Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts

21 January 2022

For the Love of Enola


For a guy who likes to think he’s up on children’s literature, I’m ashamed to confess that I had not known of the writing of Nancy Springer, an American writer based in Florida. She has one of the longest (and possibly the most poignant) author profile I’ve ever seen on Amazon’s site. (Read it here.)

Trailer to Enola Holmes

Suffice to say, Springer has been through the emotional wringer, and her life has given her insight into how women might have fared in earlier eras. Writing, she says, saved her mind and soul. In this powerful essay, she writes that she is especially interested in books that focus thematically on “the lost who are alive.” Springer has written about fifty books for middle grade and young adult readers, largely in the science fiction fantasy and mystery genres. A practitioner of what she calls “murderless mysteries,” she is a four-time Edgar finalist, and a two-time winner in the Edgars’ juvenile and young adult categories.

She didn’t come across my radar until last January, when the robot brain of my Netflix queue started insisting that I watch a film called Enola Holmes, based on a series of books by Springer.

How well the robots know us! The film is wholesome as heck. Solid family entertainment. Enola, the daughter of a late British squire, awakes on the morning of her 16th birthday to discover that her mother has disappeared from their country estate. After a short investigation, Enola (whose name spells you-know-what backwards) wires her brothers in London for help, and rides out on her bicycle to meet them at the station.

When the two chaps disembark, we are shocked to discover that Enola’s elder siblings are none other than Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes! Of course, they are the most strapping, youthful, and ridiculously handsome versions of themselves that have ever been committed to film. Mycroft is shocked, shocked, to find their ancestral home is an overgrown shambles. Where are the gardeners and servants and governess he has been so generously paying for?

Well, obvs, dude, Mother (played delightfully by Helena Bonham Carter) has been pocketing the money for some mysterious purpose. She has stuck around long enough to tutor her only daughter in such valuable subjects as physical fitness, chemistry, physics, art, natural history, chess, anagrams, cryptology, and the power of original thinking. You see, Mother values personal freedom above all else; she just has never been able to seize it for herself. “There are two paths you can choose, Enola,” Mother says at one point. “Yours, or the path others choose for you.” Her work seemingly done, Mother vanishes! A scandal in Bohemia, indeed.

Mycroft, stubbornly determined to reenact the family drama that no doubt led to mother’s disenchantment, enrolls Enola in a stuffy finishing school so that she can become a Proper British Lady and be transformed into suitable marriage material. A childhood marked by Mother’s afternoon lessons in archery, tennis, fencing, and the womanly arts of pugilism and jiu-jitsu have spoiled Enola on the merits of learning how a lady sips soup. 

The game is afoot, after all. Enola runs off to find Mother, and becomes embroiled with a dishy teenaged Marquess who is running away from his own family scandal. A scandal, I might add, that might well shake the Empire to its very core! Bwahahaha…

What’s not to like? The actors are wonderful to watch. Millie Bobby Brown as Enola. Henry Cavill as Sherlock. Sam Claflin as a very uncanonical Mycroft. The costumes and sets are appropriately atmospheric to the period. Enola breaks the fourth wall throughout the film to elaborate on her deductions. And the producers stuck close enough to Springer’s first book—The Case of the Missing Marquess—to win my approval. I found the film great fun, and have since been urging my neighbors to get their preteen daughters to watch it. (Especially the kid who keeps telling me she loves mysteries!)

For some reason, my neighbors haven’t yet done so. I can live with that. But clearly someone likes the film. Warner Brothers originally acquired the rights to Springer’s series and shot the film, intending to release it in theaters. When Covid lay waste to the land, WB palmed the project off on Netflix, which unveiled it as a streaming release in September 2020. Enola Holmes has since become one of the most highly watched Netflix “originals” in the streamer’s history, with 76 million homes watching the film during its first four weeks of release.

You know what that means. Just this month, the squealing of fans nearly broke the Internet when it was announced that preliminary shooting of the sequel—based on the second Springer book, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady—had wrapped. I assure you that you can find countless freaking YouTube videos of fans dissecting the minutiae of the photos and trailers that have already been released. Some impatient fans have even cut their own Enola 2 trailers, using footage from the first film.

As of this writing the sequel will be released in late summer 2022. I expect to watch it the way I watched the first one—on my phone, at a bar, drink in hand, while my wife screams her lungs out watching a Roma soccer game. I hope sweet Lord Omicron will allow this fantasy to happen.

Springer has written seven Enola books. The most recent installment, Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche, pubbed in August 2021, with a new publisher and cover artist. I admire the author, the series, and this film franchise, if only because they all stared down a lawsuit from the Doyle estate, which quibbled with the producers’ portrayal of Holmes. The central complaint? The production gave Holmes too many feelings. (The suit was dismissed, probably due to a settlement.)

I’m not saying I absolutely dig this Sherlock and Mycroft. In my mind’s eye, I will always see Paget’s Holmes, or Jeremy Brett’s. But it’s fun and necessary to reinvent Holmes for each new generation. In recent years, we’ve had Cumberbatch, Miller, and Downey, Jr. If we don’t continue to mix up the characters and canon, how will they survive the brave new world that awaits them in the public domain?

It’s interesting to contemplate how Sherlock might have treated a younger female sibling who shared his gifts. I enjoyed the scenes between Cavill and Brown. They felt authentic in a way I had not anticipated. Holmes is present, feeling, and yet still somewhat distant. You can tell he loves his sister, but the expression of that love will always come as a celebration of, and the nurturing of, her intellect. There’s a marvelous moment when Sherlock realizes that Enola has beaten him. I won’t give it away, but his reaction is perfectly Sherlockian. I can’t imagine Rathbone or Brett selling it better.

Why shouldn’t we consider the possibility that Sherlock and Mycroft acquired their remarkable gifts from their mother? And why shouldn’t we spin a series that has historically appealed to young boys as one predominantly aimed at girls and young women?

At the end of the film, Enola observes:
“To be a Holmes, you have to find your own path... I am a detective. I am a decipherer, and a finder of lost souls. My life is my own. And the future is up to us.”

Quite so, I thought. Indubitably. Elementary. Thank God Holmes lives, and lives forever.


***

See you in three weeks!

Joe



31 December 2021

Writer, Feed Thyself


 Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash
          
I was all of 23 years old, and working at what would be the first of many Crappy Editorial Jobs. I had recently reconnected with a college buddy of mine, who would call from time to time during office hours so we could chat and stave off our mutual boredom. I was working at a teenybopper magazine in Teaneck, New Jersey; my friend was designing corporate stationery for an accounting firm in Washington, DC. Back in college, the two of us had majored in journalism. But who were we kidding? In our hearts, we knew we were fiction writers. At least, we hoped so.

Nearly every time he called, my buddy would ask: “What are you working on?”

I’d start to describe for him whatever the current project was that I was doing for my employer. He’d cut me off immediately. “I don’t care about that,” he said. “What’s going on with your writing? What’s up with the fiction?”

And I’d lapse into a long diatribe about how exhausted I was writing magazine articles. By the time I got home each night, I had no desire to touch my own work. Someday, I assured Stuart, I would make time for the work that mattered to me. Just not now.

A few calls later, my friend lowered the boom. “I hate to break this to you, but someday you’re going to die. Life is short. If you want to write, you have to make time for it now.”

Of course I was pissed at him for bringing this up. Offended, even. Who the hell was he to remind me of my mortality? He was literally two months older than me.

At age 23, you don’t just think you’re immortal. You are immortal.

But even at that age, Stu was somewhat wiser than I was. (He still is.) The truth of what he was saying sunk in, and I finally committed to my own work. I started a novel that year that would became the first I wrote as an adult.

This was a good decade before email was available in the workplace. So when Stu or I came across a cool article, we shared it the old-fashioned way: snail-mailed a photocopy to the other person’s home.

Some years later, I opened an envelope from Stu to find a piece he’d come across on a trip to the west coast. The article, “The Talent of the Room,” which first appeared in LA Weekly, was written by a writer named Michael Ventura. The piece was so powerful that I’ve re-read it nearly every year since, and have shared it with many writers. Ventura makes it available for free at his website; I hope you will take the time to read it. It’s the best gift I can give any writer as we hurtle toward the end of another year.

The gist of Ventura’s lesson is this:

If you’re going to be writer, you have to have to be comfortable hanging out by yourself, alone in a room, for hours, days, or years at a time. The irony is that what the outside world feeds you, you bring back into that room. When you’ve used up that nutrition, you’re obliged to seek out more of it in the outside world. Whether you accept it or not, this is the struggle all writers face. To put words on a page, you must enrich yourself or you dry up.

We’re going on two miserable years, folks, when it has been hard to sate ourselves on the company of friends, family, and loved ones. I know that I have felt the loss of that restorative influence; I’m sure some of you have too. When I do get out in public these days, I’m astonished how giddy I am, and how seemingly innocuous conversations linger in my memory for hours or even days later.

“I was really very hungry,” M.F.K Fisher says in one of her classic essays, and though she is renowned as a food writer, you get the sense that it wasn’t just food she craved.

If you are a writer, you are always hungry. Your psyche must be fed. It’s drinking in snatches of dialogue, sopping up real-life anecdotes that can be repurposed as plot points, and absorbing emotions that emanate from other peoples’ voices. We do this instinctively, often without noticing what we are doing. It is our superpower. The horticulturist perceives leaves and sunlight. The fashion designer notices fabric, weave, and drape. The mechanic hears the rasp of an ailing engine. The writer sees, hears, and breathes story. But if we don’t get what we need to fashion story from the real world, we wither.

I’m not one for resolutions. Staring down the last dregs of a calendar should not be the thing that forces me to make a promise to myself. If something is worth resolving, chances are I’ve sensed it long before midnight tonight. I’m not in my twenties any more, and I’m long past fooling myself.

I am hungry, but I’ve always been. Time is short, but it always has been. Those two things should be enough to carry me into 2022.

I wish you all a beautiful, lustrous year, filled with sustenance and stories.

* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe 

10 December 2021

A Serious Case of Libations


There’s a moment I loved at the beginning of all the Dr. Sam Hawthorne short stories written by the great Edward D. Hoch. Before Dr. Sam launches into another tale of an impossible case he cracked back in the day, he generously inquires if his visitor cares for a libation.

Spotted in an airport.

I love that word and enjoy seeing it pop up here and there. The Latin means pouring out a liquid as an offering, or as part of a ritual. That’s worth calling to mind that next time you see a studious mixologist mixing up a beverage using hand-crafted ingredients.

This used to be a time of year when we humans gathered together in rooms to shut out the cold. We lifted glasses to each other. We ate happily. We laughed. We even breathed freely and shamelessly in each other’s presence.

A Harry Potter text, by one Libatius Borage.

I feel sure those days will come again. Perhaps they are already here in your neck of the woods. But even if you are not gathering in such a manner this season, you might enjoy knowing about these handful of books that I keep on a special cocktail/entertaining shelf.



Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader), edited by Nick Mamatas and Molly Tanzer (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017)
I’ll start with the one mostly closely aligned with short stories. Mamatas and Tanzer have pulled together a lovely collection of 17 short pieces by writers working in various genres. Each story references a cocktail or two, whose recipes are then shared after the story, 25 recipes in all. You’ll find plenty of classics here—the Old fashioned, martinis, the negroni, etc.—but also fashionable overexposed beverages such as the Moscow mule. This time of year, you might want to check out their recipe for a smoking bishop—the beverage reformed Scrooge promises his man, Cratchit, at the end of the Dickens tale. Before this book came along, I tried to recreate that beverage years ago, and bungled it, mostly because many of the traditional ingredients do not have easy modern substitutes. This recipe, accompanied by Robert Swartwood’s hilarious tale, goes down easy. This is a small, attractive volume suitable for gift giving.


The Imbible: A Cocktail Guide for Beginning and Home Bartenders, by Micah LeMon (University of Virginia Press, 2017).
The book is so beautiful that you will probably not want to keep it on your bar while you are mixing your beverages. It’s a standard-sized hardcover with a coffee table feel. Lavish photographs on glossy paper throughout. In the intro, LeMon tells us that he was raised in an Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian family. So of course for one of his first jobs he ends up behind a bar, where he has no idea what he’s doing. “I thought God might strike me dead with lightning, give me leprosy, or inflict some equally biblical punishment just for touching the stuff,” he says. Luckily for us, he studies the craft and distills every great cocktail to three critical ingredients: a spirit, something sweet, and something bitter or sour. Using this as his template, he then marches us through a multitude of classic drinks, showing us how you can easily mix and match to arrive at something delightfully quaffable. If you’re ever in Charlottesville, Virginia, you’ll find him tending bar at The Alley Light.


To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion, by Philip Greene (TarcherPerigee, 2017). Boy howdy, that Ernest Hemingway fellow sure liked to drink, huh? I like this book because it doesn’t just talk about Hemingway’s prose, and the beverages that crop up in his writing. Along the way, we also get stories about the actors and production anecdotes associated with the movies that were made out of his books. There are plenty of movie posters, artwork of long-gone nightclubs and bars, and candids of Bogie and other actors to spice up the mix. And yes, absolutely, you will find a ton of recipes to fortify yourself before you step into the ring with a bull.


What’s a Hostess to Do? 313 Ideas and Inspirations for Effortless Entertaining, Including 121 Recipes for Spectacular Party Food, by Susan Spungen (Artisan, 2013).
Not a drink book, per se, but absolutely indispensable for those of use who want to throw a party but whose imagination fails them just as they depart the tortilla-chips-and-salsa aisle. Spungen walks us through five very different entertaining scenarios—the cocktail hour, the buffet, the dinner party, holiday entertaining, and outdoor parties—and proceeds to blow your mind with her food editor brain. She presents two cocktail menus side by side, asking: “What’s wrong with this [first] menu?” Complicated cocktail party menus force guests to juggle too many things: napkin, silverware, plate, and drink. The best snacks for these sorts of parties can be eaten with one hand. Duh, but I’d never think to drill down on that. This is a fine paperback for hostesses (and hosts!) alike.


If all else fails, you could just throw caution to the wind and treat yourself to this little bag of Mixology Dice. Toss ‘em, assemble the ingredients, and Good Luck quaffing the hand fate dealt you.

I wish you all the best this season, however and whenever you choose to raise your glass.

* * * 

See you in three weeks!

Joe

19 November 2021

From the Christmas Shelf


Every year I flip through the books on our Christmas shelf to see if I want to read or re-read any titles I’ve acquired and tucked there over the year.

But wait—

Yes, I know it’s not even Thanksgiving, and you’re probably appalled at the thought of me raising the specter of Christmas. But due to supply-chain issues, the words I wanted to use to talk about Christmas books are in short supply worldwide, so I’ve been advised to order those words early, get them shipped to the house, and them sprinkle abundantly in my prose throughout November instead.

Word of caution: The words very and just are quite plentiful in the market right now, so when in doubt, just use very. Just use it very very much. In short supply this season: decency, compassion, and common sense. On the other hand, unfortunately the U.S. is overstocked with stupidity, demagoguery, and mendacity, so feel free to use those words until we have eradicated the surplus.

But seriously, I thought it might be fun to share with you some books I have enjoyed in recent holiday seasons.








 















The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday, by Stephen Nissenbaum (Knopf, 1996, 381 pages).

This is a brilliant nonfiction history of the American Christmas tradition, even if it is woefully mistitled. I like the book because it demonstrates convincingly that Christmas in America in the early 19th century was a distinctly low-key affair. Using the diaries of New England women, Nissenbaum reveals that the most these diarists did to celebrate the holiday was attend church, and lay in unusual pantry ingredients so they could bake a special cake for their families and visitors. Only later, mid-19th century, do we see Christmas celebrations necessitating the purchase of gifts, first for children, and then of course for every freaking person in one’s social circle. The creation and development of the American Santa Claus plays a major role in crassly forcing the holiday to swing toward commercialism. The book also blows your mind with a discussion of the selfish roots of philanthropy. You watch as wealthy New Yorkers donate money to feed the poor, then assemble in coliseum-like settings to watch as starving children stuff their faces. The last chapter, on the African-American Christmas traditions that grew out of slavery, is also fascinating.





















Christmas: A Biography, by Judith Flanders (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 2017, 256 pages).

Flanders is best known in the mystery community for her novels and a book she did on how the Victorian obsession with crime arguably engendered mystery and true crime literary traditions. She also did a wonderful book on Dickensian-era London. This book, about the origins of Christmas as an international holiday, is rich and head-spinning, chiefly because, as she says, the way people celebrate Christmas in other nations will always seem alien to outsiders. Americans think they have a cultural lock on Santa Claus, but they have no freaking clue about how the gift-bringer tradition plays out in other cultures. Yule lads in Iceland, la Befana in Italy, to name two easy examples. I like this book quite a bit, but I’ll never understand why her publisher did not include the footnotes so you can easily flip to a historic source in the back if you’re intrigued by something she says. (Full footnotes are available on Flanders’ website.) You will enjoy knowing that as long as Christmas has been around, people have been complaining about it. Whether it was too raucous, too commercial, too gluttonous, too heretical, the poor holiday never seemed to please anyone.

A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, & The Thanksgiving Visitor, by Truman Capote (Modern Library, 1996, 107 pages).

I grew up regarding Capote as a comical fixture on the talk shows my parents watched. In high school an English teacher had us read In Cold Blood (why do we do that to kids?) It was only in college that I came to his other writing, which I always found remarkable for its precision. This little classic of three stories is charming because it reminds you how little you truly need to make a holiday special. The best-known story, "A Christmas Memory," boils down to a loved one, a recipe, and some outdoor activity. Extra points if you can figure out Miss Sook’s fruitcake recipe on the basis of Capote’s prose alone. The actual recipe is never given in the book. The author apparently had no use for that conceit, which is now so common to food memoirs.




















Seth’s Christmas Ghost Stories, illustrated by Seth (Biblioasis, 2016).

By now most of us know that A Christmas Carol by Dickens grew out of a British holiday tradition which dictated that ghost stories be told this time of year. This delightful little series of books, curated and illustrated by the surname-less New Yorker cartoonist Seth, takes that to a logical extreme. Each volume is a single ghost story by name-brand writers—Edith Wharton, Dickens, etc.—that are suitable for gift-giving and reading in front of the fire. The Wharton book, which I received from a friend, is a mere 37 pages. The complete series currently runs to 11 titles, about $7 in paperback or $0.99 each in ebook form. And when I describe the books as little, I mean that literally. They’re about 4-by-6-inches in size. I wonder if some clever editor (or Seth himself) had visions of Christmas stockings in their head when they conceived the series.






























The Snow Queen, illustrated by Vladyslav Yerko
I’m not a fan of this particular tale by Hans Christian Andersen, but the adaptations I’m recommending here are something entirely different. As far as I know, these books were pubbed by two separate houses, one as a 32-page version (top) with prose by an unnamed translator, and another as a more luxurious, slipcased 96-page retelling by Nicky Raven (bottom). Both versions showcase glorious illustrations by the Ukrainian illustrator, Vladyslav Yerko, who in his fanciful bio tells us that as an infant in Kiev he slept in a large suitcase in his grandmother’s home. Yerko’s Snow Queen books were pubbed in multiple languages, but are now out of print. (Still, new and used copies turn up on Biblio and Bookfinder, but always confirm that you are buying an English-language version before checkout.) When I was a lowly intern starting out in publishing, one of my editors at a New York arts magazine subjected me to a lecture in which she insisted that illustrations (which I grew up loving) could never approach the realm of fine art. I flip through the longer of Yerko’s two Snow Queen books every Christmas just to mentally bash that notion to pieces. Behold, folks, I give you Yerko, fine artist and illustrator!




I suppose I could prattle on with other books, but I think that’s quite enough from me. I’ll be back in December with a different sort of holiday selection. If you have any favorite books that you reach for this time of year, please let me know. I never get tired of adding to my shelf.

See you in three weeks.

Joe
josephdagnese.com



29 October 2021

These Stones Shall Weep


Photo by JF Martin on Unsplash

This is the month we’re all supposed to be spooked by headstones. I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but at this very moment the Target, Big Box home stores, and giant orange tent in the parking lot of our local mall are selling countless whimsical plastic and plaster headstones to people determined to transform the Modern American Halloween into as big and as outrageous a production as the Modern American Christmas.

The witches who call my area of Appalachia home say this is the time of year when the fragile veil separating the living and dead grows thin, and souls find it easier to ascend to the realm where the living dwell. (Yes, I follow the blogs of numerous actual witches in Western North Carolina. Among other things, they know a lot about gardening.)

I find most modern cemeteries a little dull. At veterans’ cemeteries, for instance, the graves look like unadorned mail slots in which human remains have been inserted, either into the earth or into the shelves of upright mausoleums.

That’s why obsessive taphophiles gravitate to old boneyards, where, I’d argue, the spookiness can be chalked up to three things—unkempt nature, the antiquated craftsmanship of the stones, and melancholy prose.

The curators of the cemetery in Charleston that I shared with you three weeks ago have chosen to let nature run wild over the handiwork of the stonecarvers. You’ll recall that it was only by a stroke of chance that I managed to snap some photos before a landscaper went to work on the graves with a weed-whacker.

Today’s visit is all about the writing.

Once upon a time, armed only with a paper map and a magazine called Weird New Jersey, my old roommate and I traveled from our apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, to the Mansfield Woodhouse Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Washington, New Jersey. In the pages of the magazine, we had learned the story of a heinous murder that had taken place in this area in May 1843. The article assured us that the tombstone inscriptions alone were well worth the visit. It always drove me crazy that this fanzine, which was (and still is) devoted to the oddities of my home state, didn’t simply reproduce the inscriptions, thus saving us the trip. But in retrospect I’m glad I went.

I don’t go in for true crime. Life is miserable enough, which is why I traffic in murderous fiction. But in order to appreciate the headstones, you have to know a little of the story.

On that spring night in 1843, a wealthy farmer, his younger sister, his three-year-old niece, and his niece’s husband were all murdered—hacked with an axe or bludgeoned—in and around the farmhouse where they lived in nearby Changewater, New Jersey. Two young boys, sons of the young couple, were sleeping in another room and escaped unharmed. At the time, the US was only on its 10th president, John Tyler. The murders occurred in Warren County, which hugs the Delaware River on the far western part of the state. Nevertheless, the crimes were heinous enough to attract the attention of newspapers in Newark and New York City.

The motive was presumed to be robbery. John B. Parke, the oldest victim, was known to keep cash in the house. I’ve seen figures saying his bankroll as high as $15,000, but the true amount was never nailed down to anyone’s satisfaction. Suspicion naturally fell upon family members or friends who knew of Parke’s stash. The investigation, trials, and appeals dragged on for two years, and strike modern readers as an appalling mess. At least four men were arrested. Some were indicted, tried, acquitted, then inexplicably arrested and tried again. I count at least two instances of double jeopardy, but I could be wrong. Two men, both relations, were eventually hanged for the crime, their bodies deposited in unmarked graves at a county crossroads, which I’m told was the typical treatment for criminals.

The four victims were laid to rest in the local churchyard. On my visit in those pre-smartphone days, I never took photos of the headstones, which were tall, lean, and nicely cut. (See images here and here.) But after 150-plus years, they were painfully hard to read. Some of the text was italicized, which further complicated matters. What follows is a mix of the inscriptions I took by hand the day I visited, amended and corrected with other sources I’ve since found online. What strikes me most are the length of the verses, the heartfelt language, and the obvious passion of the writer(s).

Photo by Mark Timberlake on Unsplash

STONE #1

In Memory of 
Maria the Wife & Mary M[atilda]
the daughter of John Castner
who were murdered on the night
of the 1st of May 1843,
Age of the Mother 42 years
Age of the Child 3 years

O friends and passers by pursue
this tale of woe
and seek the guilty hands which
aim’d the deadly blow
A murdered mother’s prayer
ascends from this sad ground
That ye will never rest till all
of them be found

I turned and saw the murderer’s blow
His wild and fearful eye
And for this sad imploring look
For only one in pity took
A child was doomed to die

I could forgive my murderer
had they not slain my child. Our 
mingled blood cries out to God 
for Vengeance




STONE #2

In Memory of
John Castner
Who with his wife
and Child and John Parke
were murdered in a most
brutal and cold blooded
manner on the night of the
1st of May 1843
in the 37th year of his age

O Friends, look here upon these wounds
on my temples and on my cheeks.
Children, think often on your Sire, his agony and shrieks
And bend around my lowly grave and drop the filial tear
And as ye value life and peace and things that ye hold dear,
O, seek ye out my murderers all for naught but cruel hate
Hath hurried me along to meet so direful a fate.

The Judgement Day is rolling on and should any of
my murderers escape the eye of man the wrath of God will
abide with them forever


STONE #3 

In
Memory of
John B. Parke
who with John Castner, his wife and child
was murdered in a most brutal
and cold blooded manner
on the night of the 1st of May, 1843
in the 61st year of his age

Stop, traveler, pause a moment o’er this silent lowly grave
Here lies the dust of one who found a most untimely end.
When balmy sleep to sweet repose his careworn body gave
The murderer came, and with one blow all earthly ties did rend
And to the Judgement bar his spirit quickly made its way
To meet the Judge and the awards of that tremendous day

But in that awful day how will the murderer quail
when wrath of God Almighty shall with vengeance him assail.

Erected by Sarah Parke

* * *

Resources:

Murder along the Musconetcong: a tale of Jersey justice, by Ruth Trask Farrow (T.F.H. Publications, 1973).

The Changewater murders: a true historical account, by Sharon & Robert Meeker, (Key West, FL: S. & R. Meeker, 1998).

***

On a lighter note, this week writer Scott D. Parker reviewed a wonderful out-of-print Halloween mystery anthology at Do Some Damage that I wish I could get my hands on. Edited by Isaac Asimov, it features 13 tales by writers including Asimov, Ellery Queen, Edith Wharton, Anthony Boucher, Ray Bradbury, Gahan Wilson, Edward D. Hoch, and more. (TOC reproduced below.) It sounds like a winner, but of course locating the book online is tough, not to mention pricey. Luckily most of the stories are collected elsewhere.




See you in three weeks!

Joe



08 October 2021

Annabel Lee Buried Here, and Other Boneyard Myths



I spent two weeks in Charleston, South Carolina, this past summer. That’s not exactly a fun time of year to visit that city. Every morning, we left our hotel needing to walk one measly mile to the library where my wife was doing some research. And every morning, as soon as we left the cool lobby of the hotel behind, I sniffed the outdoor air and thought, “Oh, the humidity isn’t that bad.” Twenty minutes later I was drenched, and desperately needed to wash up and dry off in the library’s air-conditioned bathroom before I could be trusted not to perspire onto the precious documents the archivists were fetching us.

Early in our visit, we noticed the entrance to a cool-looking cemetery just across the street. The Unitarian Church burying ground was accessed through a narrow archway that fronted King Street, Charleston’s high-end shopping drag.


One gray morning, we peeked into the archway. Ahead of us was a long footpath planted with tropical seeming plants. Heavy iron gates on one side hid charming row houses and courtyards. A tall brick wall on the other side.
  

The cemetery was down the lane somewhere, but a torrential storm broke overhead, and we fled the scene, determined to return. We didn’t, because there was always something else to do, because the heat was always miserable, and because the last thing you want to do after a day of research is ruin your eyes reading old gravestones.


The head librarian happened to mention that the cemetery was popular with the city’s haunted walking tour folks. Upon hearing this, my first thought was, “Oh, great.” In my cynical view, when a person with a fondness for history wants to enter a profession where actual facts don’t matter, they become a ghost tour operator.

But curiosity got the better of me. One afternoon near the end of our trip, I couldn’t resist poking around online to see what was special about this particular 244-year-old burying ground. Things I learned at the feet of Professor Google:
  • The woman who inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee” was buried in this cemetery. Yes! It was the absolute truth! A beautiful and wealthy Southern belle named Anna (see what I did there?) had fallen in love with a soldier early in the 19th century. Her family didn’t approve of the match. The two lovers took to meeting in this very cemetery to smooch and canoodle. And of course she died. Of yellow fever. Or maybe tuberculosis. And her highborn family buried her in this charnel earth. Bereft, the soldier pined away for the rest of his days. Poe heard the tale and turned it into a poem.
  • No! said another website. Anna’s lover was not just any soldier but Edgar Freaking Allan Poe himself! Yes! Eddie had fallen in love with her when he was stationed briefly in nearby Fort Sullivan in 1827. And when his love died, Poe memorialized their love—replete with supulchres and wing├Ęd seraphs of heaven—in the now immortal poem.
  • To mess with Poe’s head, Anna’s father dug six graves but buried her in one of them, so Poe would never know which one enclosed his love.

Pick a grave, Edgar, any grave...

  • Anna’s powerful father had Poe reassigned so he’d leave South Carolina forever.
  • On certain nights, when the light, moon, humidity, and depth of the pockets of visiting tourists are just right, the ghost of Annabel Lee wanders the cemetery dressed in—what else?—a white dress.

Nearly everything I read online was nonsense, and has been carefully debunked by others. Just as an example: the woman everyone claims was Poe’s lover, Anna Ravenel, isn’t buried in this graveyard or anywhere else, because she didn’t exist. Also, would a lovesick Poe have waited 20 years after he doffed his military uniform to write a tribute to a real woman? (“Annabel Lee,” his last poem, was published in 1849, the same year he died.) And though plenty of people like to imagine Poe wandering the streets of Charleston, one wonders if he would have had the time, cash, and ability to travel from Sullivan’s Island to downtown Charleston to canoodle. (It’s an 11-mile trip by car today, 4.5 miles by boat and foot across Charleston Harbor.) But myth is everything when you’re dealing with Poe. His legend exudes ’em the way fresh tombs ooze ichor.


Myth aside, the cemetery warranted a visit, if only to grab some moody photos. The Unitarian congregation was famously known for its program of benign neglect. Whatever sprung from the earth was allowed to flourish—naturally, wildly, gloriously. A plaque at the entrance says that in 1831 the Unitarian Church chose to designate this ground a “garden cemetery” filled with “pass along” plants—that is, plants that aren’t cultivated commercially and thus only available from one’s friends, neighbors, and family.

Late in our Charleston stay, I found myself alone on the humid morning march to the stacks. My wife had given me very precise instructions about which documents I was to consult that morning, while she headed to another facility. I was to check in with her by noon.

That’s the morning I chose to dash down the cemetery lane and grab only a few of the shots you see here. A shin-tall sign warned visitors not to take rubbings. You shalt not rub!

I would have lingered. But my shirt was now pasted to my chest and back. And guilt was rising in my mind. If I didn’t get to the library soon, I’d blow our last day in these archives. But no worries—I’d return at quitting time.

Day’s end, I was striding up the footpath. What did I see? Turns out, it was the precise day that the church ladies’ garden club had arrived to spruce up the cemetery. A half dozen women in floppy straw hats were planting atmospherically appropriate ferns on the walkway. Others were trimming errant vines. When I reached the cemetery proper, I was astonished to see that someone had already blazed through, weed-whacking everything in sight. The air smelled of gasoline and aerosolized vegetation.

I shot more images with the sinking realization that the ones I’d shot that very morning were so much better than what now lay before me. One day I’ll return, and hopefully wild nature will be back, ensnaring and coaxing the dead back into the earth.


Weeds, whacked.

Other resources you might enjoy:

Edgar Allan Poe’s Charleston, by Christopher Byrd Downey.


The Name of Annabel Lee, by Julian Symons. (I read this mystery novel ages ago, and remember enjoying it, but I cannot recall a single bit of the plot.)

See you in three weeks with another boneyard tale...

Joe




16 September 2021

Scott and Zelda in My Own Backyard



The Grove Park Inn is a fancy old mountain resort in my neck of the woods, Asheville, North Carolina. Each year the hotel allows visitors to wander free through adjoining rooms 441 and 443 on a weekend that falls close to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday, September 24th. An English professor from one of the local universities, serving as a docent of sorts, shares with guests the unusual circumstances that brought Fitzgerald to the Inn during the summers of 1935 and 1936.


The inn’s staff always “decorates” the room with period props, conveying the impression that Mr. Fitzgerald has just stepped out. A typewriter is among the artifacts, but that doesn’t mean Fitzgerald ever got any serious writing done while here.

His life and career were tanking fast by the time he occupied these rooms. For years he’d been the darling of the big magazines. Editors paid him thousands—yes, thousands of actual U.S. dollars—for stories that might have been a subscribing family’s only weekly entertainment in the days before radio. But by the 1930s, Fitzgerald’s glittering take on society folks reeked of elitism in the harsh light of the Depression. 

On those summer visits to the Grove Park Inn, Fitzgerald was struggling to keep himself afloat financially, and to pay for his wife Zelda’s stays at a nearby Asheville psychiatric facility, Highland Hospital. While Zelda battled her demons, Scott battled his. Determined to reduce his gin intake, he switched to drinking beer. His beverage of choice were so-called “pony” bottles of beer, which contained 7 U.S. fluid ounces. The bizarre sobriety plan might have worked, if it weren’t for the fact that he consumed 50 of those bottles a day—a total of 2.7 gallons of beer.


The inn's staff always litters the suite with empty beer bottles.
(This is not a pony-sized bottle.)

You would think things could not get much worse. Then Fitzgerald broke his shoulder in a swimming pool dive, passed out in his bathroom, and was discovered by the staff the next morning. In a later incident, he nearly fired a handgun, but was stopped by a bellman. These two incidents fueled rumors that he’d tried to commit suicide. His biographers are not so sure about that. He wrestled with thoughts of suicide for the rest of his life, but especially after a scathing newspaper article about him appeared in The New York Post and ran in syndication around the nation.

The reporter, Michael Mok, had visited Fitzgerald in his Asheville rooms, and could not help notice how far the Jazz Age icon had fallen. While this trembling, 40-year-old wreck of a man tried to present himself as on top of his game, a nurse (presumably hired by the hotel) hovered and surveilled his every move, trying to limit his alcohol intake and ensure a sensible diet. Mok’s article was devastating. It portrayed this voice of the Lost Generation as a washed-up has-been.

Fitzgerald eventually moved on to other (cheaper) hotels in the region. He wrote his famous essay, “The Crack-Up,” at a hotel in nearby Hendersonville, a town about 30 minutes south that I’ve talked about in a previous post. He went to Hollywood in 1937, hoping to turn his fortunes around. The money he made there was lucrative, but he spent most of it on his wife’s medical bills and their daughter’s education. He was dead by 1940, at the age of 44, a victim not of suicide but his own ailing heart.


Brian Railsback, professor and author, shares Fitzgerald's story with visitors.

At death he no doubt considered himself a failure, and never lived to see what we now all take for granted: that at some point in every young American’s life, you’re going to read The Great Gatsby, whether you like it or not. The book Fitzgerald conceived as his sparkling masterpiece sold poorly during his lifetime, but today racks up about a half million sales a year, has been translated into 42 languages, and has sold nearly 30 million copies worldwide. That’s just one book. Perhaps more impressive is his short fiction output: 181 stories, published and unpublished, that we know of.

One of those short pieces was written with Zelda, who, I might add, survived Fitzgerald by nearly eight years. She died in a kitchen fire that swept through one of the buildings in the Highland Hospital complex in 1948. Nine women lost their lives that night.

Bus tours swing through the leafy historic neighborhood here on a daily basis to share her story with tourists. On its own, her tale is painful enough, but the full Fitzgerald Asheville saga approaches an almost crushing poignancy.


A stone marker on Zillicoa Street in Asheville marks the site.


* * *


If you can indulge me the mention of yet another alcoholic writer, Dashiell Hammett, I promise to cloak it in a more cheerful wrapper. These Nomi notebooks are fashioned from recycled paper, and are fountain pen-friendly. I couldn’t resist backing the Kickstarter as soon as I glimpsed the noir-themed endpapers. New Yorker cartoonist Shuchita Mishra created these two images as a salute to the city of San Francisco. The building depicted at the bottom is 891 Post Street, where Dashiell Hammett once lived, wrote most of his famous works, and where he sited Sam Spade’s apartment. Check out the Kickstarter for these notebooks and the hilarious video here.

See you in three weeks!

Joe



Some sources for this article:

Read excerpts from the letters of Fitzgerald’s nurse here and here.

An NPR article on Fitzgerald’s days in Asheville.

The Fitzgerald episode is also recounted in my wife’s book, The Last Castle.








27 August 2021

What Every Author Should Be Carrying in Their Pockets


I read a post once by the author Joe Konrath in which he went off on bookmarks. He started confronting authors at conferences who were pressing bookmarks into his hands. He says he finally asked them, "Have you ever bought a book because someone gave you a bookmark?" Their eyes boggled, the wheels turned, and maybe he changed a few authors’ minds about the wisdom of spending money on a marketing tool that doesn’t perform the way you’d like it to.

I’ve got two drawers in our office filled with bookmarks. The publishers print ’em up for my wife’s books, so I dutifully mail them to people whenever we send out a book or a bookplate. And if I’m anywhere near the table when Denise does signings, I always slip a bookmark into the reader’s book before they leave the table. Why? Because I hate the damn things, and I can’t wait to get rid of them. Thanks to my efforts, I predict we will finally finish them all by 2063.

I don’t like them because I don’t know how to carry them easily. No matter what I do, they end up crinkled, bent, or worse in the backpack I carry to book events. Or, if I do carefully preserve them in a little cardboard box toted for this purpose, that box and backpack are usually not on my person when I need it most.

If I do have them with me, I am treated to the same dispiriting spectacle every time. Immediately upon being handed a bookmark, people hesitate, trying to decide what to do with it. If a purse or backpack is handy, the person will stuff it in there. If not, I watch them fold the bookmark to fit it into their pockets. So much for trying to keep them pristine.

In my non-pandemic life I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting at bars, coffee or otherwise. Which, let’s face it, is where people schmooze. Just as often, we’d get invited to neighborhood potlucks, musical concerts, art showings. Places where people stand around with little plates and guzzle alcohol and talk.

Inevitably, you strike up a conversation with people, they discover you write books, they’re impressed, (yes, I think that’s funny, too), and upon leaving the venue they promise to go right home and immediately order your book.

But before they depart, they say things like:

What’s your name again?

How do you spell that?

What’s the name of the book you mentioned? The one for kids? The mystery one? The one about rutabagas?

Where can I buy that?

Can I get it on Amazon/B&N/the place where I buy batteries?


(Seriously, they really ask where they can buy it. It’s a wonder books are bought at all in this country.)

In those moments, sweet Joe Konrath help me, I wish I did have a damn bookmark with all that information on it. These sort of encounters happen so often that they are beat-by-beat predictable.

Good example: I’m writing this in Charleston, South Carolina, where we are on a research/vacation trip. Before we left home, I reminded Denise to bring along her stash of bookmarks/bookplates/business cards. She balked, but brought them nevertheless. The first afternoon in town, we explored the city and ended up at the bar of a restaurant.

Somewhere between the she-crab soup and the fried fish platter, Denise naturally struck up a conversation with a woman who is fascinated with writing, and has recently begun journaling her heart out. Just before she and her boyfriend settle their tab and go, the woman asks Denise for a card, or something, so she can check out Denise’s books. And Denise laughs. Why? She left all that crap in the hotel because she didn’t think she’d run into someone on the very first night of our trip. But she did. She always does. Like I said, beat-by-beat predictable.

To get around the Dilemma of the Inconvenient Bookmark, here’s what I did pre-Covid, and what I hope to start doing again. You see these here? They’re business cards.



On one side is my name, contact details, website, and social media details. On the other side is the cover of one of my books. I got them printed up by a company called Moo, and no, I don’t get a kickback. I’m just a stationery geek, which in my book is preferable to being a bookmark geek. Moo has a special customized business card option that allows you to print up to 50 different images on the backs of your business cards for one fixed price. (The link in this paragraph will take you right to that page.)


When I ghost-wrote a book for a restaurant guru, 
I had these cards made up for the launch event.

Moo says that they envisioned these cards as portable portfolios for creative types. And while Denise and I were researching in Charleston, I noticed that the librarians and archivists at the place we were working every day also used Moo for their business cards, which showcase the sort of one-of-a-kind artwork and printed ephemera from books the library holds in its collection.


If this sort of card makes sense for librarians, photographers, artists, designers, and maybe engineers or architects, why not writers?

Because they’re business cards, they fit in my wallet or a business card holder. I don’t hand them out promiscuously, so they feel more cost-effective than bookmarks, he said hopefully.

Sure, there’s no guarantee that the person to whom you give these cards will ever buy the book. But who cares? Because they’re business cards, they don’t weigh on my mind like those damn bookmarks. I don’t ever feel compelled to use them up. They don’t feel like a waste of money because in certain professional situations, I actually do still need business cards. At least, I did before the world crashed and burned.

Now: Sometimes you don’t want to give complete strangers your contact details. Fine. That’s why I print up a second, “blind” batch; no address, phone number, or email, just name, website, and social. That’s all the person needs anyway. That, and the title and cover of the book you somehow happened to mention in your chat. My “blind” stash is always readily available in my wallet, the “full” version less so. You can color-code the cards if you want, but why make yourself crazy?

I probably don’t need to say this, but the book cover image you print on the card should absolutely be the version that people will most likely encounter in a store or online. So if your publisher recently issued paperbacks with a new cover, print that cover. Ditto if you, the self-pubbed author, recently changed the cover of the book. (I recently changed the covers of some of my books, so I need to update the cards.)

Lastly, despite my lovely cards, I was sad to hear that in-person Bouchercon was canceled again this year. But please, feel free to mail your bookmarks to the home address not printed on the obverse of my card.

* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe


06 August 2021

The Birth of a Hard-Boiled Detective


My friend Terry Roberts has a new book out that’s set in 1920, but as I was reading it on the beach a few weeks ago I felt like I was reliving our national drama of the past few years. Toward the end of the novel, his detective delivers a line that has stuck with me since: “There’s something inside all of us that loves to hate.” Terry is the winner of numerous awards for Southern literary fiction, and I’m pleased to share his guest column with you today. Welcome, Terry! —Joseph D’Agnese



Is a true detective born … or made? Some of each, I imagine—both in life and in fiction. For me, one of the most fascinating transformations in all of crime writing is when a character realizes that he or she has a gift. And that the gift has to do with seeing behind the surface of things, reading the depths of people, finding the truth when it’s badly obscured. In other words, when a man or woman discovers they possess a hidden talent for detection.

As a reader, one of the most enjoyable transformations of this kind is the one that takes place in Walter Mosley’s 1990 novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, when Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins realizes that he can make a living—a good living—in the detective business. Which apparently, he can, because Blood Grove, published in 2021, is the 15th Easy Rawlins mystery, each as rich and thought-provoking as the first. I, for one, would follow Easy Rawlins almost anywhere, as long as Mouse is along for the ride. Even so, Easy wasn’t born a detective; Walter Mosley made him one.

On a much smaller scale, something similar happened to me when I began to imagine the book that became My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black, a mystery set on Ellis Island in 1920. I knew that the book was about xenophobia, the disease that haunts our species, causing us to hate and fear the other. I knew that the story was a murder mystery in which the murderers were killing off those whom they would deny entry into the country as a way of protecting the Nordic purity of the American population. In fact, I knew a lot about the setting and plot of the story I wanted to tell, but I needed a detective.

As history and fiction would have it, the narrator of my first novel, A Short Time to Stay Here, was alive and well in 1920, living in Manhattan, where he’d sought out a woman, Anna Ulmann, with whom he was in love. This character’s name is Stephen Robbins, and quite unexpectedly, he stepped forward and offered his services in the detecting line. At least in my imagination, he did.

At first, I didn’t buy it.

Stephen’s origins were about as alien to New York as they could possibly be. He was born in an extremely isolated community in the Southern Appalachians. He ran away from home when he was ten years old and made his way in the world by working at a famous resort hotel in the tiny hamlet of Hot Springs, North Carolina. He was largely self-educated, quiet, watchful, considerate. Full of humorous cynicism and stubbornness. Loyal to a fault. Drank too much. Violent streak. All of this and, as his relationship with Anna showed, capable of real tenderness.

Fair enough, I told Stephen in my mind. Alcohol and gunplay, seeing without being seen. Sounded like the makings of a hard-boiled detective to me. But there was a problem; he had no real experience, no procedural expertise. He was a native of the Southern mountains, and his dialect was so thick that he could barely make himself understood when he first came to New York. As for Ellis Island, he was as much a foreigner as the immigrants themselves.


Terry Roberts

Despite all my initial reservations, the Stephen Robbins of my imagination convinced me that he had the makings of a sleuth. A shamus, a dick, an operative. And not only could he operate at home in the isolated coves of the Southern mountains, but he might be an equally good bad man in that fraught whirlpool of humanity … Ellis Island.

Under the pressure of the moment, Stephen Robbins evolved.

By the time we see him in the opening pages of My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black, he and Anna have grown apart, his job as manager of the fabled Algonquin Hotel has grown stale, and he worries about his “slowly falling-apart life.” When offered an opportunity by the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) to go to Ellis Island to search for a missing Irish immigrant girl, he leaps at the opportunity.

I wrote earlier that Walter Mosley made Easy Rawlins a detective, or at least gave him the realization that he had talent. The same could be said of Stephen Robbins. Out of his personality and life experiences, I created the stubbornness, the toughness, the instincts of a truly gifted hunter. Early in the novel, he sees his beloved Anna in the passionate embrace of another man and the resulting trauma sends him spiraling into a series of self-examinations that parallel his increasing awareness of what is truly going on at Ellis Island. We are, he realizes, each of us mongrels, each of us immigrants.

Along the way, he forms a personal and professional partnership with Nurse Lucy Paul, a tough cookie in her own right, who is equally determined to put an end to the murders and disappearances on the island. Together, they make a pair straight out of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes or … Walter Mosley. Their life and love are sometimes harsh, sometimes fearful, sometimes soaked in pre-prohibition Scotch. But while saving each other from despair, they also save the Ellis Island from the monsters who haunt it.

And so it was that out of Stephen Robbins, the hard-headed romantic from A Short Time To Stay Here, was born Stephen Robbins, the federal op who could find any lost thing or missing person. Late in the novel, after a formal inquiry into the deaths of two of the secret “congregation” who have been killing unwanted immigrants, Stephen’s contact in the Bureau of Investigation threatens to pull him out of the dangerous situation on Ellis Island. “You were never trained for this type of work,” he says.

“Maybe I’m just a goddamned natural,” Stephen replies.

In retrospect, maybe he was. Maybe I just needed to realize it.


(From Turner Publishing, $16.99 paperback.)



I hope you enjoyed this visit from a possibly new-to-you author. You can check out the book at Bookshop.org, visit Terry’s website, or read the Publishers Weekly or Washington Independent Review of Books reviews here. Terry recently did a post for Crime Reads on hard-boiled detectives, which you might also enjoy.

Unfortunately I won’t be at Bouchercon, but I will be back here in three weeks. See you then!
— Joe