All I Need

Sunday, Sunday. Can’t trust that day, especially when an hour was stolen from me during my sleep. Sunday is my sleep-in day, and while it’s not entirely unusual, I absolutely detest that I woke up at just before what-is-now-ten-thirty. Since I can’t drink coffee after noon for fear of its impact on my sleep–but I like my coffee in the morning–I will be able to have only, at most, two cups. This is also infuriating.

It’s not sunny out there this late morning, but more grayish again, as though it might rain. It may just be a cloud cover, but the sun is always bright in New Orleans; the lack of brightness is bizarre and also feels off–in addition sleeping  in until not-really-ten-thirty. But looking on the positive side, I worked out yesterday and the rest seems to have helped my muscles recover; they don’t feel either sore or tired or both this morning. I should be grateful for small victories, I suppose, and stop complaining.

I watched two more episodes of Seven Seconds last night, and it is absolutely riveting. It reminds me a lot of the lamented American Crime, where you saw everyone as three-dimensional characters; I like seeing it from every perspective, and while it’s easy to feel some sympathy for the guy who committed the actual crime and why he covered it up; the pain of the family of the victim is almost unbearable to watch–but Regina King is such an amazing and brilliant actress you can’t help but watch. I’ve always been a fan of hers; she was exceptional in American Crime, but this? Give her all the awards right now, and please cast her in everything; she is so good that as I watched I thought if I ever write a television show or movie I want to write a great part for her to play. As good as the show is, as it progresses it is starting to drift away from the nonjudgmental view that it had in the first episodes, which is fine–I think part of the reason American Crime failed to find an audience was because you didn’t know who to root for, or if you should root for anyone, which makes viewers uncomfortable, as they, for the most part, want to have good guys and bad guys–but I kind of wish they hadn’t gone so far with making the guy who committed the crime a villain. I felt sorry for him before; I am losing sympathy, and that’s why they are doing it; but when he was sympathetic it made the show more layered, complex, and nuanced.

Heavy sigh.

I got all my errands done yesterday, but forgot to get something I need for dinner today–but it’s just a twenty ounce bottle of root beer and I can walk to Walgreens and get that when I’m ready to put everything into the crock pot. The St. Patrick’s/St. Joseph’s Day Irish Channel parade is today, so I’m not moving my car. I decided to wait to go to Costco until next weekend; I am going to take one of my co-workers car shopping that day, and as punishment he’ll have to go to Costco with me when we’re finished.

I started writing yet another Chanse short story yesterday; “Once a Tiger.” It’s an idea for a Chanse novel that I had a long time ago and always wanted to write, sort of like how the Chanse short story I wrote last week was a book idea I never wrote. I had intended to get some other things done, but after the errands and the gym I was tired, so I sat down to watch Seven Seconds (Paul was at the office) and got sucked into it. I also watched two episodes of Versailles–this season is about the Affair of the Poisons–and read short stories. I need to clean today–I’m hoping it won’t rain so I can finally do the damned windows–but I also want to write today. So I should probably wrap this up and get back to work, so I can get the root beer from Walgreens and be done with it all, you know?

Sigh. Heavy lies the head, and all that, you know.

The first story I read was a reread; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”:

THE SEXTON stood in the porch of Milford meeting-house, pulling busily at the bell-rope. The old people of the village came stooping along the street. Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on week days. When the throng had mostly streamed into the porch, the sexton began to toll the bell, keeping his eye on the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s door. The first glimpse of the clergyman’s figure was the signal for the bell to cease its summons.

“But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?” cried the sexton in astonishment.

All within hearing immediately turned about, and beheld the semblance of Mr. Hooper, pacing slowly his meditative way towards the meeting-house. With one accord they started, expressing more wonder than if some strange minister were coming to dust the cushions of Mr. Hooper’s pulpit.

“Are you sure it is our parson?” inquired Goodman Gray of the sexton.

“Of a certainty it is good Mr. Hooper,” replied the sexton. “He was to have exchanged pulpits with Parson Shute, of Westbury; but Parson Shute sent to excuse himself yesterday, being to preach a funeral sermon.”

I read this story either in high school or in college originally; whenever it was that I originally read it, my young mind was bored with it and thought it rather silly. I hated The Scarlet Letter, still do so much that even thinking of rereading it gives me dyspepsia; but I greatly enjoyed The House of the Seven Gables, although I remember nothing much about it except that the old woman’s name was Hepzibah, which I always thought was a great Gothic name for a creepy old lady. Rereading this story, it made a little bit more sense to me; it’s really a parable. Parson Hooper, for a reason unbeknownst to his parishioners and to the reader, has chosen to hide his face for the rest of his life behind a black veil; I remember reading this and being deeply annoyed about never finding out the reason. But rereading it now, I got a stronger sense of it; the parson has done this and the reasons why really aren’t important; what’s important is how uncomfortable it has made everyone else, and why; it’s about human nature and psychology, and is a lot more clever than I thought as a teenager. It still, however, reads in that stilted, archaic early nineteenth century formal style that is grating and annoying to the modern reader, however.

I then moved on to “The Last Temptation of Frankie Lymon” by Peter Blauner, from the anthology Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli. I originally bought this anthology because it had a story by Alison Gaylin inspired by a song recorded by the band X, whom I used to love in the 1980’s–the story is quite brilliant, I might add–but had never gone back and read any of the others. So, I picked it up and this is the lead-off story for the collection.

He walked into the bar wearing the jacket that Sam bought for the Ebony photo shoot last year. A mostly wool blazer with two rows of brass buttons, that must have cost–what?–like forty to fifty dollars at Blumstein’s. He felt bad because Sam was living on about two hundred a week as a food inspector in the Bronx, while trying to manage the comeback for him, But what could you do? All the star clothes he used to have in his grandmother’s closet were either child-sized and long ago outgrown or had holes in them because he’d nodded off with a cigarette in his mouth.

So now the jacket felt heavy as a burden on his shoulders as he eyed his surroundings and tried to get comfortable. The bar was around the corner from his grandmother’s and he half recognized some of the people from the neighborhood, where he hadn’t lived since back in the day. There were mailmen and bus drivers wearing turtlenecks or open-collared shirts with jeans. Doormen and janitors in T-shirts and growing out their hair into bushy naturals as they rapped effortlessly to short-skirted former double Dutch girls from the block with sleepy eyes and soft mouths, who kept going “uh-huh, uh-huh, right on” as that Gladys Knight “Grapevine” song played on the jukebox.

Frankie Lymon was a real person; the lead singer for Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, known for their hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”. Lymon’s story is one of those cautionary tales about the music industry, fame, and hitting it big when you’re young; he was only twenty-four when he died of an overdose–a has-been at 24. This story, which is basically a fictionalized imagining of his last day, is heartbreaking. He has fallen on hard times but has cleaned up and gotten to a point of recovery from his addiction; he’s trying to make a comeback but makes the sad, fateful decision to go into the local neighborhood bar near where he is staying with his grandmother–and runs into someone from his past, with her own broken dreams and broken life. It’s powerfully written and the characters realized strongly; you can’t stop reading even though you know it’s all a train wreck unfolding in front of you. Kudos to Blauner for such a powerful story.

I then went back to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey and Me collection, where the next offering was the story “The Parker Shotgun.”

The Christmas holidays had come and gone, and the new year was under way. January, in California, is as good as it gets–cool, clear, and green, with a sky the color of wisteria and a surf that thunders like a volley of gunfire in a distant field. My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed, bonded, insured; white, female, age thirty-two, unmarried, and physically fit. That Monday morning, I was sitting in my office with my feet up, wondering what life would bring, when a woman walked in and tossed a photograph on my desk. My introduction to the Parker shotgun began with a graphic view of its apparent effect when fired at a formerly nice-looking man at close range. His face was still largely intact, but he had no use now for a pocket comb. WIth effort, I kept my expression neutral as I glanced up at her.

“Somebody killed my husband.”

Grafton never disappoints, and as I have mentioned before when talking about these Chanse short stories (it pleases me to no end that I can now talk about them in the plural), reading Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone short stories, along with the Lew Archer short stories by Ross Macdonald and the Tess Monaghan ones by Laura Lippman, have been an education in writing the private eye short story; something I never felt confident about doing before. This story is excellent in that is has a great opening–how can you not keep reading after that–and Kinsey’s detecting skills are put to a great test here. I also learned a lot about shotguns in reading this story. I guess the thing that’s so terrific about reading these private eye short stories is seeing, while reading them, how they could have easily been expanded into novels while also seeing how the author pared down what could have been a novel into a pleasing, satisfying short story.

I also picked up the MWA anthology Vengeance and started reading some more of the stories in there; I believe I may have blogged about one of them already. But when reading Alafair Burke’s “The Mother”, the story began to sound familiar; and sure enough, I was right: I’d read it before. I started paging through the stories and yes, I’d read them all; I read them flying back from a trip to New York on a plane. The book includes Karin Slaughter’s chilling, and Edgar winning, short story “The Unremarkable Heart,” which is one of my favorite short stories of all time. But I had to put Vengeance back up on the shelf because I’d already read those stories, alas; I will only allow myself to reread, and write about, short stories I originally read before I started blogging back in 2004 (!), so as to avoid repetition.

And now, I am going to get my second and final cup of coffee before walking to Walgreens. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader!


I Can’t Wait

I seem to be doing much better this year with Short Story Month, and am rather proud of myself. The goal about managing my time better isn’t going quite so well, but it’s still early in the year. Hope springs eternal.

Another story I greatly enjoyed in the MWA Vengeance anthology was my first introduction to the writing of Twist Phelan, “The Fourteenth Juror.”

The two detectives stood in the reception area of the judge’s chambers on the fifth floor of the county courthouse. Ebanks made the introductions.

“We have an appointment to see the judge,” he said.

The secretary smiled at them. She was a discreetly elegant woman with assisted blond hair and not too much pink lipstick.

“His Honor is expecting you,” she said. “He shouldn’t be too much longer. He’s finishing up a JNOV hearing.”

Ebanks had to cough.

“May I get you something to drink?” the secretary asked.

Ebanks cleared his throat. “No, thank you,” he said.

“Coffee would be good,” Martinez said.

Ebanks was pinning his hopes on Martinez. The guy was no genius, but once he got an idea in his head, he was relentless. If Ebanks could get him pointed in the right direction on this case, the rookie’s doggedness would pay off even after Ebanks retired next month.

A JNOV is an acronym standing for the Latin words for “judgment notwithstanding the verdict”, a legal term in civil courts where the judge can reverse the decision of the jury, or alter their verdict. Ebanks and Martinez, a veteran police detective nearing retirement age and his rookie partner, have come to see a civil judge who’d been pressed into presiding over a criminal case because of a backlog in criminal court; the Dolan case, which ended in a hung jury. Dolan, a minor league baseball celebrity, had been accused of killing his wife, but the jury hung and the day after, he died of a carbon monoxide leak up at his cabin at a nearby lake. The jury foreman, who had refused to believe in Dolan’s guilt at any time during the deliberations and eventually convinced two other jurors to help him hang the jury, was just killed in a hit-and-run accident.

The judge never has a name; he is only referred to as ‘the judge’, ‘His Honor’, or “Your Honor’ throughout the story.

As the story progresses with the two detectives questioning the judge about the Dolan case, it slowly but surely becomes obvious to the reader that there is a lot more going on here than appears on the surface, and Phelan masterfully drops clues and red herrings in so casually as the story moves along that the reader almost doesn’t notice them…and then the last few pages! Wow!

Here’s an example of the gems Phelan produces: The woman smoldered with unhappiness.

I wish I had written that sentence.

Phelan won a Thriller Award for another terrific short story, “Footprints in Water,” a few years back. The story was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 2013, and it’s simply extraordinary. She also writes novels–I am currently enjoying the hell out of her Finn Teller series, which I will blog about at some point, and her Pinnacle Peak series is in my TBR pile–and also is quite the accomplished world traveler. She is also funny as all hell; she moderated a panel I was on at Sleuthfest in 2013 (?), which is where I met her the first time, and she always makes me laugh.

So, read Twist Phelan. And in honor of this wonderful story, here are some hot shirtless cops.

Careless Whisper

So, I’ve decided to give Short Story Month another go. The idea is to read a short story every day, and then write a blog entry about it; or at least include a discussion of said story in that day’s blog entry. I really do love short stories, and I am not completely certain why I have so many mental blocks, both about writing and reading them. Go figure. I think the thing about reading of them comes from having edited so many anthologies; although having edited over two hundred (at least) novels hasn’t affected my ability to read them. Hmmm, interesting.

Today is the final day of my three day weekend, and I have a lot to get done today–and this week. Saturday I am on a panel at Comic Con here in New Orleans, which is exciting; and our friend Michael is having a gallery show opening later that evening. So, my Saturday is pretty much spoken for this week, but due to long days at the office the next two days I only have to work a half-day this Thursday so I can do all the errands–grocery, etc–that day before going into the office.

Last night I started reading George Pelecanos’ The Way Home and really got into it more; he’s quite a good writer, and I am curious to see how the rest of the book plays out. We also finally got the Showtime app on our Apple TV to work again (I had to delete and download it again) so we could get going on Ray Donovan again, which is also an interesting show. I am quite enjoying it but am not hooked, if that makes any sense? Paul is going into the office today, and I have to go to the grocery store–direct result of sleeping in Saturday morning, damn it; obviously I would have rather slept in this morning–but at least it looks like the incessant rain has finally let up.

The first short story of this month is an Edgar Award winner from 2013; Karin Slaughter’s “The Unremarkable Heart,” which I have revisited for this occasion. It was originally published in MWA’s anthology Vengeance (I wrote a story for this, but I don’t remember which one; obviously I have not checked off ‘getting a story into an MWA anthology’ off my bucket list–I failed again this year but didn’t think it was going to get accepted this time around, didn’t have much hope as it felt rather forced), and went on to win the Edgar. I was at the ceremony, and obtained a copy of Vengeance specifically so I could rest this story. I did read the entire book on my flight home–airport and so forth–but Karin’s story was quite remarkable; it reminded me very much of Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier: it was that good.

June Connor knew that she was going to die today.

The thought seemed like the sort of pathetic declaration that a ninth-grader would use to begin a short-story assignment–one that would have immediately elicited a groan and a failing grade from June–but it was true. Today was the die she was going to die.

The doctors, who had been so wrong about so many things, were right about this at least: She would know when it was time. This morning when June woke, she was conscious not just of the pain, the smell of her spent body, the odor of sweat and various fluids that had saturated the bed during the night, but of the fact that it was time to go. The knowledge came to her as an accepted truth. The sun would rise. The Earth would turn. She would die today.

June had at first been startled by the revelation, then had lain in the bed considering the implications. No more pain. No more sickness. No more headaches, seizures, fatigue, confusion, anger.

No more Richard.

That opening is like a punch in the mouth. Grim and unrelenting, Slaughter sets up her unsuspecting reader like a master: here we have a woman who, at long last, after a debilitating illness, is finally going to die and she knows it. As she reflects, in her deathbed, about finally being finished with the messy business of dying, she adds one more thing that she is finished with: Richard.

As the story unfolds–I won’t spoil it, the unfolding is part of the mastery of the story-telling–the sense of horror continues to grow as June reflects back on the horror of her own life, the tragedies she has seen and lived through, how she somehow managed to survive things that would break lesser people. It continues to insidiously unfold, as Slaughter keeps playing out her cards carefully, taking each trick from her mark like a punch to the solar-plexus, each new revelation an even bigger, more horrific shock than the last…until she gets to the very end, and the reader faces the biggest horror of them all. I remember reading this story on the plane and when I reached the final sentence of the story, I gasped and dropped the book.

I’ve not read anything else by Karin Slaughter; I know she is enormously popular and successful, and I have copies of several of her books which are in the TBR pile. But I am a fan, simply based on the brilliance and utter horror of this short story. The Edgar was well deserved; this story has resonated with me in the years since I read it and I’ve never once forgotten how horrific and smart and well-written it is.

If you’re a fan of short stories, you really need to read this one.

And now, back to the spice mines, and here is your Monday morning hunk: