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.

Who’s That Girl

Ah, Trixie Belden.

Not as well known or as beloved as Nancy Drew, I always kind of preferred Trixie to Nancy; and not just because she was kind of an underdog in comparison. No other kids’ series was/is as popular as Nancy Drew; even the Hardy Boys can’t compare to Nancy’s popularity.

But…I liked Trixie more than I liked Nancy. Sometimes Nancy seemed insufferable; and in all fairness to Nancy, that was more a result of the “new” Nancy that resulted from the revisions of the original texts, beginning in 1959, and this “new” Nancy appeared in the newer books as they were released as well. This Nancy was too perfect; she was good at everything, she was nice and polite, she was such a goody-two-shoes I was amazed Bess and George could stand her–although they weren’t much better. The Nancy of the original texts had more of a personality; she was a goody-two-shoes, to be sure, but she also had a lot of self-confidence and self-assurance, and she was a good person who enjoyed helping people. But when the books were revised–and this new Nancy became the Nancy of record for all new books, going forward–they basically took all of her personality away and left a one-dimensional cardboard cutout. I didn’t give up on the series, by any means, but..new Nancy was someone I wouldn’t have liked in real life.

Trixie Belden, on the other hand…seemed like a real person, or at least she did at first. Like Nancy, there was a definite turning point in her behavior in the series which happened when the original writer–Julie Campbell–stepped aside and was replaced by a bunch of ghostwriters using the pen name Kathryn Kenny. (Julie Campbell, by the way, also wrote some of the Cherry Ames ad Vicki Barr series, using the name Julie Tatham.) Trixie lost her temper, was fidgety, was a tomboy with no use for girly things, and hated doing her chores–to the point where sometimes she hurried through them so quickly she kind of did a shitty job. But she was at heart a nice kid, and regularly felt bad when she had misbehaved and tried to make up for it after the fact. She also sometimes blurted things out that hurt other people’s feelings–immediately feeling horrible about it–and these were all things, aspects of her personality, that made her relatable–as opposed to perfect paragon of virtue Nancy Drew, who was so emotionless she might as well have been a Stepford wife.

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“Oh, Moms,” Trixie moaned, running her hands through her short, sandy curls. “I’ll just die if I don’t have a horse.”

Mrs. Belden looked up from the row of tomato plants she was transplanting in the fenced-in vegetable garden.

“Trixie,” she said, trying to look stern, “if you died as many times as you thought you were going to, you’d have to be a cat with nine lives to be with us for one day.”

“I don’t care!” Tears of indignation welled up in Trixie’s round blue eyes. She scooped up a fat little worm, watched it wriggle in the palm of her hand for a minute, then gently let it go. “With Brian and Mart at camp this summer, I’ll die of boredom. I mean it, Moms.”

Mrs. Belden sighed. “You declared you’d suffer the same fate if we didn’t buy you a bike three years ago. Remember?” She stood up, frowning in the glare of the hot July sun. “Now, listen, Trixie, once and for all. If you want to buy a horse like the one you fell in love with at the horse show yesterday, you will have to earn the money yourself. You know perfectly well the only reason your brothers could go to camp is because they are working as junior counselors.”

Crabapple Farm, Trixie reflected, was really a grand place to live, and she had always had a lot of fun there, but she did wish there was another girl in the neighborhood. The big estate, known as the Manor House, which bounded the Belden property on the west had been vacant ever since Trixie could remember. There were no other homes nearby except the crumbling mansion on the eastern hill, where queer old Mr. Frayne lived.

The three estates faced a quiet country road two miles from the village of Sleepyside that nestled among the rolling hills on the east bank of the Hudson River. Trixie’s father worked in the bank in Sleepyside, and Trixie and her brothers went to the village school. She had many friends in Sleepyside, but she rarely saw them except when school was in session. Now that her brothers, Brian and Mart, had gone to camp, there was nobody but her little brother, Bobby, to play with.

Trixie impatiently kicked a hole in the dust of the path with her shoe.

“It’s not fair. You wouldn’t let me try for a job as a waitress or anything. Maybe I could have gone, too.”

“You’re only thirteen,” her mother said patiently. “Next year we might consider something of the sort. Dad and I are really sorry, dear,” she added  gently, “that we couldn’t afford to send you to camp this year.”

Trixie suddenly felt ashamed of herself, and she impulsively threw her arms around her mother. “Oh, I know, Moms, and I’m a pest to nag at you. I won’t any more, I promise.”

As I said, I greatly enjoyed the Trixie Belden series when I was a kid, and while some of the later volumes were also quite good, it was also very clear that the first six–the Julie Campbell written ones–were clearly written by someone other than those who continued the series, and were also vastly superior in terms of character, plot, setting and the writing, frankly. Just this opening of the first book in the series, The Secret of the Mansion, was quite excellent; look at everything that is set up in those first paragraphs and in the dialogue between mother and daughter: you can tell there’s deep affection there; we establish that Trixie has three brothers, two of whom are spending the summer working as junior counselors at camp; Trixie is prone to being overly dramatic; her father works at the bank and her mother likes to garden and grow her own vegetables; they live near a small town on the east bank of the Hudson River; they only have two other homes nearby–the empty Manor House and across to the road from that one is the Mansion, where a creepy old man lives (I doubt the author was using the word queer in the modern sense here; more likely the old definition, “odd.”).

That’s a lot of background and character work, yet it feels organic and not in the least like the bane of all writers, the infamous “info dump.” Soon, Trixie’s mom agrees to pay Trixie five dollars a week with help around the house and garden and sometimes watching her six year old brother, Bobby, and that way she can save money to buy her horse. Shortly after this, Trixie notices moving trucks arriving at the Manor House–her mother has forgotten to tell her that the wealthy Wheelers have bought the place and are moving in–and they have horses. Trixie grabs Bobby and they take off to meet the new neighbors, where she meets her soon-to-be best friend, Honey, who is sickly and ridiculously well-mannered and pale, along with some of the other staff–including Miss Trask, Honey’s governess, and Regan the groom.

The Secret of the Mansion was probably one of the best first novels of a kids’ series ever published. Not only did it introduce us to the Belden family, it did so slowly–we wouldn’t meet the other two members of the family until the third book, when Mart and Brian returned from camp in The Gatehouse Mystery–and we also met the boy who would become the other important tentpole of the series: red-headed Jim Frayne, crazy old Mr. Frayne’s grand-nephew, whose mother had died leaving him at the mercy of a horrible and abusive stepfather, Jonesy. Jim ran away and came to find his great-uncle, only to find out that he’d been hospitalized and in a coma. There was also some depth to the stories, as well–poor old Mr. Frayne’s wife had been bitten by a copperhead snake, he was rushing her to the hospital and their car broke down, and she died waiting for him to get help; the old man went mad with grief, left the car where it was broken down and would never allow another car on his property. The house also began to crumble and get in pretty bad shape–he supposedly had a lot of money, most of which most people assumed was hidden in his messy mansion (old Mr. Frayne was a hoarder). Trixie and Honey are trying to help Jim–Trixie is sure there is money secreted in the house–and eventually, Jonesy shows up after Mr. Frayne dies in the hospital, and Jim runs away again–leaving a note for Trixie and Honey. The old house also catches fire in the night and burns to the ground the night Jim runs away–there’s a lot of action and excitement in the book, including Trixie saving her brother’s life when  he, too, is bitten by a copperhead–and again, character development, as Honey becomes more and more outdoorsy and healthy and more like Trixie, and the two girls become more bonded in their friendship. The book also sets up the sequel, The Red Trailer Mystery, (which was actually the first book in the series I read)–in which the girls and Miss Trask hit the road to go looking for Jim–who actually inherited the small fortune Mr. Frayne had left behind, safely invested. They do find him–and solve another mystery–and it turned out that Jim’s long-deceased father was a college friend of Honey’s father, so the Wheelers adopt Jim, writing a lovely end to the story of the runaway red-headed boy with nothing.

As I mentioned earlier, there was a noticeable shift in tone, continuity, and who Trixie was as a character with the switch in authors, from one author writing under her own name (I believe her name was actually Julie Tatham Campbell, or the other way around). The last two books she wrote, Mystery off Glen Road and Mystery in Arizona, were kind of light on the mystery and stronger on the development of the characters and their friendships/relationships with each other. With the invention of “Kathryn Kenny” as a pseudonym to make other authors,  the books became more heavy on the mysteries and the new authors didn’t care so much about continuity or the established history of the characters: Trixie became more “girly” than tomboy-ish, for one thing, and they started playing up the “boyfriend/girlfriend” dynamic between, not only Trixie and Jim, but Honey and Brian Belden, as well as Mart with Diana Lynch (who was first mentioned in The Red Trailer Mystery, and joined their club, the Bob-Whites of the Glen, after being the central focus of The Mysterious Visitor). They added yet another member to their group, Dan Mangan, Regan’s nephew, in The Black Jacket Mystery–although the core group of five appeared in every book, Diana and Dan often got left out of their future adventures, begging the question of why were they added into the group in the first place? Some of the later books were good, fun mysteries–The Marshland Mystery, The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island, Mystery of the Emeralds, The Mystery of the Missing Heiress–but that core strength from the characterizations in the initial six books was missing from the rest, and as the series continued beyond those first sixteen (a long period of time passed before “Kathryn Kenny” started writing again) the stories and characters grew weaker, which was a shame.

The series gradually evolved from a “how to start a mystery series for kids” primer to “how to ruin a mystery series for kids” primer, which is a shame. I’d match those first four volumes against the first four volumes of any other kids’ mystery series and Trixie would, almost without exception, win, hands down. She was never as popular as Nancy Drew–no one was–but I always thought Trixie and her friends, having fun and adventures in the Hudson valley north of New York City and in the lower Catskills, would have made a fun television series for kids.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Trixie….and The Secret of the Mansion remains one of the best mysteries for kids ever published.

If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got The Time

One of the things I find fascinating about many people is their dedication to nostalgia; their insistence that some past time of their life was somehow this incredibly magical time of innocence (which it could conceivably have been); a utopia paradise of some sort where everything was right with the world and everyone was so happy and–you get the picture. It’s like how people glowingly refer to high school as one of the “best times of their lives” (which, frankly, is terribly sad and tells me more about their present circumstances than I’d care to know); the past wasn’t magic and neither were our childhoods. If they mean I liked life better before I knew how awful it can be, that I can understand–and I do think that is what they actually mean, even if it isn’t what they are actually saying: they preferred life when the bills and putting food on the table was someone else’s responsibility; when the biggest worries were who will I go to the Homecoming dance with and I have to study for that History test and so forth. But my teenaged years weren’t halcyon and rosy. The 1970’s was a very strange decade of reaction to the 1960’s–and for a queer kid, first trapped in a middle to upper middle class suburb of Chicago and then a small rural town in Kansas, it was hard. I’ve no desire to ever relive high school or go back to being a teenager. Sure, it might be easier to be a queer teen  in a Chicago suburb now–but I suspect it’s not that different in a rural high school in Kansas now than it was forty years ago.

Reading was always my escape from the pressures of a world into which I really didn’t fit–and one that from my earliest memories as a child I knew I didn’t belong in. Reading was a godsend for me, and I read ravenously. I was always being told to go outside and play instead of reading; the most effective punishments were the ones either prohibiting me from reading or limiting how much I could read, and the earliest signs of my obsessive/compulsive disorder were evident with my discovery of the mystery series for kids, which was the next gradual move for me as a reader from the Scholastic Book Fair mysteries. My goal has always been to finish collecting all the series I read and collected as a child: the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls, The Three Investigators and Trixie Belden, as well as the lesser known ones like Biff Brewster, Ken Holt (over whom I had a weird bonding moment with James Ellroy), Rick Brant, Vicki Barr, Judy Bolton, Cherry Ames, Kay Tracey, and Connie Blair. (I also collected the Chip Hilton sports series.) I still have the copies I had as a child, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I discovered eBay and tried to finish collecting the series. I don’t have room in the Lost Apartment to display them proudly in a bookcase–I have far too many books; and many of them are boxed up and stored–but I refuse to rid myself of them, because I keep holding out hope that someday I will live in an apartment or condo or house where I can have a room filled with bookcases that will also serve as my office.

But eBay gradually led me to collectors’ and fan pages of these books on Facebook..occasionally someone on one of those pages will be selling a copy of something I need to complete my collections.  There is a generic page for series books in general, and then there are individual pages for Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, respectively–and probably still others for the other series that I don’t know about. I know there are also fan websites and serious scholarship on the kids’ series–some of them make for interesting reading, if you have some free time (or are wasting time you should be spending on writing). Some of the fan websites also have conferences and trips–the Nancy Drew group, for example, has an annual trip to where one of the books was set, and tours and so forth to visit the places Nancy also went to look for clues in the course of her investigation. (They were in New Orleans a few years ago; I was going to register–it’s not cheap–until I realized it was more about being a fan than anything else.)

And boy, do these people take their series fandom seriously. I’m not as rabid or as devoted as the majority of them; periodically I might reread one of the series books (I’d love to write an essay about the Ken Holt series, which was darker and more hard-boiled than any of the others; which was why James Ellroy and I bonded over them–which is still so weird to me), but I don’t reread an entire series from beginning to end, and while I used to remember plot details quite vividly, as I’ve gotten older those memories are fading.

I’ve not watched the new CW series Nancy Drew–well, I watched the first episode but didn’t keep watching; primarily because I haven’t had time and Paul and I usually watch shows together–at least, I like to give him a chance to watch something I might enjoy before moving on to watch it on my own (like Riverdale). Maybe he’ll be interested in Nancy Drew, maybe he won’t; I thought he’d like Riverdale but he didn’t. Maybe Nancy Drew is something I’ll wind up watching while he’s working in the evenings; I don’t know. But I’ve also not seen the recent film adaptation, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, either. But boy, do these Nancy Drew fans take their Nancy Drew seriously. They were outraged that Nancy Drew had sex in the first episode (because Nancy of course never had sex in the series; I don’t even think she even enjoyed a chaste kiss from Ned in all 58 of the original books) and Ned Nickerson was black! Nancy Drew was not only having sex but she was having sex with a black teenager!

The pearls were clutched so tightly! And if you stuck a piece of coal up these people’s asses, it would have come out a diamond. There was a lot of moaning and whining about people’s childhoods being ruined (really? Mine is still just fine) and the “horrors of political correctness” and on and on and on. In other words, Nancy should be a virgin and only know white, straight, cishet people. Got it.

Anyway, Hulu recently announced that they are doing a Hardy Boys series; however, instead of Bayport the town is Bridgeport; their first case is their mother’s murder; and rather than being 18 and 17, their ages will be 16 and 12. Their father is off investigating the murder and so he deposits them with their aunt in Bridgeport, but they soon realize their mother’s death is somehow connected to the town–and everyone in town is a suspect.

Yes, these are significant changes to the original canon of the Hardy Boys, but also remember: The Mickey Mouse Club did two serialized versions of the Hardy Boys, making them also about 13 and 14. The Hardy Boys fans are fan with this, of course, and with the other changes Disney made…so what’s the problem? As someone pointed out, in response to all the whining and moaning about ruining characters and childhoods and “political correctness”, someone also commented, grumpily, “I suppose Chet will be slim, gay, and black”–which actually sounded kind of good to me, frankly. The character of Chet is overweight and loves to eat (kind of like Bess in the Nancy series) and also like Bess, his appetite and weight are the subject of lots of jokes, teasing and sometimes humiliation. Not really cool, if we’re being completely honest.

And yes, all of these people are grandparents with graying hair and are white people. All of this whining and complaining over two television series based on characters that have evolved and changed and been rewritten multiple times in the nearly hundred years they’ve been around–to appeal to  new generations of readers. The original versions of the books were all revised in the 1950’s and 1960’s because they were loaded with racial and ethnic stereotypes that were beyond offensive; naturally, the nice old white people prefer the original texts (big shock, right?).

And if any kids’ series need to be turned into television programs, can I vote for The Three Investigators and Encyclopedia Brown?

I am really tired of this whole “you’re ruining my childhood” nonsense. Unless they are traveling back in time to do so, your childhood hasn’t changed.

I’ve always wanted to write a book about kids’ series fans and conventions; I might just have to now. I mean, I get it–people don’t like change, and something that was beloved when you were a child you want frozen in amber forever. But I just wish these people would unpack their issues with the updates and changes–and nothing gets my gorge going more than the ever popular whine of every racist, misogynist, and homophobic piece of shit out there: politically correct. Sorry you don’t feel safe expressing your hateful bigoted opinions any more without consequence.

I’ve also always wanted to write my own middle-grade series; I used to think about that all the time when I was a kid, even up to coming up with characters and titles for the books in the series because of course I did. I don’t know if I can write middle-grade or not; but it’s worth a shot sometime.

And of course, I can talk for hours on the subject of the kids’ series. Perhaps someday I will.

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All Over the World

One of the most popular tropes in, for want of a better word, women’s fiction from the mid-twentieth century through the 1980’s was the tale of the governess, ripped off and/or inspired from the mother of all governess novels, Jane Eyre. Victoria Holt returned to this well repeatedly, from her first novel Mistress of Mellyn through many others, including The King of the Castle. I even believe her heroine in On the Night of the Seventh Moon returned to the little German principality where she experienced whatever it was she experienced as a teenager as a governess to a young heir of the royal house; but it’s been years since I read the book so could easily be mistaken. Even the classic camp/horror soap Dark Shadows featured a governess as its young romantic lead, Victoria Winters. (Honey in the Trixie Belden series also has a governess, Miss Trask.) I don’t think there is such a job as governess anymore, or really, paid companions; I suspect everything like that, including private secretary, now falls under the title “personal assistant”, while the young women who were previously governesses are now “nannies.”

I could be wrong. It’s not like I know a lot of people who can afford either.

But for the genre known as “romantic suspense” (and I grudgingly include Mary Stewart in this genre; I think she was a terrific suspense writer more than anything else; and while her books did include some bits of romance they were never the driving force of the story–as I’ve said before, they sometimes seemed to be tacked on, to please publishers and readers and reviewers) the governess was an extremely popular trope, and very much Jane Eyre pastiches; inevitably she was young, orphaned and had nowhere to call home, making the job of the utmost importance. Inevitably the master of the house, who was borderline abusive to  her (definitely was in Jane Eyre) eventually was won over by her quiet beauty, charm and devotion to his child, fell in love with and/or married her, which inevitably put her life in some kind of danger–and she had to mistrust and fear that her husband, for some reason, wanted to kill her.

Mary Stewart took that trope and blew it to smithereens in Nine Coaches Waiting.

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I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.

We reached Paris just as the light was fading. It had been a soft, gray March day, with the smell of spring in the air. The wet tarmac glistened underfootl over the airfield the sky looked very high, rinsed by the afternoon’s rain to a pale clear blue. Little trails of soft cloud drifted in the wet wind, and a late sunbeam touched them with a fleeting underglow. And beyond the airport buildings the telegraph wires swooped gleaming above the road where passing vehicles showed lights already.

Some of the baggage was out on the tarmac. I could see my own shabby case wedged between a brand new Revrobe and something huge and extravagant in cream-colored hide. Mine had been a good case once, good solid leather stamped deeply with Daddy’s initials, now half hidden under the new label smeared by London’s rain. Miss L. Martin, Paris. Symbolic, I thought, with an amusement that twisted a bit awry somewhere inside me. Miss L. Martin, Paris, trudging along the tarmac between a stour man in impeccable city clothes and a beautiful American girl with a blond mink coat slung carelessly over a suit that announced discreetly that she had been to Paris before, and recently. I myself must have just that drab, seen-better-days shabbiness that Daddy’s old case had, dumped there among the sleek cabin-class luggage.

But I was here, home after nine years. Nine years. More than a third of my lifetime.

And so we meet Melinda Martin, called Linda by everyone. Her father was English and her mother French; she was born and raised in Paris and after her parents were unfortunately killed when she was in her early teens she was sent to an English orphanage. She is fluent in both English and French, and after aging out of the orphanage, one of the women who took a charitable interest in the place helped her get a job she hated at a boys’ boarding school–but when Madame de Valmy was looking for an English girl to be her nephew’s governess, the woman remembered Linda and recommended her. During the interview it became clear to Linda that the Valmys were looking for an English girl who would only speak in English to the nephew, a nine year old who’d inherited the ancestral estate as well as the title of Comte de Valmy; desperate for the job and desperate to get back to Paris, Linda allows Madame Heloise to mistakenly believe she doesn’t speak French–and is worried she’ll slip and betray herself, and get fired. She arrives at the imposing Chateau Valmy, and also as governess finds herself in that weird in-between where she is not a member of the family but isn’t considered one of the regular servants, either. The young comte, Philippe, who usually lives with a different uncle who has been called away for a lecture series in Greece as well as to work on a dig there (Hippolyte is an archaeologist) is very subdued, clearly afraid of his disabled uncle Leon (Leon is a dynamic personality Linda comes to think of as Lucifer after the fall–later in the book she calls him the King of Demons), handsome and strong and confined to a wheelchair after a car accident. Heloise is his wife, and he has one son from a previous marriage, Raoul, who runs Bellevigne, a chateau with a vineyard and winery, for his father. There are three family estates, each of which was left to one of the three brothers; young Philippe is the only child of the eldest brother and so the title and the vast ancestral estate belongs to him; Leon merely serves as his trustee.

Linda manages to navigate her confusing place in the chateau with the remarkable aplomb all Stewart heroines are blessed with; these are strong young women more than capable of taking care of themselves in a man’s world, and these women are courageous and smart. When Linda realizes her young charge is in danger–someone is trying to kill him because of the complexities of the Valmy inheritance–she has no problem whatsoever in taking the child out of the house in the middle of the night and venturing out into the woods in a desperate attempt to keep him safe until his uncle Hippolyte returns–the next day, which leads the plot against the boy to amp up. The journey to safety–and not knowing who she can and cannot trust–cranks the suspense way up, until the denouement when all is revealed and the truth comes out, with the young boy safe and Linda in the arms of the man she has fallen in love with–but couldn’t be certain whether or not was involved in the plot to kill the child. Stewart manages to make it all seem absolutely real, and once Linda and Philippe were in the woods it was hard to look away.

This book is peak Stewart at the top of her game–and that is truly saying something. I am looking forward to rereading her other novels even more so now than i was before.

U Got the Look

This week, The CW debuted a new version of Nancy Drew. I sort of watched it Thursday night, and will probably watch again so I can pay better attention. It’s definitely a reboot, with a lot of changes–Nancy’s mom died much later in her life, for example, and there’s no Bess. The story is also set in Horseshoe Bay rather than River Heights, and Nancy has hung up her sleuthing cap since her mother’s death and is now working as a waitress in a diner. George Fayne isn’t a close friend but now her boss, and they don’t get along–I expect that to change. Ned Nickerson is not white–a change I liked a lot–and prefers to go by Nick. It’s also a bit more in the vein of Riverdale than the classic Nancy Drew stories, but let’s face it–the real Nancy as originally written is kind of insufferable–bit more on that later.

I’m also sure these changes will enrage the Nancy Drew fanbase–anything other than the way she was originally written by a lot of ghostwriters generally sets them off. I am not such a purist–I recognize that changes have to be made for a different medium, for one thing, and for another–as I said earlier, Nancy was a bit insufferable as originally written.

I did enjoy the movie a few years ago with Emma Roberts (it might be the only time I’ve ever actually enjoyed an Emma Roberts performance, frankly); a lot was changed from the books to the series.

Nancy Drew and I go back to my fifth grade year at Eli Whitney Elementary in Chicago. I was already reading as many mysteries as I could get my hands on–those Scholastic Book Fairs were my favorite part of school–and I was checking out as many mysteries from the library as I could. (This was also the period of time when I discovered Phyllis Whitney’s mysteries for children; the first I read was The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye.) My fifth grade teacher had a big table in the back of the room with books for kids on them; we were on the honor system. We could borrow a book but we were supposed to return it when we finished reading it. The first day of school I wandered back there and looked at the books on the table; the first title to jump out at me was The Secret of Red Gate Farm. Above the title was NANCY DREW MYSTERY SERIES, and on the cover was a picture of a girl with wavy blonde hair, wearing a sweater and a long skirt, hiding behind a tree and looking, her mouth wide open in shock, fear or surprise, staring at the entrance to a cave  as some strangely robed figures entered it. I took it back to my desk, and started reading it.

red gate farm

“That Oriental-looking clerk in the perfume shop certainly acted mysterious, ” Bess Marvin declared, as she and her two friends ended their shopping trip and hurried down the street to the railroad station.

“Yes,” Nancy Drew answered thoughtfully. “I wonder why she didn’t want you to buy that bottle of Blue Jade?”

“The price would have discouraged me,” spoke up Bess’ cousin, dark-haired George Fayne. Her boyish name fitted her slim build and straight-forward, breezy manner. “Twenty dollars an ounce!”

“Oriental-looking.”

Sigh. The great irony is that both the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series were rewritten and revised to remove racist stereotypes and language…

Anyway, The Secret of Red Gate Farm enthralled me, as Nancy and her friends tried to help a young girl and her grandmother save Red Gate Farm from mortgage foreclosure while also trying to expose a ring of counterfeiters. There was a list of intriguing-sounding Nancy Drew titles on the back of the book, and back on the table in my fifth grade classroom there were three more titles: The Mystery at Lilac Inn, The Haunted Showboat, and The Clue of the Leaning Chimney. As I scoped around, there was another series novel, but it wasn’t Nancy Drew; it was the Dana Girls The Secret of the Old Well, allegedly written by the same person: Carolyn Keene.

Nancy Drew introduced me to the world of Grosset & Dunlap series–which were actually all produced, for the most part, by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. I eventually found myself reading–and collecting–many of those series, including the Hardy Boys, Dana Girls, Ken Holt, Rick Brant, Biff Brewster, Chip Hilton, and Judy Bolton, among others–I also wound up collecting Trixie Belden and the Three Investigators, too.

I always wanted to write a series like these when I was a kid; I even came up with a list of about forty titles I could use. I wrote one, actually, when I was in the fifth grade–called The Secret of the Haunted Mansion–which, to the best of my recollection, might be the first fiction I ever wrote; alas, it is lost in the mists of time. Periodically, I come back to the thought of writing such a series, but I don’t know that there’s a market for them anymore. Most of the series have gone out of print, with only Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, as far as I know, still available; Trixie Belden might be but I’m not sure. I still collect the books–it really pleases my OCD to have the series completed. I’m still missing a few from some of the harder to find series–like Biff Brewster and Ken Holt, and I do think I am missing a couple of Judy Boltons and Dana Girls as well–but I’ve stopped scouring eBay over the last few years because, well, money.

But at some point, I imagine I will go back and try to complete the series.

I do credit these series with a lot of my devotion to the world of crime and crime writing; while I always loved mysteries, it’s entirely possible I would have moved on to something else had I not discovered, and become addicted, to these series. These series led me eventually to Agatha Christie, Mary Stewart, Charlotte Armstrong, and Ellery Queen; and those authors eventually led me to others…and wanting to write crime fiction of my own.

So, thank you, Nancy Drew. It’s kind of your fault.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide no escape from reality.

I do love the song. I wasn’t an enormous fan of the movie–primarily because I wasn’t that interested in the trajectory of the bad so much as I was more interested in Freddie and his life–but it was a perfectly good movie about a rock band.

I did finish reading Steph Cha’s Follow Her Home yesterday and I highly recommend it. The writing is exceptionally done well, and her character, Juniper Song, is terrific. I have some other thoughts about the book in my head, but am going to wait until they fully form before I write about it more. But…while I am sure I would have eventually gotten around to reading Steph–I’ve met her and like her–I am glad that I made a point of moving her up in the TBR pile. As I said when I was talking about the Diversity Project the other day, it’s the unconscious bias against minority writers I am fighting against within my own head and within my own choices, and trying to retrain/rewire my brain to not automatically move toward white writers when selecting the next book to read–even if they are women, who are also historically undermined as ‘not as serious as the men’ by not just the industry but by society itself. (I am really itching to start reading Alison Gaylin’s Never Look Back.)

As I’ve mentioned, my reading has always skewed more toward women than men; as a child, I preferred Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden to the Hardy  Boys (although the Three Investigators are my absolute favorite kids’ series, and they were boys), to the point where I was forbidden to read books either by women or about women for a period of time–which quite naturally made me want to read them even more.

The absolute best way to get me to do something is to either forbid me from doing it, or telling me that I can’t do it. Forbidding me makes me want it all the more, and telling me I can’t do something makes me want to prove you wrong.

I am ridiculously excited that Game of Thrones returns tonight for its final season. I am going to be terribly sorry when the show is over; I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the ride from the time Paul and I got the DVD’s from Netflix and starting binge-watching; loved it so much we paid for the HBO app subscription so we could watch it as it aired, once we were caught up. I do want to finish reading the books–I’ve only finished A Game of Thrones–and maybe if I get a long vacation on a beach somewhere, I can finish the entire series that has been published thus far. I really loved the book, and suspect I’ll feel the same way about the rest of the series. Yesterday I spent some time reacquainting myself with some of my favorite moments from the series over the years, thanks to said HBO app–the Battle of the Loot Train, the end of Ramsey Bolton, the trial of Littlefinger, the big reveal about Jon Snow’s parents, the Battle of Meereen, Daenarys conquering the Dothraki by killing all the Khals, Cersei’s revenge on the Sept–and was again, as always, blown away by the sheer scope and scale of the show, and how fucking fantastic it is from top to bottom. Game of Thrones, whether you love it or hate it, is always going to be considered one of the greatest television series of all time, up there with The Wire, The Sopranos,and The West Wing, and deservedly so. We truly are in a marvelous time for television programming.

Friday I was even more ridiculously excited to see the first trailer for the ninth episode of Star Wars and to learn its title: The Rise of Skywalker. I really cannot wait to see this movie, and I suspect we are going to go see it on opening weekend this December if it kills me. It’s very strange to realize that Star Wars has been a part of my life for over forty years now…and while the second trilogy, episodes one through three, aren’t amongst my favorites (I’ve not rewatched them very much), I still have a big love for all things Star Wars, and frankly, Rogue One just might be my favorite Star Wars film of them all.

So, after a really good night’s sleep and waking up later than I usually do, I am going to clean this kitchen and then I am going to work for a while. I might go to the grocery store; we need a few things, but at the same time I should also be able to get the things we need on the way home from work tomorrow, if they are, in fact, so desperately needed. I think I’m going to do that–wait, I mean–because if I’ve learned anything from the Termite Genocide experience, it’s that I hoard food and really need to use the things I already have on hand rather than go out and buy new things to prepare.

I’m actually looking forward to working today, if you can believe that, Constant Reader. I am determined to get the next chapter of the WIP finished, and then I am going to work on these other two ideas I’ve had, and then I am going to spend a couple of hours with the Gaylin novel.

What a lovely Sunday this will turn out to be.

Have a terrific day, everyone–and in one week, it’s Easter!

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