Yesterday, we had news about a king (Richard III of England). Now, there's news about a Queen: Ellery Queen. The Mysterious Press and Open Road Media have just released a dozen Ellery Queen classics in popular e-book formats, including all of the early "puzzle"-type mysteries for which Queen was famous, with titles including a nationality (American Gun Mystery, Chinese Orange Mystery, Dutch Shoe Mystery, etc.). Also newly re-released: Cat of Many Tails, Ten Days Wonder and And on the Eighth Day, which really are among the best and most powerful of the novels.
If you're not familiar with Ellery Queen - the fictional character and the real-life novelist - "Queen" was really two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. As a general rule, Dannay came up with the plots in outline form, and Lee turned the outlines into polished novels. Most of the early books included a direct and literal "Challenge to the Reader," just before the final revelations at the end of the book. The reader was informed that she or he had been given all the clues needed to solve the mystery and challenged to come up with the solution independently before reading the rest of the book. Not too many readers were up to the challenge - I certainly wasn't! And yet the clues are there - if you can find them.
As Ellery Queen, Dannay and Lee were tremendously influential on the traditional branch of the American mystery, and it is just flat-out wrong that their books have slipped into relative obscurity. To celebrate their e-book republication, Open Road Media has provided a link to this video about Ellery Queen, with brief comments from Richard Dannay and Rand Lee, the sons of the authors, and Otto Penzler of the Mysterious Press. Enjoy!
As part of a promotion for a series of Ellery Queen eBooks newly released the publicity people at Open Road Media and Mysterious Press have announced the following:
We have created an original mini-documentary about the crime-writing duo [of Ellery Queen], featuring Dannay and Lee’s sons and Otto Penzler. The video can be viewed on our site here and on YouTube here. We hope you enjoy it!
The "mini-documentary" should be more rightly called a micro-documentary as it is nothing more than a book promo that lasts less than two minutes. If you're interested in seeing it, click on one of the links above. The Open Road Media site is more pleasing to the eye and you won't have the irksome YouTube caption ads at the bottom of the video.
The Queen books now available in digital format are:
The Adventures of Ellery Queen
The Roman Hat Mystery
The Chinese Orange Mystery
The American Gun Mystery
The Dutch Shoe Mystery
The Egyptian Cross Mystery
The Siamese Twin Mystery
The French Powder Mystery
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Spanish Cape Mystery
Cat of Many Tails
Ten Days’ Wonder
And on the Eighth Day
I have read most of the books listed above and can highly recommend The Chinese Orange Mystery (the famous backwards murder), The Egyptian Cross Mystery (bizarre and gruesome beheadings), The Greek Coffin Mystery (brilliant display of multiple solutions and logical wizardry), Cat of Many Tails (the landmark serial killer novel that inspired hundreds of rip off books) and the extremely unusual And on the Eighth Day.
Breaking News: I've just learned my interview with Mysterious Press's Rob Hart is packaged with Otto Penzler's interview with Nelson DeMille on a just available FREE podcast through iTunes. Just go to the iTunes store, search for Mytserious Podcast, look for the MP logo among the offerings, and there it will be.
This time of year is often called the Season of Caring—the better to distinguish it, I suppose, from the rest of the year, aka the Season of Sneering Unconcern. (Or: the Season of Scaring.)
Caring has been on my mind not just because of the season, though. Two recent articles in the New York Times had me thinking a bit more deeply than usual about the whole issue of caring—how much we can, for how long, and why we often try not to.
In her piece titled How to Live Without Irony, Christy Wampole argued that the current zeitgeist, especially among millennials, requires an almost kneejerk rejection of caring, or at least seeming to care.
She blames some of this on the obsession with digital technology, which overwhelms slower, more demanding, more human connections.
But there’s also the lingering fear of finding one’s passions and desires wanting. Christy admits when it comes to gifts, she’d rather give a kitschy knick-knack, good for a moment’s laugh, than try for something meaningful and have the recipient disappointed.
In this view, irony is the terror of the pain that accompanies being authentic, imperfect, human. It’s a kind of armor against shame.
I learned to care when I stopped trying to be the smartest guy in the room—or the class clown—and realized I actually wanted a meaningful connection with someone else. It truly hit home in my marriage—no more so than when Terri got sick and passed away. (Or, as one of Christy’s friends put it: “Wherever the real imposes itself, it tends to dissipate the fogs of irony.”)
And yet a lack of irony can be just as self-defensive and false. Tyrants lack irony, zealots lack irony. For them the hyper-sincerity of unquestioned belief is the armor against shame.
Regardless of the emotional spectrum—dour with power or hip and flip—it's genuine connection with others, the ability to care and accept the pain of loss and rejection and error, which proves to be the most difficult thing.
The second article I read that had a real impact—“New Love: A Short Shelf Life” by Sonya Lyubomirsky—concerned what’s known as hedonic adaptation—or, more colorfully, the hedonic treadmill. (No, it won’t firm up your thighs.)
Hedonic adaptation is the now widely accepted and broadly verified phenomenon by which we naturally “normalize” experiences of profound joy or bliss or excitement after a certain period of time. Sexual passion for a loved one normally lasts about two years, for example. A new toy may lose its fascination well before nightfall on Christmas Day.
Being happy, it turns out, is a lot like being tall. After about age thirteen, the fix is in. Your general state of personal happiness is largely hard-wired.
And this is significant to the extent we pursue caring because of the joy it brings us. I don’t know about you, but I tend to think caring born of fondness is more likely to survive than concern born of moral obligation. But maybe I’m wrong.
To truly care deeply one has to crawl out of the foxhole of the ego and both see someone else clearly, as best you can, and allow yourself to be seen. It’s simple to state. Why is it so hard to do?
Why are we so beholden to an idea of ourselves? Our persona, our identity, our ego—call it whatever you want—it’s the collection of tactics, impressions, and feelings that make up who I usually consider myself to be. It’s the machine that allows me to go out in public and not be afraid I’ve got my fly down—or toothpaste on my chin.
And yet few experiences are as rewarding as when you find someone who lets you put down that mask. It may well be that there’s just another mask waiting, a slightly deeper one perhaps. There may not be a ‘true self,” just one “personality” after another, like the layers of an onion.
But there’s one bit of advice I got in my early twenties that’s as true as anything else I’ve ever learned: You don’t know yourself by yourself.
This can lead down a false path as well, of course. We all know people who “live for others,” and who seemingly would collapse into an empty husk if left alone. Solitude is maddening for such a person, a haunting scream of emptiness. It’s not that they’re lonely. They’re afraid, without someone else there as echo, that they cease to exist.
I guess I’m looking for a golden mean, on the one hand rooted to some core sense of who I am, and on the other open to the kind of change meaningful connection offers. Because if we’re not going to allow others to affect us, to make us feel and worry and laugh and give—to make us care—why bother? And caring changes us.
Sartre had it exactly backwards—hell isn’t other people, it’s ourselves. It’s being locked in the isolation of “personality.” (Interestingly, Sartre himself came to this same conclusion after the war, and devoted himself to political and social engagement.)
The truth is hard, not because it’s complicated but exactly the opposite. Human truth is simple, which is what makes it maddening. We want to love and be loved. We want to care. If it weren’t so sneakily difficult due to the habit of ego and the pieties of selfishness, we wouldn’t restrict that caring to a mere one month per year.
I could connect all of this to the writing of our characters, but this post is already far too long. Maybe I’ll get to that next year. (Oh please don’t, I hear you cry.)
Meanwhile: Who is it in your life that most instinctively arouses your impulse to care?
How has your connection to that person grown over the years?
How has the manner of your caring, or the things you care about, changed with that connection?
Happy Holidays everyone—I’ll see you next Tuesday for Wildcard Tuesday
Wait! It wouldn’t be Christmas without blatant self-promotion:
My short story, “A Boy and a Girl,” is the featured offering in the sweetly named Out of the Gutter 8, edited by the inimitable Joe Clifford. It’s available in Kindle edition now, with print versions forthcoming.
Last, Open Road Media and Mysterious Press have re-issued my third and fourth novels — Blood of Paradise and Do They Know I’m Running, respectively—in ebook format. Follow the links to purchase the titles.
* * * * *
Jukebox Hero of the Week: It’s time for those Christmas Classics, and the chestnuts haven’t roasted till Robert Earl Keene, Jr. sings “Merry Christmas from the Family:”
For my last two postings (not counting September 11th), I’ve tried to lighten things up a bit. Now I’m going to do something even more unusual, at least for me: blatant self-promotion (aka BSP).
Gar has previously written here about how uncomfortable the old hard sell makes him. I read his remarks and felt an implicit and profound simpatico. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s the Catholic upbringing that Gar and I share, but asking people to give me something, no matter how understandable—or necessary—feels like the coarsest type of vanity.
Worse, it feels like begging.
Alex has made the excellent counterpoint that without promotion—indeed, aggressive and smart and relentless promotion—your chances of finding a readership that can sustain you professionally are akin to those of capturing the Higgs boson in a Klein bottle (or words to that effect).
As much as I concede the wisdom in Alex’s remarks, I still feel a little soiled by the whole thing, and somehow suspect my conscience is wagging its finger at me. Better poor and proud, I can hear it say, than rich and self-aggrandizing. But, of course, my conscience doesn’t have a mortgage to pay.
So—I embark upon the following two entreaties with considerable ambivalence.
(Not that you care, I realize, but I thought if I started with a little self-abnegation the rest of this would be easier to plod through. Because that’s the true subtext of all self-promotion, whether it’s a breeze or makes your skin crawl: It’s all about me.)
So, first, I’ve launched my own manuscript review and editing service. I dove into this end of the pool after being approached by an agent and several students to look at works-in-progress and give my best advice on what works, what doesn’t—only to discover I’m rather good at it.
It’s a natural extension of my teaching, which I love, and allows me to delve more deeply with individual writers into the whole of their manuscripts.
The best part is providing these writers with confirmation of just where their strengths and weaknesses lie, for I’m often just an external voice echoing what they themselves already know: This is excellent, this needs work, this can be cut, etc.
(And nothing is more gratifying than offering a suggestion and having a writer’s eyes light up as she says: Of course! Often, it’s just the slightest refocusing of a theme or plot point that can turn confusion into clarity.)
I provide four levels of service, from review of a synopsis to a full line edit of the complete manuscript, with two mid-level approaches also available. For full details, go here.
I’ve been told by others in the field I’m ridiculously cheap. So, sign up before I wise up.
I’m known more for my novels than for my stories, though one offering in this collection—“Pretty Little Parasite,” from Las Vegas Noir—was chosen for Best American Mystery Stories 2009.
For a bit of a teaser:
One hand on her hip, the other lofting her cocktail tray, Sam Pitney scanned the gaming floor from the Roundup’s mezzanine, dressed in her cowgirl outfit and fresh from a bracing toot in the ladies. Stream-of-nothingness mode, mid-shift, slow night, only the blow keeping her vertical—and she had this odd craving for some stir-fry—she stared out at the flagging crowd and manically finger-brushed the outcrop of blond bangs showing beneath her tipped-back hat.
Maybe it was seeing her own reflection fragmented in dozens of angled mirrors to the left and right and even overhead, or the sight of the usual trudge of losers wandering the noisy maze-like neon, clutching change buckets, chip trays, chain-smoking (still legal, this was the `80s), hoping for one good score to recoup a little dignity—whatever the reason, she found herself revisiting a TV program from a few nights back, about Auschwitz, Dachau, one of those places. Men and women and children and even poor helpless babies cradled by their mothers, stripped naked then marched into giant shower rooms, only to notice too late—doors slamming, bolts thrown, gas soon hissing from the showerheads: a smell like almonds, the voice on the program said.
Sam found herself wondering—no particular reason—what it would be like if the doors to the casino suddenly rumbled shut, trapping everybody inside.
A second story—“It Can Happen,” from San Francisco Noir—was nominated for the Macavity Award for Best Short Story of 2004:
Lorene took up position bedside and crossed her arms. She was a pretty, short, ample, strong woman. “Don’t make me go off on you.”
Pilgrim tilted his head to see her, eyes glazed. Every ten minutes or so, someone needed to wipe the fluid away. It was a new problem, the tear ducts. Three years now since the accident, reduced to deadweight from the neck down, followed by organs failing, musty skin, powdery hair, his body in a slow but inexorable race with his mind to the grave. He was forty-three years old.
In a scratchy whisper, he said, “I got my eyes and ears out there.”
“Corella?” Their daughter. Corella the Giver, Lorene called her, not kindly.
“You been buying things,” he said.
“Furniture a crime now?”
“Things you can’t afford, not by the wildest stretch—”
“Ain’t your business, Pilgrim. My home, we’re talkin’ about.” She pressed her finger against her breastbone. “Mine.”
Lorene lived in a renovated Queen Anne Victorian in the Excelsior District of San Francisco, hardly an exclusive area but grand next to Hunter’s Point, where Pilgrim remained, living in the same house he’d lived in on a warehouseman’s salary, barely more than a shack.
Pilgrim bought the Excelsior house after his accident, when he came into his money through the legal settlement. He was broadsided by a semi when his brakes failed, a design defect on his lightweight pickup. Lorene stood by him till the money came through then filed for divorce, saying she was still young. She needed a real husband.
Actually, the word she used was “functional.”
A third story, “The Axiom of Choice,” appeared in The Strand.
It was discussed in an online forum titled Mathematical Fictions that focuses on narrative works that deal with mathematics or mathematicians. (I’m oddly proud of this, for reasons which escape me.) I also think the story is one of my best, and is one of my few attempts at first person narration:
As I sat here waiting, wondering how to explain things, I caught myself remembering something often said about set theory. I teach mathematics at the college, I’m sure you know that already. It’s sometimes described—set theory, I mean, excuse me—it’s oftentimes described as a field in which nothing is self-evident: True statements are often paradoxical and plausible ones are false. I can imagine you describing your own line of work much the same way. If not, by the time I’m finished here, I suspect you will.
I see by your ring you’re married. Perhaps you’ll agree with me that marriage, like life itself, is never quite what one expects. I’ve even heard it said that, sooner or later, one’s wife becomes a sister or an enemy. I’m sure for a great many men that’s true. I’d put it differently. Again, if I can borrow a phrase from my area of expertise, I suppose I might say of Veronica’s essential nature—her soul for lack of a better term—what Descartes said of infinity: It’s something I could recognize but not comprehend.
Now, I can imagine you thinking, given what you saw in our bedroom, that such a statement reveals a profound bitterness, even hatred. I assure you that’s not the case. But there’s no getting inside another person, no rummaging around inside a wife’s or a lover’s psyche the way you might dig through a drawer. The gulf between me and my wife, her and Aydin—that’s the name of the young man whose body you found beside my wife’s: Aydin Donnelly, he was my student—the gulf between any two people may feel negligible at times, intimacy being the intoxicant it is, but the chasm remains unbridgeable. It has nothing to do with facts—my God, who has a greater accumulation of facts than a married couple? No, I’m not speaking out of bitterness. On the contrary, I feel humbled by this observation. What I mean to say is this: If you simply bother to reflect on the matter seriously, or just open your eyes, absolutely everything, even oneself—and especially one’s wife—remains mysterious.
First, if I may, a preliminary bit of shameless self-promotion:
On May 15th, Open Road Media and Mysterious Press will allow me to join fellow Murderateros Gar Anthony Haywood and Ken Bruen as a Brother in Backlist as they re-publish in ebook format my first two novels, THE DEVIL’S REDHEAD and DONE FOR A DIME, plus an all-new collection of stories, KILLING MYSELF TO SURVIVE.
I’ll have more info when I post on May 14th (I’m trading days that week with Pari), but for now here’s a personal profile the folks at Open Road prepared for the launch. Hope you enjoy it:
* * * * *
The author, age three or so. Note the evil.
This is a story about unspeakable sin and ultimate redemption.
Whose sin, whose redemption? You tell me.
At the age of six I entered first grade at Our Lady of Peace Elementary in Columbus, Ohio. Nothing, nothing about the public school where I attended kindergarten the year before could have prepared me for what I was about to encounter.
The first bit of strangeness involved the women in whose care my parents abandoned me.
Penguins, the older kids called them.
I’d never seen nuns up close before. And not just any nuns. Dominicans. Daughters of the Inquisition.
They had antiquated names linked to obscure saints—Sister Malcolm (there’s a St. Malcolm? Who knew?) Sister Sabina. Sister Norita. Sister Euthenasia (Okay, I made that one up.)
The habits they wore, which I would later refer to as Medieval Madonna Drag, had a black-veiled wimple with a flat mortarboard top. It looked like a nice place to park a cup of coffee if there wasn’t room on your desk. I was secretly hoping one of them might pull a stunt like that—you know, for laughs. But you don’t take vows of lifelong obedience, chastity and poverty if what you’re looking for is a chuckle.
But it wasn’t just the habit. The truly weird part about their get-up was that each of them had tied around her waist a long chain of black beads:
At the end of that chain was the figure of a dying man, naked except for a loincloth, nailed to a cross, a gaping wound in his side and a bird’s nest of thorns jammed down onto his head.
They referred to this man as their spiritual husband.
All of which explained, I suppose, their generally unpleasant demeanor. What a pack of sourpusses. Scowls outnumbered smiles ten-to-one, and a few were just mean as weasels. They glared at you through their rimless spectacles with an expression that said: There’s a chair in hell waiting for you, my pretty.
But as strange and menacing as these women were, they were nothing compared to Father Foley, the parish pastor. Kids would literally turn white and tremble at the sound of his name—partly because the nuns said it the same way your babysitter talked about the guy with a hook for a hand out on lover’s lane. The constant, inescapable message was: Beware! Beware of the Wrath of Father George Foley!
Central Casting's Image of Fater Foley
He was a huge bucket-headed Irishman, 6’2, 250 pounds. He ran the only “legal” bingo operation in all of Franklin County and believe me, there were a LOT of greased palms involved. He’d been a boxer before he went into the seminary and his first stint as a priest was at the boy’s industrial school, as they called it. Reform school.
But none of this — NONE of this — could prepare you for your first face-to-face encounter with the man himself.
To borrow a line from The Twilight Zone: Imagine if you will … You’re six years old. Six years old. You’re still in a state of childlike awe over so many of life’s mysteries, things like dragonflies and waffles and questions like: If I have a right shoe and a left shoe, does that mean I have a right sock and a left sock? (You wouldn’t believe how long I puzzled over that sucker.) Innocent, okay? That’s what I’m talking about. You’re innocent.
But you’re also Catholic. Which kinda nullifies the innocent.
Then one day, as you’re sitting quietly at your desk while Sr. Sabina teaches you the Hail Mary or the Our Father or the ever-so-important, never-to-be-forgotten Act of Contrition ("O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins..."), suddenly downstairs the door to the school SLAMS open.
I mean, LAPD’s SWAT Team would love to kick in a door like this.
And then you hear it. The voice. The voice you will never forget.
BAAAAAHHHH!!!!!! LITTLE MONSTERS.
You hear his steps on the stair — did I mention he had elephantiasis in one leg, so he was crippled and in constant pain. There’s a mood enhancer. But despite all that he dragged himself up the stairs to the second floor where the classrooms were, his steps an eerie and ominous:
Silence as he reached the top of the stairs. Every kid in my class is shaking. Then the classroom door BLOWS back. He’s there in the doorway, immense, fire-eyed—he’s John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, he’s Ahab harpooning Moby Dick. He’s the God of the Old Testament. And he’s come — here to YOUR classroom — to pass out report cards.
The first thing he says, still in the doorway, is: STAND UP!
Confused, wobbly and weak-kneed like baby goats, we clamber up as best we can from our still somewhat puzzling desks — but that’s not good enough:
When sister or I enter the room, you don’t just stand up. You leap up. LEAP!
For the next five minutes, we had leaping drills. He’d tell us to sit. Then he’d bellow: LEAP. We’d shoot up from our chairs like bottle rockets. Okay, he’d say. Sit down. Pause. Then: LEAP. Up we’d shoot again. Over and over, until he decided we'd finally gotten the message.
Then he passed out report cards.
“Have they been good, sister?”
“Well, for the most part, father. Some better than others.”
To say Father Foley believed in discipline is kinda like saying the Vikings were fond of sailing. And it wasn’t like you could run home for sympathy. My mother — my mother — told me: Don’t come running to me complaining that Father Foley hit you because if you do I’ll just swat you again.
If you got a C in conduct Father Foley would BLISTER you with a harangue that would make a Marine drill sergeant weep. His voice could knock out fillings — and if it didn’t, he’d use his hand, or his cane — no joke. For a C in Conduct. It was like you’d robbed a bank or strangled your kid sister or raped the school mascot. Then you had to come down for the next 6 Saturdays and help Mr. Johnson, the janitor, clean the school.
Father Foley called it: The Rock Pile.
I never had to go on the Rock Pile. My crime would be far more serious than that.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First grade went by reasonably quick and without memorable incident. I habitually got straight A’s and was thought of as a decent kid and a good student.
Things would change.
In second grade I had Sister Alphonsa, who truly, madly, deeply … HATED me. Even before I did the terrible thing.
One day I was working quietly at my desk like all my fellow second-graders when suddenly I heard this swoosh swooshswoosh and the rattle of beads.
I glanced up: Sister Alphonsa was charging toward me, her habit and rosary swaying from her momentum, a look on her face as though, given half a chance, she would eat me whole and pick her teeth with my bones.
She grabbed my hair, pinched my cheek hard, slapped my face, and said: Look what you did!
She slammed a piece of paper down on my desk. I’d misspelled the word “school” on my spelling test.
Call it the curse of being a good student, I suppose. I got the message — I was supposed to be perfect.
Maybe that’s why I did it. The terrible thing.
What was it?
I signed my own report card.
Now, let me remind you, we’re talking straight A’s, across the board, even for Conduct and Effort. I’d show my grades to my parents and they were so blasé about it like: Oh, Christ, this again? Yawn.
So I thought: What’s the big deal?
Now, in second grade we were just learning how to write script, and we hadn’t gotten around to “a” yet, which made writing my mother’s name somewhat challenging, since it was Mary. I thought, Oh well, I’ll just use an “e.” Like Merry Christmas, except it was Merry Elizabeth Corbett. And Merry only had one “r.”
But the misspelling was hardly the giveaway. My mother had the most beautiful handwriting. Her signature belonged on the Declaration of Independence, or the Magna Carta. When I signed her name beneath her previous signatures, it looked like this woman with the beautiful script had lost her hand to a wolf, and was writing with the stump.
But arch fiend criminal genius that I was, I thought: Eh. Who’s gonna notice? Nobody looks at these things.
Several weeks went by. Then Sister Alphonsa appeared beside me once again. She didn’t come flying down the aisle this time. She came slowly, methodically, as though pacing herself to a dirge only she could hear. When she reached my desk, she stopped, glared down at me with every drop of contempt and disgust she could muster and said:
"You … are an evil boy."
She told me to go out into the hallway. Sister Macaria wanted to speak with me.
Sister Macaria—named for St. Macarius, of which there are in fact three: Macarius the Elder, Macarius the Younger, and Macarius the Wonder Worker—Sister Macaria was, as it turned out, pretty much the opposite of Sister Alphonsa. The kids liked Sister Macaria, the boys especially. She played softball with the eighth graders, had a mean underhand and when she was at the plate and the wood met the leather that little sucker was outta heah.
She also wore her wimple cocked a little to the side with a kind of — how shall I put this — devil-may-care jauntiness.
Sister Macaria had my report card. She looked at it. Looked at me. Looked at it. Back at me. Said finally:
Huh. You signed your own report card.
I dunno. Sister.
She sighed voluminously. Well, go inside and get back to your schoolwork.
I’m thinking: That’s it? One minute I’m evil, the next it’s: Go back to your desk and try not to puke on your shoes.
I’m thinking: Wow. This is sin? Count me in.
A few more weeks go by, then early one morning: SLAM.
Boom. Thud. Boom. Thud...
The classroom door blows opens: We all leap up.
Good morning, Father Foley.
Oh yes. We'd learned our lesson only too well. We were God’s little children. Obsequious, oleaginous, obedient little drones.
The weird thing. Father Foley was in an incredibly chipper mood. He didn’t bellow, didn’t threaten, he even cracked a few jokes with the nun.
But I knew what was on my report card, and I’m thinking: You know, this may not end well.
But then I think: Oh come one. He loves my mom—she made an incredible apple pie, and when she baked one for bingo he’d sneak down to the school basement, scoop it up before the crowd arrived and take it back to the rectory all for himself. And my brother Jim, the sanctimonious suck-up, was his favorite altar boy.
I had juice, is what I’m saying. How bad could it get?
Father Foley goes through the A’s: Jimmy Adamski. Marie Anthony. Terry Archibald.
Then the B’s: Mike Bernardo. Kathy Brennan. Debbie Bucci.
Finally the C’s: Jack Cardi. Nancy Callahan. David Corbett.
He looks at my report card — again, such a good mood.
He says: Okay, Corbett, let’s see what we’ve got. A in reading, good. A in arithmetic, good. A in conduct, A in effort.
He turns it over, looks at the back.
YOU. SIGNED. YOUR OWN. REPORT CARD!!!
I shot out of my chair like a moon launch and stood there shaking. I was so terrified I don’t even remember what he said but he made me stand there for what felt like eternity, going on with the other report cards but returning his attention to me every few minutes to scold me, browbeat me, humiliate me.
The other kids, I knew, hated this. Hated me. I’d turned the sunshine into gloom. For everybody.
I was an evil boy.
Finally Father Foley wrapped up with Brian Zimmerman. No more distractions. But instead of handing down my sentence, he got up and started to leave. He shot me one last withering, malevolent glare, then said: Corbett? What you did is so bad I have to go home and think about what I’m going to do to you.
Thus began my year in hell. I knew, as only a seven-year-old can, that Father Foley was spending every waking minute of every day trying to come up with the most hideous, shameful, pitiless punishment he could dream of — for me.
If he came within sight I’d duck behind somebody else and shrink up like a sponge, trying to become invisible. For whatever reason he didn’t hand out report cards any more that year, Sister Macaria did, but I knew that just meant he hadn’t come up with an appropriate punishment yet. He was still thinking. And what he was thinking was just getting worse and worse and worse the more the days rolled by.
Finally summer break came, I forgot about it for a while, though I knew he hadn’t forgotten. How could he? What I’d done was so bad …
Next year, third grade, we’re preparing for Confirmation, the sacrament that would make us Soldiers of Christ.
We had to memorize the catechism
because we’d be questioned by the bishop and if we flubbed an answer, we wouldn’t be confirmed, our families would be shamed — we’d be a public disgrace not just to our confirmation class but the entire parish.
And so we learned:
The three conditions for a mortal sin.
The four kinds of sanctifying grace.
The three Evangelical Counsels.
The four cardinal virtues.
The seven chief works of corporal mercy.
The two types of judgment.
The three kinds of lies.
The eight beatitudes and:
The seven gifts of the Holy Ghost (which are, by the way: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord—some things you never forget.)
Father Foley conducted the confirmation classes. I still expected him any minute to finally say: Okay, Corbett. I figured out what I’m gonna do to you.
Me: still trembling scared. Terrified.
One day, as he’s running us through our paces, trying to explain the difference between mortal sin and venial sin, he says to Molly Medaglia: Medaglia, say you push good old Corbett there down the stairs …
I didn’t even hear the rest of the question. It didn’t even register that, at least hypothetically, he’d just pushed me down the stairs.
I thought: He called me Good Old Corbett.
Good. Old. Corbett.
Inside, it’s like the Bells of St. Mary’s are ringing in my chest. Doves are flying off toward sunlit towers. Raindrops on roses and blah blah blah blah.
From somewhere deep inside, a voice rose up: Free at last! Free At Last. Thank God Almighty I am free at last!
I was an evil boy. But I never spent a minute on the rock pile.
But I’m still Catholic, and I know how this works. No one gets off Scot free.
Somewhere in hell. There’s a chair. With my name on it. In my mother's handwriting.
* * * * *
So, Murderateros: What incidents of childhood fear, dread, sacrilege or shame formed you indelibly as the hopeless wretch— ahem, soulful writer — you are today?
* * * * *
Jukebox Hero of the Week: Speaking of an evil boy: Moodvideo's revisualization of Chris Isaak's "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing" (oh yeah):
I have a dear friend who can't stand Oprah Winfrey. A mid-list novelist like me, he thinks she's a literary snob whose book club was an elitist farce, a cultural enclave for readers and writers every bit as exclusionary to authors of color as Augusta National has traditionally been to black golfers not named "Tiger." And if, God help you, you happen to write genre fiction, as my friend and I both do? Well, the record certainly shows that the Big O' has never had any time for you, let alone love.
Personally, I think her shortsightedness is Ms. Winfrey's privilege. She is entitled to like what she likes and make literary giants of whomever she pleases, be they dead or alive.
I wish she had broader reading tastes, sure --- the consistent "We Shall Overcome (Racism/Poverty/Abandonment/Death of a Child, Parent, Spouse, etc.)" flavor of her book club selections has always been somewhat annoying --- but, unlike my friend, I've never really had the energy to care, one way or the other, what she chooses to condemn or endorse.
Now comes news out of Hollywood that Ms. O' is mulling a return to acting --- after a hiatus of more than 14 years --- to accept a part in THE BUTLER, director Lee Daniel's upcoming bio-pic about Eugene Allen. Allen was a black man who worked as --- you guessed it, a butler --- in the White House from 1952 to 1986, where he served a total of eight presidents, from Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan.
Does Allen's sound like a compelling story? Perhaps. You live in the White House for over five decades, at the beck and call of eight of the most powerful men who ever lived, and you're bound to walk away having had more than a few experiences worth telling your grandchildren about.
But the title of Daniel's planned film of Allen's life makes it perfectly clear why African Americans should embrace it with all the enthusiasm of a nine year old given a fruit cake for Christmas: Allen was a butler! Regardless of whose shoes he shined or meals he served, he was a servant, nothing more and nothing less.
In other words, a perfectly appropriate alternative title for Daniels' movie would be DRIVING MR. PRESIDENT. And where have we all seen that film before?
At this point, I could surprise you not a whit by turning this commentary into yet another indictment of Hollywood's pathetic tendency to represent black people in only the narrowest and most stereotypical terms, those terms being: "domestic help" (nannies, butlers, maids, chauffeurs); "buffoons" (cross-dressing cops, matriarchs of large, dysfunctional families played by cross-dressing writer/actor/directors); po' folks (ghetto thugs, single mothers, pimps and drug dealers); and of course, 'ballers (base-, foot-, and the ever-popular basket-).
But railing against this vicious cycle of cinematic racial profiling has proven to be as effective in creating change as a squirt gun against a forest fire, so I'll leave that noble endeavor for others to tackle, again and again, and again, until (it would seem) the end of time. No, what I'm taking up arms against today is not the pinhole view Hollywood continues to have of the role black people can and should play in movies, but the apparent willingness of someone as iconic as Oprah Winfrey to enable it.
When an actor like, say, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer of THE HELP receives an offer to play yet another character out of the Four Basic Negro Groups as outlined above (Help, Buffoon, Po' Folk, 'Baller), her choices are to take the role and keep eating, or wait for something more dignified to come along and starve. Asking her to risk life, limb and career by taking a stand against the box Hollywood is so intent upon keeping our people in is like asking the one member of the SWAT team not wearing a Kevlar vest to take point. It's suicide.
But Oprah? Oprah has options. Oprah has position and power and wealth. Enough of all three with plenty left over to tell pretty much anyone in this town "no" and get away with it.
Which is exactly what she should have said when the script for THE BUTLER first came across her desk: no. Flatly, unconditionally, "No."
"After waiting fourteen years to be offered a movie part worthy of my name and stature, I am not coming out of retirement for this recycled b.s."
(And before you suggest I would need to read the script for THE BUTLER myself to have any right to say all this, let me point out that reading it would do nothing to change the inalterable fact that, once again, it is the story not of an astronaut or a Nobel prize winner or even a simple dentist, but of a butler. An exceptional butler, a wise butler, a butler with a heart of gold, no doubt --- but a butler, all the same. (Please go back to the beginning of this post and start reading again if you still don't understand why this is a problem.)
Of course, I'm asking quite a bit of Ms. O' here because the premise of THE BUTLER sits right smack dab in the sweet spot of her literary preferences. For Oprah, based upon her book club choices, anyway, tugged heartstrings and emotional tragedy trump originality and/or authenticity every time.
Still, it would have been great to see her get past her own affection for Hollywood's favorite cast of black characters to let this opportunity to play one go to someone else, and make a big stink about it in the process.
By publicly declining a role in Mr. Daniels' film, would Oprah accomplish anything beyond making it more difficult for its producers to get it made? Probably not. But her doing so would send a message to Hollywood regarding its myopic, unconscionable vision of African Americans that almost no one short of Ms. Winfrey could send and live to tell about it:
"To hell with this, I'm not having it."
True, were they in Oprah's shoes instead, it would only be fair to expect male superpowers like Denzel Washington and Will Smith to do the same.
But since I've just read they're attached to do a remake of the old Bill Cosby/Sidney Poitier slapstick comedy "Uptown Saturday Night," I wouldn't put my money on that happening, either.
Meanwhile, on another subject entirely. . .
Maybe you've seen this graphic that's been passed around a great deal on Facebook lately:
My writer friends say the right-hand image represents what the average career track looks like for professional authors who have achieved "success." I suggest it actually looks more like this, at least for many:
I point this out now because I am myself about to climb even further up and out from the Pit of Irrelevance --- otherwise known as OOP (Out Of Print) Hell --- starting next Tuesday, April 17, when Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press officially re-issues all six of my Aaron Gunner novels as e-books. To say that I'm excited would be to understate matters considerably.
How this development will affect my own career trajectory --- onward and upward, or more non-linear zig-zagging? --- remains to be seen. But I'm hoping the books will find a whole new audience with Kindle and Nook owners and create a demand for a seventh Gunner novel.
Especially since that seventh novel is being written as we speak.
The second installment of my Los Angeles Review of Books column, "The Criminal Kind," has been posted on their website. In the piece, I discuss Christa Faust's Choke Hold, Ken Bruen's Headstone, Ed Gorman's Bad Moon Rising, and Day Keene's Dead Dolls Don't Talk, Hunt the Killer, and Too Hot to Hold.
Christa Faust Choke Hold Hard Case Crime, October 2011. 256 pp. Written in a casual-but-confident first person perspective, Faust skillfully weaves some of today’s most kinetic hardboiled action with her endearingly earthy humor and moments of unexpected poignancy.
Ken Bruen Headstone Mysterious Press, October 2011. 256 pp. “Taylor, I heard you were dead,” yells a cabbie in Ken Bruen’s ninth Jack Taylor novel, Headstone. Bruen’s series detective has endured enough booze, coke, beatings, and bruises to bury most of his private eye predecessors, but like a hardboiled Sisyphus, Taylor’s eternal punishment is to push bottles back-and-forth across a bar, taking cases as they come, seeking atonement that’s always out of reach, and accepting yet another glass of Jameson as a consolation prize.
Ed Gorman Bad Moon Rising Pegasus Books, October 2011. 256 pp. Gorman is in top form in Bad Moon Rising. Rather than wax nostalgic or reactionary about the sixties, Gorman cuts through the mythology to reveal a much more nuanced and confused socio-political landscape... Sam McCain is Gorman’s most compassionate and endearing character, and Bad Moon Risingis another triumph in an already extraordinary career.
Day Keene Dead Dolls Don’t Talk /Hunt the Killer /Too Hot to Hold Stark House Press, August 2011. 371 pp. Rounding out the Keene anthology is Too Hot to Hold(1959), in which average joe Jim Brady steps into a Manhattan cab on a rainy day and walks out with a suitcase full of money... Circumstances get so twisted that even Joe wonders, “What kind of a nightmare had he gotten himself into?” The type of nightmare that Day Keene can dream up: the result is a lean, dizzying, and masterful thriller to rival any of today’s top-sellers.