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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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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chapter two: a family trip

The first part is located here. More to come.

It all started because of the books.

Jan Sleet had been “a literate girl” when she was younger (that was her term — others might have said “shy, awkward, and bookish”), so she’d owned a lot of books. When she’d left college to start her life as a famous amateur detective and “intrepid gal reporter” she’d needed to travel light, so she’d carefully packed up her books and stored them in a neighbor’s basement.

For several years after that, she and her assistant, Marshall, were pretty much always in motion, staying in one hotel room after another — or sometimes sleeping in bombed-out buildings or even once in an abandoned mine — so they basically had the clothes on their backs (and her typewriter, and her notebooks, and her cigarettes…).

After they had settled in U-town, though, she’d said several times that they should go get her books, but there were always other things to do and it kept getting put off.

What changed her mind, though, was her daughter, Ron.

At dinner one night, Ron had told Jan and Marshall about a new class she was thinking of taking. The class had a fancy name, as was common at the U-town school, but it was apparently a statistics class. Most schools, of course, do not offer statistics classes to thirteen-year-old students, but the U-town school was very flexible in this area.

They could tell that at least part of the reason Ron was interested was because it sounded like something which would be useful in solving mysteries. If Ron had had her way, schools would offer pre-detective in addition to pre-med and pre-law. She’d have been mortified if they’d ever mentioned it, but she was obviously planning to grow up to be some version of her mother.

“I studied that in college,” Jan said. “I think I still have my old textbooks.” She smiled. “We should go get my books. All of them. We can find somewhere to put them.”

Marshall turned to Ron. “Would you like to come? You can see where your mother grew up.”

Ron shrugged. “What about school?”

“You’ve got time off coming, don’t you? You can take a week.”

“Yeah, okay,” she said. This was, for her, a very enthusiastic reaction indeed, so they were satisfied.

Later that night, as they were getting ready for bed, Jan turned to Marshall as she unbuttoned her shirt.

“It is a quandary,” he said.

Jan smiled. “I’m sure you’ll think of something clever. Let’s go to bed.”

Stephanie enjoyed working out with Christy. Growing up she’d always worked out with her father. Since she’d left home she’d continued to exercise, of course, using the plan she and her father had developed for her, but it was much more fun to do it with someone else.

And the exercise was only part of it anyway. You couldn’t box by yourself, after all. And the Jinx, the gang Christy belonged to, had a real boxing ring in the basement gym of the huge warehouse building that was their headquarters. Stephanie thought that was so cool, to have your own boxing ring. “The squared circle,” as her father had always called it.

Today, though, after they’d been sparring for a while, Christy suddenly reacted to something she saw over Stephanie’s shoulder. Stephanie wasn’t about to turn around, though. Christy would have made her regret that, the same way her father would have.

Christy held up her gloves and Stephanie dropped hers and turned around.

It was Marshall, Jan Sleet’s assistant. He waved from the doorway and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt.”

Christy panted loudly and leaned over, her gloved hands on her knees. “It’s okay. She’s wearing me out anyway.”

Stephanie had the momentary urge to talk trash, to call Christy “old woman” or some such, but they all understood that Christy was just being polite or making a joke — that she was the Jedi Knight and Stephanie the eager apprentice. Stephanie considered it an achievement when she could get Christy to break a sweat.

But then there was an awkward moment as Marshall stepped inside the room and said something, and Christy suddenly straightened up and turned her back on him. She quickly climbed out of the ring and pulled on a T-shirt.

She came around the outside of the ring, drying her red hair with a towel. It was probably just exertion, Stephanie thought, but Christy actually looked like she might be blushing.

Stephanie thought this was very unusual behavior for adults. Yes, by leaning forward the way she had, Christy had given Marshall a bit of a show down the front of her top. But Stephanie thought that two adults, friends, people who’d worked and traveled together, wouldn’t be as awkward as teenagers about something like a view of some freckled cleavage.

And she wondered when she would start including herself in the category “adults.” Did that happen automatically at some point? Maybe when she turned twenty, or twenty-one.

“So,” Christy said as she approached Marshall, “what do you need?”

That could have sounded obnoxious, or very formal, but she gave him a dazzling smile and he smiled back.

“Some advice, I confess,” he said, stepping forward.

Christy gestured at the narrow bench that ran along one wall. “Have a seat and tell me about it.” Stephanie wasn’t sure if this meant her session with Christy was over, but the older woman gestured for her to join them.

Stephanie was to wonder later if Christy had had an inkling, even then, of Marshall’s question.

“We’re going on a trip,” Marshall said. “Jan and Ron and I. Some family history — we’re going to show Ron the places where Jan grew up — and there’s also the practical matter of collecting Jan’s books, which have been in storage since she left college.”

“Sounds like fun,” Christy said. She’d finished drying her hair, and she draped the towel around her shoulders. “So, I guess she’s admitting that you’ve settled down here?”

He nodded, smiling. “At first, she liked to maintain the idea that she was still an ‘intrepid gal reporter’ who might rush off to some far part of the world in search of a story at any moment. What changed that was Ron. Not,” he added quickly, “because she couldn’t, but because Ron led a very uncertain life before we adopted her, as you know, and she’s always sort of half expecting us to run off or kick her out or something like that. So, we always try to emphasize to her that we’re staying put, and that she’s staying with us. During that trouble with her sister, I told her that if she ever ran away we’d follow her and bring her back home.”

“You can’t escape from the world’s greatest detective,” Christy said with a grin.

“Exactly. And she thinks her mother is superhuman, so that impressed her. So, it was kind of a threat, but it was really a promise, that she’s our daughter no matter what.”

Christy nodded. “I know what her first parents did, so I guess she got the point.”

Stephanie raised an eyebrow, and Christy turned to her. “She ran away from her parents, I think mostly to get them to chase her and prove they loved her, and they just let her go.” Christy was, to Stephanie’s surprise, apparently on the edge of tears. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m always upset when I even think about it.”

“And I guess she didn’t run back, like most kids would?”

Marshall shook his head. “Not Ron. She’s tough as nails.” He smiled, and Stephanie could see his pride in his daughter. “She stayed away, living on the streets until she made her way to U-town, and eventually we adopted her.”

“Anyway,” Christy said, apparently eager to move the conversation to more pleasant topics, “I gather there’s a question in here somewhere?”

“Well, for Jan to travel outside U-town, we’d need security, of course, but this is going to be–”

“How long a trip–”

“We’re planning to take a week–”


“And, of course, we were sure that you couldn’t–”

“Not for that long…”

Stephanie was keeping quiet, listening, quietly amused at how hard they were working, both of them, to make it clear, as quickly and definitely as possible, that Christy was not going to be asked to serve as security for this trip. She had been security for the great detective many times before, and Stephanie knew that she was an excellent shot in addition to her hand-to-hand skills, but that had all been on day trips or quick overnight jaunts.

Marshall and Christy having collaborated to establish this, as thoroughly as they could, they paused before continuing.

“I could do it,” Stephanie put in.

Both Marshall and Christy looked surprised.

“Don’t you have… responsibilities?” Marshall asked.

She shrugged. “When were you planning to go?”

“Probably the week after next.”

“Could it be the week after that?”

He shrugged. “I imagine so. I can check.”

“Because that’s when Priscilla is on spring break. She can cover things at the store while I’m gone.” She glanced at the clock and stood up. “I’d better get back. She’s got a class, and she’ll have to leave soon.”

Marshall and Christy looked at each other.

“Let me know!” Stephanie called as she ran out.

Marshall chuckled. “I do wonder how Priscilla will feel about running the pet store all by herself for a week.”

“And on spring break, too.”

“Exactly. And I do wonder why she volunteered in the first place. Stephanie, I mean.”

“And I wonder about the two of them. Steph and Pris.”

Marshall frowned. “What about them?”

Christy smiled, her dimples and freckles suddenly very much in evidence. “You know. They live together, they run the pet store together, you never see them out on dates…” She wiggled her eyebrows at him in a suggestive fashion.

Marshall laughed. “I confess I’ve never thought about it one way or another.”

She shook her head. “You’ve been married to a detective for too long. You’ve let it blunt your own natural snoopiness.”

Stephanie had a plan. She felt so good about it that she jogged part of the way home after she’d closed the store.

As her father had taught her, some problems can be resolved with swift and decisive action, but others require you to bide your time, watching for your opportunity. And then, as her friend Prudence had always put it, the way opens.

She made a mental note to write a letter to Prudence.

“Priscilla was actually willing to run the store for a week while you’re away? All by herself? Not that I want to imply that she’s…”


“Adverse to hard work.”

“Lazy. Well, not really lazy. There are just some parts of her job that she likes more than others.”

Angel made a face. “Please spare me the details.”

“Well, I made her a deal. She’s not taking any classes this summer, since she’s got to earn some money to pay for the fall–”

“Her father…”

“Don’t ask.”


“With a pet store, you can’t just close it up for a couple of weeks and go to the beach. The animals have to be fed, the dogs have be walked…”

Angel held up a hand. “And other things have to be done — we don’t need to go into specifics.”

“And if we hire somebody do that, even if we could find somebody who was completely reliable, that’s two weeks of money going out and nothing coming in. That would really put us in a hole. So, I told her that if she covers this week, she can take two weeks off this summer.” She grinned. “Plus, there’s this guy — I think she’ll get him to help out. He’s really smitten.”

“Has she granted him her favors yet?”

Stephanie giggled. “I don’t think so, but I confess that sometimes when she’s telling me about her conquests, my mind starts to wander. Maybe I should take notes.”

“Does your mind wander, perhaps, to possible conquests of your own…” Angel asked, regarding her perfect fingernails with elaborate unconcern.

“Stop!” Stephanie said, making a face as she drew out the word with several extra syllables. “I’m not going to–”

“You’re not going to date just any guy, and of course there’s your hours at the pet store, and your superhero activities, and your exercising…”

She stopped as Stephanie’s expression got serious. This was always the most difficult subject with her.

“I’m… I know it’s too late to think about ‘saving myself,’ but…” She caught Angel’s expression. “And I know that, of course, ‘saving myself’ is a silly idea in general, as we’ve talked about before, but… No. Not if it’s not right.”

to be continued…

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