A Little Noir on the Prairie

“A 12 year-old girl whose cousin wants to kiss her does not normally threaten him with a knife; she laughs and kisses him, he’s her cousin. Or if she’s shy or doesn’t like him she just escapes, and the incident is not important enough to mention.”

By the Shores of Silver Lake

By the Shores of Silver Lake

[Rose Wilder Lane to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, in a letter about the editing of the upcoming By the Shores of Silver Lake, part of the "Little House" series]

Last week, I wrote about A Wrinkle in Time, the children’s book that, in retrospect, probably had the greatest impact on the adult I was to become. Today, I stumbled upon a brief Slate article that reminded me of another  series that I read and adored as a youngster: the “Little House” books.

No, I don’t intend to blog about YA books every week, but the synergy was inescapable. Especially since the Slate article interested me less in the editorial collaboration between mother and daughter and more in Ms. Lane’s efforts to stifle and censor the truth of her mother’s stories.

As a writer of historical crime fiction, I face a formidable obstacle: the nostalgic reimaging and reimagining of our historical truth by later generations—generations that want to “remember” the past through a rose-colored looking glass of wishful thinking.

Sign for the Kooskia internment camp in IdahoWorld War II? The greatest generation. Never mind the corporations that backed Germany, the black market dealers, draft evaders, Japanese-American internment camps and the rampant anti-Semitism and institutionalized racism that characterized much of American life.

As I’ve often mentioned in panels and in interviews, the past was life, warts and all. For every beautiful Art Deco building or green, undeveloped pasture, for every Glenn Miller tune and I. Magnin hat, for every “please” and “thank you”, there was ugliness and brutality and inequality and unfairness and injustice. And much of it was not only tolerated and accepted, but perfectly legal.The Golden Gate Bridge, 1940

If we write only half the story, we add to the injustice by either romanticizing or demonizing the human experience. Even “escapist” entertainment—to me, at any rate—should be plausible and truthful about life and the endless capacity for good and evil of which human beings are capable.

After all, isn’t that our reference point?

So I read the editorial letter by Ms. Lane with disappointment, if not surprise. I’d known of her extremist political ideology. If she were around today, she’d probably be an Ann Coulter acolyte.

“Here you have a young girl, a girl 12 years old, who’s led rather an isolated life with father, mother, sisters in the country, and you cannot suddenly have her acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight.” 

In seeking to minimize (and she does this in two separate sections of the letter) her mother’s brave attempt to prevent child molestation—and note how she implies that such things would be expected for a “slum child”, such a casual and crass example of economic elitism—Rose Wilder Lane not only silences the historical truth of her mother’s experience, but both admits to and silences a truth women have always faced: once they hit adolescence, they are targets. And in cultures that encourage it or turn a blind eye toward pedophilia (particularly in “slums”, according to Ms. Lane), such targeting can occur very, very early.

Little Town on the Prairie

Little Town on the Prairie

Ms. Lane also seeks to censor some of the economic and labor woes that her mother witnessed. The idea of crooked businessmen—and getting revenge on such—is not something for a children’s book, she insists. It doesn’t matter if it happened. Instead, Ms. Lane often underscores nature as the enemy throughout the series: the drought, the grasshoppers, the winter so long that the family nearly starves. In her defense—and in the passage that stuck with me more than any other in any volume—she allows a moving description of the disappearing birds and wolves and wildlife of Silver Lake as the little town on the prairie is built, when even that minuscule development by today’s standards  is shown to have a dramatic effect on nature.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about the disappearing expanse of prairie with a profound sense of loss, and I’m grateful that her daughter let that come through.

No, I don’t fault Ms. Lane for staying on target with her audience, for manipulating facts, for  conflating characters and events and all the other things one has to do to present a salable narrative. What worries me is what she chose to omit. She omits the story about Laura’s cousin. And she omits the warning that Laura’s Pa gave her concerning the men who worked on the railroad. And I’m afraid there Ms. Lane reveals her own prejudices as well as those of her time period, the rose-colored editorial glasses of a 1938 conservative.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder

“But Pa’s warning to stay far away from all those workmen because they’re dangerous seems to me far-fetched. There’s no motive for the men to do them any harm, except a degenerate one, and there was not enough sexual degeneracy on the frontier to make it typical at all.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder was a pioneer, a strong woman and a determined one.  And I wish we could have heard her full story.

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Life Lessons from A Wrinkle in Time

Shadow with pumpkin

Shadow with pumpkin

It’s a foggy April day in San Francisco. Fog puts me in the mood to write (luckily) or, on a rare occasion when I’m not working, it’s the perfect weather for curling up with a book, with our without a cup of tea and a cat. (Those of us who like to indulge in both cats and tea know that the cat will often try to occupy the same space as a cup of tea, and the end result is scalding water in your lap or on your keyboard).

Ahem.

So thinking about reading made me think about books that influenced me as a child. I was an insatiably omnivorous reader, devouring novels and stories of all kinds—those written for my age group and those intended for much older audiences. Along the mystery path, I began, as so many do, with Nancy Drew when I was seven. By the time I was ten, I’d graduated to Sherlock Holmes (whilst still retaining a love for Nancy. Remind me to blog about The Nancy Drew Cookbook at some point. But I digress …)

I loved the Ned Nickerson Potato Pancakes!

I loved the Ned Nickerson Potato Pancakes!

A second grade school teacher put my first Nancy Drew in my hands (a vintage hardback of The Ghost of Blackwood Hall). A fourth grade teacher recommended A Wrinkle in Time.

Wrinkle didn’t fuel a life-long passion for science-fiction in the way that Nancy did for mysteries … though I was always a nut for Star Trek (original series, natch) and read everything by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov I could find. What Madeleine L’Engle did with Wrinkle was nothing less than help shape my spiritual, ethical and moral world view.

I was initially drawn to the book because I was always a science geek—one of my favorite Christmas presents was a deluxe chemistry set my parents got for me when I was eight years old. I owned a microscope, a telescope and a gyroscope. I loved the idea of science (if not math), and even when I graduated from high school and had become a young adult, I seriously considered becoming a Cosmochemist (just the title alone is almost worth it). In fact, I was accepted to U.C. San Diego as a Chemistry major.

WrinkleInTimePBA1A Wrinkle in Time is essentially science fiction. But it uses questions about science to delve into metaphysics, spirituality, and the human condition.  It tops the list of all the books written for children/young adults that I read as a child (including stalwarts like The Hobbit). It is the first book I’d place in the hands of a curious, sensitive and intelligent child today.

I don’t want to reveal any spoilers if you haven’t read it—and if you haven’t, please do! Instead, here are my top five lessons learned from A Wrinkle in Time:

  1. Love is the most powerful energy/entity in the universe.
  2. Don’t hide or be ashamed of your uniqueness; be proud of who you are.
  3. Conformity is the ultimate bogeyman.
  4. Intelligence without empathy or compassion is the ultimate evil.
  5. Your faults can be virtues under the right circumstances.

I wonder what lessons kids are taking home from today’s crop of more-popular-than-ever YA books … and what your life-lessons from your favorite childhood book might be? Please share below!

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Noah and Captain America: No Empty Tents

I don’t expect much from most movies anymore.

In this “tentpole” age, the primary goal seems to be distraction. Distraction from things we don’t want to think about … global warming, the Ukraine, growing corporate monopolies, terrorism, etc.

Original Film Poster for 42nd Street

Original Film Poster for 42nd Street

This isn’t such a new thing … after all, 42nd Street was all about distraction from the Great Depression. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers and that maestro, Busby Berkeley, were geniuses at keeping audiences thinking about things other than bank failures.

Today’s films shy away from tenors, the Great American Songbook and plucky chorus girls in mechanized dance formations. Instead,  they give us action, CGI, more action, twists on iconic and/or familiar characters (even better if non-copyrighted), more CGI still more action, still more CGI, a dash or more of sex and/or romance, violence (cartoonish or visceral, depending), and the promise of being able to continue our distraction off-screen by buying a spin-off product.

They are also far more global products than their Golden Era predecessors, more dependent on the box office in Shanghai than in Dubuque. Their aimed appeal, in fact, is so broad that dilution and vacuity is often collateral damage.

A film that "awoke America's conscience!"

A film that “awoke America’s conscience!”

To protect against this, sometimes everything inside the tent is  just thrown out … any content, meaning or intelligence. What we’re left with are poles, and very little else.

Of course, not every film in the thirties bore a message, sought to open dialog or offered insightful commentary. But in an era that churned out hundreds of films a year, talented directors, screenwriters and producers were still able to create a Gabriel Over the White House or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang or Fury. And this despite the noose of censorship and (even then) dangerous, repressive political waters.

So, given the recent track record of the tentpole era, I was surprised and happy to watch two films with thought-provoking (even subversive!) content do well at the box-office, supply the needed distraction, and still offer rich content between the poles: Noah and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Noah PosterAfter reading reviews, I expected something from the former—after all, wrestling with an ancient chapter of the Judeo-Christian belief system should demand something more than modern Cecil B. DeMille-level showmanship.

I was not disappointed. Noah seeks to reconcile the contrary messages of Old and New Testament (the vengeful, capricious deity of Job with the embodiment of a deity of mercy), question and criticize man’s malignant “dominion” over earth while casting an admiring eye on his pride, drive and ingenuity, explore issues of pure ideology, human will and human responsibility, and ultimately ask what happens when obedience (to a god or ideology) and individual mercy/morals intersect.

The poster is reminiscent of 1989's Batman ... the film is not.

The poster is reminiscent of 1989′s Batman … the film is not.

The latter point intersects with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which I found to be the single most provocative super-hero movie I’ve seen. It asks tougher questions and comes to more profound conclusions than Christopher Nolan’s much-acclaimed Batman trilogy, and many aspect of the film—including Robert Redford’s casting—enrich the meta-textual meaning.

What is patriotism? What is obedience to authority? What is security and at what price do you sacrifice freedom (and lives) to find it? Should not politicians adhere to a higher standard of decision-making, where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? To that already daunting list of issues, add the potency of fear, and what entities have the motive to keep us in a perpetual state of it (Orwellian theme), the moral teeter-totter that historically ensued when allied nations recruited scientists and spies from the ranks of the former SS, and whether the release of information can set people free or just drive the agents of chaos (or HYDRA) further underground.

No spoilers here, but EW has offered an article on the political aspects to the film, and I hope it continues to do well at the box office. Yes, it’s distracting and entertaining and funny and all the rest of those things we’ve come to expect from Marvel movies. But it’s also a damn good film, and leaves you thinking long after the end-credit sequences.

And when is the last time a giant tent offered us that? :)

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What We’re Losing

This weekend, our culture diminished.

Not in a tragic way, as we see in the devastation, death and loss behind events like the recent Washington State mud slide, or in Hurricanes Sandy, Ike and Katrina. This was more a whimper than a bang, a footnote in a newspaper, a local event that a few thousand—not a few hundred thousand—people will recognize and remember.

Century 22

The Century 22 Dome complex

We lost the Century Domes. Movie theaters in San Jose, California that represented optimism for the future—the optimism of Camelot, the Moon Race, and that peculiarly pleasing geometric design that could be found in everything from Bob’s Big Boys to motel signs to animated shows like The Jetsons.

In that gung-ho embrace of what the Utopian future was sure to hold, the domed complexes—the first domed movie theaters of a number built in the architecturally-adventuresome West—were even named Century 21, Century 22 and Century 23.

Century 21 ... the first and last

The glorious sweep of Century 21

Century 21 was the first and most glorious. Built in 1964 as a Cinerama theater, it showcased the really big movies, encompassing everyone under its tent, like a space age camping trip or a Technicolor planetarium show or an adventure in another world.

For me, the loss is also personal. I spent a good part of my childhood in San Jose, and seeing movies at the Century was a true event. They were my generation’s movie palaces. I remember watching Funny Lady and Disney’s Robin Hood and even the re-release of Gone With the Wind at Century Theaters when I was eleven or twelve years old.

Century Marquee from the 1970s

Century Marquee from the 1970s

So when I found out on Saturday that they were closing for good … well, it hit me. Perhaps harder than I would have expected, and for reasons again personal: when I lost both my parents to cancer, I also lost my childhood. My history. As an only child, I have no one to fact-check with, no one to share early memories with.  Somehow knowing that those theaters were still there, still showing movies, kept part of my own history alive, too.

The theaters have always been successful, even now. They were not closed because no one saw movies there, or because people are staying at home watching Netflix. The reasons they will be no more, unless California designates Century 21 a historic landmark (a long shot, for reasons cited below), are simple.

Development.

Such a loaded word. Not necessarily negative, but in recent years—in San Francisco, in San Jose, in California and the Western United States in general—it has become a word synonymous with diminishment, loss, and even death.

"Luxury" condos and "upscale" stores in uninspiring boxes ...

“Luxury” condos and “upscale” stores in uninspiring boxes …

See, there is a shopping center across the street from the old theaters, which are, themselves, adjacent to the (in)famous Winchester Mystery House. They don’t call it a shopping center anymore, it’s now “live/work” or “mixed-use retail”—but essentially, it’s a shopping complex and an upscale one. It’s been built out and up to the edges of a box—a density more suitable to Manhattan than the traditional low-rise architecture of California and the Golden West.

The shopping center and its progenitor, Federal Realty, has been hungrily eyeing the expanse of parking lot and movie theaters across Winchester Boulevard. And now, thanks to an expiring (and unrenewed) lease and the determination of the land owners—who also own the Winchester Mystery House—to squeeze as much money as possible from their fortuitous landownership (their family bought the parcel in the 1920s), the shopping center is metastasizing.

Developers—and is it a coincidence that they share the first syllable with Devil, I wonder?—stand to make another fortune (and another, and another) as the working-class and middle-class spaces of domed movie theaters (or bowling alleys or ice-skating rinks or performance halls) are converted into tawdry odes to the new American past time … for a large part of the diminishment I first mentioned is our conversion from a country that produces to a country that consumes. And consumes, and consumes …

And what we are told to consume are “luxury” and “upscale” objects and things, “lifestyle” choices we are meant to embrace and aspire to. Shopping malls like the one across the street from the theaters are symbols of this aspiration, and the “town hall” architecture—which is about as insipid as the consumerism it represents—is the new medium by which we can conveniently do so.

Century 23

Century 23 … irreplaceable

Roll out of bed in your luxury condo, pop down to a Starbuck’s below and pick up a few shirts at Abercrombie and Fitch. Then check out the scene in your Google Glasses while you take a small break from your 14-hour a day tech job which is paying you an insane amount of money to forget that you have no life beyond consumption.

The former Bob's Big Boy with the Century Theaters in the background

The former Bob’s Big Boy with the Century Theaters in the background

There’s your live/work/condo for you. And that’s what is going to be built on the corpses of the Century Theaters and the former Bob’s Big Boy that is now home to an equally old-fashioned coffee shop. Federal Realty has stated that it has no intention of preserving Century 21 … and I have no intention of ever supporting Federal Realty.

I am not anti-building. I am not even anti-development. I’m sure that somewhere in this vast nation is an architect or landowner of some creativity and soul. I’ll even go out on a limb and suggest that there may even be a developer who favors and understands the importance of historic and cultural preservation. But what I protest against, with every fiber of my being, is the notion that a shopping center can and should replace a movie theater. Or a bowling alley. Or a Palladium. Or a Bay Meadows or Hollywood Park.

Last Day

Last Day

Look, we used to be a society where people came together. Remember the feeling of social unity? Remember how good it feels, even on a micro level, when you share a communal experience? Movie theaters gave us that. So did bowling alleys and dance halls, race tracks and amusement parks and drive-ins and community centers and even the real town hall/Main Street USAs that are being replaced by these grotesque new architectural odes to our not-so-proud role as Number One Global Consumer.

We are losing public and community spaces, one by one, city by city, town by town. In their place we build big-box retail and match-box condos and tall, dense and ugly buildings where people never meet. They sleep there (if they can afford it); they shop there (if they can’t).

Century 21 - nightAnd that’s what we’ve become. And if we don’t start preserving some spaces more dedicated to coming together than pulling out a wallet—and perhaps addressing topics like monolithic corporate monopolies and the growing wealth disparity—well, let’s just say the future is not as bright as it was when the Century Theaters were built.

There is still a fight to be fought. The domes will not ever be first run movie theaters again—we can bet on that—but they can still be saved from the wrecking ball. The Preservation Action Council of San Jose has been battling to have the theater(s) named historic landmarks worth saving and simultaneously trying to convince a criminally recalcitrant mayor and city council of the need to architecturally preserve and incorporate (at least) Century 21 into any new development. To their great shame, Mayor Chuck Reed and the City Council actually sent a letter to the state requesting that the theater NOT be designated a historic landmark.

If I were writing a noir based on this fact, I’d follow a money trail. And I’d remember, come election day.

Because ultimately, preserving Century 21 will not eliminate the obscene profits the developers and landowners and all other interested parties will make from their deal with the devil. New always trumps old when it comes to the money generated by development. But if enough political pressure is applied, perhaps Mr. Reed and the Council will realize that they stand to lose more than whatever has already been calculated to “pencil out.”

The rest of us, unfortunately … already have.


The battle is not yet over! If you would like to help (the most rewarding kind of community interaction), please sign the petition to save the domes. You can email or call the California Office of Historical Preservation in advance of their April 22nd meeting to decide the fate of Century 21. You can “like” and follow the “Save the Dome” Facebook Page. You can also put financial pressure on Federal Realty and its properties, since money is the only language they understand.

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The X-Factor

I’m just back from Monterey and Left Coast Crime.

Incredible. Energizing. Inspirational!

How inspirational was it, you ask? Enough to make me start blogging again. And anyone who has ever stopped blogging knows exactly how much inspiration restarting it takes.

So … welcome to the new Writing in the Dark! My goal is less dark and more writing. Wink

The Left Coast Crime X-Factor Panel (from right to left, Sara J. Henry, Robin Burcell, Lisa Brackmann, Marcia Clark and Kelli Stanley)

The Left Coast Crime X-Factor Panel (from right to left, Sara J. Henry, Robin Burcell, Lisa Brackmann, Marcia Clark and Kelli Stanley)

On Saturday at LCC, I was fortunate enough to moderate a panel  called “The X-Factor: Responsibilities and Issues for Women Writing Women”. My stellar compatriots included Marcia Clark, Robin Burcell, Sara J. Henry and Lisa Brackmann. We discussed whether we do, in fact, have responsibilities as women in a male-driven but female-consumer-based creative industry; whether “torture porn” is more even more objectionable when written by women; how some of us have dealt with the sexism we’ve encountered in writing and other careers; how we aim to write believable human beings first and foremost, and many other aspects of the topic.

What did we discover? That we could have gone on discussing this subject—and this alone—for the length of the entire conference. We barely got a chance to scratch the surface, both in relating experiences we’ve encountered as writers and women or as police officers (Robin Burcell) and prosecutors (Marcia Clark). My hope is that we can make this panel a regular feature of Left Coast Crime or Bouchercon.

Here are some follow-up considerations I’m thinking about this morning …

Metrics. Sisters in Crime, a number of years ago, gathered metrics that showed an alarming discrepancy between the the likelihood of women writers versus male writers getting reviewed. A male name is far more likely to generate a “serious” look.

Based on our own experiences, we know a portion of the male reading public will not read a book by a female writer. [Some female readers won't read books by male writers, but I think we'd find that the percentage is far smaller.]

Likability. Women writers are expected to produce “likable” female protagonists. My own work has been attacked by online reviewers because Miranda Corbie isn’t “likable.” Sam Spade is not likable, either, but no one really expects him to be. “Likable” seems to imply a certain ability to “put up and shut up.” You know, accept your lot in life and don’t make too much noise. I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider “likable” to be a particularly memorable epitaph.

Language and Behavior. As part of that “likability” quotient, things long accepted as typical male behavior—smoking, drinking and swearing—immediately push your heroine toward the “unlikable” category. You can get away with it more easily if she does these things with humor or in a self-deprecating way. If she does so with any attitude of defiance or confidence, you run the risk of seeing her called even worse than “unlikable.”

Expectations. Women are expected to behave in certain ways. Hell, women are expected to behave, period. As female writers, we are already transgressing the boundaries. We’ve found our voices and have stories to tell. So the stories we do tell—if they are to succeed as profit-making entertainment for a wide audience—had better fall within a certain acceptable range.

That’s where labels come in.

I write a hardboiled female P.I. with a sense of time, place and (in)justice centered squarely in noir. I’m at the far end of what is acceptable (and some of what I write isn’t acceptable to some readers). Thrillers and procedurals—particularly those that deal with violence—are also flirting with the borders. The undeniable areas that seem to fit squarely into the expectations we meet as female story-tellers are traditional mysteries (with the hobby-cozy on the opposite edge of the spectrum from the noir end but still very acceptable for women), romance and humor. Paranormal—as long as it’s not “Exorcist” levels—seems to be acceptable (psychics, whether genuine or not, are usually female) particularly if mixed with romance.

These are the boundaries of expectation.

The X-Factor Panel ... smiling faces and some serious discussion!

The X-Factor Panel … smiling faces and some serious discussion!

I’m thinking (with my tongue only partly in my cheek) of a color spectrum from dark to light that we could use as a clear warning on our books: this one fits the expectations in setting but might rock your boat in terms of character. This one has a very likable, funny protagonist who falls in love within the first twenty pages, but there’s a female friend who swears a lot. This one is traditional but features a male protagonist who is curiously asexual, very OCD and vain about his mustache … but no swearing, so it’s OK.

[As an aside, Miss Marple is clearly the smartest character Agatha Christie created: a dark genius of crime in a physical embodiment society always takes for granted and always overlooks, a person for whom there is always the injustice of expectation ... the "little old lady." Dame Agatha was transgressive.]

There is much  more to be thought, and much more to be said, and hopefully we’ll get to those conversations at later conferences and perhaps in later blog posts. But at LCC this weekend, I think we all discovered—and this is perhaps the best takeaway from the panel—that we are all stronger people and writers because of the challenges we’ve endured as women. Because of what is expected of us as women. And because of what we hope to give our readers—and ourselves—as women.

We’ve come a long way, baby. And we’ve got a long, long way to go.

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Left Coast Crime Family

Left Coast Crime in Sacramento was such a special event in my life that it’s taken me a few weeks to process everything.

Despite an injured leg that kept me limping around the hotel (and resulted in a wonderfully fun and memorable lunch at the nearest deli across the street, with Criminal Minds cohorts and good friends Rebecca Cantrell, Hillary Davidson, Gary Phillips and honorable CM Rhys Bowen), I managed to get to all the important spots: room, conference rooms, book room, restaurant and (of course) the bar, where more talking than drinking occurs, despite the yarns we writers like to invent. :)

Co-Chairs and Wonder Women Cindy Sample and Robin Burcell pulled off a flawless, wonderful conference, along with volunteers like Pat Morin and Patricia Canterbury and Janet Rudolph.

Getting to spend a little time with writers and friends like Michelle Gagnon and Alex Sokoloff and Deb Ledford and Chantelle Osman and Roni Olson and Judith Starkston and James Rollins and Andy Peterson and Sophie Littlefield and Juliet Blackwell and Diana Orgain and JJ and Bette Lamb and Rita Lakin and Gar Anthony Haywood and Allison Brennan and Keith Raffel and award-winners Ann Parker and Darrell James and Camille Minochino and Naomi Hirahara and Lucinda and Stan Ulrich and my wonderful agent Kimberley Cameron … well, the list goes on, but the time spent with friends was incredibly healing.

Being shortlisted for the Golden Nugget award with outstanding writers like Jan Burke, Michael Connelly, Janet Dawson and Sue Grafton was a tremendous honor, and winning it for CITY OF SECRETS will always be one of the highlights of my life.

Seeing a character name in my next book–CITY OF GHOSTS–go for $1000 in a bidding war was a breathtaking, giddy thrill, and I can’t wait for Tom and Marie O’Day to meet Miranda. :)

Ultimately, though, LCC was about healing. It is frightening to be in a public space when you’re vulnerable and hurting. The kindness and love of my friends and crime fiction family was like being swaddled in the softest cotton, and having a literal support underneath me whenever I felt like I was in free-fall.

This weekend I’ll be heading to the Los Angeles Times Book Festival for a panel (California Noir) and book signings. It’s a special place and a special event, as last year I was a nominee and I was able to take my mom with me. Coming back will be emotionally demanding, as I’ll be thinking of her everywhere I go.

The thing is, I wouldn’t have been able to handle this without the strength and support I felt at LCC. As much as my career meant to my parents–as happy as they were to see me successfully published–I know they would be even happier to see the kindness and love given me by my crime fiction family.

Thank you, one and all, from the bottom of my heart.

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A Valentine For My Parents

My last blog–in September, which seems as immediate as yesterday and as far away as the distant past–was a happy one.

I’d traveled to St. Louis and Bouchercon with my mom, and the fact that she was there to see me win the Macavity Award for Best Historical Mystery was and will always be the highlight of my professional career, and a highlight of my life.

We met my Dad in Cloverdale the weekend we came back (an easier drive for him than negotiating the city traffic and constant repair and expansion work near Santa Rosa), and spent a hour or two together, eating lunch, before he returned to Humboldt with my mom.

It was a warm, sunny, blue-sky day. The last time we were all together, whole, as a family.

Many of you may already know that I lost both my parents within a month, during December and January. Some of you may know how close I was to them. My parents were my best friends, both in different ways. They loved me unconditionally, supported me in anything I did in life, accepted me, protected me, advised me and fought for me at every age and during every crisis, minor or major. I didn’t live near them; I live six hours away. But they were a crucial, integral part of my every day life, and not a day passed without a call, without a sharing of news, of opinions, of thoughts.

What I didn’t fully realize, though, despite my closeness to each, was how very, very much they loved one another.

At first it seemed an unlikely bond. They met at eighteen, my mom a smart and beautiful blonde Polish girl, hard-working and independent. She was an adventurous rebel from Harvey, Illinois, with a shiny new red convertible Impala. She was sophisticated, a girly-girl, who loved Chicago hot dogs and the Cubbies and Marshall Field windows and was proud to fight the winds off Lake Michigan in the City with Big Shoulders, while walking to work at the flagship Sears store on State Street.

She’d gone through pain–her parents’ divorce, her father’s subsequent remarriage, and subsequent feelings of devaluement. Her mother’s diabetes and ill-health, a constant struggle to make ends meet. But she was determined to see life, to experience it, and to enjoy it.

She did so without a negative word about other people–my mom was truly the kindest, gentlest person I’ve ever known. She was the mitigator of all sorrows; the magnifier of all joys. Sure, she got angry–when someone tried to hurt her family, when injustice–racism, ageism, sexism, prejudice and selfishness of every kind–ran unchecked. At those times she became a warrior, and her green eyes flashed steel.

Pain and injustice was what my father, a homeless boy of 18, knew best. One of nine poverty-stricken children in dirt poor Appalachia, he was beaten and abused by a mentally ill father and protected only by his mother, a nurturing and loving woman who died when he was ten. The children were abandoned, and my father wandered the country on foot, living with Native Americans, adopted by missionaries (and running away), and finally finding a temporary home on the race track, where all his mother’s nurturing genes blossomed as he took care of thoroughbreds.

He loved animals. People made him uncomfortable. He’d never had a chance at socialization, never really had a home, never had a formal education. Yet he was–and this is really the only word that fits–brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. A first-class mind, capable of superhuman leaps of creative conjecture.

He honed that intellect throughout his life, first through self-education and reading, then through a GED and the Navy and college classes. My father’s intellect helped save him, not from the horrors of his early years, but from something even worse, a pain he had to deal with every day.

My dad suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, which clinically was probably a form of paranoid schizophrenia. Three of his siblings had been diagnosed with it. The genes of  his mentally ill and abusive father ran deep and strong within the family.

My mom didn’t know this when they met and fell in love and married five years later, on September 14, 1963. She knew she loved him and he loved her and yes, they were scared, particularly when I came along. Dad was in the Navy then; he suffered a wound that would later qualify him for 100% disability.

His mental illness grew more virulent when he hit his thirties, and life was hard. He self-medicated with alcohol, which made the condition worse. There was abuse involved–very, very hard times. Through it all, my mom stuck with him.  She saved him, time and again, as she’d done when he was a race track kid of 18.

Eventually, my father quit drinking. They became older. Mom lived with me for a time, worked with me, traveled with me. And I spent more time with my Dad as his disease became more manageable, though every day was a challenge for him. He played chess every day (most of the time beating the computer) as a way of using his intellect to keep the raging chaos in check.

In September of 2009, we found out mom had uterine cancer. After surgery and painful chemotherapy that resulted in neuropathy, she was in remission for six months. Then, during Bouchercon 2010 in October, we found out the cancer had come back and was terminal.

The light flickered in my father’s eyes, though he tried to keep it burning for my mom. You see, he’d prayed–though he wasn’t a religious man–that he could help save her. That he could give his life for hers. That he could give her back the love she’d given him, that he could find redemption and grace. His kind and nurturing soul focused all its energy on her.

He devoted every minute to taking care of her, until, finally, his body betrayed him. He was diagnosed with pneumonia before Thanksgiving; the day after Thanksgiving, we found out he had terminal, metastasized lung cancer.

My father died two weeks after the day he was hospitalized, just a couple of hours after seeing me. He’d been waiting for me. I’d had to run to San Francisco to make arrangements for family leave.

He’d been determined to get to the next stage first, to not have to face life without my mom, the person who’d been his whole life. To prepare the way, to light a fire in the stove, as he always did, to warm the house for her.

My father passed away on December 5th. The day after he died, my mom’s condition immediately worsened.  She’d been expected to live a few months longer. We tried radiation for eleven days straight, but it didn’t help, didn’t help the pain. She was determined to live through the holidays for my sake, not wanting Christmas–which was always one of her favorite things–compromised. She passed away on January 8th.

We had a chance to talk–not enough, nothing could ever be enough.  She said I should write about how she had to join Dad sooner than we all expected … that it was sad, yes, but also romantic. We talked about how it was like one of those melodramatic movies from the thirties we both loved.

The truth is, my parents loved each other enough to die for each other. And about the only thing that consoles me, in my pain and grief and the horrible pain of missing them is that they’re together, that neither one had to spend much time apart from the other.

I’m also consoled by the fact that I’m here as a result of that kind of love. A love that transcends mortal flesh and human weakness, that soars with the red-tailed hawks my father loved and the voices of angels that sound so much like my mom’s.

Their love is eternal. My love for them is eternal.

And that is what I will remember every Valentine’s Day.

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Miranda’s Back!

Book Cover to CITY OF SECRETSToday is the day!

CITY OF SECRETS is now on sale.

This long-awaited sequel to CITY OF DRAGONS is a deeply felt, personal book, and it deals with themes that have haunted me for a long time. Themes of man’s inhumanity to man, themes that  unfortunately still exist and are as relevant today as they were more than seventy years ago.

Miranda Corbie—my hardboiled, broken idealist of a protagonist—is hired by a surprise client to investigate the murder of Pandora Blake, a girl she barely knew but who, like all the girls who worked Treasure Island’s Gayway in flesh shows, was a soul she’d sworn to protect.

Pandora was a girl with stars in her eyes, dreaming of her name on a Hollywood Marquee. Like many pretty girls—in 1940 and 2011—those dreams crashed against reality. She found herself working as a nude model at the World’s Fair, object of desire for the daily stream of men who paid 25 cents a piece to snap her photo.

On May 25th, opening day of the 1940 World’s Fair, she’s found nude on the stage she worked on, stabbed to death … a filthy, anti-Semitic epithet scrawled in blood on her white skin.

CITY OF SECRETS exposes American anti-Semitism on many levels, from a domestic terror group that plotted to kill Jews in New York to the clubs and housing developments that denied them entry in San Francisco. It, and all other forms of racism, sexism, homophobia and intolerance, are the supreme tragedy of human existence.

I hope you find the story fast-paced and thrilling, of course, that you keep turning the pages and step side-by-side with Miranda on her harrowing journey through a familiar yet unfamiliar City by the Bay. But I also hope CITY OF SECRETS helps you renew your commitment to a future where anti-Semitism and bigotry are truly relics of the distant past.

As always, thanks for reading — and your support!

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The Intimate Paperback

Today is a red-letter day for me … and Miranda Corbie! ;-)

Miranda’s out in paperback for the first time, in a beautiful trade edition of CITY OF DRAGONS. This isn’t actually her debut in paperback—that came with the mass market paperback of FIRST THRILLS—but it is her first solo gig in softcover.

I love paperbacks. They’re informal, more intimate that a hardcover  … though of course I love hardbacks, too. They’re parental and solid, reassuring and stable. They’re the books you can depend on and reach for, time and again.

But paperbacks … well, paperbacks are kind of sexy.

They are, after all, the books you take to bed, covers bent backwards, with dog-eared pages and the spine weathered and lined. They accompany you to the beach, on planes, on vacations to sunnier climes, sporting water rings from the Mojito you just finished.

Paperbacks are a summer fling, a quick tryst in the ski lodge, a book to be devoured in a burst of passion.

Alas, comes the time for fall or spring cleaning, and many a paperback—torn, tattered, scarred and bent out of shape, old beyond its years—is sent off packing to Goodwill or a garage sale, banished from the vacation places it used to call home.

Of course, some readers actually save their paperbacks (bless you!), collect them, and keep them looking beautiful. I’ve always adored paperback cover art from the past—from lurid, sensationalistic covers to  Deco beauties to the famous Dell “Map Backs”—and add to my collection when money and opportunity permits.

I certainly hope the CITY OF DRAGONS trade paperback brings Miranda new admirers … whether they read it on a beach in a last hurrah for summer or take it on a plane trip or peruse it at home in a comfortable chair. The cover stock is nubby and textured, colors vibrant and warm, size pleasantly holdable … altogether, it looks like much more than a fling. ;-)

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Shaken, Secrets and a Very Special Cat

I received some wonderful news yesterday—CITY OF DRAGONS has been nominated for a Macavity, specifically the Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery Award!

The Macavity is as wonderful as it gets, a recognition of your work from some of the most astute readers in the community: members of Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Readers International. I’m deeply honored to have Miranda’s debut novel nominated … and am especially tickled because when I was a kid I used to be able to recite by heart “Macavity, The Mystery Cat” (the poem by T.S. Eliot for which the award is named). I can still remember a few stanzas, so if you see me at a convention and ask me to recite—be forewarned! ;-)

I’m also celebrating something else: a special effort by authors—an anthology of short stories—written and published and sold to raise money for Japan in the wake of its almost unimaginable calamity. The anthology is called SHAKEN: STORIES FROM JAPAN, and is currently available on Amazon for $3.99. The brainchild of author (and fellow Macavity nominee) Tim Hallinan, the book features 20 stories by 20 authors, many crime fiction favorites, with elegantly translated haikus interposed between the stories. Even the cover is designed by the multi-talented Gar Anthony Harwood. I’m proud of participating (my story is called “Coolie” and is set in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake); proud, too, of Amazon, for donating their share of the royalties: fully 100% of this book goes to help the people that need it. It feels so good to be able to help, even a little.

It’s hard to believe that July is almost upon us. CITY OF SECRETS will be hitting stories on September 13th, and I’m busy writing the third Miranda (working title is CITY OF GHOSTS) while preparing for the launch. My website will soon have all the bells and whistles I hope my readers have come to expect: a book trailer, video, photo gallery, sound track, inspirations and more. In the meantime, you can check the progress by going to the CITY OF SECRETS page and exploring the sub-menu.  I’m also looking forward to the paperback of CITY OF DRAGONS, which hits stores August 30th.

To celebrate the launch of Miranda’s second novel, I’ve written a special short story: “The Memory Book”. Set on Treasure Island during the World’s Fair, it takes place before CITY OF DRAGONS and after my previous short story, “Children’s Day.” I’ll have more news on the release soon.

Speaking of “Children’s Day, FIRST THRILLS has been out for over a month now, as a mass-market paperback. My first! And what a thrill it is, to see my short story in such stellar company! If you haven’t read this prequel to CITY OF DRAGONS, you can now read it FOR FREE on the ITW website: just go to The Big Thrill and click on the banner.

In the Roman part of my life, we’ve made NOX DORMIENDA newly available as an e-book! You can find it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Diesel, Sony and Smashwords for $3.99. I’m happy to see it back in pixel-print, and hope to have word on a paperback version before the end of the year.


I have a number of events coming up this summer … a trip to Yreka, CA and Ashland, Medford and Klamath Falls, Oregon, as part of the fabulous Ashland Mystery Readers Group Festival, now in its ninth year. I can’t wait to visit my old stomping grounds–I traveled to Ashland every year in high school, and it’s been way too long since I’ve been back!

I’ll also be speaking at the fabulous Desert Sleuth’s WRITE NOW! 2011 Conference in Scottsdale, AZ, with friends Sophie Littlefield and Juliet Blackwell … I can’t wait to see my fellow Sisters in Crime and the desert in all of its summer glory!

In the meantime, I’m writing … and writing … but will be back sooner rather than later with, I hope, some movie recommendations. Hope you all have a wonderful Independence Day, and thanks for sticking with me while I’m writing in the dark! :-) And congratulations to all the Macavity nominees!

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