Jambalaya (On the Bayou)

Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me-oh-my-oh.

Now I want jambalaya.

Yesterday kind of sucked over all. I wasn’t in the least bit sorry to go to bed last night and bid the shitty day adieu. The energy of the day was off from the moment I got up yesterday, and just never got any better than that, sadly. The drive from the office to the grocery store was an endless annoyance of stupid drivers and their senseless, dangerous behavior. The grocery store was full of thoughtless trash who seemed to think they were the only people in the store, and then I almost got hit by another idiot driver who wasn’t watching or paying attention as I took the turn off St. Charles to my street–had I not been paying attention or been five seconds later, I definitely would have been broad-sided. I got home and the house was a disaster area, so bad I couldn’t get organized enough to clean because somehow I’d allowed the kitchen to get so bad that I had both sinks full of dirty dishes, the stove and counter were filthy, and a dishwasher full of clean dishes that I had to put away before I could start doing the rest of the dishes–which turned out to be more than one load. The shrimp creole turned out delicious, though, and when it was finally time to relax and watch some television, when we opened the Netflix app on the television, the third season of Thirteen Reasons Why had dropped. The second season wasn’t very good–and the first had its moments of nonsense–but as we watched the preview, it looked interesting–and of course the cast is all very young and appealing, so we decided to give it a whirl. The third season is, so far, the best of the three, to be honest; I enjoyed the first season, was surprised by its twists and turns, but ultimately the gimmick that tied the first season together–the tapes Hannah left behind after her suicide–was a bit outdated. For one thing, can you even buy blank cassette tapes anymore? Even when the book was originally published, sometime during the second Bush administration, the cassettes were outdated–but it was important to the story that it had to be cassette tapes–digital recordings wouldn’t work for the necessity of the story–and the one big plot hole that was never resolved was how did all the kids have the means to listen to cassette tapes? Clay had to borrow Tony’s ancient Walkman–and let’s be serious, Walkmans didn’t last very long, even when babied. To use cassette tapes in this decade was absurd on its face; why not videotapes, if we’re using obsolete technology?

But the third season is off to a really good start, and it appears that the third season is going to follow the story-telling methodology of the earlier seasons: the present, the recent past, and the distant past as timelines. The first season’s question was why did Hannah kill herself? The second season concerned itself with will Hannah get justice?, and it appears that the third season is going to be a lengthy, lazily unfurling murder mystery, in which the show’s villain has been murdered and of course, everyone in the cast has a motive. It will be interesting to see how they proceed with this, and I’m actually hopeful it will be a better experience than the first two flawed seasons. And yes, I am very well aware that the entire notion that the group of friends are helping out the poor bullied kid who almost became a school shooter last season by taking care of him and watching out for him, while getting him psychiatric help, is a bit much…but then again, teenagers often think they can solve problems that are beyond their scope.

Juggling multiple time-lines is not something I’ve tried in any of my works; Alison Gaylin and Laura Lippman both are masters of the varied timelines–so if you’re looking for a tutorial on how to structure a novel this way I highly recommend Gaylin’s What Remains of Me and Lippman’s After I’m Gone–but it is something I’ve always wanted to try. My novels are always linear–A to B to C–and it might be a fun challenge sometime to do the multiple timeline thing.

While I was cleaning yesterday some ideas for “Never Kiss a Stranger” popped into my head, and I’m hoping I’ll remember them today so i can add them in. I have some errands to run today, and definitely to spend some time with the new Lippman novel–which I may just finish today–and have some other work to do in addition to cleaning and doing some writing. I feel good this morning; awake and lively and functional, so here’s hoping it will last through the day–and going out into the heat and humidity, which I am rather dreading as it is so draining. But I have prescriptions and mail to pick up, groceries to make, and  I’m hoping I’ll be able to make some serious progress on projects. There’s college football games today–of all things, they are calling it “Week Zero”, which is insane–so I may watch the Miami-Florida game tonight before queueing up Thirteen Reasons Why.

I’m not really sure what I’m going to do about dinner today–and I’ll need to make up my mind before heading out to make groceries, you know? I’m also considering going back to taking salads to work for lunch every day–one of the reasons I stopped was because salads would turn brown if I made a big bowl, and it was too much trouble every morning to make a salad, plus it wasn’t helping me lose weight or anything–but now I’m thinking it’s probably not a bad idea to go back to salads again. Of course, I also have the shrimp creole. Maybe I’ll wait and get the salad fixings on my way home from work on Wednesday, which is my new short day.

Decisions, decisions. Maybe I’ll just wait till Labor Day weekend, and start then.

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader! See you tomorrow.

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If You Leave Me Now

One of my favorite writers when I was a kid was Charlotte Armstrong.

Armstrong was astonishing, really. The first book of hers I read was The Witch’s House. My parents had allowed me to join the Mystery Guild and I, of course, one month failed to do my duty and send the order card back declining that month’s selections. It was probably one of the best mistakes I’d ever made through my instinct for procrastination; I wound up getting a three volume omnibus of Armstrong called The Charlotte Armstrong Reader, and Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie. I shelved the Christie and forgot about it until years later–when I’d started reading Christie–but The Witch’s House sounded interesting to me; it had “witch” in the title and I’ve always been drawn to witches, for some reason, and I was at the age when I was still reading my kids’ mystery series but was slowly beginning to transition to books for adults. I was enthralled by The Witch’s House, and read it very quickly, and followed it up by reading the next, Mischief, which I liked even better. But the local library didn’t have any Armstrong novels in stock–which surprises me even more now than it did then–and so I didn’t continue reading Armstrong until years later. Armstrong is one of my favorite writers, even if the books might seem a bit dated today; whenever I read another one of her novels I greatly enjoy it. Armstrong’s books were–I don’t know how to put this, but I am going to give it a try–were dark without darkness; there was always a sense of optimism in her books no matter how dark they got (there’s one particular scene in The Gift Shop that to this day rattles me when I think about it) and I do think she is overdue for a renaissance. It was the combined work of Jeffrey Marks and Sarah Weinman that reminded me of Armstrong and got me to go back and try to finish reading her canon; they also introduced me to Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar (among others).

The point is, women have always been some of the greatest writers in the crime genre, and societal and cultural sexism have gone a very long way to ensuring that the men who wrote in the same period as these ladies are now lauded as giants of the genre and must-reads, while the women–who won just as many awards and critical laurels and big sales–faded away into obscurity. Mary Higgins Clark was the bridge from these great women of the past to the modern women who write domestic suspense–and really, has there ever been a greater concept for a domestic suspense novel than Where are the Children?–but the second wave of major women crime writers primarily focused on private eye fiction (Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky).

But what the great Sarah Weinman calls “domestic suspense” never faded away; and nowadays we have some truly terrific women writing truly terrific novels in this subgenre–Lori Rader-Day, Catriona McPherson, Carol Goodman, Wendy Corsi Staub, Alafair Burke, and so many others–and it’s really become one of my absolute favorite subgenres, primarily because of the work these women are doing. It’s extraordinary; I cannot urge you enough to check out these women’s books, Constant Reader.

I could go on and on about these women and domestic suspense forever; but I’ll spare you and cut to the chase.

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“It was the girl.” The old man leaned forward, bracing against the worn-out armchair as though he were trying to escape its grasp. “April Cooper. She was the real killer.”

Quentin Garrison watched his face. He was very good at describing people, a skill he used all the time in his true crime podcasts. Later, recording the narration segments with his coproducer Summer Hawkins, Quentin would paint the picture for his listeners–the leathery skin, the white eyebrows wispy as cobwebs, the eyes, cerulean in 1976 but now the color of worn denim, and with so much pain bottled up behind them, as though he were constantly hovering on the brink of tears.

The man was named Reg Sharkey, and on June 20, 1976 , he’d watched his four-year-old daughter Kimmy die instantly of a gunshot wound to the chest–the youngest victim of April Cooper and Gabriel Allen LeRoy, aka the Inland Empire Killers. Two weeks later, his wife, Clara, had decided her own grief was too much to bear and committed suicide, after which Reg Sharkey had apparently given up on caring about anything or anyone.

Quentin said, “Wasn’t it LeRoy who pulled the trigger?”

Alison Gaylin has been nominated for the Edgar four times (Best First for Hide Your Eyes, Best PBO for both Into the Dark and If I Die Tonight, Best Novel for What Remains of Me)  and claimed the prize, just this past week, for If I Die Tonight. Her novels encompass a wide variety of subgenres; her first series featured an amateur sleuth; she then wrote two brilliant crime novels built around the entertainment industry; and then did the Brenna Spector trilogy: private eye novels that were, by and large, quite superb. All of her novels were superb, but once the Brenna trilogy was completed she moved on to stand-alones of psychological suspense that also crossover into the domestic suspense category; explorations of families and the dysfunction that leads to damaged people and possibly crimes. What Remains of Me was a throwback to  her earlier stand alone novels about the entertainment industry; only delving more deeply into the friendships and family relationships with the insightful eye of an artist. What Remains of Me juggled two time-lines and two murders; one committed in 1979 and another committed in the present–both linked and connected to the same woman, the same cast of characters, and the big reveal was stunning. If I Die Tonight was all set in the present day, but Gaylin’s family relationships in this novel are just as fractured and dysfunctional on every level; the concept Gaylin explored in this novel was public face private truth–the singular kernel of truth in this book being that things are so rarely what they appear to be in public, whereas the actual truth is far more complicated, far more complex, and far too often not what anyone actually wants to know.

Never Look Back also, like What Remains of Me, juggles two timelines; one in the past, which is expressed and explored through letters a teenaged girl writes to her future child, the other, a present where the aftermath of a brutal killing spree decades earlier by the teenaged girl writing the letters and the “boyfriend” who took her along for the ride; the notorious Inland Empire Killers. In the present day, a happily married gay man whose own childhood and family was actually shattered by the Inland Empire Killers, now works as an adult as a coproducer of true crime podcasts. The book opens with him confronting the father of the youngest victim of the killers–who also happens to be his grandfather, whom he doesn’t know. The interview ends badly, with bitterness and shouting and recriminations; Quentin blames his grandfather for his mother’s tragic, drug addicted, and wasted life, which in turn made his own childhood a mess. Quentin is now happily married…but driven by an obsession to get to the bottom of the killings so many decades ago.

And then comes the tip that April Cooper, the young girl writing the letters and the “Bonnie” to Gabriel LeRoy’s “Clyde”–might not have died in the fire which everyone believed killed them both; that she might actually be still alive and living in the Hudson Valley of New York.

This is a terrific premise, and Gaylin delivers in ways the reader cannot imagine as they ride the rollercoaster of suspense and emotion along with her characters. It’s an enormously satisfying read, with lots of juggled subplots and clues being left in the most casual of ways, so that the careful reader might even be able to figure out the truth long before the characters. Quentin is a terrific character, and so is Robin Diamond, the website  columnist whose mother might–or might not–hold the key to the answers Quentin is so driven to learn. The suspense and the twists are stunning, but the ending is powerful and enormously satisfying…and there’s not a single loose plot thread left behind.

Charlotte Armstrong was dubbed the Queen of Suspense by critics and reviewers during her lifetime; Alison Gaylin is a worthy heir to that title.

The book is available for preorder now; I’d advise you to do yourself a favor and preorder now. You aren’t going to want to miss this one.

Sweet Love

Saturday morning and feeling fine. Another good night’s sleep is in the books, and I am swilling coffee and looking forward to getting some things done today. I have to make groceries (I wound up pretty much effectively blowing most of yesterday off–who saw that coming?) and I need to get some work done on the WIP. I did get all of the laundry–including bed linens–done yesterday, and the dishes, and some cleaning and organizing done. I also pulled the WIP out from the back-up, and sure enough, the 300 words or so I’d one on Chapter Three weren’t there, since they are on the flash drive.

But as I said yesterday, reconstructing the revisions I’d already done turned out to be easier–and better–than the revision I’d done already; and while I simply added a different three hundred words to that chapter, this 300 is better than the last 300 and I also restructured the opening of the chapter so it makes better sense and works better. So leaving the flash drive at the office was, as I thought it might be yesterday, for the best. I intend to get that chapter finished this morning, perhaps move on to the next, and then perhaps get a short story reworked before retiring to my easy chair with Alison Gaylin’s quite superb Never Look Back, which is quite superb, actually. I thought her last two novels–What Remains of Me and If I Die Tonight–were marvelous; this one looks to be even better than both of those….which means hours of reading bliss for me. Gaylin is an author who always outdoes herself with each new work, like her peers Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Lori Roy, and Alafair Burke.

And I think the next book up with be something by a gay author, as I continue working on the Diversity Project. I also need to get back to reading Murder-a-Go-Go’s, so I can keep writing up the stories in it. I also should be doing more promotion for Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories. I’ve done a terrible job of pushing the book thus far–even forgetting the publication date–and yeah, it’s a wonder I still  have a career to speak at all in this business.

But it’s great to feel rested and relaxed; that happens so rarely that having several good nights’ sleep under my belt has me wondering, is this how everyone else feels? Don’t take the ability to sleep for granted, Constant Reader, if it is something you are blessed with; it can be taken away from you before you know it and you’ll really, really miss it once it’s gone.

We watched some more of Kim’s Convenience  last night, and continue to enjoy it. I do want to get back to watching You and The Umbrella Academy at some point, but neither show crosses my mind when I am flipping through the Apple TV apps trying to find something to watch. I also never finished watching Pose, and there’s also Fosse/Verdon, which I’d like to take a look at as well. And I barely ever think to go to Amazon Prime…primarily because their television app isn’t really user friendly. (I’ve still never forgiven Hulu for changing theirs from something incredibly intuitive and super-easy to use to the more complicated version they have now.) But there are some terrific films I’d like to see–I still haven’t seen Black Panther, for example–and of course there are some classic films available for streaming.

It’s ever so easy to get distracted, you know?

So, once I finish this I am going to go read for an hour before getting back to work on the WIP, and then I am going to head to the grocery store. I’ll work on it some more when I get back from the grocery store, and then read some more until about five-ish, after which I’ll probably go sit in my chair and scroll through apps looking for something to watch…oh yes, the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships are on tonight, and LSU made it to the final four, along with UCLA, Oklahoma, and Denver. Paul and I are enormous LSU fans, and we watch the gymnastics team compete, whenever possible, on television. And football season will be returning soon…I am already getting emails from Stubhub about buying game tickets. Paul and I are still riding our eight-year streak of never seeing LSU lose when we are in the stadium; let’s hope that streak continues for a ninth year.

And now it’s time to head back into the spice mines. See you on the flip side, Constant Reader!

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A View to a Kill

God, yesterday.

Have you ever had one of those days where you took the morning off from your day job to drive out to the suburbs for an appointment with your eye doctor, only to arrive and find out that you don’t have an appointment after all–and the doctor isn’t even IN–and then after further investigation it turned out that when you called to make your appointment for March 2nd they made it for February 2nd? Yeah, that was how MY day started yesterday. So, I left with a new appointment for next Friday, which means taking ANOTHER morning off from work, and means I still don’t have my new contact lenses and my new glasses are still off somewhere in the future.

Honestly. It’s amazing there was no body count. Seriously. And, as always when something goes wrong in a day, everything else the rest of the day just seemed to go wrong, too. But today is going to be better.

Speaking of better, Alison Gaylin’s new novel comes out this week, and if you haven’t already preordered it, you need to do so. RIGHT NOW.

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From the Facebook page of Jacqueline Merrick Reed.

October 24 at 2:45 am

By the time you read this, I’ll be dead.

This isn’t Jackie. It’s her son Wade. She doesn’t know where I am. She doesn’t even know I can get on her FB page, so don’t ask her. This isn’t her fault. I am not her fault.

I am writing to tell my mom and Connor that I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt anyone. I wish I could tell you the truth of what happened, but it’s not my truth to tell. And anyway, it doesn’t matter. What matters, what I want you both to know, is that I love you. Don’t feel sad. Everything you did was the right thing to do. I’m sorry for those things I said to you, Connor. I didn’t mean any of it.

Alison Gaylin has been nominated for an Edgar Award three times: Best First Novel, Best Paperback Original, and Best Novel. (For the record, let it show there are many many horrible things I would do to be nominated once, let alone three times.) Her most recent novel, What Remains of Me, was a tour-de-force (Best Novel nominee), juggling two different time-lines as she told the story of two murders thirty years apart and yet connected. But somehow she has managed to surpass that novel with her latest, If I Die Tonight, which is powerful, compelling and beautifully written.

The book begins with the above Facebook post, which immediately pulls the reader into the story. Who is Wade? What is he talking about? Why is he going to kill himself? And from there, the book goes back to five days earlier, where the story truly begins. Jackie, mentioned in the post, is a single mother, estranged from her ex-husband and his current wife. The father of her two children has also pretty much abdicated any responsibility for his sons, other than the monthly check. Jackie is a realtor, and struggles to make ends meet. Her eldest son Wade is her primary worry: over the last few years he has withdrawn, become more insular, barely speaks to her. Friends don’t stop by to visit him or hang out, he doesn’t leave the house much. He is also no longer close to his younger brother, Connor. Jackie’s co-worker at the real estate agency is also her best friend; Wade used to be infatuated with her daughter but is no longer.

The peace and quiet of this little town in the Hudson Valley, Havenkill, is abruptly shattered in the early hours of a weekend morning when an attempted carjacking ends with a popular young athlete at the high school, Liam, hospitalized in critical condition; he and a friend came to the rescue of the woman being carjacked, but the car was stolen anyway and the comatose boy was run over. Who would do such a thing? The woman in the car is a one-hit wonder from the 80’s, Aimee En, and yet pieces of her story don’t make sense. What happened that night? And when Liam dies and it becomes a murder investigation, Jackie becomes increasingly more terrified that Wade was involved somehow.

Gaylin’s mastery of character is on full display in this novel; every character is real, believable, and alive. Even when they behave in ways that are either self-destructive or selfish, it makes sense and fits with the character; no one ever does anything that doesn’t make sense in order to advance the narrative. The plot is devilishly complex and layered, with twists and turns that make the truth almost impossible for the reader to ferret out. Gaylin makes you care for and understand every character, even if you don’t approve of what they’re doing.

But the heart of this novel, its true theme, is the relationships between parent and child. Jackie and Wade, police detective Pearl Maze and her estranged father, her co-worker Helen and her daughter–every step along the way Gaylin is examining those relationships: what goes wrong between them? Can distance, once it develops, be overcome? What is and isn’t acceptable for a parent to accept from their child in terms of behavior, and vice versa? How well can a parent know a child, and vice versa? What is enough space, and what is too much?

And every twist in this novel is earned, as it barrels along to its satisfying conclusion.

This is going to be one of the top books of the year; in fact, 2018 has–with Gaylin’s, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, and Alafair Burke’s The Wife–already gotten off to an amazing start for crime fiction, and there’s a Megan Abbott coming this summer. If these women are indicative of how high the bar is being risen in crime fiction…it’s going to be a great year in our genre.

Songbird

I always say that short stories are much harder for me to write than novels, and I also realize that makes me sound completely insane. But it’s true. I don’t know why I have such a mental block about writing short stories, but the sad thing is I do. I make it much harder than it probably needs to be, most likely. And there’s nothing I admire more than people who write excellent short stories. There’s apparently nothing Stephen King can’t do when it comes to writing; I can name of the top of my head any number of absolutely brilliant short stories he’s written. Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, William Faulkner–the list goes on and on. I wish I read my short stories, honestly; it makes sense to read short stories when I don’t have a lot of free time to read a novel, or between clients at work, etc. I really want to reread King’s collections Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, and I have anthologies all over my house, as well as back issues of both Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that I should really read.

Music often inspires me; all of my blog titles are song titles, for example, or a lyric from a song, so when I heard about Jim Fusilli’s new anthology Crime Plus Music, crime short stories inspired by music, I had to get a copy.

Thus far, I’ve only read one of the stories, but it’s quite exceptional and may be one of the best short stories I’ve read this year: Alison Gaylin’s “All Ages.”

Gaylin is one of my favorite authors. I’ve loved all her novels (there is one I haven’t read; I’m holding it back because of that weird thing where I always want there to be one more book I haven’t read by a favorite writer), and her What Remains of Me is one of my favorite novels of 2016. Her contribution to my own anthology Blood on the Bayou, “Icon”, was something I was incredibly proud to publish.

But “All Ages”–wow.

We started with the hair. Bret said that was where all adventures started–Great hair, great music, great buzz. And so the first thing we did on the night of the all-ages X show at The Whisky was to lock ourselves in her upstairs bathroom with two cans of Aquanet, three boxes of Midnight Raven temporary dye, and an assortment of pics and combs, gels whose names I can no longer remember but whose colors I do–battery acid green, radioactive yellow…Each of them with anepoxy-like consistency and a sickly chemical smell. We teased the mercy out of each other’s hair and took swigs from a bottle of peach schnapps we’d found at the back of her parents’ liquor cabinet and we played X albums–Under the Big Black Sun, Los Angeles, some bootleg tape recorded live at one of their local shows. Bret’s trifecta in action. And it was working. Exene’s steely voice grew more and more beautiful with each gulp of schnapps, John Doe’s growl a cloud I could float on. My hair turned stiff and black and defiant and before long I was a star, a punk rock star. I felt like dancing.

Gaylin captures the 80’s beautifully, and what it was like to be a kid during that time (she also does this in What Remains of Me). The story, also like the novel, flashes back in time from the present to the 80’s, as the main character remembers what happened the night of the X concert, and how she and Bret hadn’t been friends for years, now that she is attending Bret’s funeral. It’s a lovely story, about friendship and loss, the complicated relationships between girls…and there’s a twist that will knock you out of your chair.

The book is worth the price for this story alone, and it has an amazingly stellar line-up of top crime writers in addition to Gaylin as well: Craig Johnson, Val McDermid, and Gary Phillips, just to name a few.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest.

And now back to the spice mines.