Posts tagged ‘books’

May 7, 2011

Andrew Vachss & the end of the series: more books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran

Image via Wikipedia

One reason I wanted to write a detective series was the chance to stay with a character beyond one book. One of the joys of reading a detective novel is visiting not just the detective every year or so (or seven, in Chandler’s case), but checking in with all his friends, family, and enemies, who of course now are YOUR friends, family, and enemies too. And writing a series, the pleasure is even more so. It’s really fun for me to know that even the little characters I’m writing now I can visit with again whenever I want.

Of course, lots of writers are wonderful at this, but one, to me, stands out: Andrew Vachss with his Burke series. For those of you who don’t know–well, first of all, go buy a Burke book! But in the meantime I’ll tell you: Burke, aka Baby Boy Burke, is not exactly a PI. He’s a former foster child, abuse victim, and career criminal who was “adopted” during a turn in prison by the Prof, a street hustler, who may be the Professor or the Prophet. Burke sometimes solves mysteries and sometimes commits crimes and sometimes does both. Over the years their family-of-choice grows to include sister Michelle, a transsexual prostitute who, along with her partner the Mole (a Jewish tech genius/Israel supporter), adopts Terry, a child sold into prostitution by his biological father; Mama, owner of a Chinese restaurant/smuggling operation and her non-biological son Max the Silent, a martial artist who marries Lily, an advocate for abused children. Together they have Flower, who, along with Terry, is in college when the series ends (or so I think–I’ll get to that in a sec). As you can tell I know these characters well. The first of the eighteen books, Flood, came out in 1985; I probably started reading them in the early nineties and I think I’ve read every one at least once, most two or more times. No one I’ve read does as good a job as Vachss as making you feel like his characters are not only real, but that their world is your world. He manages to age them, and have them change for better and worse in all the ways people do change, without diminishing the intensity of the series or their conflicts. People change, people have children, people (well, animals) die, people move, people have long periods of time when you don’t really see them and you don’t know what they’re doing, and people do pretty much nothing sometimes. Just like life.

But a few years ago, Vachss decided to end the series. I’m sure he had his reasons, and if that sounds bitter, it is. And I can’t bring myself to read the last book, Another Life. I bought it when it came out and got about a quarter of the way through when I put it away and, without meaning to, haven’t opened it again. And I don’t think I will. I think that some part of me wants to keep thinking a new one might come along–that Burke, the Prof, Michelle, Mama, et al, will continue to be a part of my life. I also feel–unfairly and irrationally–angry and kind of betrayed that Vachss isn’t writing any more about Burke. Believe me, I don’t think that position is defensible at all–I think it’s terrible! But it’s how I feel, and when I started to read Another Life I couldn’t put those feelings aside and enjoy it. I think once every year or so now I’ll reread one of the old Burkes, though. I’m obviously not at all ready to say goodbye.

Oddly, as much as I love the Burke books, my favorite Vachss book is a stand-alone, Shella, haunting narrative of a pretty demented guy and his demented girl. Isn’t that just about every story we love in a nutshell?

April 18, 2011

Lois Duncan book giveaway!

by Megan Abbott

The occasion of this post on/interview with Lois Duncan is the reissue/updating of ten of her classic YA suspense novels, complete with Saul Bass-inspired covers. Thanks to Lois and the good folks at Little, Brown, I have in my hot little hands copies of these reissues: Stranger with My FaceDown a Dark Hall and Summer of Fear. If you’d like them, just drop me an email. The first three to respond get one copy of each book and many night terrors to follow.

April 18, 2011

the shadow knows: an appreciation of lois duncan

by Megan Abbott

In the process of writing my upcoming novel, The End of Everything, I had this strange experience of return. All my books prior were set in the past, a time before I was born, and were set in milieus (organized crime, Hollywood, gambling, party girls), I’d likely never have known otherwise. To find me, or my life, in them, one would have to look very hard, at least I would. But, about two years ago, I decided to try my hand at a book set in a world I knew, in a time and place I knew.

The book is from the point of view of a 13 year old, specifically a 13 year old in a Midwestern suburb in the 1980s. Writing it, I found myself drawing on all the sense memories of that time, especially my late elementary school years, many of which were spent in the home of my best friend, Meg.  She had two older teen sisters and a teen brother and I remember as far back as age nine or ten trawling their cluttered, shag-carpeted bedrooms. The whole upstairs of Meg’s house made of pale blue wood panels, all kinds of alcoves and niches and built-ins into which treasures could be tucked. We found Playboy hidden in the eaves her brother’s room and, always, fat glittery paperbacks (with those sinister, tantalizing keyhole covers) of V.C. Andrews stuffed under her sisters’ pillows.

I never read much young adult fiction, and there certainly weren’t a fraction the number of YA novels as there are today (nor the array of options within them). As a result, with the notable, stirring exception of Flowers in the Attic (and, of course, Judy Blume), I jumped to adult books, which promised a peek into the grownup world for which I was unprepared (sex ed courtesy of John Irving and Irwin Shaw).

But there was one author whose books utterly entranced me. I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Lois Duncan, but I do know I first found one of her books—either Summer of Fear or Stranger with My Face—doing one of my grade-school prowls through Meg’s house, arrested by the covers (remember those painted covers of so many novels then? Of long-haired girls with limpid eyes and mouths arrested with fear, confusion, suspicion, longing?), reading breathlessly the plot description on the back. And I remember it was exactly these covers (above and below) that fixated me.

Duncan’s books felt dark, strange, taboo—much like V.C. Andrews. Except when you read V.C. Andrews, you feel the frantic, sexed crazy on her. And her world is very foreign from yours (I didn’t know any girl imprisoned in the attic of a mansion, starved and tortured and whipped by mother and grandmother, dangerously beloved by her own very handsome brother), which is part of their appeal. It’s total, compulsive, dirty fantasy.

The heroines of Lois Duncan, however, were girls I knew—prettier than me, more comfortable in their skin (at the start), with an easier way of navigating life—but definitely a part of my world. Yet everything that happened to them was bewildering, terrifying, perilous, thrilling—in short, everything I wanted. Astral projection, witchcraft, voodoo, ESP, possession, patricide.

Both Summer of Fear and Stranger with My Face, I now see, bear similarities to the female gothic novel, in particular the pulse at the center of those novels: the Dark Other. In Summer of Fear, the heroine, Rachel, realizes that Julia, her mysterious witchy cousin from the Ozarks, aims to steal Rachel’s her best friend and boyfriend but her whole life. In the end (cue V.C. Andrews and the entire Freud playlist), we learn Julia’s true goal is not Rachel’s boyfriend but Rachel’s father (“You mean—you can’t mean—you plan to marry Dad!”).

In Stranger with My Face, teenage Laurie Stratton is haunted by the presence of another, someone who looks just like her. Laurie—whose dark features never matched her family’s sunny ones—turns out to be adopted, permitting full play of pre-adolescent and adolescent fantasies of orphanage and mysterious ancestry—and a reason for feeling different, out of place. When her dark double first appears, it’s a moment that, for me now, gives me the same spiky shiver and horror I experienced when first reading Sara’s magnificent Come Closer:

‘Can you see me?’ asked a voice by my bed.

I opened my eyes. The moon had risen now above the level of my window, and the room was very dark. …

‘Are you the one with my face?’ I whispered.

‘I came first,’ she answered with a little laugh. ‘It’s you who have my face.’

‘Who are you?’ I asked her.

‘You must know that. We are two sides of a coin. We floated together in the same sea before birth. Didn’t you know I would be coming for you one day?’

There was a movement by the pillow. I felt the air stir against my face, and something as slight and soft as the breast feather of a gull brushed my forehead.

These dark doubles call to mind Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and seem to serve just the same function. These shadowed women do what the heroines can’t—they get angry, they shout, they fight, they demand things. They demand to be heard. To want things and take them. To go mad.

The retrospective quality of both books also mirrors the narrative structure of Rebecca (the narrator beginning that book, famously, with her dream of return to the house where everything happened, everything changed forever), to similar effect. These are books narrated by someone a few years past the events but changed by them forever (I now, just now, writing this, wonder if that was in my mind with The End of Everything, which begins similarly).

There is not even space enough to talk about what was my favorite Duncan novel, Daughters of Eve, the tale of a charismatic teacher and her young protégées—a Jean Brodie for the post-feminist 1980s.

No supernatural elements here—the complexities of female power and powerlessness laid bare and one for the most shocking murder scenes I’ve ever read in any book. I never forgot it.

The endings of these books, when happy (as in, order restored, threat expunged), have the dreamlike, haunting, unreal happiness of the endings of Carrie or the original, masterful Nightmare on Elm Street. Or any fairy tale at all. You can’t have a happy ending after you’ve torn the seam that separates light from dark, the world we live in from the world we know, under our skin.

Next up: My interview with Lois Duncan and our book giveaway.

Highly recommended: Lizzie Skurnick’s essays on Summer and Stranger.



March 15, 2011

the half-closed box

by Megan Abbott

vc andrews

sketch by v.c. andrews (via simon & schuster)

Recently, I did something I probably haven’t done since I first signed up for Facebook: I actually looked at my profile. I’m guessing it was about two years old and the list of books I’d cited as my favorites so surprised me. Not because I don’t love all those books still but many of them seemed so remote to me now.

It struck me how “favorite books” are frequently a snapshot of yourself at a particular moment. Oh, right, that was when all I wanted to read about were gangsters and heists gone wrong. Or, Oh, yes, it had to be obscure British crime novels from just before the war. Or, ah, only stories about the struggles for meaning in midwestern towns.

Just returning now from a bookstore, scouring the shelves searching for compulsive airplane reading for an upcoming trip, I thought about this all some more. How returning to past books we loved are like tunnels into old selves, or parts of our selves that may be neglected (sometimes rightly so) or dormant, that may be gone forever. And sometimes, by returning to these books, we can return to those selves.

For instance, when I first fled–catapulted?–myself from the Michigan suburbs to move to my dream town, New York City, all I wanted to read was tales of suburban malaise–Rick Moody’s Ice Storm, A.M. Homes, Revolutionary Road. Now, more than 15 years free from the grosgrained handcuffs of my hometown ‘burb, Grosse Pointe, I no longer feel such a burning need to burn down that particular house.

Grosse Pointe

(My new book, The End of Everything, is my first set in the suburbs–one much like Grosse Pointe–and writing it let me recapture some of the magic and longing that had been there all along, but I had missed, or forgotten.)

Walking the aisles, I wondered about the me, age 27, who tore through Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, all 15,000 pages of it, and was enraptured. Often, I pull that book off the shelf and want to dip back in but something in me worries I couldn’t find myself in it, like wandering through an abandoned house.

But maybe I could. Two years ago, Sara and I wrote a piece about V.C. Andrews for The Believer, and returning to her dark, epicly perverse world after so many years, I could find pieces of myself spring back into place in alarming and exciting ways.

enchanted-castleThen, a few days ago, I saw some writer mention Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle as a favorite book as a child. Now that I think of it, it’s like the gilt-edged, proper sister to Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews’ gothic tale of a pair of brothers and sisters locked in the family attic. Here’s Gore Vidal on the book:

There are those who consider The Enchanted Castle Nesbit’s best book. J. B.Priestley has made a good case for it, and there is something strange about the book which sets it off from the bright world of the early stories. Four children encounter magic in the gardens of a great deserted house. The mood is midnight. Statues of dinosaurs come alive in the moonlight, the gods of Olympus hold a revel, Pan’s song is heard. Then things go inexplicably wrong. The children decide to give a play. Wanting an audience, they create a number of creatures out of old clothes, pillows, brooms, umbrellas. To their horror, as the curtain falls, there is a ghastly applause. The creatures have come alive… Thwarted, they turn ugly. Finally, they are locked in a back room … It is the sort of nightmare that might have occurred to a highstrung child, perhaps to Nesbit herself.

Truthfully, I didn’t even know I remembered the book until suddenly I did. Like opening an old box (a locked room) and finding a childhood toy that was once your whole world and it slipped entirely from you. It made me want to read it again, with an awful longing.

March 9, 2011

he feels them, but he has to quell them

by Megan Abbott

Ian Fleming Talks to Raymond Chandler 1958 from 33hirtz on Vimeo.

I posted this delightful and fascinating conversation between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming on Facebook this morning and had so many fun interactions with folks I wanted to put it here too.

I’d never heard the exchange before it makes me love them both even more (Fleming such the adoring protegee, Chandler such the kind mentor). In it, Chandler speaks of beginning to write the eighth Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs, which had Marlowe marrying Linda Loring (the love interest from The Long Goodbye, if you don’t count Terry Lennox, which I do)  would go unfinished (later “finished” by Robert B. Parker). Chandler died the following year.

There are some real gems in here–Chandler asking Fleming why he always has to have a torture scene, and Fleming’s response; Chandler’s comment that he never felt any of his characters were villains.

But of special interest to me was Chandler’s utterly charming response when Fleming suggests, about 20 minutes in, that if the book isn’t going well, he could always kill off Linda.

“Kill her?” Chandler says. “Oh no, she’s too nice …. Much too nice to kill off.”

And the way he says it, with such warmth. Well. It’s wonderful.

March 7, 2011

la reina ha muerto

by Megan Abbott

The main character in my third book, Queenpin, which is about to come out in Spain, was heavily inspired by the tumultuous life of  mob courier Virginia Hill, née Onie Hill, a.k.a. Virginia Norma Hall, a.k.a. Virginia Herman, a.k.a. Virginia Oney d’Algy, a.k.a. Virginia Gonzalez, a.k.a. the Flamingo.

I wrote the book exactly four years ago and somehow never came upon this terrific glamour shot that Cultura Impopular located for this interview:

virginia hillFour years after I wrote the book, she still intrigues me.  One of ten children born, as legend has it, to an drunken marble carver and mule salesmen, she left home at 17 and moved to Chicago, where she made some very dangerous friends.

If remembered at all now, it’s as a gang moll, Bugsy Siegel’s girl, the one for whom he named the Flamingo Hotel. But she was more than that (and nothing like the Annette Bening character in Warren Beatty’s heavily sanitized Bugsy). An extremely powerful mob courier for what used to be called “the syndicate,” she shuttled hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1940s and early 50s, to Swiss bank accounts and back.

It was a dangerous business too, and her end was not pretty. (A case of questionable suicide at age 49.)

You can see her testifying at the Kefauver hearings here, at 0:43 (omerta, indeed):

She was also highly quotable, declaring to an eager press corps at one point that she had more fur coats than any woman in the country.

Gloria, the mob courier in my book, is in many ways much softer than Hill. When reporters tracked her down in Paris to give her the news that her lover Bugsy Siegel had been murdered in the home he bought for her, Hill reportedly replied:

“It looks so bad to have a thing like that happen in your house.”

February 28, 2011

Trouble In Mind

by craigmmcdonald

The books of others rarely inspire my own writing.

Most often, I’m more moved by music.

Very rarely, a film gets me there. When that happens, it’s usually tied to a director and a body of work.

There’s this particular director, and a film he made deep in the heart of Morning in America, that’s been on my mind lately. That film (and its successor, The Moderns, about 1920s Paris), left fingerprints all over my own crime fiction.

The mid-to-late 1980s: A time of skinny ties and suits without socks; a burgeoning sense of deconstruction and post-modernism; meta-fiction looms in the wings. The work is the thing and thing knows exactly what it is. Knowing winks and self-referentialism are fast becoming hip.

Back then, most crime fiction wasn’t hip. You had your Ellroy; you had your James Crumley…and no deep bench behind those two scribes.

In 1985, director Alan Rudolph released, Trouble in Mind. I saw it the way most others probably did at the time — a blink-and-you-missed-it three-day run in some campus art house theatre. But I was captivated; made do in the years after with a discarded rental of Trouble on full-screen VHS.

Kris Kristofferson anchors the film as “Hawk,” an ex-cop just sprung from prison for the fatal shooting of a “Rain City” crime boss years back.

“Rain City” stands in as a vaguely fascist, pre-Starbucks Seattle, every bit as drenched in neon-kissed rain as you would hope. A place where WASPs threaten and scream at one another in disarming volleys of Korean from time to time; where policeman and soldiers roam the streets and parade around with weapons.

Hawk, whose hobby is building highly-detailed scale models of Rain City landmarks, quickly settles into former habits and old haunts, chiefly a café run by his old friend Wanda (played by Geneviève Bujold, a Rudolph stalwart).

Wanda’s Café is Rain City’s version of Rick’s Place. Wanda was once under the thumb of a local crime boss — the man Kris/Hawk ventilated with a single shot between the eyes in a room filled with witnesses.

Soon enough, Hawk is courting a luminously innocent Lori Singer, a new mother badly married to a scrambling, scuffling Keith Carradine.

Casting a shadow over the city is an über fey reinvention of The Maltese Falcon’s Caspar Gutman — the kind of part Sydney Greenstreet might have played in post-Code Hollywood. Rain City’s new crime lord is Hilly Blue, portrayed by the late-Divine in a rare turn in pants.

A new, 25th anniversary edition of Trouble In Mind has recently been released on DVD, and just in time according to its director, who rues the last print of the film was in a pretty sorry state. For the first time in a quarter century, initiates can explore a film that despite its rarity has achieved a brand of stubborn cult status.

It had been a few years since I’d revisited my grainy, cropped VHS version of Trouble. The DVD extends the frame and draws out details that videotape obscured. Things, overall, are brighter than I remember, and maybe not for the better, but there it is.

Nevertheless, Trouble in Mind, set to a moody Mark Isham score, still walks a tricky line between pastiche, noir and the loopy logic of dreams. The film’s misty, dark world anticipates the same flavor of twisty terrain David Lynch would explore a few years later, a kind of (kissing) city cousin to Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Rain City deftly and swiftly asserts its own reality and cultural mash-up: one where 1960s-era American cars proliferate; where skinny ties, fedoras, trench coats and sharkskin sport jackets are concomitantly in fashion.

Rudolph says in supplemental materials that Rain City was conceptualized “as a place where past and future meet, but not in the present.”

It is classic film noir’s stylistic flourishes, Rudolph has argued repeatedly, that gave vintage crime films a patina of hyper-reality. By the terms of that proposition, Trouble In Mind’s nth-degree attention to detail qualifies the film as a significant, if under-known, neo-noir.

I’m the first to admit Rudolph’s films can be an acquired taste that eludes many samplers — too stylized and self-aware to suit every palate.

Yet I think Trouble has reached beyond its initial art-house run to assert enduring influences on the works of others. Like Hawk, briefly depicted working out with a heavy bag, Trouble in Mind punches above its weight.

February 28, 2011

dark eyes glowin’: meet Craig….

by Megan Abbott

I met Craig McDonald after reading his terrific first novel, Head Games, which was nominated for Best First Novel Edgar Award (as well as the Anthony, Gumshoe and Crimespree Magazine awards). The first in his series, Head Games introduced us to McDonald’s recurring hero, pulp novelist and Hemingway pal Hector Lassiter, a true adventurer who cuts a swath across the mid twentieth century.

Since then, he has published two magnificent follow-ups, Toros and Torsos and Print the Legend. Just a few weeks ago, his latest, One True Sentence (the title, a nod to Papa), which brings us into the glimmering, orgastic world of 1920s Paris, hit bookstores.

Craig has also published two definitive collections of interviews with crime authors, Art in the Blood and Rogue Males. In fact, I’d read Craig long before I knew him, having come upon his remarkable interview with the notoriously tricky subject, Mr. James Ellroy. We’ve met many times since (and Craig interviewed me for Mystery News, a rare treat for me). I must say that no one is doing what Craig is doing, or doing it so well—his novels are sprawling tales that masterfully combine the “high” and “low” markers of mid-century America—from pulp novels to high modernism, from surrealism to film noir—showing how they are always-already inextricably linked.

We are so lucky to have a post from Craig today…but first he indulges us in our questionnaire (and we are delighted to have Rip Torn made a repeat performance, a la The Songwriter).

1. what is your greatest fear?

Helplessness.

2. what is your favorite way of spending time?

Creating.

3. what is your most treasured possession?

An early hardcover of the ltd. edition sent me of Head Games by Ben LeRoy and Alison Janssen. It was the first piece of my own published long-form fiction I got to hold.

4. when and where were you happiest?

To date, Scotland, October, 1996. We married there, then spent days tooling around the Highlands.

5. what is your greatest indulgence?

A first edition of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls.

6. where would you like to live?

To my own surprise, I’m thinking more and more about Florida. I’m actually getting tired of Midwest seasons.

7. what is the quality you are most drawn to in a person?

Wit.

8. how would you like to die?

I’m honestly hoping for some escape clause. I can’t fathom a world without me in it. That’s not ego, but simple personal experience talking.

9. what is your secret superstition?

The number 13, and not necessarily tied to Fridays. I’ve sustained bitter losses on the 13th of various months.

10. what was the best dream and worst nightmare you ever had?

I had a dream in which my maternal grandfather, who set my reading tastes and fiction writing interests, said he loved my first-published novel that was dedicated to him. He died on Nov. 13, 1980. The book appeared fall of 2007. Worst nightmare? I had a too-vivid imagining of something terrible happening to one of my children. That actually fueled a plot point in Head Games.

11. what song do you most hear in your head?

That’s a heavy rotation, and usually tied to something I’m writing. But most stubbornly? Jim Croce’s “I Got A Name.”

12. what do you read/watch/listen to when you are feeling badly?

Read: I’ll usually crack open Eye of a Cricket, by James Sallis.

Watch: Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter. That film never fails to make me smile.

Listen: Something singer/songwriter-driven. Probably Tom Russell, or maybe Kris Kristofferson. Right now, I’m on Glen Campbell/“Galveston” kick. Who can explain these things?

13. what do you consider to be the greatest elixir/restorative?

A new view, a notebook and a pen…good music.

14. what’s something you never told anyone?

That’s the stuff that ends up in the books, and I’m not prepared to run a highlighter over it.

Follow Craig on his blog, or on Twitter.

February 19, 2011

books a billion

by Megan Abbott

Square Books, Oxford, MS

Over at Edward Champion’s Reluctant Habits, he has an excellent and exciting list of all the indie bookstores alternatives to the Borders that have recently closed…..special shout-outs to our favorites on the blog roll to your right, and also to the wonderful Book Beat, in my native metro-Detroit environs.

Who else might we add to his list?

Tags: ,
February 18, 2011

Disaffected Youth in Black and White

by karolinawaclawiak

When you think 1960’s British working class films you naturally call upon The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Based on Alan Sillitoe’s short story, it was the film about troubled youth in Britain.

But I can’t help thinking about a more peculiar one, also based on a book. I’m talking about The Leather Boys with its raucous teenage bikers, bopping music, foul mouths, and gay unrequited love. Yes, Sidney J. Furie went there and I was thrilled to be watching it. Unfortunately, Gillian Freeman had to tone down her film adaptation from the book she published under the pseudonym Eliot George in 1961, but it certainly broke Hollywood decency codes when screened stateside in 1964.

It was your standard love affair, at first. British film darling Rita Tushingham plays Dot, a preening 15-year-old loudmouth, who is dying to marry her Triumph-riding Reggie. They do get hitched. Beans for dinner. Laundry unwashed. Well, and some romps. Marriage isn’t all bad. But halfway through I started asking myself, was Dot going to be left behind by her husband, Reggie, for another man? Well, maybe.

Pete. Pete. Pete.

The first meeting between doe-eyed Pete and Reggie.

Image courtesy of Roadrunner Magazine.

Oh, Pete. Bright blond curls, leather pants, and a soft, shy face. He’s fun-loving Pete. He’s sensitive Pete. He understands Reggie in ways that Dot cannot.

And one can’t help but wish, for a moment, that Dot were out of the picture. Motorcycle accident? I may sound brutal, but after watching, you’ll understand. Trust me.