Mary Mary

I have always loved strong female characters, having cut my reading teeth on Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Vicki Barr, the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, and Cherry Ames, just to name a few. As an adult reader of mysteries, two of my favorite series are Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series (simply the best) and Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series (also a gem of a series); primarily because I love the characters of Amelia and Meg both so very much. They are both fiercely intelligent women with a very dry sense of humor, and are the kind of strong women that everyone around them comes to depend on for support–and droll wit. The death of Dr. Barbara Mertz (who wrote as Peters AND as Barbara Michaels) ended the Peabody series forever, much to my heartbreak; the Meg Langslow series is going strong still, so I am hopeful that I will have years and years of reading pleasure yet to come from Donna.

And then, last year I discovered Mary Russell.

The envelope slapped down onto the desk ten inches from my much-abused eyes, instantly obscuring the black lines of Hebrew letters that had begun to quiver an hour before. With the shock of the sudden change, my vision stuttered, attempted a valiant rally, then slid into complete rebellion and would not focus at all.

I leant back into my chair with an ill-stifled groan, peeled my wire-rimmed spectacles from my ears and dropped tjem onto the stack of notes, and sat for a long minute with the heels of both hands pressed into my eye sockets.

I was already a fan of Laurie R. King from her brilliant Kate Martinelli series, about a lesbian police detective. (If you’ve not read that series, you need to–it’s one of the best of the last thirty years.) I was reluctant to read the Mary Russell series, as Constant Reader may remember from my previous posts about earlier books in this series; for any number of reasons, but primarily not ever really getting into the Sherlock Holmes/Conan Doyle stories. This shifted and changed when I was asked to contribute a Sherlock story to Narrelle Harris’ The Only One in the World anthology; this required me to go back and do some reading of Doyle, and having worked with Laurie R. King on the MWA board, I decided to give her feminist take on Sherlock a go.

And I have not regretted that decision once.

Mary has stepped up to replace Amelia Peabody as one of my favorite on-going series; I love the character–a strong-minded, fiercely independent woman of no small intelligence who is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Mr. Holmes. Theirs is, despite the age difference, a true partnership of equals; I love that Holmes, in King’s interpretation of him, isn’t quite so misogynistic or incapable of feeling–which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a male-written version. I like King’s Holmes; the strong female character who is his equal was the perfect solution to whatever misogynistic issues I may have had with other interpretations. I also love that Russell is also pursuing a life of the mind; her studies into theology at Oxford are not just asides to add color and flavor to the character but are just as important to whom she is as a character as the love interest/relationship with Holmes. As I also have an amateur’s curiosity into the history of Christianity and how the faith changed and developed throughout the centuries following the New Testament stories…how that was shaped and influenced by men with not the purest of motives…is something I’ve always been interested in.

I think the first book that challenged Christian orthodoxy in a fictional form that I read–the first time I became aware of the possibilities that the BIble wasn’t actually the pure word of God and had been edited and revised repeatedly in the centuries since Christ ostensibly lived, died and was resurrected–was, of all things, a book by Irving Wallace called The Word (Wallace isn’t really remembered much today, but he wrote enormous books of great length that were huge bestsellers, and the subject matter and style of the books was essentially that they were very bery long thrillers: The Prize was about the maneuvering to win a Nobel; The Plot was about an international conspiracy to kill JFK; The Second Lady was about a Soviet plan to kidnap the First Lady and replace her with a lookalike who was a Soviet agent; etc etc etc). The premise of The Word is simply that a new testament, a document hidden away for centuries in a monastery in Greece, claims that not only did Jesus not die on the cross but went on to live for many decades, preaching his own ministry and even visiting Rome. This, of course, is a cataclysmic document–it would change everything everyone had ever known and believed…if it is indeed authentic.

I’ve always loved a good thriller with a base in theology, ever since; and A Letter of Mary is just that, even if more of a mystery than a thriller. The role of Mary Magdalen has been questioned a lot in the last few decades–not the least reason of which is Holy Blood Holy Grail–an interesting concept if one that has been proven to based in a falsehood in the times since (or was THAT part of the Vatican’s plot?)–which inevitably led to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I don’t find the idea that the Magdalen was a beloved disciple of Jesus–and that she may have been his favorite–a reach; likewise, there’s nothing I’ve ever seen in the actual New Testament that essentially says she was a prostitute, a “fallen woman.”

This book begins with Russell despairing over her research only to receive a letter that she and Holmes are going to be receiving a visitor–someone they met during their time in the Holy Land some time earlier–glossed over in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice but apparently explored more deeply in O Jerusalem! The visitor, an older heiress of no small means who is fascinated with archaeology and has been funding digs in the Holy Land, presents the pair with a gift as well as an ancient letter, unauthenticated, which is ostensibly a letter from Mary Magdalen some years after the death of Christ, written to a sister as the city of Jerusalem falls under seige by the Romans during the Jewish Wars, around 70 AD, that saw the sack of the city and the start of the diaspora; which makes it very clear that, if authentic, the Magdalen was one of the disciples and heavily involved in the ministry of the Christian church. Their guest returns to London, and is killed when she is stuck by a car the following day. Holmes and Russell sniff around the crime scene and find evidence that the old woman was murdered…but by whom? Why? Is this about the letter from Mary?

King always tells a great story–you never can go wrong with one of her books, really–and the characters are so well-defined, so real, that even if she didn’t tell a great story, you want to read about those characters more, get to know them better, and cheer them on to their successes and sympathize with their failures. Her writing style is also a joy to read; the Mary Russell voice is so different and so clearly distinct from Kate Martinelli that you can’t not marvel at her mastery.

The next book in the series is The Moor, and I am really looking forward to it.

We All Stand

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.

1963

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.

5 8 6

And now it’s Thursday.

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 Clue in 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!

Spooky

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.

The Last Great American Dynasty

SUNDAY!

Finally, last night I got a great night’s sleep. I was falling asleep in my easy chair before I went up to bed, and within moments, was in a deep, wonderfully restful sleep. I don’t even think I woke up during the night once–if I did, I fell back asleep immediately–and I woke completely up this morning, without any fog or haziness or anything. This is a very good thing, frankly. I’ve been tired now for going on two weeks, and it’s so nice to feel rested again.

We’re having a cold spell down here in New Orleans; I am wearing a T-shirt beneath my sweatshirt and have on tights; I also have my space heater going (my hands are cold, though) and I have a stocking cap on. It’s gray outside the windows this morning, the sky hidden behind white cotton. Today I have get things done, so I am very happy to feel so rested. At some point I have to walk to the gym; I need to work on my short story some more, and of course, there’s organizing and so forth to do this morning. My goal is to work on getting organized this morning and do whatever superficial spot cleaning needs to be done–what would be called a “lick-and-a-promise” in one of the Trixie Belden books referencing her house cleaning chores–, a=go the gym, and then come home and work on my story and get started on the reread of the manuscript of #shedeservedit. I also want to get some reading done, which I will probably get done during the Saints game. I also have a blog entry to write, which I might try to get knocked out of the way this morning–I just haven’t been able to write anything at all since the sack of the Capitol.

I’ve also discovered this week the allure and temptations of Twitter. Being able to @ someone–whether a newscaster, a politician, etc.–directly is a potent and heady brew, even though you know, as you send the tweet, they probably have their account limited to only seeing things that people they follow tweet, or something like that. I may have succumbed to the temptation to rage-tweet at human feces on two legs Betsy DeVos the other day, and may have called her a “suppurating syphilis sore on the face of democracy.” My usual rule with Twitter is to stop myself from tweeting if I’ve written an angry response to someone and delete the tweet before sending it…but I’ve not been deleting the tweets since the terrorist attack on Washington. But I need to scale that back dramatically and go back to using Twitter as I have always used it–to communicate and joke around with friends and colleagues. I find myself on Twitter a lot more these days than I do on Facebook–primarily because the new Facebook is useless, hard to navigate, and over all, the design is not pleasing to mine eyes; it looks like a shittier Twitter, frankly, and so I don’t spend nearly as much time there as I used to–and I’ve also discovered, other than a few things, I also don’t miss it nearly as much as I would have thought I would.

Which is interesting in and of itself.

I should, though, have known that I wouldn’t be able to dive into writing or editing something new immediately upon completion of the latest book; while my creativity continues to burn for new ideas and new interests, the actual wiring part that enables me to write burns at a very low ebb for a week or so after I finish something major; like I have to wait for that flame to replenish and reignite for a bit before I can go. Not being able to sleep well since New Year’s has been a part of that problem; it’s hard to replenish and restore and reload when you’re tired all the time, but I feel surprisingly able to get to it today. All it took was the restfulness of a good night’s sleep–something I need to remember going forward (like I ever do; like I never remember how much I enjoy working out until I’m doing it or how much I actually enjoy writing until I force myself to do it).

One of the greatest ironies of my life has always been that I have to force myself to do things I actually enjoy.

But there’s also a three day weekend looming on the horizon; next weekend is the holiday commemorating Dr. King’s life and legacy, so that will be lovely and hopefully, restful. I am hoping for a rather low-key week, to be completely honest–although I know the national news will be a tempting distraction, all the way through January 20th, and I don’t know that I will completely relax until we officially have a new president and the cancer that has been metabolizing in our country for the last four years is neatly and finally excised (I know, it’s longer than that, but we allowed the cancer to take control, and rage out of control, for the last four years). I also am not sure the political class knows how angry most Americans are right now–and how unified those of us on the left are with the moderates and the small percentage of the right that put country first; I saw a poll yesterday showing that 88% of people polled disapprove strongly of what happened last Wednesday (as the participants are slowly but surely finding out, as the arrests grow, they lose their jobs and businesses they own are being boycotted, and they are being shamed off social media). The only people who aren’t uniting against this disgrace are the treasonous traitorous trash who were a party to it–and they need to be made a lesson of as a deterrent; don’t think for a minute they won’t try again, and they may try again very soon.

Living through a Constitutional crisis is really not a lot of fun.

And on that note, I am putting on my helmet and heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader, and stay warm.

The Other Side of the Door

Friday and I am taking the day off from the day job. Yes, I know it was a short week already and I should probably save the vacation day for sometime later in the year when it would really come in handy, but this was a rough week for me and I feel entitled to take a mental healing day, so sue me, okay?

The Lost Apartment is, as always, a disheveled hovel that looks like two college-age males live here, and that always plays a part into my emotional stability. I am not sure why that is, but I simply cannot abide clutter and dust and dirty windows–being raised, no doubt, by a woman who made Joan Crawford look slovenly probably has something to do with it–and it always weighs on my mental stability, which is always tenuous at best. I had hoped to do something about that over Labor Day weekend, and while progress of a sort was definitely made, not enough to really make a difference; rather, it was more like a lick-and-a-promise; a mere surface touching that simply kept it from looking like a condemned property. But the heat has been so horrifically intense this year that doing anything in the kitchen/laundry room is misery, let alone going outside and climbing a ladder to clean the windows. But….if I get up early one morning, it should still be cool enough to be bearable.

Right?

One can dream, at any rate.

This morning is probably the morning I should have done the windows, ironically. It’s not terribly sunny this morning, and it doesn’t feel particularly hot here in the Lost Apartment, either. There are an insane amount of tropical systems being tracked by the Hurricane Center; I’ve seen reports ranging from four to seven; and there’s a low pressure system just off the coast here in the Gulf that apparently is going to bury us with rain even if it doesn’t develop into anything stronger. I also allowed myself to sleep in this morning–note to self: set alarm for tomorrow–and it felt terrific to get rest again. I’ve already started a load of the bed linens, and when I finish this I am going to start filing in an attempt to get the office under control. Today is my day to clean and start working through all the emails that have accumulated; and later this afternoon I will try to get some writing done. I’m also going to read a couple of short stories today, rather than diving into Babylon Berlin; I don’t want to risk getting sucked into it, which I suspect will happen. I’m also reading–and savoring–Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, which is another of his American Empire series; I’ve already read Century–and I’ve always enjoyed Vidal’s work whenever I can bring myself to read it. He has a very distinct writing style that I enjoy, but I also don’t think I would have particularly liked Vidal had we ever met; he seemed like a difficult person, and an intellectual snob–and there are few character traits I despise more than snobbery of any kind. But he was incredibly smart, and a talented writer; I know I’ve enjoyed everything of his that I’ve read–and would, and probably should, like to revisit both The City and the Pillar and Myra Breckinridge again. (I would imagine Myra Breckinridge would not fly today…) I also find some of my reading choices this year thus far, looking back, to be…interesting. I’ve read a lot of plague literature, obviously, and now I seem to be gravitating to Civil War narratives. Curious.

Yes, I just got a local “tropical advisory” alert, and it looks like we’re going to get hit with a lot of heavy rain Tuesday and Wednesday. Huzzah. Of course, I love rain–it’s the risk to my car from street flooding I don’t like very much. I mean, there’s nothing more comforting than sleeping, all warm and dry, inside when it’s pouring outside, is there? I’ve always loved that warm and dry feeling when it’s raining outside, even if I am simply inside a car driving through a storm. (It always reminds me of the Trixie Belden volume The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island, which opens with Trixie and the Bob-Whites being driven by Miss Trask through a storm to a ferry to the island, and I think Trixie says something about that safe, warm feeling during storms, and it’s always stuck in my head as the perfect way to sum up why I love thunderstorms and downpours. And yes, so many things in my life inevitably lead back to the mystery series for kids I read as a child.)

Wednesday is also a work at home day for me, so I can just stay home and watch and listen to the rain while making condom packs and continuing my Cynical 70s Film Festival, which I think may move onto Chinatown and Don’t Look Now. I’ve already seen both of those, but as a lot of the films I am including in this “film festival” could also be considered crime/neo-noir, it only makes sense to rewatch both with an eye to the cynicism of the 1970’s as well as to the neo-noir aspects of both (in all honesty, I’m not really sure what the definition of neo-noir actually is; just as there’s no definition for noir, there really isn’t one for neo-noir, either; I suspect it’s because the classic films noir were black and white films and later noirs were filmed in color. I could be wrong, but that’s my takeaway). Don’t Look Now, is, of course, one of my favorite short stories of all time; and the film is extraordinary.

I’m also rather curious to see this new Netflix adaptation of du Maurier’s Rebecca. Constant Reader knows how much I love me some Daphne du Maurier; and of course, Rebecca is right up there as one of my favorite novels (the original Hitchcock film version is also one of my favorite films of all time; it’s why I generally have avoided remakes and the dreadful sequels to the original novel). Armie Hammer wouldn’t have been my choice to play Maxim de Winter, but the female casting–particularly Kristen Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers–is rather intriguing to me. I’ve always seen Mrs. Danvers clearly in my head as Judith Anderson–her performance was so definitive–that it’s hard for me to see anyone else in the role. Hammer is no Olivier, really, and I honestly think that if I were to recast the film currently I would have gone for Kenneth Branagh as Maxim, Saoirse Ronan as his second wife, and probably either Emma Thompson or Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mrs. Danvers…I’ve also always wondered, whatever happened to Mr. Danvers?

Just like I’ve always wanted to delve into the psyche of Veda Pierce.

I kind of want to reread Mildred Pierce and Rebecca now. Sigh.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me.

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.

Was It Worth It?

I’ve always been a reader; my earliest (and most of the happiest) memories of my early years is of reading books that I deeply loved. I think it was the 4th grade where I really began to read series books of mysteries for kids; I’m not sure which was the first one, but it was either The Three Investigators’ The Mystery of the Moaning Cave or Trixie Belden’s The Read Trailer Mystery. When I discovered Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and the rest, I decided I not only wanted to be a writer when I grew up but wanted to write a similar type series. I wrote my very first “book” in the fifth grade, called The Mystery of the Haunted Mansion, and of course it was really derivative and more of a pastiche; I don’t remember the name of my main character, but I had a friend type it up for me, and then I bound it inside cardboard and drew a cover for it (which I still remember; it was basically a rip off of the original cover for Nancy Drew’s The Ghost of Blackwood Hall). The concept of a mystery series for kids has never really left me, and always periodically came up again throughout my life…until I actually started writing seriously. About fourteen years ago I thought about it again; going so far as to actually come up with a series character…and it came up again in conversation with a friend who actually writes middle grade the other day (That Bitch Ford, to be exact) and the idea has continued to swirl in my head ever since. Yesterday morning, I went through my horribly disorganized file cabinet, looking for the file folder labeled KIDS’ SERIES and took it out of the file. Inside are yellowed pages of book synopses, lists of possible titles, characters, different series…and as I paged through it, I also found traces of things that eventually showed up in my work since I actually became a published writer: the name of a town, character names, etc.

But I moved the file from the cabinet and put it in my inbox; at some point, perhaps this weekend, I’ll start going through it and seeing what might actually be of use to me. It’s not something I’m going to work on now–heavens no, there’s still too much else I have to write that I am already behind on–but it’s something to think about for the future, for sure.

And as I glanced over some of the titles, some of them were clearly “inspired/influenced” by Scooby Doo Where Are You and Jonny Quest. One–The Mystery of the Galloping Ghost–may have even been used in the Ken Holt series; I’d have to check to be certain, but I definitely think so. (And yes, I know titles cannot be copyrighted; both Ken Holt and The Three Investigators uncovered The Secret of Skeleton Island, for example) And I literally just watched the Jonny Quest episode with the gargoyle last week (on my list of titles is The Mystery of the Stone Gargoyle), and there’s also one called The Mystery of the Lost Crusade–I have thought, for many years, about writing a Colin stand alone called The Lost Crusade–and now I see that I had come up with that very title at least fifteen years earlier, before it swam up to my consciousness again. And surely The Witch of the Swamp was inspired by a Scooby Doo Where Are You episode I rewatched lately, about a witch in a swamp. And there’s The Mystery of the Crying Nun–I currently have a short story in progress called “The Crying Nun” (it’s a New Orleans ghost story). And The Mystery of the Haunted Airport was definitely a rip-off of a Scooby gang adventure.

There’s even detailed character descriptions, and plot summaries for more than ten of the “books.”

Something worth exploring, since I have nothing else to do.

We watched another episode of Dark last night, and boy, you have to hand it to the Germans when it comes to atmosphere and creepiness. They are slowly but surely explaining what is actually going on in this little German town–we’re only two episodes in–and the lovely thing is it’s most likely, based on last night’s episode, nothing we were thinking it was going to be. I love shows that surprise you like this; Orphan Black was really good at this, and I love having no idea where the story is going or what could possibly happen next. Those shows inevitably end up being my favorites to watch.

I slept very well again last night, and am working from home today with a lot of things to get done for the day job as well as a lot of things to get done for various things this weekend–both writing wise and volunteer wise–and I also have to make groceries at some point this weekend as well. The summer weather has finally kicked into it’s usual high gear–I don’t know why it always blindsides me every year, but there you have it–and so going out into the heat to do anything is always an energy-suck and exhausting. I also want to get deeper into my reading of Kelly Ford’s wonderful Cottonmouths–I’m not sure why I am having so much trouble focusing on reading this summer, but there it is–and think next will be a reread of Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree. I’m also going to spend some time culling the books again this weekend, even though there’s no place for me to take them to donate because of the pandemic. I also need to take some bags of beads to the donation drop for those as well–which will also be a lot of fun in the heat, yay–but it’s just clutter, you know.

And the thing is I want to declutter, and it’s not like we’ll go the rest of our lives never getting more beads. Catching them is more fun than keeping them, anyway.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines.

The Calm Before the Storm

Alfred Hitchcock was a great film director, and was responsible for some of the best movies ever made, from Rebecca through Notorious through North by Northwest to Vertigo to Strangers on a Train to The Birds to Psycho; the list of great Hitchcock films goes on and on and on and has been studied by film academics and written about; you certainly cannot forget Truffaut/Hitchcock, either. Lost in the discussions of his abilities as a filmmaker (and how he was somewhat abusive to his leading ladies) is his contributions to the culture in other ways. Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran for years; an anthology show like The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone, he presented bizarre stories (often based on short fiction; perhaps the most famous episode of all was based on a Roald Dahl short story in which a wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, which she then cooks and serves to the investigating police officers) on a weekly basis and the show ran for a long time. (It’s available to stream now, and I keep meaning to dive back into the show.

But Hitchcock also was a master, before it was a thing, of licensing his name out for use; his name meant something as a master director of film suspense, and in addition to the television series there were also anthologies, also published under the aegis of Alfred Hitchcock Presents–my grandmother used to buy and read them; so did my parents–and even today one of the best short story markets for crime is Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. There were anthologies for adults, anthologies for teens and anthologies for kids.

And there was also The Three Investigators.

3 investigators 1

Bob Andrews parked his bike outside his home in Rocky Beach and entered the house. As he closed the door, his mother called to him from the kitchen.

“Robert? Is that you?”

“Yes, Mom.” He went to the kitchen door. His mother, brown-haired and slender, was making doughnuts.

“How was the library?” she asked.

“It was okay,” Bob told her. After all, there was never any excitement at the library. He worked there part time, sorting returned books and helping with the filing and cataloguing.

“Your friend Jupiter called.” His mother went on rolling out the dough on the board. “He left a message for you.”

“A message?” Bob yelled with sudden excitement. “What was it?”

“I wrote it down. I’ll get it out of my pocket as soon as I finish with this dough.”

“Can’t you remember what he said? He may need me!”

“I could remember an ordinary message,” his other answered, “but Jupiter doesn’t leave ordinary messages. It was something fantastic.”

“Jupiter likes unusual words,” Bob said, controlling his impatience. “He’s read an awful lot of books and sometimes he’s a little hard to understand.”

“Not just sometimes!” his mother retorted. “He’s a very unusual boy. My goodness, how he found my engagement ring, I’ll never know.”

She was referring to the time the previous fall when she had lost her diamond ring. Jupiter Jones had come to the house and requested her to tell him every move she had made the day the ring was lost. Then he had gone out to the pantry, reached up, and picked the ring from behind a row of bottle tomato pickles. Bob’s mother had taken it off and put it there while she was sterilizing the jars.

“I can’t imagine,” Mrs. Andrews said, “how he guessed where that ring was!”

“He didn’t guess, he figured it out,” Bob explained. “That’s how his mind works…Mom, can’t you get the message now?”

“In one minute,” his mother said, giving the dough another flattening roll. “Incidentally, what on earth was that story on the front of yesterday’s paper about Jupiter’s winning the use of a Rolls-Royce sedan for thirty days?”

And that is how The Three Investigators series (technically, in the beginning  “ALFRED HITCHCOCK and the Three Investigators”) began. While it’s not as smooth, per se, as the opening of the Trixie Belden series in The Secret of the Mansion, this is also a dramatically different series, and will always have a place in my heart as one of the best series for kids–if not the best–ever published. It never reached the same heights of popularity as Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys; which was a shame, because it was a much better series than either of those. For one thing, the Three Investigators actually considered themselves to be professional detectives; Nancy and the Hardys, amongst with most of the others, were strictly amateurs (although in the Kathryn Kenny books, “the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency” became kind of a running gag or thing; it was what Trixie and Honey decided they wanted to be when they grew up; and frankly, I’ve always kind of wanted to see a Trixie-as-an-adult hard-boiled series). And while this opening is a little longish about getting to the point, it eventually does; Bob is a highly excitable young man who works at the library, and this is also our first look at Jupiter Jones, and one of the best things about the series is Jupiter; he is the central character and there would be no Three Investigators without him–and he is one of the most remarkable, and original, characters in kids’ mystery series fiction.

I always thought of Rocky Beach as a sort of stand-on for Long Beach in this series; this is where the boys live, and it’s just south of Los Angeles and a drive to Hollywood. This is where the three boys who make up the titular team of the series live; the third investigator, whom we have yet to meet in this opening, is Pete Crenshaw. And that bit about the contest and the Rolls-Royce? It’s very important. Access to a vehicle, and someone to drive them around, is an integral part of the creation of this investigative agency; they can’t always count on getting rides or paying for cabs or only involving themselves in cases they can investigate on bikes; this is the impetus Jupiter has been looking for to open the agency. Jupiter’s message to Bob is impenetrable to his mother; but it makes perfect sense to Bob–and therein lies another one of the great charms of this series: Jupiter lives with his uncle Titus and aunt Mathilda; the couple own and operate the Jones Salvage Yard, a sprawling junkyard where they repurpose other’s people things, or fix them. Jupiter himself is quite adept at wiring and repairing things; just one, as we the readers will find out, of his many skills. Hidden deep within the salvage yard is the wreck of a mobile home, which the boys use as “headquarters”; over the years Jupiter has managed to hide the mobile home behind piles of junk. The yard is also surrounded by an enormous, tall wooden fence, and Uncle Titus has encouraged local artists to paint murals on the fence. With the help of Bob and Pete, Jupiter has created “secret entrances” into the salvage yard, with tunnels through the piled up junk; that way the boys can come and go as they please without having to use the main entrance. They also have a covered workshop in another area hidden from view; Jupiter’s message to Bob is simply Red gate rover, come over come over, the presses are rolling. Bob knows this means,  come to headquarters, use red gate Rover, and we’re printing our business cards. 

“Red Gate Rover” means use the entrance through the fence that is a mural of a team of firefighters fighting an enormous blaze; there’s a dog watching them, and the knothole in the dog’s eye will spring the hidden gate open. And sure enough, once he gets there, the printing press is rolling and Jupiter presents him with a card, that reads:

THE THREE INVESTIGATORS

We Investigate Anything

? ? ?

–and also has their names. Jupiter is, naturally, the first investigator with Pete as second; Bob is Records & Research, since he works in the library and is their best writer; it is his job to write up their cases. As such, and with an understanding that all cases also need to be introduced as well as get sufficient publicity for their agency to get clients, Jupiter has decided on two things: to ask Alfred Hitchcock to introduce their cases, and offer to help find him a truly haunted house, as he is looking for one for his next film. Using the Rolls-Royce, driven by a very proper British chauffeur named Worthington, Jupiter and Pete call on Mr. Hitchcock at the studio. (The Rolls-Royce, by the way, has every luxurious amenity available to a limousine in that time; and is gold-plated, which sticks out. It was originally commissioned by a Saudi oil millionaire.) They bluff their way in–partly because Jupiter pretends to be Hitchcock’s nephew, even arranging his face to imitate his expressions and voice and patterns of speech–but Hitchcock isn’t that interested in introducing their cases, but has no worries about them looking for a haunted house for him. (While they are calling on Hitchcock, Bob has gone to the library to research something–Jupiter writes the words Terror Castle on the back of one of their business cards and offered no explanation.) But when Jupiter does his impression of “Hitchcock as a 13 year old”, Hitchcock is offended and promises to introduce the first case as long as Jupiter will never do the impression again (and, it is to be noted, the introduction and afterward, as supposedly written by Hitchcock, is clearly done so grudgingly; this was a genius touch by author Robert Arthur–and over the course of the series Hitchcock not only grows fond of the boys but starts sending clients their way).

The thing I loved perhaps the most about this series (outside of the wonderful titles for the books) was they actually were investigators. They actually solved the mysteries they were investigating–well, Jupiter did, mostly–through observation and interpretation of data. Jupiter was, in many ways, kind of a young Sherlock–and he often referred to Holmes. Another thing that was very clever about the series is that the stories were rarely, if ever, told from Jupiter’s point of view; Bob and Pete were always the point-of-view characters, representing the reader, who also couldn’t figure out what was going on. Since it mattered for suspense and storytelling to not know what Jupiter was thinking, Bob and Pete stood in for the reader, confused by the cryptic things Jupiter said–or casually observing Jupiter noticing something that didn’t make sense.

Another thing that, in my opinion, makes the series stronger than others is it is made, very plain, from the very beginning that fat-shaming is a bad thing. Jupiter is described as stocky or husky; he deeply resents being called fat, and whenever someone cruelly makes such an observation, both Pete and Bob always get angry and jump to his defense (Jupiter was also a child star, playing Baby Fatso in a Little Rascals type television show; his being a fat child made him the butt of the jokes in the show and he DESPISES being laughed at)–compare that to how Bess is frequently mocked for being hungry and chubby in the Nancy Drew books, or the depiction of the Hardy Boys’ supposed best friend Chet Morton as an always-hungry, overweight comic relief and foil they always laugh at–yeah, not cool, Stratemeyer Syndicate, not cool at all.

The first Three Investigators story I read was The Mystery of the Moaning Cave. We were in Alabama one summer, and staying with a cousin of my mother’s who had a son my age who also loved to read, and loved mysteries. He had a stack of library books, and I picked up my very first Hardy Boys read, The Mystery of Cabin Island, out of the stack. I was two chapters in when he finished reading his book (The Mystery of the Moaning Cave) and asked me to swap books with him. I was enjoying the Hardy Boys, but the cover of the Three Investigators book he was offering me was tantalizing, plus that title! How could a cave moan? I started reading, and was soon swept up in the story–which remains, to this day, one of my favorites in the series. It reminded me of another book I greatly loved as a child, The Mystery of the Haunted Mine, but the problem was my library didn’t have any of these books, and I could never find more of them anywhere. In junior high a friend of mine was a fan of the series, which led me to reread The Mystery of the Moaning Cave, which I loved all over again, and then its predecessor, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock, which was also amazing. I eventually discovered, on a birthday trip to Toys R Us, an entire shelf of the books; I got five–The Secret of Terror Castle, The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, The Secret of Skeleton Island, The Mystery of the Laughing Shadow, and The Mystery of the  Coughing Dragon. 

I honestly don’t recall how I was able to collect the rest of the series, or where I got them or what order in which I read them, but I did eventually read the entire series. Later, the series moved on to other authors other than Robert Arthur and the quality became more hit-and-miss, but even the worst Three Investigators case was better than the best books in other series. I still love the Three Investigators, and occasionally will take one down to reread it, again marveling at how well constructed the books are; how tight the plots and how strong the characterizations. I also loved how something small and simple, like the search for an escaped parrot (The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot) would lead to a massively complicated and interesting case about a massive art theft, or the search for a missing cat with mismatched eyes turned into The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, or a near car crash led them to a small European principality and international espionage in The Mystery of the Silver Spider. Their cases inevitably started small, but eventually grew into something major; like they grabbed onto a loose, seemingly unimportant thread that unraveled a much larger case.

One thing that always amused me was how adults rarely, if ever, took them seriously. Jupiter’s aunt and uncle, and the parents of Pete and Bob, always looked at their “firm” as a “little mystery-solving club”. Inevitably the adults who pooh-poohed their abilities had to eat their words. I also loved that Jupiter wasn’t athletic but was smart. I identified with that a lot more than I did with the Hardy Boys, who were literally good at everything they tried.

The death of Alfred Hitchcock was an enormous blow, and the publisher–Random House, I believe–introduced a mystery writer for a while to replace Hitchcock, but the quality was already starting to decline, and eventually even the fictitious mystery writer, Robert Sylvester, was replaced by another fictitious entity; but the book in which the switch was made didn’t avoid the truth of Hitchcock’s death, and they actually handled it very well.

And some of the earlier books are seriously dated now; The Secret of Terror Castle centered on the home of a silent film horror star whose career was derailed by his speaking voice when talkies came; obviously, that would have happened around ninety years ago now, so there wouldn’t be any contemporaries still alive. Likewise, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock centered on someone who was a sound effects expert for radio suspense shows–which would, at best, have been seventy years ago now.

I’ve never believed this series was as popular as it deserved to be, nor did it get the attention it truly deserved. The books have been out of print for awhile now–maybe you can get used copies, there may even be ebooks now, I don’t know–but they should still be available. I would love to write one of these, to be honest.

They were the shit, y’all.