condolences, cremation, and in medias res

This will probably meander a bit. In addition to recent events, I was sick last weekend and part of last week.

An interesting thought came to me after the last post, and it’s reflected in the comments there. Does coming into the middle of a story actually help to get us hooked on it?

  1. The first comic book I ever bought was the second half of a two-part story (Fantastic Four #26 – “The Avengers Take Over”). I remember at the time thinking that comic books, which I’d been told were very childish, were more difficult to follow than I’d expected.
  2. As I said in the comments to the previous post, I got hooked on Dark Shadows despite coming into the middle of the series and into the middle of a story.
  3. I saw the movie Serenity before I ever saw the TV show Firefly, and I was eager to go back and catch up on all the characters and history.
  4. The first Resident Evil movie I saw was #3 (Extinction), and I was intrigued by the fact that the characters obviously had some history that I wasn’t aware of.

Hmmm.

 
I’ve also been thinking about condolences, for obvious reasons, which made me think of a book called This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny, which I’ve started reading again.

There’s scene in there where Conrad, the protagonist, has just heard that his wife has died. He’s conducting a tour of post-apocalyptic Earth, for an alien visitor who he dislikes and who someone is, apparently, trying to kill. The suspects are his traveling companions, many of whom he knows very well, and he wonders if, as they come one by one to offer him their condolences, one of them will reveal something.

He’s making an effort to be a detective to help take his mind off his grief, but it doesn’t work. How people offer condolences doesn’t have much to do with what’s happening at that moment — it comes pretty deep from who they are and the culture they come from.

I’ve read the book many times, over decades, and it’s all very familiar territory — one of my favorite of his books if perhaps not one of the greatest.

And it’s always fun to be reminded of how playful Zelazny was with language. (His book Lord of Light has an absolutely terrible pun in it, and I’ve heard that he wrote the whole book to get to that pun — which is unlikely but not impossible.)

For example, Conrad is at a diplomatic function, and he’s stepped out onto a balcony with a woman who was his lover the previous summer and who is, and was, married to one of his best friends.

As they talk, discussing the fact that he is now married also, he notes that:

…she had lots and lots of orangebrown hair, woven into a Gordian knot of a coiff that frustrated me as I worked at untying it, mentally…

I love the placement of “mentally” there, but then I’m a connoisseur of scenes with palpable sexual attraction which is not, for whatever reason, being turned into action.

The book is steeped in mythology (for example, Conrad’s wife is named Cassandra, and, yes, she periodically makes predictions which he disregards, and which always turn out to be right), but it’s very down to earth. This was pretty much Zelazny’s favorite mode, and he wrote a lot of books which balanced these elements in different ways.

For example, like Alien and The Fifth Element, this is the future where everybody smokes (also a Zelazny trademark).

It also has the riddle of the kallikanzaros.

“So feathers or lead?” I asked him.
“Pardon?”
“It is the riddle of the kallikanzaros. Pick one.”
“Feathers?”
“You’re wrong.”
“If I had said lead’ . . .?”
“Uh-uh. You only have one chance. The correct answer is whatever the kallikanzaros wants it to be.”
“That sounds a bit arbitrary.”

Conrad, who is Greek, explains that this is an example of Greek subtlety, which is not actually very subtle.

The riddle gives us the great scene much later, when Conrad has been tortured and is about to be killed, and, at the final moment, he starts to laugh and asks, “Feathers or lead?”

His would-be killer is a cultural anthropologist and knows the legend, so he turns around, quickly, just in time to be squashed by the sudden arrival of Conrad’s (giant, armored, mutant) pet dog.

There’s another, even better, last-second rescue later (Conrad is a tough individual, but he does require rescuing from time to time), but that’s a huge spoiler, so I won’t.

Anyway, it’s been nice to revisit such familiar territory. Maybe it’s been comfort fiction — the literary equivalent of comfort food.

 
Over at the blog Pages of Julia, Julia just reviewed a book called “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (and Other Lessons of the Crematory),” which is another subject that’s been on my mind recently.

The books sounds interesting and entertaining, though I’m not sure I’m ready to read an entire book on the subject. I did leave a rather extensive comment on the blog post, though.

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some can stand alone, but not all

I haven’t been writing much in the past few weeks because of recent developments, but I’ve written a paragraph here and there in my current story, enough to start to realize that that a problem I’ve been ducking for a while now has to be solved.

It is the question that always comes up when you write serial fiction. How much do you rely on your readers having read what has come before?

I remember there was some comment when the second Lord of the Rings movie came out, that it started cold — with no prologue, no quick summary of part one.

In that situation, of course, it was a pretty good bet that the audience had seen the first one, and quite possibly read the books as well.

On the other hand, I remember Joss Whedon saying that in television your first six episodes are each the pilot. You can’t rely on people starting at the beginning (and in fact you really want the audience to grow as you go along, meaning you have to do your best to help them come along with you).

In my case, I try not to count on readers being familiar with what’s come before. The Jan Sleet Mysteries book follows A Sane Woman and U-town, but it’s designed to stand alone. The same with Stevie One.

The two stories I’m writing now, though (tentatively called “One Night at the Quarter” and “It Was A Dark and Stormy Night“) are kind of working out to be two halves of one story. They’re about parents, of course — one about a father and one about a mother — and those two things do kind of go together (even though the father and mother don’t meet in the stories).

So, I’m saying they’re Part One and Part Two of the same story. The first part is done, and it’s around 35,000 words, so if the second part is about the same length, then it will be a novel, more or less.

This is not absolute — I think “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night” can be read alone — but readers would have to work a little harder in terms of who the characters are and how they relate to each other.

Heck, the first comic book I ever read was the second half of a two-part story, and I managed to find my way through.

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astoria (1916-2014)

My mother, and sometimes artistic collaborator (she drew the cover for A Sane Woman, for example), died on Saturday.

She was 98 years old, she had a full and productive life, she was cogent and 100% herself right up to the end, and she died in her sleep and apparently without pain.

I will miss her (I miss her already, actually), but that’s about as good a run as any of us get.

Cover of A Sane Woman

(Obviously I’ve also been thinking about my father these past few days. I wrote about him here.)

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lucy

I just saw this movie, and I have some things to report.

Lucy, as has been widely reported, centers around the “humans only use 10% of their brains” thing, and, yes, that is entirely not true. If you’re the sort of person who’s going to worry about that while you’re watching the movie, I think you’d probably be happier seeing something else. I just saw a nice trailer for some movie with Helen Mirren and an Indian restaurant, for example.

(The magic in Harry Potter, the warp drives in Star Trek, Middle-Earth, and the Force don’t exist either. Sorry :-( ).

Anyway, I thought Lucy was fun. Completely bonkers, yes, but fun. It’s a little like a lecture on the inner workings of the human brain as delivered by Quentin Tarantino (well, in that case it would have been even better, but that gives you an idea).

Lucy, who is a student (and apparently not a very good one since she’s supposed to be in college but she’s clearly around thirty years old), has a really sleazy boyfriend, who locks a mysterious briefcase to her wrist, gives her some really bad advice, and then gets killed. Lucy is in a state of 90% terror and 10% defiance for the next fifteen minutes, ending up with a big bag of drugs sewn into her “lower tummy,” which then gets ruptured, spewing the drugs into her system.

(By the way, this movie must be the most unabashedly pro-drug movie made since, you know, 1969 or something. The leaking drugs have only good effects; when Lucy gets into difficulties she snorts more drugs which make things better; and then at the end she gets all the drugs that were in the other drug mules, and, well, I won’t reveal what happens, but, as we used to say, wow, man. Far out!)

Anyway, here are two very pertinent links from The Atlantic:

  1. Scarlett Johansson’s Subversive Vanishing Act” (a very interesting commentary on three of her most recent movies — though I think they neglected to draw out some lessons from Captain America The Winter Soldier, the movie where the fact that her character is female is pretty much irrelevant — it’s not really a gendered role, which is interesting in the context of what they say about the other three movies).
  2. Lucy: The Dumbest Movie Ever Made About Brain Capacity” (This review made me like the movie much more than I did already — everything in the movie is a deliberate riff on people who are this clunk-headed and literal. After reading this, I want to see it again.).

The best scene is probably the driving scene, where Lucy pilots a police car through Paris at high speed, including zipping through oncoming traffic for periods of time, causing many accidents but not being in one. The cop whose cars she’s driving asks where she learned to drive like this.

“I’ve never driven a car before in my life,” is her completely deadpan reply.

I was going to write about Guardians of the Galaxy, too, but I’m having too much fun thinking about Lucy. Here’s my one thought about Guardians for now: It’s pretty good, definitely worth seeing, and if you jacked up the things which are good and dialed back the ones which are bad — a lot — it would be Serenity.

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violet strange, the debutante detective

Following up on my last post, I have now read Anna Katharine Green’s stories about Violet Strange, the debutante detective.

See, right there it sounds funny, like something out of the “They Fight Crime” website that I talked about here. Going in with that expectation, though, I was surprised on a few different fronts.

For one thing, Miss Strange is not an upper-class amateur, like Philo Vance (who came along a few years later — Violet’s stories were published in 1915). She’s a professional private detective, working for a top agency. She works in secrecy, of course, because of her age and social position, and clients have to agree not to reveal her secret. If clients meet with her, though, it’s because everybody else has failed, so they’re willing to suspend their disbelief that this elegantly dressed teenage girl can help them.

The next surprise was that I had expected, given the setup I’ve just described, that the stories would be fairly light-hearted, maybe even goofy. The idea of a debutante detective reminded me of the movie DEBS (plaid-skirted teenage girl spies), and the spy stuff in that is pretty silly.

But no, the cases Violet solves are serious, some involving terrible family tragedy. A couple even move toward horror of the Edgar Allen Poe type. And Violet is much affected by all this, to the extent that a couple of times she is reluctant to take the next case because of how awful the last one was.

She does take the next case, of course, and it appears that the main factor is the money. Which is the overriding mystery which runs through the whole series: Why is Miss Violet Strange, daughter of the very wealthy Peter Strange, working for money, and at such a disreputable trade? Or is money not really the key after all?

Because she runs great risks to do this work — if her career were discovered it would mean not only the loss of social position and marriage prospects, but she would quite possibly be disowned by her father. There are places she cannot, with propriety, go, and people she cannot see without an escort (her brother, usually, who is clearly aware of her career and understands the reasons behind it).

So, in TV terms, that’s the arc, across all the stories, and there is an answer at the end, both to why she does it and to why she knew she’d be good at it. And, somewhat to her relief, that situation is resolved and she can retire.

Though it’s interesting to wonder about whether she ever needed those skills again, later on in her life…

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lady molly of scotland yard

There’s a lot of news about Amazon these days. There’s the attempt to strong-arm Hachette and their authors, the fact that they will now charge you ten dollars a month for the equivalent of a library card, and their plan to use small drone aircraft to go into people’s homes and take away their hardcover books in order to increase the sales of e-books.

Well, that last one may not have been publicly announced yet.

But this post was triggered by two positive things about Amazon. One was their habit of recommending things for you to buy, based on things you’ve bought before.

Sometimes this doesn’t work so well. My enthusiasm for Les Miserables, which has been reflected in my Amazon purchases, does not imply any interest in any other Broadway musicals. No number of inveigling emails will get me to buy anything to do with Phantom of the Opera.

But this did work: I read and very much enjoyed The Burning Court, and that book mentioned The Old Man in the Corner, by Baroness Orczy, which I also bought. Which led to a recommendation for the “Female Sleuths Megapack,” featuring some of the earliest mystery stories with female detectives, including Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (1910), also by Baroness Orczy.

Why did I not know about this before? Is it possible that Lady Molly, along with Loveday Brooke and Amelia Butterworth, also represented in this volume, have been forgotten by history because of their sex?

Anyway, the Lady Molly stories are pretty good, though definitely not perfect. One is rather gimmicky, and another depends on a trick which any experienced mystery reader would spot right away. But other than that they are solid. And, of course, in 1910 there weren’t experienced mystery readers as there are now. There hadn’t been enough mysteries yet.

Lady Molly’s stories are narrated by her loyal assistant, Mary, and I don’t think any detective has ever had a more devoted Watson. Mary has, as she puts it, raised obedience to the level of a fine art. Not that she’s helpless when her “dear lady” is unavailable — in fact she’s quite fearless and decisive — but she’s much happier when Lady Molly is there, and there is no situation so fraught that Mary can’t pause to praise Lady Molly’s hair, her clothes, her figure, her intelligence, her sensitivity, her eyes, etc.

Also in the Megapack volume are stories about Loveday Brooke, by C. L. Pirkis (1894), and Miss Amelia Butterworth, by Anna Katharine Green (the first Miss Butterworth novel came out in 1897, but Anna Katharine Green’s earliest mystery novel, with a different detective, preceded the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes by ten years). The Loveday Brooke stories are pretty good, but she’s definitely the least interesting of the three detectives (though I will definitely write a book at some point called “The Experiences of Jan Sleet, Lady Detective,” based on the title of the collection of Loveday Brooke’s stories).

The first Amelia Butterworth novel was a bit of a revelation, though. It was a complex story, with a series of explanations of the crime, each of which was then disproved by further evidence (Ellery Queen used this template quite often). Miss Butterworth is a spinster lady, living in New York, of colonial ancestry (as she reminds us periodically), and well-regarded in society. When she becomes a witness to a murder in the house next to hers, she starts investigating, and she rather sharply informs the police detective assigned to the case that she will be his rival, not his “coadjuter.” Their investigations are along separate lines (though part of his investigation involves having Miss Butterworth followed — he obviously takes her seriously), but near the end they do compare notes. Their explanations are completely different, and each has discovered facts which disprove the theory of the other, but it’s her investigation which leads to the real explanation (which I certainly didn’t see coming), and a wonderfully dramatic resolution.

Miss Butterworth is clearly the model for Miss Marple, but her personality is very different, and really delightful (though it’s probably more fun to read about her than it would have been to meet her — but that’s true of a lot of fictional detectives). There’s one scene where Miss Butterworth and charwoman are witnesses at the scene of a crime, and a police officer refers to them collectively to a detective who has just arrived. Miss Butterworth is quietly horrified to be lumped together with a charwoman (she who is highly regarded in society, after all), but she reasons that, of course, before the law their testimony must be seen as equal — and this is doubtless what the officer had in mind.

Miss Butterworth is an interesting contrast to Lady Molly, by the way. Miss Butterworth’s prejudices are clearly not shared by the author, and we’re supposed to think them a bit absurd (like the various types of snobbery in Sarah Caudwell’s novels). The Lady Molly stories are full of this sort of thing, too, and this is apparently an expression of the baroness’s real opinions. Manners and customs in the French colonies are “very peculiar,” a servant has a “pleasant vagueness peculiar to her class,” landladies are usually a “grasping type,” etc. At one point a man refers to the fact that Italy is rife with secret societies, anarchists, and the Mafia, and that the police and courts are all corrupt — and Mary our helpful narrator makes a point of saying that there was truth in these statements, in case any readers should think that these are baseless accusations.

And now it turns out that Anna Katharine Green also created Violet Strange, a teenage society girl who secretly works as a detective. I’m starting to read about her adventures now (I’m saving the other two Amelia Butterworth novels — I don’t want to use them up too quickly :-) ).

Oh, the other nice thing about Amazon? All of these great novels and stories? A total of 99 cents. :-)

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