Untouchable

And here we are at Friday again, with a three day holiday weekend looming over us. This would have been Southern Decadence in a normal year, and around four o’clock this afternoon I would be departing for the French Quarter to pass out condoms and people-watch. Instead, I will be at home in the air conditioning, making condom packs and doing other work-at-home duties while watching today’s Cynical 70’s Film Festival choices.

I had another good night’s sleep last night, which was quite lovely, particularly as I have a bit of a busy day ahead of me before I can slip into my three-day weekend. The kitchen, well, the entire Lost Apartment, is a mess yet again; I try to keep it cleaned as I go, but inevitably at some point during the week I get too tired and let it go–and from that point on I just look at it and feel defeated, certainly too defeated to take care of it, and let t slide for the weekend. Perhaps not the smartest way to housekeep, and inevitably I resent the time I wind up spending on it on the weekend having to clean, but I do enjoy cleaning, and there’s something to the fact that cleaning helps me think.

I read some more on Little Fires Everywhere last night; it really is remarkably well written and interesting, and I am really looking forward to finishing reading it this weekend. We also are watching a Showtime documentary called Outcry, which is about the Greg Kelley case in Texas; to wit, Greg Kelley was a local football star in his small town and very well-liked, and then was accused, and convicted, of molesting a four-year-old child–and at every level, the justice system clearly failed, from the investigating officers and police department, to the prosecution AND the defense attorney, to the jury. I don’t know whether Greg Kelley actually molested that child or not–he of course claims he is innocent–but the mentality evident from every level of the justice system clearly wasn’t to give him a fair trial. Just like with Who Killed Garrett Phillips?, it was clear that very early on the police decided who was guilty and shaped their investigation, not to find the truth but to build a case that backed up their belief. It’s shocking, and horrifying, but this is the sad truth in most criminal prosecutions and investigations; I’ve even touched on this in some of my books–that the cops, who are generally overburdened with cases, decide on a suspect who is guilty early on and that decision impacts and directs their entire investigation–and they don’t rule out other suspects.

This systemic flaw in our criminal justice system is very terrifying; what could be scarier than knowing that you are innocent, not believed, and the full force of our system is being brought to bear on convicting you? Every American has a constitutional right to a fair trial, to due process…it’s the corner-store of our entire system. The Constitution provides for protecting the individual against the abuses of the state, and this is something people tend to forget frequently when it comes to criminal justice. The Constitution and our system specifically makes it difficult to convict people of crimes by making certain that individual rights aren’t being violated during the investigation and in court; but this only works when a judge is impartial and when prosecutors aren’t looking to make names for themselves but are actually looking for justice–not to get a win-loss record that their raises and futures are dependent on.

Quite frankly, I have reached a point where the thought of just being a witness in a criminal case is worrisome; you never know when the cops are going to decide that you are the actual criminal and are going to slant their investigation towards convicting you.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Outcry documentary is seeing the white people realize hey, if this can happen to a good-looking white football star in Texas, it could happen to ANYONE and then get involved in trying to make change.

I think part of the problem is that we elect judges and district attorneys; there’s always something political involved in their decision making, and the idea that justice is dependent on their reelection prospects (and further political ambitions) is kind of terrifying.

But it’s much easier to believe that our system works the way it’s supposed to rather than take a long, hard look at it, and try to make important reforms.

I also found it interesting that at least in the Greg Kelley case, the word of the victim–a four year old boy–was taken as gospel truth without question to the point it was literally the only evidence used to convict a nineteen-year-old and send him to jail for twenty-five years; why aren’t women who are sexually assaulted given that same courtesy?

Don’t get me wrong–I think child abuse (whether physical, sexual or mental) is one of the worst crimes out there and every effort should be made to protect them and convict those who are actually guilty; but it is in the entire best interest of society to ensure that those who are convicted of these crimes are actually guilty.

For every innocent person sent to prison, there’s a guilty person still walking around free, and that’s scary.

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

My October Symphony

At this point in the summer, the cool warmth of October seems a distant futuristic dream. It’s always that way in August, and I no longer have Southern Decadence to look forward to; and haven’t in years. There’s no Decadence this year, of course, thanks to the pandemic, but I have also not participated in the madness of wild partying over the course of that weekend in over a decade. My participation has been primarily limited to passing out condoms on Friday night before escaping to the deep cool of my air conditioned home for the rest of the long weekend.

But my, did I used to have a great time during Southern Decadence! (See: Bourbon Street Blues.)

We started watching Babylon Berlin last night, at long last, and are already quite mesmerized. It’s a fascinating period–pre-Nazi/post first war Berlin was quite decadent, if you believe freedom from repression of all kinds is decadent. I’ve read very little about this period, although I have read Isherwood and of course I’ve seen Cabaret about a million times, but other than as a prologue to the rise of Hitler and Nazism in histories of the second World War, I’ve not really read a lot about that period of Germany’s past; certainly not anything that goes to any great depth. I also have a copy of the book somewhere; I’ve always meant to get to it as well as other books set in Europe during the same period. I don’t read nearly as much historical fiction anymore as I used to, or as much as I would like; I’m not really sure why that is. I love to read, I love to write, and I love history, so one would think art forms that combine those things would be something I would be all over, and yet–I’ve written precisely two short stories set in the past, and not even that distant. “The Weight of a Feather” is set in the 1950’s during the gay purge of the government, and of course, “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” (which might be my favorite title of anything I’ve ever written), is set in 1915 or thereabouts; a nebulous period of time during which the Great War was raging in Europe but the United States had yet to get involved. I have some things in progress that are historicals, or period pieces, or whatever may have you; the one I am really itching to sink my teeth into is a story set in Black Death era Rome, “The Arrow in the Cardinal’s Cap.” But I really need to be focusing as much creative energy on Bury Me in Shadows as I can right now, and so everything else isn’t going to get any real attention for the next few weeks or so. My plan is to, of course, do my day job to the best of my abilities, try to keep treading water as far as emails and everything else is concerned, and focus as much as possible on the manuscript. It’s in decent shape but very rough; the skeleton is there, but there are bones that need to be removed and replaced, others that simply need to be reset, and I also somehow have to manage a soul-transplant; replacing the one I originally created for the book with a completely new one–and these are all tricky things to manage that will require focus and energy.

And of course, one of the best things for stoking my creativity is to read really good writing, and I have Blacktop Wasteland to not only read and savor, but take inspiration from as well.

Then again, you never know.

We also finished I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which was really quite lovely; I’m not certain that I want to read the book now, but I might. I’m not a huge reader of true crime–which doesn’t, when you think about it, make a lot of sense–and there’s so much else for me to read that I am behind on–oy, the ever-growing TBR pile in my house is as out of control as kudzu in rural Alabama–but I know I really need to start reading more of it. I think one of the main reasons I avoid it is fear that I’ll want to adapt it into fiction–just as Ethan Brown’s Murder in the Bayou sort of inspired what might eventually become another Chanse novel–and I’m not really all that interested in serial killers or rapists, if I’m going to be completely honest. I’ve toyed with the idea for a serial killer novel for quite some time now–and it has occurred to me that setting it in the past, when people weren’t quite as aware of them as we are now and before the creation of profilers (although I wanted to include a profiler who was wrong about everything in this one) might be a better way to go with it–but I’m not really sure I am the right person to write such a book.

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

You Got It All

Saturday morning and I literally just rolled out of bed. I cannot remember the last time I slept this late, but rather than worrying about it, I’m just going to go ahead and embrace it. I have to run make groceries today before the LSU game, but it’s at two thirty so there’s still plenty of time for me to get caffeinated, woken up, and maybe even do some cleaning around the house before the Tigers take on Mississippi State.

Last night Paul and I continued watching a show on Hulu from some true crime channel. The series is called The 1990’s: The Deadliest Decade, or something like that; last night we watched two more episodes (we’d watched the first episode, about a murder in Houston, Thursday night). Last night’s episodes were about the torture/murder of a twelve year old girl in Indiana–very grisly–and the second episode was the Club Kid Murder, which I already knew the story of–Michael Alig, the Limelight Club in New York, and the murder of drug dealer Angel; there was a book I’d read called Disco Bloodbath, written by an accessory after the fact who got immunity for testifying, and it was later made into a film, Party Monster, which starred Macauley Culkin. I’ve resisted the allure of true crime for the most part–don’t get me wrong, I do love it, it’s just that since I started writing crime fiction I’ve worried that reading a true crime novel would inspire me to fictionalize the story (“ripped from the headlines!”), and for some reason that felt like cheating in some way to me. But over the years I’ve found that a lot of crime writers draw inspiration from actual true crimes…and yet I’ve continued to avoid it. (I used to love A&E’s show City Confidential, which was amazing)

And being inspired by reading Ethan Brown’s book Murder in the Bayou (as well as by the Showtime docuseries based on the book) kind of proves my point, doesn’t it?

Then again, Garden District Gothic was my own take on the Jon-Benet Ramsey case, wasn’t it, only twenty or so years later?

And of course, this whole situation with the Hard Rock Hotel collapse last weekend has my brain working feverishly to spin a plot around it. I already have introduced a shady developer into my alternate New Orleans universe, in Royal Street Reveillon, none other than Sam Dreher. Maybe the collapsing hotel can be the basis for French Quarter Flambeaux, one of the many Scotty titles I came up with recently.

What I really need to be doing is working on Bury Me in Shadows, but I suspect my fevered brain is going to continue to jump around today. I always keep my journal and a pen handy when I’m watching an LSU game, so hopefully after I get the cleaning done and the groceries made and start the grill–we always “tailgate” at home for LSU games; burgers and hot dogs–I’ll be able to work some more on Bury Me in Shadows during and after the game. I don’t know what other games there are today–I’m beginning to care less and less about watching games all day on Saturdays these days–and so it’s entirely possible this will work, you know?

But as always, the Lost Apartment is a mess. There’s a load of dishes in the dishwasher to be unloaded, and a sink full of dirty dishes from last night’s ravioli to clean. There’s laundry in the dryer to be folded, and I really should wash the couch blankets today as part of the general clean-up of the living room. The Saints game tomorrow isn’t until 3:25, which also gives me the entire morning to clean and write and organize. I have an article for Sisters to finish writing, and various other things on my to-do list that definitely need to get done before I head back to work on Monday.

And my throat is still sore.

I also have a lot of computer files to clean up and organize.

It never really ends, does it?

I also want to spend some time curled up with Certain Dark Things today.

And on that note, tis back to ye old spice mines with me. Have a lovely Saturday, all.

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People Everyday

Hulu is streaming a two-part true crime documentary about a string of unsolved murders of women in Jefferson Davis Parish, Murder in the Bayou. I have a copy of Ethan Brown’s book of the same title, released a few years ago, but haven’t read it yet (instead, it’s sits on a shelf in the mini-bookcase to the right of my desk, where I also keep other nonfiction–histories, true crime, cultural studies–about both New Orleans and Louisiana; books which I delve into periodically in order to come up with ideas for stories (novels and short stories and novellas, etc.), or background for the same. (One of the many reasons I laugh when people refer to me as ‘a New Orleans expert’ is because I am everything but an expert on the city; there are literally hundreds of volumes of reference books information about New Orleans I’ve not read and know nothing about)  Mr. Brown came to the Tennessee Williams Festival a few years ago, but I didn’t get to meet him or see any of his panels, but I did pick up his book that weekend.

So, you can imagine my surprise the other night when I opened the Hulu app on my television (ten years ago that sentence would have been as unintelligible to me as Latin) and I saw it listed as a show I might be interested in. “Huh,” I thought, clicking on it, “I wonder if this is the same story as the book I’ve not read?”

Sure enough, it was.

I finished watching the show yesterday afternoon, and then of course, got the book from the bookshelf and started reading it…and didn’t stop until I was finished. I hadn’t intended to do that; I actually started writing this post after I finished watching the documentary series and simply reached over to the bookcase and pulled it out–mainly to see if there were photographs in it–many true crime books do–and since it didn’t, I started reading…and then couldn’t stop. I’ll talk some more about both the documentary and the book in another entry; I want to think about it some more, and the issues that came to mind while watching/reading–but again, as I said earlier, it was yet another example of how little I know about not just New Orleans, but Louisiana in general. As I read more New Orleans history, and get to know my city better with each read, I find myself expanding my former-tunnel vision view focusing on New Orleans only to expand out into Louisiana as well. It’s a truly fascinating state, really–as someone said in the documentary, there are three Louisianas: New Orleans; north Louisiana; which is really part of the Protestant Bible Belt and could just as easily be part of Arkansas; and south Louisiana, which is overwhelmingly French and Catholic; heavily Cajun, in all honesty. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Atchafalaya basin, too; I sort of have an idea about writing about that area. Most of my Louisiana fiction has been confined to writing about New Orleans, or places on the I-10 corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and sometimes dabbling on the North Shore. I am sure every state has just as rich and diverse and colorful a history as Louisiana/New Orleans; but I also don’t live there, and Louisiana with its strange mix of Creoles, Cajuns, Spanish, and Americans, with the attendant cultures, brews up a strange and endlessly fascinating gumbo.

I realized also yesterday while going through my blog drafts that I have never published my blog entry about reading Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin, which was what sent me down the Louisiana/New Orleans history rabbit hole in the first place.

empire of sin

“The crime,” as detectives would later tell the newspapers, was “one of the most gruesome in the annals of the New Orleans police.”

At five a.m. on the sultry morning of May 23, 1918, the bodies of Joseph and Catherine Maggio, Italian immigrants who ran a small grocery store in a remote section of the city, were found sprawled across the disordered bedroom of the living quarters behind their store. Both had been savagely attacked, apparently while they slept. Joseph Maggio lay face-up on the blood-sodden bed, his skull split by a deep, jagged gash several inches long; Catherine Maggio, her own skull nearly hewn in two, was stretched out on the floor beneath him. Each victim’s throat had been slashed with a sharp instrument.

A blood-smeared ax and shaving razor–obviously the murder weapons–had been found on the floor nearby.

The book opens with an examination of the strange case of New Orleans’ most famous serial killer: the Axeman. Julie Smith wrote an entire novel  based in the story called The Axeman’s Jazz; it might be the second or third Skip Langdon novel. Poppy Z. Brite wrote a short story with the same name, and of course, American Horror Story: Coven also included the Axeman in its litany of past New Orleans horrors–in the Ryan Murphy version, he stumbled into the Robicheaux School for Girls (read: witches) and they killed him; his ghost haunting the house ever since. The mystery of the Axeman’s identity, of course, has never been solved–as well as the why.

Empire of Sin, however, isn’t about the Axeman entirely; it’s really a history of the Storyville district (again, another notorious part of New Orleans history, probably best known for its appearance in the Louis Malle film Pretty Baby, which probably, with its creepy pedophilia, wouldn’t hold up too well today), and really focuses on the man known as the mayor of Storyville, Tom Anderson, who rose to great wealth, notoriety, and political power through his successful bordellos there–even going so far as to providing the district with its own police force. It’s a story of immorality, the struggle between reformers trying to turn New Orleans into a city free from sin (they won small victories but New Orleans remains New Orleans to this day) and Anderson’s struggle against those “virtuous reforms.” He eventually failed, and Storyville was shut down, but Krist tells a fascinating story, extrapolating his tale of Storyville’s struggle to stay open and functioning (the money being made there brought with it the ability to, of course, buy off the police and politicians), along with the stories of corruption, murder, prostitution, violence and racism extant in the city at the time. It’s also a story of how Storyville also, surprisingly enough, gave birth to jazz music, and provided a way for musicians of color to make a successful living playing music. Storyville was the incubator that provided sustenance to the musicians playing this new form of popular music, enabling them to make a living while developing a wholly American form of music.

Reading Empire of Sin is what sent me down the road to reading history, as I said before, and as I love history, it also made me aware of just how little about New Orleans I actually do know. Discovering little throwaway bits in the book–that there were male prostitutes who serviced men with “more exotic tastes”–reminded me of how frequently, and almost completely, queer history has been successfully erased, and that made me start thinking about, well, doing something more about it. Reading this book inspired two short stories I’ve not finished–“The Blues before Dawn” and “A Little More Jazz for the Axeman”–and also inspired a potential series set during the time. It’s also what gave me the idea for my collection of noir/crime/horror stories that I want to write, Monsters of New Orleans.

I cannot recommend Empire of Sin highly enough.