The Moment I Knew


Thursday, y’all, and I think I am going to take a vacation day tomorrow to try and help me get caught up on all the things I need to get caught up on. Another three day weekend, following up on the one just past already? To be fair, it kind of needs to actually happen, to be honest. I also have to remember to dedicate myself to making sure all the things I need to get done actually get done.

Which, you know, is the real trick here.

I also kind of need to pull myself together. While I am fully aware that there are certain things about myself I cannot control–depression, the mood swings, etc–it is still enormously frustrating to have to deal with them, try to work through them, get through them while trying to keep going with everything I am juggling these days. Part of it comes, undoubtedly, from my inability to ever get a handle on everything; even when I am making lists and working from them there’s always something I am forgetting when I make the list or something that comes up new after I make the list–and the list is so long and daunting to begin with that the thought of adding something else to it is paralyzing, which drags me back into the endless cycle of plate spinning to “Flight of the Bumblebee” again.

Obviously, the insomnia never helps either, nor does fearing, every night when I go to bed, that I am going to have insomnia again.

We started watching Mythic Quest last night on Apple Plus, and it’s not bad; we watched two episodes and I think it has the potential to become really funny; it stars Rob McIlhenny of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and I was really surprised to discover that not only was he the driving force behind that show, but this one as well. We’re also watching We Hunt Together on Showtime–we started the other night, before getting distracted by Ted Lasso, which I absolutely love–and while it’s not bad, it’s not the best British crime show I’ve watched. It’s very unusual in that it features two mixed couples (a Black man and a white woman) on opposing sides of the law–the investigating detectives and the criminal couple killing people–and reflects the similarities of relationships and their dynamics in both; it’s like they are mirror images of each other if it’s a funhouse mirror. It’s an interesting choice, and the acting is superb; the female cop is played by Eve Myles of Torchwood fame, whose work I always enjoy.

During my condom-packing hours yesterday I also returned to the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, this time watching Jane Fonda in her Oscar-winning role as Bree Daniels, the call girl, in Klute (what is with women winning Oscars playing prostitutes, anyway?). Klute is a very strange film, and it’s the first of what is called, by film scholars, the Paranoia Trilogy of director Alan J. Pakula (I have recently watched the other two, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men). Klute, to me, is a deeply flawed film, but an interesting one all the same. It’s a crime movie, the title character is a cop who takes a leave of absence to investigate the disappearance of a friend, and yet neither the cop nor the investigation are the lead story of the movie; it’s really a character study of Bree Daniels. Klute, the detective, is played almost completely emotionlessly by Donald Sutherland (obviously a choice made by both director and actor; since this is also the same period that produced his stunning performance in Don’t Look Now), so the emotional heart and center of the movie is Fonda’s performance. I came away from the film not entirely convinced by that performance; there was complexity there and some moments of truly fine acting, but over all–the film hasn’t really aged all that well (the underground world of orgies and call girls and pimps and heroin of Manhattan in the 1970’s it is trying to depict feels very screenwriter-ish to me; a film studio’s thoughts about how that particular subculture would look, walk and talk)–but I can see why she won an Oscar; those scenes where she is able to really inhabit the character are stellar. Klute is a subversion of noir/crime thrillers, really; by focusing on the character study of Bree rather than the story, it becomes less a crime story than the story of the unfortunate aspiring actress/model who turns to tricking to pay the bills and then is trying to leave the life but isn’t entirely able to; not only because she needs the money but because she likes the power of being in control–or at least, the allusion of control hooking brings her.

Imagine Double Indemnity if the focus of the film wasn’t the plan to kill Phyllis’ husband, but rather who she is and why she is the way she is.

The paranoia is also there in that Bree’s phone is tapped, not only by Klute but also by the killer. There’s another part of the film that is a flaw; the motive for the killing and the motive for hiring and paying Klute doesn’t really wash; but’s that probably also the crime writer/editor in me. I had also thought the film was based on a book but was apparently wrong; I could have sworn I remember seeing a paperback novel of Klute on the wire racks at Zayre’s, but of course it could have simply been a novelization of the film.

I did find Don’t Look Now also available to stream somewhere as I idly looked through all my streaming services apps last evening before we started watching Mythic Quest; I definitely want to watch that film again–and it’s not a bad idea for me to delve back into Daphne du Maurier’s short stories again. I may even have to read one of the novels she wrote that I haven’t read yet; there appears to be an adaptation of The Scapegoat (which I’ve not read) available to stream as well. The concept of the book intrigues me–the concept of the look-alike, which is something I’ve always wanted to write about myself. I’ve always had this idea of a bartender in a gay bar being approached by someone who thought he was someone else as a great starting place for a thriller; the problem, of course, being that now DNA would take away any possibility of an imposter passing for someone else. (FUCKING technological improvements.)

This idea came to me–not the least because of The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart–but because when I used to visit New Orleans before moving here, consistently people–locals–would come up to me and start talking to me like I was someone else; eventually I would point out to them that they didn’t actually know ME and they would be very startled. This continued for a year or so after we moved here–I would sometimes get bought drinks by total strangers who thought I was someone else, and now that I think about it, perhaps the reason so many bartenders gave me a drink for free now and then was because they thought I was someone else. But it stopped after living here for a few years–I’d forgotten this used to happen–but they would always tell me I had a double here in New Orleans; one that I never met or saw anywhere. Isn’t that strange? But I always thought it was a good opening or idea for a story–but of course now, as I mentioned before, DNA has ruined the imposter stories forever.

Today is a better day, so here’s hoping it lasts and I can get back on track.

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Phyllis A. Whitney is one of my all-time favorite authors.

I first discovered her, as Constant Reader is probably already aware, when I was a kid looking for mysteries in the school library. I distinctly remember that day in the fourth grade when I found The Mystery of the Hidden Hand on the shelves at the Eli Whitney Elementary School library; this was during my period of fascination with the ancient world (I was getting the Time-Life series Great Ages of Man; and had just gotten the volume Classical Greece). The description on the back of the book told me it was set in Greece, and had to do with antiquities and Greek history; that was all I needed and I signed it out. (I have, in the past, mistakenly identified The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye as my gateway drug into Whitney’s novels; I remembered incorrectly.) I enjoyed the book tremendously; I returned it and checked out The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye. I went on to read many of her children’s mysteries; she won two Edgars for Best Juvenile and was nominated twice more. After we’d moved to the suburbs, Signet started reissuing her children’s mysteries, and I started buying them at Zayre’s: The Mystery of the Angry Idol, The Secret of the Spotted Shell, The Mystery of the Black Diamonds, The Mystery of the Golden Horn, The Mystery of the Gulls, and numerous others. (I started collecting them again as an adult, thanks to eBay.)

I won’t tell the story again of how I rediscovered Whitney as a romantic suspense writer for adults; I’ve told that story any number of times, and I read almost everything she wrote for adults–but with The Ebony Swan I noted a decline in the quality of her writing, and never read anything she published after that. (I do intend, at some point, to read the ones I’ve never read–it’s the completist in me.)

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Cunningham’s department store is quiet again now. Sylvester Haring still puts his head in the door of my office whenever he goes by, to call out “Hi, Linell!” and perhaps to linger and study the pictures on my walls, to speak briefly of the past. But his days are given over to the humdrum of catching shoplifters and petty thieves, instead of trailing a murderer.

He never mentions that one picture we hunted down together, or the tragic denouement to which it led. But now and then we cock an eyebrow at each other because we are conspirators and know it.

Not that the law was in any way defeated. Payment in full was made for all those terrible things that happened. But still, Haring and I know what we know and the case as it broke in the papers told only half the story.

There are still things about Cunningham’s that make me shiver. I can never cross that narrow passageway that leads past the freight elevators into the display department without a feeling of uneasiness. I cannot bear the mannequin room at all, and I will go to any length to avoid setting foot in it. But most of all I am haunted by the symbols that came into being during the case.

The color red, for instance. I never wear it anymore, because it was the theme of those dreadful days. It ran beneath the surface of our lives like a bright network of veins, spilling out into the open now and then to accent with horror. And there are the owls. Sometimes in my dreams that eerie moment returns when I stood there in the gloom with all those plaster creatures crowding about me, cutting off my escape.

Nor will I ever again breathe the scent of pine without remembering the way the light went out and those groping hands came toward me. Strange to have your life saved by the odor of Christmas trees.

But the worst thing of all is when I imagine I hear the strains of Sondo’s phonograph. For me, those rooms will never be free of ghostly music and I break into cold chills in broad daylight whenever a radio plays Begin the Beguine.

And while there are some romantic aspects to The Red Carnelian, it’s probably one of the least romantic suspense-like novels she published (Skye Cameron, The Quicksilver Pool, and The Trembling Hills were not mysteries, at least not that I recall; but they were also early in her career and once she hit her stride, she became enormously successful). It’s a straight-up murder mystery, told in the first person point of view of Linell Wynn, who works at Cunningham’s Department Store on State Street in Chicago, writing copy for advertising posters, ads, and so forth. When the story opens, the entire store is on edge, because the window display manager, Michael “Monty” Montgomery, is returning to work that day from his surprise honeymoon; he and Linell had been a thing before his sudden elopement caught everyone by surprise. He’d married Chris Gardner, whose father Owen ran the luxury floor–the 4th–evening gowns and jewelry and furs. Linell claims that she and Monty were cooling things off when he suddenly eloped; I’m not entirely convinced that’s not something she claims to salvage her damaged pride. Naturally, later that day Monty is murdered, and of course, Linell finds the body; a fact which she, on the advice of Bill Thorne (one of the store’s vendors) keeps quiet from the police. He was killed near one of the window displays, by a golf club; Linell found the broken end of it in the window before she finds the body and put it back in the golf bag, thus handling the murder weapon. She also finds a piece of stone, a red carnelian, in the window display and puts it in her smock pocket and forgets about it.

Linell, of course, immediately becomes suspect number one–but it doesn’t take long for her, her store detective buddy Sylvester Haring, and new love interest Bill (who she does suspect from time to time) to find out almost every single person working in the store who’s a character in the book has a reason for hating Monty and wanting to see him dead. Linell of course also finds herself targeted from time to time by the killer–who never actually kills her (obviously)–as she sort of starts figuring out the who’s and what’s and why’s of the story.

It’s quite a good read; the characters are very well fleshed out, and the writing itself is pretty good. Whitney always wrote in a more Gothic style, in her books for adults; a style that seems a little dated now as well but still manages to hold your interest. I also would imagine a teenager reading the book today would have to look up what a “phonograph” was–although its usage makes it fairly clear to me what it is; but of course I grew up with phonographs and vinyl records and needles and all the accoutrement that goes along with them.

I’d recommend it as a gateway to Whitney’s other, more romantic suspense type work; it works very well as a stand-alone cozy type mystery novel.

It’s Alright

Monday morning, and we have thus far made it through another weekend, and have another week to stare down. I’ve not heard or seen any reports about how the gradual reopening of New Orleans went this weekend–I stayed my ass at home; I didn’t go outside at all other than to take out the trash–and today’s a work-at-home day. The gym has reopened, and I am debating whether I should go workout after work tonight. I’ve been itching to get back to the gym since everything closed–if you will recall, I’d started working out again before the shutdown, even managing to make it through Carnival, and had developed a really good routine before the world closed down on me.

I got some writing done on the Secret Project yesterday, almost two thousand words, which was pretty thrilling for me. I’d hoped to get more done–as I always do–but I really had to force those words out, and I was pretty glad to have been that productive when the words weren’t coming, so I called it a day when the well went dry and retired to my easy chair. I watched a great documentary on Galaxy Quest (one of my favorite movies) on Prime called Never Surrender–if you’re a fan of the movie, I highly recommend the documentary. Last evening Paul and I continued watching The Great, which is becoming more and more fun as I no longer think of them as actual historical figures, since the show bears so little resemblance to the actual history.

I also tried reading  a classic novel by a master of our genre, but couldn’t get very far into it. I admire what the author was doing with his style, voice and use of language–I’ve heard him speak and he’s all about the rhythm of the words, which is very important, and something I tell beginning writers all the time to watch for, and why it’s always important to read your work out loud to make sure the rhythm you’re using is consistent–but he also was guilty of one of my pet peeves: the use of colons and semi-colons in fiction prose. Anyway, between that and the toxic masculinity and racism–I don’t care if it was accurate for the period, it’s hard for me to see toxic racist men as heroic–and when I got to the extensive use of the n*word–again, probably accurate and correct for the period–I was done. I put it in the donation pile and was done with it. I’ve read his work before and I don’t remember it being quite as bad as this particular book; but I intend to reread that book again at some point (it was also homophobic, which jumped off the page at me, and that’s why I want to reread it–to see if it still rings that way) and then I can gladly call it quits on that author.

I’m also still rereading Phyllis A. Whitney’s The Red Carnelian, which is more of a straight-up mystery than any of her other novels for adults. As I mentioned before, it was originally titled Red is for Murder; most of her novels for adults had a color in the title somehow–The Turquoise Mask, Silverhill, Hunter’s Green, Black Amber, Sea Jade–but when her work became more romantic suspense, it was reissued and retitled as The Red Carnelian, to fit her other titles more. Set in a sprawling department store on State Street in Chicago (like Marshall Field’s or Carson Pirie Scott, back in the day–I wonder which store she used as a research; Mrs. Whitney was a librarian, and always exhaustively researched her novels) named Cunningham’s, the book also offers an interesting, behind-the-scenes look at how department stores are run, and the various jobs (window dresser, poster and sign copy, marketing and sales, backdrop painting, mannequin arranging) that are necessary for the day-to-day operation of a large department store. Thinking about which store she used to research her novel sent me into an Internet wormhole, where I looked up Marshall Field’s, Carson Pirie Scott, Goldblatt’s, and Zayre’s, among the many department stores I remember visiting as a child in Chicago. (The bargain basement at Zayre’s was where I first discovered the children’s mystery series featuring Rick Brant, Ken Holt, and Biff Brewster.)

I kind of miss department stores.

I am hoping to get a lot accomplished this week–and I am really looking forward to our three day weekend that’s coming up. Huzzah!

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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