Showing posts with label women. Show all posts
Showing posts with label women. Show all posts

22 February 2020

No More Downer Books! (aka Does anyone else out there hate unreliable narrators?)


I’m tired of downer books. I don’t want to be depressed after reading for three hours. Bear with me: I’ll explain further.

The problem is, most of the downer elements of grim books involve women who are victims. Either victims of crime, or victims of a patriarchal society. Scandinavian Noir is full of the first. In fact, most noir novels include a female who is murdered and often hideously mutilated. That’s so much fun for women to read.

So here goes:

I don’t want to read any more books about women who are abused or downtrodden. I know there are several good books out there right now featuring such women. Some are historical. Some are current day. It’s not that they aren’t good. It’s just that I don’t want to read any more of them. I’ve read enough.

Imagine, men, if most of the books you had read involved men who had been victimized, or relegated to second class status by another gender. One or a few might be interesting to read. But a steady diet of these? Would you not find it depressing? Not to mention, discouraging?

I don’t want to read any more books about neurotic women, or women who can’t get it together.

I dread more ‘unreliable narrators.’ Salient point: did you notice that most (okay, every single one I can think of) unreliable narrators on the bestseller lists recently are women? Does that say something to you about how society views women? It does to me. No more ‘girl’ books.

I don’t want to read any more books this year with female protagonists that are written by men. Yes, that means some of the bestselling crime books out there. They may be very well written. But these rarely sound like women’s stories to me. They aren’t written with the same lens.

What I want: books with intelligent female protagonists written by women. I want more women’s stories. Books that I can be proud to hand on to my daughters, and say, see what is possible? She isn’t a victim! She’s someone like you.

Trouble is, I can’t FIND many books like that. The bestseller lists today are filled with protagonists who are unstable, neurotic women. Let me be clear: a lot of people enjoy these books. They may be very well written. They wouldn’t be on bestseller lists, otherwise.

But I’m tired of them. I want a ripping good story with a female protagonist, written by a woman. I want a strong, admirable protagonist I can relate to and care about. Hell, I want to *be* the protagonist for a few hours.

And not come away feeling downtrodden.




Bad Girl writes loopy comedies to blow away the blues. And she guarantees that the women protagonist and secondaries in her books kick butt.

THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS - latest in the "Hilarious" (EQMM) mob goddaughter series - no blues allowed! On Amazon

05 June 2019

Five Red Herrings, Volume 11


1. Pictures from a Prosecution. Back in 2017 the Library of Congress held an exhibit of unusual art: drawings by courtroom illustrators. Fascinating stuff including such sinister types as Charles Manson, Bernie Madoff, and (?) J.K. Rowling.

2. Man, that's succubustic. I have mentioned Lowering the Bar before. A wonderful website about all that is ridiculous in the world of law. This entry concerns a California attorney who used (invented, really) the word "succubustic' to describe the behavior of a female judge who refused to grant him the attorney's fees he wanted. (Apparently the lawyer worked very hard on the case, clocking 25 hours in a single day, for instance.) He also referred to the "defendant's pseudohermaphroditic misconduct." Stylish.

3. Write like a girl. Useful for all of us boy author types: Women Share the Biggest Mistakes Male Authors Make with Female Characters. Here's one from jennytrout: "We have never, ever looked in a mirror and silently described our nude bodies to ourselves, especially the size/shape/weight/resemblance to fruit, etc. of our breasts."

4. Write like a cop. From Robin Burcell, Top Ten Stupid Cop Mistakes (in Fiction). "Only some of the bosses are evil or stupid..."

 5. "Dieoramas." Article from Topic Magazine about Abigail Goldman, who  is an investigator for the Public Defender's office in my county. Her hobby is making tiny 3-D "reproductions" of entirely fictional murder scenes. Creepy...

26 January 2019

Not another Freaking Neurotic Narrator (and other books....)


(reaches for the gun in her stocking, and yes that is me and a Derringer)

I'm tired of downer books.  I don't want to be depressed after reading for three hours.  Bear with me: I'll explain.

The problem is, most of the downer elements of grim books involve women who are victims.  Either victims of crime, or victims of a patriarchal society.  Scandinavian Noir is full of the first.  In fact, most noir novels involve a female who is murdered and often hideously mutilated.  That's so much fun for women to read.

So here goes:

I don't want to read any more books about women who are abused or downtrodden.  I know there are several good books out there right now featuring such women.  Some are historical.  Some are current day.  It's not that they aren't good.  It's just that I don't want to read any more of them.  I've read plenty.

Imagine, men, if most of the books you had read involved men who had been victimized or relegated to second class status by another gender.  One or a few might be interesting to read.  But a steady diet of these?  Would you not find it depressing?  Not to mention, discouraging?

I don't want to read any more books about neurotic women, or women who can't get it together.  I dread more 'unreliable narrators.'  Particularly, I don't want to read a book ALL THE WAY THROUGH, and then find out at the very end that the protagonist has been lying to me.  (Are you listening, Kate Atkinson? *throws book across room*)  Who wants to be tricked by the author?  But there's something even worse about it:

Did you notice that most (okay, every single one I can think of) unreliable narrators on the bestseller lists recently are women?  Does that say something to you about how society views women? (reaches for gun in stocking...)  It does to me.  No more 'girl' books. (BLAM!...that felt good.)

I don't want to read any more books this year with female protagonists that are written by men.  Yes, this means some of the bestselling crime novels out there.  They may be very well written.  But these rarely sound like women's stories to me.  They aren't written with the same lens.

What I want:  books with intelligent female protagonists written by women.  I want more women's stories.  Books I can be proud to hand on to my daughters, and say, see what is possible?  She isn't a victim!  She's someone like you.

Trouble is, I can't FIND many books like that.  The bestseller lists today are filled with protagonists who are unstable, neurotic women.  Let me be clear:  a lot of people enjoy these books.  They may be very well written.  They wouldn't be on bestseller lists otherwise.

But I'm tired of them.  I want a ripping good story with a female protagonist, written by a woman.  Hell, I want to *be* the protagonist for a few hours.

And not come away feeling downtrodden.

Speaking of which...if you're looking for a female protagonist with wit and brains, this mob goddaughter rocks the crime scene in a very different way:
The Goddaughter Does Vegas - out this week from Orca Book Publishers!  
Book 6 in the multi-award winning caper series.
 On AMAZON

02 September 2018

Women in Peril


by Leigh Lundin

Janice Law’s article inspired today’s column…

Just the facts, ma’am.

Nancy Drew’s fan base loved women in peril. Encouraged by old man Stratemeyer, Mildred Wirt Benson (aka Carolyn Keene) wrote Nancy as an independent, impulsive, and headstrong 1930s girl. I'm not sure how this factors in, but when Edward Stratemeyer’s daughters took over in the 1960s, Harriet rewrote the first three dozen novels making Nancy less impetuous, less independent, and women-in-peril continued to attract readers. Why?

Evidence suggests we become more engaged and outraged when a pretty girl is killed. Outrage sells movies. It sells books. It stirs our emotions. Could The Virgin Suicides have been written about five brothers?

M-F homicide deaths 7:2
Besides violence toward women tearing at our hearts, we may take extra notice because, despite a plethora of movies and television shows to the contrary, female homicide victims are considerably less common. Of every nine people murdered, seven will be male. [2010] Perhaps it isn't fair to suggest Poe’s and Clark’s women-in-peril stories ramp up violence or actual homicide.

Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Higgins Clark apparently scored emotional bullseyes. They knew how to play upon our fears, male and female. Protectiveness of loved ones is hard-wired in male DNA. So often when one gender feels strongly about something, the opposite sex experiences the mirror image.

What if political, patriarchal, anger-against-women motives don’t drive the industry? Could something deeper be going on?

Our Inner Cave(wo)man

An explanation offered by psychologist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, offers spellbinding insight. She asserts the innermost mind is anything but politically correct. She articulates it in talks and texts better than I, but she says the secret pleasures that turn us on at night are the same we protest during the day.

Perel’s field centers upon our hidden, primitive, self-subversive psychology. When the lights go out, we change. We revert.

Biological components have been recognized since forever. Danger… fear… jeopardy fuel concupiscence. The underlying theory goes that great risk of life ignites a need to procreate, to ensure survival of the species.

Once in an agony column, a husband wrote in, worried about his wife. Immediately following a car accident, she wanted to rush home and make love– cuts and scrapes be damned. Had the accident damaged her mentally? Of course not. Faced with mortality, her survival instinct kicked into gear, a strong, healthy response.

Wars embody the most frightening fears. They’re irrational, society has gone mad, the rules have shattered. Death could arrive in an instant. Population figures show a leveling of growth when heading into a war, but once existence is somewhat assured, survivors mate— often. The term ‘Baby Boomers’ wasn’t idly selected.

US population growth chart

Movie makers discovered early on a simplistic formula: fear=aphrodisiac. Teens didn’t flock to drive-in horror movies for the production qualities, but reproduction qualities.

My friend Crystal Mary, the staunchest feminist I know, loves slasher films, flicks I, God help me, can barely watch between my fingers. Her eyes brighten, her neck flushes, and she bounces home in an ebullient mood. Never for a second would she approve of violence toward women. What’s happening? Me, a diet of slasher movies would give me nightmares, but Crystal Mary’s able to connect with an uncomplicated, elemental part of her being. The premises of Mary Higgins Clark and Edgar Allan Poe she could understand.

What is your take? Could Clark and Poe have stumbled upon the secret that our fears drive the most rousing plots? Can you stomach blood-n-guts horror films better than Leigh? Are you able to serve as designated driver?

01 August 2018

When 18,000 Librarians Attack


Two weeks ago I wrote about visiting New Orleans.  This time I am going to explain why I was there.  The American Library Association holds its annual conference in late June and this year it was in the Big Easy.

Truth to tell, the main reason I went was that the Government Documents Round Table of ALA was giving me the Lane/Saunders Memorial Research Award for When Women Didn't Count.  But I went to a bunch of professional meetings too.

I am not going to tell you what I learned about the current research on reference work and the shocking changes in Canadian government information trends (email me if you are dying to know), but will stick to things more relevant to SleuthSayers.

Believe it or not, there was a panel of mystery writers, and none of them were librarians.  Here's what I remember about them:

Robert Olen Butler is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and a collector of old postcards.  The latter is relevant because he wrote a book called Had A Good Time, in which each story was inspired by a postcard, and told in the voice of the person who wrote the message.


The great editor Otto Penzler read the book and promptly offered him a contract for two mysteries about one of those characters, an early twentieth century reporter named Christopher Marlowe Cobb.    

"Being of a literary turn of mind, I believe my exact words were 'Oh boy, you betcha!'"  There are four books in the series so far.

Ellen Byron writes "Cajun country mysteries," complete with recipes.  She
says she is so afraid of writing sex scenes that she won't even read the book on how to write sex scenes.

"I have a scar on my forehead where I walked into a tree because I was reading.  I was 25 at the time."

 
Jude Deveraux  has written dozens of popular romances but her new agent wanted her to try something different.  He proposed vampires or zombies; she countered with mysteries. He asked for outlines for three books; she replied with nine outlines, one of them 20,000 words long.  (That's not an outline; that's a novella.)

"I'm always writing about 23-year-old semi-virgins."

Debra LeBlanc writes horror - see her many books with Witch in the title -  but her Nonie Broussard novels are about an amateur sleuth who gets (annoying) help from the occasional ghost.

"I am to literature what Walmart is to department stores."

Amy Stewart has written several quirky nonfiction books.  While researching The Drunken Botanist, about the blessed plants that give us booze, she stumbled on the true story of the Kopp sisters who, in 1915, got into a feud with a drunken mill owner in Paterson, New Jersey.  The eldest, Constance Kopp, became the first female deputy in the state.  All four novels are based on her actual adventures.  The title of the first, Girl Waits With Gun, was an actual newspaper headline.  I can testify the book is a lot of fun.

"My characters are all six feet underground.  I'm like, 'Could y'all wake up for five minutes?  I've got some questions.'"


But there are more reasons to attend ALA than the panels, wonderful as they are.  Above you see a picture of the exhibitor's room.  There is no way I could capture more than a sliver of this joint, which had roughly 700 vendors in it.  That included everything from an author with a card table hawking a single title, to most of the major American publishers with displays the size of a grocery store aisle, to companies trying to sell computer systems, furniture, etc.

It is stunning and bewildering.

One company brought in an espresso cart and had a professional barista mixing up free lattes for the crowd.  "I like Baker and Taylor a lot more than I did an hour ago," said one happy imbiber.

Oh, one big exhibitor was the Library of Congress.  Besides giving away coffee cups they had had an hour when you could have your picture taken with Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.  Dr. Hayden is triply unique being 1) the first female, 2) the first African-American, and 3) the first librarian to hold the office.  There was a very long line so I passed up the opportunity for the pic.

Now, I have a crazy suggestion.  If the ALA conference is ever held near you, you might want to attend.  (Midwinter will be held in Seattle this January.  The bigger summer conference will be in Washington, D.C. in June.)


No, I'm not suggesting you shell out hundreds of bucks to attend panels on cataloging and the learning commons.  But for a lot less ($75 in New Orleans) you can get access to the exhibitor's hall.  And the seven book covers you see here?  They are advance reader copies I picked up for free.  They are just the mysteries; we took home at least as many other titles of different types.  The only limits were our interests and what we wanted to ship them home.

Speaking of which, the photo below shows the post office branch in the exhibitor's hall where librarians were packing up swag to mail home.  We shipped home two boxes.  How many  advance copies would you consider worth the entrance fee?

Enough talk.  I have books to read.


08 July 2018

Rapists are Criminals: Why do they live among us?


by Mary Fernando, MD

This is my second interview with the Clinical Forensic Medical Examiner, Dr. Kari Sampsel, the only Canadian physician with a fellowship in Clinical Forensic Sciences. She is a Staff Emergency Physician and the Medical Director of the Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program at The Ottawa Hospital. 

When victims of  sexual violence come into the emergency room, she is in charge of the rape kit, assessments of sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy. She is also responsible for setting up long-term physical and mental health care for these victims.

In the last interview, she stated that one in three women will be assaulted in their lifetime, but less than 20% of victims report the rape immediately. Many suffer with increasing symptoms and then are seen. Some never speak up at all.

There is no other crime that I can think of where the victims are so reluctant to report the crime. Further, a society that believes in the rule of law is poorly served when so many criminals are allowed to commit a serious crime and yet are not held accountable. Imagine, for example, how emboldened car thieves would feel if they knew less than 20% of the thefts would be reported. 

Rape is rarely a crime committed in dark alleyways by strangers. In fact, 85% of rapes are committed by people who know the victim. This suggests that the poor reporting of rape emboldens rapists to assault women they know, largely without fear of any legal consequences. While children are most commonly raped by family members or friends of the family, adult are most often raped by current or past partners, or acquaintances and friends. 

One of the rapes with a great deal of stigma is the rapes by present partners. Many don't see how a present partner can be a rapist. To explain, Dr Sampsel says: “Think of cake. You like cake. But if someone shoves it in your mouth and forces you to keep eating until you feel sick, that would not be OK.” 

The other way to look at this is that rape is assault. If a partner, past or present, or a friend beat a person till they were bloody, breaking their nose and perhaps a few limbs, this would be considered unacceptable in civil society. Assault that is physical, but not sexual, is viewed as unacceptable. Sexual assault should be equally unacceptable. 
When a victim reports a rape, or a series of rapes, the response they encounter can make them walk away and not finish the report. Dr. Sampsel explains that there is often a stereotype of how a rape victim should behave: upset and crying.  

However, the reality is that victims display many behaviours. Some are so upset that they are closed off, unable to make eye contact or articulate what happened. Others, will be angry and in ‘protester’ mode, trying to get justice. Some can even look fairly normal, reporting as factually as they can about the incident or multiple incidents.

Add to this the fact that trauma can make victim forget details, the report itself can appear incoherent and less trustworthy. 

Dr. Sampsel points out that, “People are pretty savvy about when they are not believed. If you give someone the ‘I don't believe you vibe’ then they can be done with the process.”
Which brings us to the process itself. It is long and difficult. Completing the evidence kit takes about 2-4 hours. Every sample must be labeled, dated and gathered in a way that maintains the chain of evidence. Also, many of the samples are gathered from places that we think of as private and, if there are lacerations, this can also be painful.

After the history is taken and the samples are gathered, the victim is often faced with the reality that it isn’t safe to return home. If the rapist was a present partner or past partner with access to the victim’s home, either going to a shelter or staying with family or friends helps. Even if the rapist is a friend or acquaintance, their knowledge of where the victim lives could make it unsafe for them to return home. 

Many cities have a victim service, which provides everything from cell phones to volunteers - who will drive victims to their own home to pick up personal belongings, and help them get to a shelter.

If charges against a rapist are laid, they often get 12-18 months in jail. If a weapon was used or there was an attempt to murder the victim, the jail term could be longer. When the rapist is released from jail, the victim is vulnerable to retaliation from the rapist and may get a restraining order.

Does the punishment for rape fit the crime? Jail is certainly punishment. And the rapist must register as a sex offender and this limits the jobs they can get. Perhaps the biggest part of all this is that the rapist learns that they cannot rape with impunity. Rape is a crime. Punishing criminals is not merely about each individual criminal, it is also about deterring future criminals. If every rapist truly feared jail time, the stigma of being a registered sex offender and limited employment opportunities, perhaps one third of women wouldn't face the ordeal of being raped in the first place. 

21 April 2018

Mean Girls


A few weeks ago I posted a column about female protagonists ("Let's Hear It for Heroines"), and in putting together my list of those I was a little surprised at how few female heroes have been featured in novels and movies. The same thing goes for female villains, but even more so--Hollywood doesn't seem fond of casting a woman as the bad guy. But I'm fond of those in the following list. I've ranked these evil folks backward, by the way, from least creepy (#25) to most creepy (#1). My opinion only.

NOTE: Evil, in this case, doesn't necessarily mean criminal. It means those who scared me the most. How many of these do you remember?


25. Eleanor Shaw (Angela Lansbury) -- The Manchurian Candidate

24. Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) -- Body Heat

23. Bellatrix Lastrange (Helena Bonham Carter) -- Harry Potter

22. Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) -- Snow White and the Huntsman

21. Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler) -- Hocus Pocus

20. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) -- Maleficent

19. Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) -- Friday the 13th

18. The White Witch (Tilda Swinton) -- The Chronicles of Narnia

17. Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) -- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

16. Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) -- From Dusk to Dawn

15. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) -- Sunset Boulevard

14. The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) -- The Wizard of Oz

13. Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) -- Gone Girl

12. Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) -- Play Misty for Me

11. Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) -- Monster

10. Ellie Driver (Darryl Hannah) -- Kill Bill

9.   Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis) -- Natural Born Killers

8.   Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) -- Rebecca

7.   Catherine Trammel (Sharon Stone) -- Basic Instinct

6.   Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) -- Mommie Dearest

5.   May Day (Grace Jones) -- A View to a Kill

4.   Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) -- From Russia With Love

3.   Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) -- Fatal Attraction

2.   Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) -- Misery

1.   Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Following up on that, here are ten female antagonists who weren't all that scary to me--but I just didn't like 'em. At all. I've ranked these from the least unlikable (#10) to the most unlikable (#1):


10. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) -- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

9.  The Warden (Sigourney Weaver) -- Holes

8.  Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett) -- Annie

7.  Mama Fratelli (Anne Ramsey) -- The Goonies

6.  Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) -- The Help

5.  Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) -- The Graduate

4.  Regina George (Rachel McAdams) -- Mean Girls

3.  Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) -- Working Girl

2.  Cinderella's stepmother (Cate Blanchett)--Cinderella

1.  Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) -- The Devil Wears Prada



These lists don't include, of course, bad girls who are likeable--Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis), Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon), etc. But audiences are expected to like them: they're protagonists, not antagonists.

I also left out good/bad shapeshifters like Regan McNeil (The Exorcist) and Carrie White (Carrie), villains from TV series--Cercei Lannister (Game of Thrones), Sister Mary Eunice (American Horror Story), and a bunch of meanies from Buffy the Vampire Slayer--and animated female villains like Cruella de Vil (101 Dalmatians) and Ursula the Sea Witch (The Little Mermaid). And so on and so on.

As usual, I've included only characters from movies I've actually seen, which leaves out a lot of candidates. Who are some of your favorite female movie villains? Also (he asked, holding up a gender-equality sign), have you featured women as villains in your own writing?

I have. And it's fun.

18 April 2018

Five Red Herrings 9


1. Little gun, big noise.  This weekend saw the announcement of the finalists for the Derringer Awards, presented by the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Once again, it was a good year for the Notorious SleuthSayers Gang.  In the Flash category Travis Richardson was shortlisted for "Final Testimony," which appeared in Flash Fiction Offensive (ed. Hector Duarte, Jr. and Rob Pierce, July 10, 2017) and Elizabeth Zelvin scored for "Flash Point,"  in A Twist of Noir (ed. Christopher Grant, March 20, 2017).

Paul D. Marks is a finalist for the Novelette zone with "Windward, from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea  (ed. Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books, January 2017)

And I made it into the  Short Story category with  "The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan"  Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #23, (ed. Marvin Kaye, Wildside Press, October 2017)

Congrats to all my fellow finalists, SleuthSayers or not!  


2. A Nonfutile, Nonstupid Gesture.  I recently watched the Netflix original movie, A Futile and Stupid Gesture.  Some of you may recognize that title as a line from Animal House.  The movie tells the story of Doug Kenney who (with others) created National Lampoon, Animal House, Caddyshack, and a hilarious little book-length parody called Bored of the Rings.  The flick is narrated by Martin Mull playing an older version of the main character.  ("I'm a narrative device," he explains.)

The reason I bring this flick up is that at one point Mull points out something in the movie that is not true to life and then announces that they are going to provide a list of other inaccuracies.  It rolls up the screen quickly in tiny print but you can go back at the end and read them all.  They range from "Characters A and B met in a party, not in a bar," to: "Everyone was much more racist and sexist."

I loved this.  Whenever I see a movie based on true events I wind up going to the web to see what was real and what wasn't.  (I knew that tube scene in The Darkest Hour  was fake.)  Bravo to the folks who made Gesture, which, by the way, is definitely worth seeing.

3. You call that Justice?  Lowering the Bar is a wonderful blog about the quirks of our legal system.  The most popular piece last year was the true story of a lawyer whose pants literally caught fire while he was summing up the defense of his client, who was accused of arson.  This is the sort of thing that drives fiction writers to despair, because you couldn't put it in fiction.

But I want to tell you about this piece  which has everything for the SleuthSayers audience: a mystery, law, grammar issues, snark, and Sherlock Holmes.  The main topic is this portrait which resides in the Massachusetts Supreme Judiciary Court, but no one knows who it is.  That's the mystery.  The rest comes from the newspaper quoting the Chief Justice urging the public to "put on their Sherlock Holmes’ hats " and try to figure out who is pictured.  Kevin Underhill, who runs the blog, is outraged:

So. “Sherlock Holmes” is not a plural noun—unless you’re talking about several men named “Sherlock Holme.” If such men exist, and they have hats, and you collected the hats of more than one such man, then, my friend, you would have in your possession “the Sherlock Holmes’ hats” (that is, the hats of the men named “Sherlock Holme”). “By Socrates’ beard,” you could say then, “I have here all the Sherlock Holmes’ hats!”

4. Comic Sans and Brimstone.  This is a public service announcement. I just want to warn you do not go to the website Clients From Hell.    It is a hilarious time suck.  Anonymous people (mostly graphic designers)  report on horrifying encounters with horrifying customers. Here are some of the main categories (as judged by me).
The vague: "Make it more modern and traditional."
The clueless: "I can't find the ENTER button on my screen."
The Arrogant: "My friends  at NASA says this is a terrible website design."
The Holy: "We won't pay you but you will be working for God."
The Unholy: "Take out the pictures of Black people.  Our customers are White."
The Crooked: "Just copy it off our competitor's website."
The Greedy: "You're a freelancer.  I thought that meant you worked for free."

Stay away from this page, I beg you.  It will consume many hours of your life.

 5. Stop the Presses!  Do you remember how in newspaper movies they would announce that they had to stop everything and tear out the front page because of breaking news?

I had to throw out the last item I had set up today because it was just announced that my book WHEN WOMEN DIDN'T COUNT has won the Lane/Saunders Memorial Research Award.  That's the big prize for scholarship in government information.  The Government Documents Round Table said a bunch of nice things about the book here.  I would be happy to say some nice things right back.






21 September 2017

Golden Age Mysteries, Female Version


Ah, the Golden Age of American detective fiction: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain; murky clubs, noirish alleys, thuggish gamblers. Love them, and yet, isn’t there someone missing? We know all the men but what about the women writers of the time? Most have dropped from sight. As a well-read librarian of my acquaintance said recently, “I didn’t know there were any major women mystery writers back then.”

There were for sure, but I am not surprised that while Chandler & Co are still household words in the mystery community, Dorothy Hughes, Helen Eustis, Margaret Millar and the like are strictly specialist fare. Consider my own experience some thirty years after their heyday. My first novel, The Big Payoff, was an Edgar nominee and went into a second printing. But when my agent approached the big paperback mystery house of the day, the answer was negative. And why? Because they already had their female mystery author in Amanda Cross. One to a customer, apparently!

Things must have been even harder back in the day, and so a lot of fine work, even work that resulted in famous films like Vera Caspary’s Laura, was neglected and good authors subtly squeezed out of the mystery canon. Fortunately, thanks to the enterprise of editor Sarah Weinman, who, as she wrote, recently realized “...that the most compelling and creative American crime fiction was being written and published by women,” and decided to look into the women who preceded the best sellers of today (and paved the way for a great many more of us).

The result is the two volumes of Women Crime Writers, Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940’s & 50’s, (The Library of America). I’ve acquired the first and have the second volume on order. As my ninth graders used to say, I can recommend them to anyone.

The 1940’s work overlaps the later Chandler novels and at least one of them, Dorothy Hughes’ In a Lonely Place is set in California. The novels have dodgy characters, blackmail, a lonely detective, even a serial killer – a lineup not too different from their male counterparts, but I’m happy to report also some differences. We’ve only been getting one side of the story, folks.

The settings, for one thing, are varied. There’s a posh women’s college, the sort of closed academic world destined to be utilized by P.D. James and reach its commercial apotheosis in J. K. Rowling's Hogwarts. There is a smart-talking amateur detective right out of Chandler but, wait, she’s not the glamor girl on campus, it’s her chunky friend in the flannel shirt.

Some other familiar characters appear in Hughes’ In a Lonely Place and for a while it looks as if we’re getting that familiar dichotomy of the nice domestic wife and the free-living theatrical type. It perhaps won’t spoil the plot to reveal that these two women turn out to be the best of friends.
Both Laura and The Blank Wall have complicated women who are not necessarily what they seem at first glance. Caspary’s Laura has tricky plotting, giving the heroine not only her very own Svengali, a man almost overly eager to help the police, as well as a portrait lovely enough to snare the heart of a straight-laced inspector. If you are weary of conventional femme fatales, this one’s for you.

The protagonist of The Blank Wall ( filmed most recently with Tilda Swindon) is probably in the prototypically female position: head of a wartime household. With her husband in the service, Lucia Holley has her teenaged son and daughter to worry about, as well as her elderly father. Financially comfortable, seemingly content with a domestic role, her worries are focused on her far-away husband and on teenage rebellion before her daughter’s unsuitable boyfriend winds up dead in their boat house. A refusal to call the police sets Lucia on a slide from domestic security to unsavory company.

These are four writers who deserve to be remembered and more, republished, and I am happy to conclude with the information that Dorothy Hughes’ The Expendable Man, another really bold and imaginative novel, is available in paper from the New York Review of Books.

05 July 2017

Not a Butterfly Collection


Let's start with this fact: In 1940 the U.S. Census-takers recorded about 1,500 women working for the railroads as engineers, mechanics, etc.  In the published records they were listed as "Tailors and Tailoresses."  Because they couldn't have really been doing those jobs, right?

For the past two years I have been working on a nonfiction book.  Not related to mystery, alas.  It is more about my day job as a government information librarian. 

WHEN WOMEN DIDN'T COUNT (published by Praeger last week) is a book about how women have appeared and disappeared in federal statistics over the past 200 years.

 The feds collect statistics on a lot of different subjects, so my book covers a lot of topics as well.  But I'll just give you some examples from the four chapters related to our favorite topic, crime.

  • The government's first survey on stalking and harassment had to be redone when it was discovered that it had accidentally included data about spam email and calls from bill collectors.
  • Congress passed the Mann Act in 1910 to forbid transporting females across state lines for immoral purposes.  It was intended to combat "white slavery," i.e. forcing women into prostitution, but it was often used against adulterers instead.  The Supreme Court quickly ruled that women who traveled willingly could be convicted of "conspiring" to transport themselves.
  •  The 1880 Census lists all the crimes for which women were in prison.  There are plenty of predictable offenses, plus a few that might get you writers out there pondering.  For example: 

  • The National Institute of Mental Health started collecting data on domestic violence in 1968 and concluded that it was a problem of "epidemic proportion," but they didn't mention this news to anyone until a decade later when Representative Barbara Mikulski started holding hearings on the subject.  Exasperated, the Congresswoman declared: "Well, this isn't a butterfly collection, ladies and gentlemen, that people gather for their own private enjoyment.  This is public dollars to get public information to help the American people."
  • The 1970 report Crimes of Violence explained the concept of "victim precipitation," meaning that the victim sometimes "contributes to the commission of the offense."  Examples included when "a wife has masochistic needs that are satisfied by her assaultive husband," or when "a female engages in heavy petting and, at the last moment, begins to resist the man's advances."  The report concluded that 4% of rapes fell into that category.
I examined well over  a thousand sources in putting this book together but now I get to tell you about my favorite.  In 1907 Congress authorized a study of how working outside the home affected women and children.  There was debate over whether the Constitution permitted such a thing, and the Southern states were worried that the result would be a hit job against them, since most child workers were in that part of the country.  Nevertheless, a 19-volume report was eventually issued, and you can read it all online.
But what I want to recommend is Volume 15, Relation Between Occupation and Criminality of Women.  Author Mary Conyngton was assigned to investigate the popular assumption that jobs in newfangled places like department stores and factories were leading women to a life of crime.  Her whole book is still readable, and fascinating.

The passage below, in which she quotes from an unnamed "worker specially qualified to speak on the subject" is worth quoting in full: 

The belief you mention in the general immorality of saleswomen is certainly widespread, but I have found nothing to prove it well grounded.  In the course of some investigations into the methods by which department stores seek to secure and retain the trade of the professionally immoral women, a trade which, as you probably know, is considered exceptionally valuable, I came on something which may throw some light on the existence of the belief.  Mr. _____, who was first a department store manager in several large stores, and then himself established a millinery business, said he had found the best way of gaining and holding this trade was by having a forewomen who was "in" with such women, which of course meant that she herself led an immoral life, thus being able to meet them in the way of friendship, and to gain their trust in a natural manner.

"Didn't you find such a forewoman had a bad effect on your other employees?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied, "she certainly did get some of the others into her habits.  But as soon as I found out they were going that way, I discharged them."

 Ah, the good old days.  May they never return.





03 July 2017

Fade to Black...


I'm currently in the sixth draft of my latest Chris "Woody" Guthrie novel. Even though I know him and his companion Megan Traine pretty well by now (Starting in 2004, I gathered over 100 rejections for their first book) and the plot points are falling into line almost as if I knew what I was doing, one scene is reminding me of something I learned a long time ago.
Sex scenes are really hard to write well.

Every book sets its own standards for how explicit or how subtle, and sometimes you figure it out by doing it wrong. If it's too graphic, it verges on porn, and if it's too discreet, it feels prudish or even silly. Obviously, noir or hard-boiled stories allow more process than a cozy or traditional, but even then, you have a little...er, wiggle room.

Remember the Frank Zappa song "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" The punch line is "I think it's your mind." Well, sex scenes really aren't about the choreography of who does what to whom and how much how often as much as they're about the emotions your characters experience.

If you're just putting tab A into slot B and folding appendage C over corner D, you're writing porn. Janet Evanovich discussed Stephanie Plum's frolics with a fair amount of detail, but also with large doses of humor. If you add humor, which chick lit romance writers--Jennifer Crusie, Jayne Anne Krentz, and Rachel Gibson, to name a few--do, it's much better. I admit, I read chick lit for the terrific dialogue. Yeah, sounds like when we were in college and claimed we read Playboy for the interviews, doesn't it?

Dennis Lehane's novels featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro never describe their activities in much detail, but have any readers ever doubted for a second that they had a very hot sex life? Don Winslow, on the other hand, has a scene in California Fire and Life (one of my favorite crime novels) with Jack Wade and Letty Del Rio that tells you everything you never wanted to know...and it's perfect. These two have blamed themselves for ruining their relationship and splitting up years before, and now they discover how miserable they've been ever since. The scene is in Jack's head, and, graphic as it gets, it's so vulnerable it hurts to read it.

It's all about context, and sometimes you aren't the best judge. My first few books had some fairly explicit scenes, but I've moved away from that...until this one. In the WIP, Chris and Meg have their first really serious fight over a case and are trying to handle a situation they both botched in their previous marriages. Eventually, there's a hot make-up/apology sex scene. That scene didn't appear in my first draft, but my revising showed me it had to be there. In alternate drafts, it has become more and more graphic, and I've tried it from both Meg's and Chris's POV. I've even put it in and taken it out several times. I've tried it as a flashback, too, and it still doesn't satisfy me.

One more revision and it will go to beta readers. I'm already looking forward to their opinions and may even include three separate drafts of that scene: Meg's, Chris's, and none.

Who ever knew that sex could be so hard?