really write the final chapter until I was absolutely certain about the story itself. I know the story now–this is like the eighth draft, seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that took this many drafts (novels, at any rate; I have short stories that have been through eight or more drafts, seriously). I am looking forward to moving on from it at long last; I want to start planning the writing of Chlorine next, while also finishing some short stories and putting together some proposals for other ideas I have. If all goes well, I will be able to write a first draft of Chlorine in April, a first draft of the next Scotty in May, and then spend the summer revising and rewriting both. I’d like to spend the fall finishing other odds and ends I have in my files–“Never Kiss a Stranger” has been crying to me from the files to be finished, for one, and there are a couple of other novellas and short stories I want get done. Granted, if any of the proposals sell I will have to change my writing schedule, but if none of them do sell…well, I have plenty on hand for me to write.
I may even start a new series. I’ve been thinking that a gay cozy mystery might be fun to write. I love puzzles and lots of suspects and things; I’d love to do something along the lines of James Anderson’s The Case of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy, which is probably my favorite cozy mystery of all time; a big mansion, secret passages, jewel thieves, international espionage–all taking place over a house party weekend at an English country home. I’ve always felt it was a shame that those wonderful old classic home house party/small village mysteries the British wrote that I loved to read really couldn’t be replicated in the US…and then later realized that is because those stories are completely rooted in the British class system and what would be comparable here and then…yeah, you see where this went, don’t you? Although some day I will figure out how to do one of those…
I WILL. And it will be marvelous.
I also need to reread The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy again. It’s really quite marvelous; I do hope it holds up.
I’ve also been sort of paging through/rereading the Three Investigators’ The Mystery of the Fiery Eye, which in some ways was a tribute to Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone–which I also did with my own Vieux Carré Voodoo–while not finishing the Dana Girls’ The Clue in the Cobweb. I also keep meaning to get back into reading short stories, since my mind is in that weird “I need to finish my book” place where I can’t focus on reading anything new (once the book is done, I am going to spend some serious time with Jess Lourey’s Unspeakable Things, which I had started reading before locking into “finish the book” mode), so it’s either short stories or rereads until I turn this manuscript in. Anyway, that’s one of my favorite Three Investigators books because it, too, involves a treasure hunt with vague clues (or rather, a riddle of sorts) the boys have to figure out in order to find their new young friend August’s inheritance, the Fiery Eye, a cursed jewel stolen from an idol in a fictional southern Asian nation (Constant Reader will note that Vieux Carré Voodoo also involved the need to solve a riddle to find a cursed jewel stolen from a temple in a fictional southeast Asian country). I also recently–and I don’t remember if I shared this here or not–had the epiphany that the Scotty series, in some ways, is in and of itself a tribute to The Three Investigators…if they were adults and gay and in a “throuple”, as such relationships are called nowadays (I first heard the term in a CDC training). It also occurred to me that many kids’ series involve the main character and two close friends–or if the main characters are a pair (the Hardys and the Danas) they’re inevitably given a close pal who shares their adventures (in fairness, the Dana sisters have several friends who fill that role; some of the books involve several of their friends, but the only one whose name I can recall now is Evelyn Starr–although I believe they also had a friend named Doris Garland, but I am not sure about that name). As I thought about this more, I had to wonder if this was an attempt to steer the books away from homoeroticism or the undercurrent of the main character and his/her best friend being more like a couple then as friends….but I also can’t imagine that being a concern when these books were first conceived? (Although Trixie Belden and her best friend Honey Wheeler certainly play out the butch/femme lesbian dynamic rather convincingly–which I think why in later books in the series they played down Trixie’s “tomboyishness” and tried to make her more of a girly-girl.) Nancy Drew’s first four books featured her and her dear friend Helen Corning; in book five Helen vanishes (she shows up in a couple of later books) and is replaced by cousins Bess and George (again, the butch/femme dynamic at play, even though they are made cousins to avoid such thinking…but George is so damned butch and Bess so femme people made the connection anyway). The Hardys have Chet Morton, who is relentlessly fat-shamed and mocked throughout the entire series (Frank and Joe sometimes aren’t the wonderful boys they are made out to be). I have certainly made note of the homoerotic undercurrent in the Ken Holt series (with his best pal Sandy) and the Rick Brant series (with his best pal Scotty) before; there is none of this in the Three Investigators series because there are three of them, and they are vaguely around thirteen; it is doubtful any of them have gone through complete puberty yet because they still think of girls as kind of alien creatures, which really plays strangely in the series where the male leads are in their later teens….the chasteness of the Hardys with their token girlfriends–like Nancy, Bess and George with their token boyfriends–never quite rings true to me. They don’t even kiss! That probably has more to do with their target audience (nine to thirteen year olds) than anything else, but even when I was a prepubescent kid it struck me as strange.
I still want to try writing my own middle-grade series for kids; I think I may take a month this summer and try to write one and see what happens. I’ve been planning such a series since I was a kid, after all, and my writing career lately has seemed to be all about writing the things I’ve been leaving on the back burner simmering for years.
And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. My book is calling to me, and I want to read some short stories with the rest of my morning caffeine. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader–and friends in Texas, hope you’re doing okay. I’ve been thinking about all y’all this past week.
Ye Gods, how lovely was it to get in my car yesterday morning and turn the heat all the way up? I actually felt warm for the first time in days, and the heat was on at the office, too! Marvelous, simply marvelous, really. The weather also got significantly warmer–still cold, but twenty degrees was a significant improvement–over the course of the day. It’s going to drop into the thirties again overnight on Friday and Saturday, per the forecast, but if I can sleep through it I don’t care how cold it gets at night. I did have ice on my windshield yesterday morning–that was an unpleasant surprise–but my wonderful car warmed right up as I sat there and the ice melted and all was right in the world again. The drive to work was a bit of an ordeal; I left early, just in case, and was right–New Orleanians cannot drive under the best of circumstances–and when I got on 90 highway from the west bank to connect to I-10 East….my ramp was blocked off by an apparent car fire? And then of course the next exit from I-10 West (don’t try to follow the highway nonsense in New Orleans, seriously) was Carrollton. Because people drive like morons I wasn’t able to take the Carrollton/Tulane exit and had to get off at Carrollton right in front of Costco…and you always need to remember that when you need to make a left turn in New Orleans, you probably can’t. I wound up detouring around Xavier University and our OTHER building on my way to work this morning…thank God I left early so I got here around the time I usually do….it only took me almost three quarters of a fucking hour.
Ironically, the temperature in the Lost Apartment last night was one that would ordinarily have me bitterly bundling up and complaining about the cold…last night as I moved around the apartment getting things done–all the things I wanted to do and intended to on Fat Tuesday, I was laughing at myself…because after Fat Tuesday last night seemed very pleasant indeed in the Lost Apartment. I slept like a stone last night–God, if I could only sleep every night the way I do when it’s this cold!–and didn’t really want to get up this morning, either–it was warm and comfortable–but even so, this cold this morning is completely bearable and something I can handle with aplomb, methinks.
One great tragedy of the cold, though, was I lost a day’s work on the manuscript on Fat Tuesday, which means really having to buckle down on working on it this weekend. I may wind up having to ask for an extra week, but it’s very close and if I can get a lot done this weekend I might not have to ask for another week–but I am not going to kill myself and am going to try to be reasonable and realistic about how much I can get done this weekend.
Rather than finishing Mr. Mercedes last night, we chose to watch Serena Williams play Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open; some amazing tennis, but I have never enjoyed watching Serena lose. I suspect that was her last Australian Open; I think after this year she will undoubtedly retire and enjoy the rest of her life, maybe even have another kid. She owes us tennis fans nothing, really–I just hate seeing her marvelous career come to an end.
It’s forty-two in New Orleans right now, with a projected low of thirty-nine for the day. I will undoubtedly feel very warm and toasty when I retire to my easy chair to watch movies and remake last week’s condom packs (they were exposed to a temperature that was too low for them to stay good; so I have to remove the condoms from the packs I made last week and put new ones in); I’m not sure what I want to watch today. I watched Young Rock last night while I waited for Paul to come home; I can’t make up my mind as to whether it’s meta and charming, or cheesy yet charming. Dwayne Johnson is just so damned charismatic…I have been a fan from the early days (just as I have been a long-time fan of John Cena; I don’t watch WWE at all anymore for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the talents working for them), and there were times watching the show when I laughed out loud–the actors playing him when he was younger were very well-cast, as were the men cast as the professional wrestlers he knew and hung out with when he was a kid; and the woman playing his mother is very likable. Also–the guy playing his father Rocky Johnson is eerily well-cast as well. So, I’ll probably keep watching, but am reserving judgment on it.
Oh, I wonder if either version of My Cousin Rachel is available to stream anywhere? I’ve never seen either, and I do love the book very much. If my mind could focus better, I’d give it a reread–for some reason I’m having trouble reading again, so at some point today, tomorrow or over the course of the weekend I am going to delve back into some short stories. I started reading an ol Dan Girls mystery, The Cluein the Cobweb, because I want to start doing blog entries about the kids’ series I loved so much (I’ve already done The Three Investigators and Ken Holt; I am also rereading a Three Investigators tale, The Mystery of the Fiery Eye as well), and eventually would love to cover every one of the series I read when I was a kid and continued collecting as an adult. I know I’ve also already done Trixie Belden–but I’ve not done any of the others. I am hesitant to approach Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys; even with the ones I’ve already done I barely scraped into the extensive research and scholarship on those series, and as I’ve noted before, fans of these series take them very, very seriously (I still want to write a book about that; I think a very interesting murder mystery novel could be set at one of these fan conferences they do annually because I don’t have enough to write already.)
And on that note, tis time to head back into the spice mines. Hope you have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and please stay warm and safe out there!
I’ve decided to launch a new reading project for this year: one in which I tackle rereading middle-grade mysteries. I am not going to limit myself to merely the series books I loved (although they will play a big role in the project), but will also include other mysteries I have, either in one of my reading apps or an actual hard copy, that do not belong to the series. My childhood memories aren’t as clear as I would perhaps like; then again, that period of my life was around fifty years ago, so it would be more of a miracle if I did have stronger memories.
The first two series books I ever read were not from either the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys series; they were from the Trixie Belden series (The Red Trailer Mystery) and The Three Investigators (The Mystery of the Moaning Cave). Both series wound up being favorites of mine once I eventually got back to them and remembered them; I remember buying five Trixie Belden books at a store at the Ford City mall in Chicago, and I got my first five Three Investigators books from a Toys R Us, I think in the Chicago suburb of Berwin? The two series weren’t as ubiquitous or available as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys; which made finding more of them a kind of triumph for me. I’ve already blogged about The Secret of Terror Castle, which was the first Three Investigators book in the series, so I won’t cover that one again. But recently I sat down and reread the second book in the series, The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, and remembered again why I love this series so much.
“Help!” The voice that called out was strangely shrill and muffled. “Help! Help!”
Each time a cry from within the mouldering old house pierced the silence, a new chill crawled down Pete Crenshaw’s spine. Then the cries for help ended in a strange, dying gurgle and that was even worse.
The tall, brown-haired boy knelt behind the thick trunk of a barrel palm and peered up the winding gravel path at the house. He and his partner, Jupiter Jones, had been approaching it when the first cry had sent them diving into the shrubbery for cover.
Across the path, Jupiter, stocky and sturdily built, crouched behind a bush, also peering toward the house. They waited for further sounds. But now the old, Spanish-style house, set back in the neglected garden that had grown up like a small tropical jungle, was silent.
“Jupe!” Pete whispered. “Was that a man or a woman?”
Jupiter shook his head. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “Maybe it was neither.“
The Three Investigators cases often began this way; with two of them (sometimes all of them) landing smack dab in the middle of something mysterious; whether it was the sight of a weird ghost as they walk past an abandoned house being demolished (The Mystery of the Green Ghost) or biking past an enclosed estate (The Mystery of the Laughing Shadow) or simply riding in the gold=played Rolls Royce limousine and almost getting into an accident (The Mystery of the Silver Spider). Many of their other cases begin with them being hired to find a lost pet, which turns into something more complicated and complex: The Mystery of the Coughing Dragon and The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy fall into this category….while the majority of their cases come by way of referrals from Alfred Hitchcock himself (and why has no one ever done a book about the licensing of the Hitchcoc name, and all the products the great director attached his name to? It’s far overdue.). The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot combines all three: the boys were referred by Hitchcock to a friend whose recently purchased parrot has either been stolen or gotten free; they are on their way to visit Professor Fentriss to talk to him about the missing parrot–which stuttered–when they hear the cries for help coming from within the house. They are confronted outside by a man with a revolver (he is described here, and throughout the book, as a fat man–even by Jupiter, who hates being called fat), who claims to be Mr. Fentriss and that the bird has returned; he also claims that Hitchcock had called him to say the boys were on their way over. As they are leaving they realize that the house had no telephone wires (which used to actually be a thing, before cell phones), so they go back. Indeed, the man they met was an imposter and Mr. Fentriss is also tied up in his home. They rescue him, discover that he bought the missing parrot from a sickly Hispanic man selling the birds (there were others) out of his donkey cart, and that his friend Irma Waggoner sent the peddler to them. (Note: the man is described, and referred to, over and over as a Mexican; he actually is Mexican, so it’s not necessarily problematic–other than the fact that no one knew he was Mexican at first; referring to all Latinx/Hispanic people as Mexican when they may not actually be Mexican is problematic. In an update they would undoubtedly change it to Hispanic–as he did speak Spanish as a first language and his English isn’t good–which we see when the boys find him later in the book.) Miss Waggoner’s parrot has also disappeared; it also spoke, as did Mr. Fentriss’. (I kept thinking as I read it for the first time but parrots don’t stutter; he would have to be taught to do that. Very early on Jupiter also mentions this; I always feel inordinately proud of myself every time I read Jupiter saying this) Eventually, it turns out that the man who taught the birds special speeches had a masterpiece painting in his possession, and each parrot speaks a clue to the location of where he hid it when he realized he was dying–so the boys not only have to find all the parrots to get all the messages, they also have to decipher the clues and find the painting. Eventually they do–while also trying to avoid a flamboyant international art thief and his thugs–in a spooky, abandoned graveyard in the fog. A little bit of luck, and the boys solve the mystery–but despite that piece of luck, the entire case is actually solved by deductions based on the evidence presented thus far, with Jupiter revising his theories whenever new evidence is presented.
I love this series, and the books still make for compelling reading today. Some of the story is dated of course–no cell phones, no computers for research (Bob does all their research at the library, where he works part time), the casual racism of the time–but many of the books still hold up. Hitchcock’s death obviously impacted the series, but I’ve never understood why The Three Investigators never became as popular as–if not more so–than Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. The three boys have distinct personalities–you know Pete will never want to investigate anything complicated, but will inevitably prove how courageous he actually is; Bob is studious and not as easily excitable as Pete, and he’s the one who usually follows Jupiter’s train of thought while Pete always gets confused; and Jupiter himself is a young Sherlock Holmes. Robert Arthur, who wrote the original series up through number 11, The Mystery of the Talking Skull (someone else wrote number 10, The Mystery of the Moaning Cave, which also ironically is the first of the series I actually read). Arthur won two Edgars from Mystery Writers of America for his radio plays; he also ghost edited some of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies I remember from my childhood. The Three Investigators are no longer in print, because of legal disputes between the Arthur estate and Random House about who owns the characters and so forth; it’s a shame. The books are still in print in many different languages–and are especially popular in Germany–where two of the books were actually filmed.
Most of my series books are in storage, but there are some still in the Lost Apartment–and I think when I am too tired to read something new, I may just get down a series book as an homage to my childhood and revisit some of these kids’ series.