Friday, June 25, 2021


Had I not already known who wrote The Long-Legged Fly I would have been shocked to learn it was not Walter Mosley introducing a new PI series with “Lew Griffin” taking over the sleuthing business from Easy Rawlins. I’d never known of Fly’s author until two days ago when I read a short-story of his in the Bill Crider tribute collection, Bullets and Other Hurting Things. The story was so good, so different, I immediately looked up its author on Amazon and downloaded the first in his Lew Griffin series. It was a thoroughly absorbing though surprisingly quick read, living up to the good and different writing that had snagged my interest in the Bullets story, and I finished it in several hours. But as I approached the ending I began to wonder if I had mistakenly downloaded the last book in the series instead of the first. My wonderment was rewarded so smoothly, its unexpected end-twist so cleverly executed and the first chapter of the series second so teasingly and brilliantly presented that I vowed aloud to myself to read every last one of them.

So you can see I have to be somewhat careful what I reveal in this review so as not to give any spoilers away, and so I shall try.

I must confess I'm still so dazzled by the authentic feel of Fly that I’ve studied the author’s photo more than I do usually with writers I admire, this time to try to determine if he’s a light-skinned black – so light as to pass for white. One of Amazon’s customer reviewers of Fly says flat out “he’s a white guy.” I’m pretty sure he is white, but. . .his writing is so unusually good and so authentic I don’t really care. Just curious. Also guessing maybe this ambiguity might be why, as some critics point out, the author hasn’t reached the popular success of novelists he clearly outshines. Perhaps there’s an instinctive reluctance to too enthusiastically embrace the work of a white guy who writes like a black guy. Who knows. We people! Disappointingly chicken-hearted, we can be, distinguishing the real from the more comfortable appearance.

Fly is set in New Orleans, which may be why some reviewers compare him with James Lee Burke. I would disagree, although each writer’s work has a constant poetic feel other crime writers only try sometimes to attain. I’ve read pretty much all of Burke’s work. Admire him greatly, and, in fact, will read anything by him I can find. To me, though, Fly is leagues beyond Burke’s best, in its poetic sensibility, its characters, the inescapable genius at its core. Its plot is rather simple: a series of “cases,” involving the hunt for missing people. Mostly Griffin ultimately fails, or he finds them too late to save them from whatever disaster they were facing, losing a vital piece of himself with each vocational failure. Fly covers much of a lifetime, starting in 1964 and winding up in the present when the book came out in 1992. About the only missing modern feature coming to mind is the lack of smart phones — even simple old fliptop cell phones – and that’s an afterthought that never occurred to me during the reading.

Here’s a small sampling of what I found so riveting and internally explosive in Fly:

In a notoriously wild city, the Channel at one time and for a long time was the wildest spot of all, scene of bars with names like Bucket of Blood, showers of bricks for encroaching outsiders, police killings. Whenever it rained, which in New Orleans was damn near always, water poured down from the Garden District just uptown onto the poor, low-living Irish here, which is probably where the name came from.

Forget the Longs and political machines, forget the Mafia, the Petroleum Club, the Church or city hall: roaches are the ones who really run New Orleans. Our proudest product, our veritable raison d’être. No one does roaches like we do. Ought to be a statue of one out there on the river where everybody could see it, big as a building.

Other people’s roaches, other place’s roaches, run for cover when you turn the lights on. You ever seen any different? But not here, man. New Orleans roaches are more liable to drop to one knee and give out with a chorus or two of ‘Swanee.’ They’re the true Negroes, roaches are, the only pure strain that’s left, maybe. You know what happened in all them woodpiles.

That’s from the 1964 section. Here’s one from 1990:

“There isn’t anyone like me, Lew.” I looked at her then, the way she held the toast, looking at it slightly cross-eyed, and I knew she was right. It’s never ideas, but simple things, that break our hearts: a falling leaf that plunges us into our own irredeemable past, the memory of a young woman’s ankle, a single smile among unknown faces, a madeleine, a piece of toast.

And here’s a poem fragment I found on the author’s webpage (he’s also a poet, a professor, a musicologist, a reviewer, a biographer, and undoubtedly a few other things that aren’t coming to mind). The fragment:

What is left for us, here
among our families, books and friends,
but to go on as we must.
There will be no more Tolstoys.
There's only the chance to do
what remains:
Find beauty, try to understand, survive.

from "To a Russian Friend"

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]


Wednesday, June 23, 2021


I'm not going to tell you. Sorry, nary a hint. You'll have to find it on your own. Ordinarily that shouldn't be too hard, considering there are only twenty stories. The catch is each story’s so damned good it might come down to flipping a coin to determine which is your favorite. The thing about mine is it’s so different it caught me by surprise. Some of you might disagree that being different is enough to win the contest, and ordinarily I would agree. But that is only what caught my eye. The story itself then went ahead and did its job on me. I shall probably never see crime fiction quite the same ever again. So why not tell you? Why make you work for it? First of all, reading these stories isn’t work. It’s pure pleasure. Secondly, my preference might trigger contrariness in some readers, and I wouldn’t want to do that. Sheriff Rhodes wouldn’t do that, nor would Bill, his creator.

Bill Crider left us three years ago, and this collection, Bullets and Other Hurting Things, is a tribute to his memory by fellow writers. I knew him through the several Sheriff Rhodes mysteries I read of the eighteen he published, and through his blog, on which he participated daily and where he befriended all who stopped by to chat.

Many of the contributors to this book are well-known crime writers themselves—Bill Pronzini, Sara Paretsky, Robert J. Randisi, Patricia Abbot, and Ben Boulden, to name those I immediately recognized. Boulden, whose longtime blog, Gravetapping, was tapped to take over Bill Crider’s short-story column in Mystery Scene magazine after Bill left us.

One of the contributors is Bill’s daughter, Angela Crider Neary, whose story, High Time for Murder, eased the Crider style into a new generational milieu. In an introduction to Bullets and Other Hurting Things, Ms. Neary tells us her dad was mysterious in his own right: “Bill Crider was a man of mystery. Not just in the sense that he was the author of dozens and dozens of mystery novels and short stories, but by virtue of the fact that he was often a quiet and private person — even around his own family. So, even though I’m his daughter, I’ll confess that I know less about him than I wish I did. As he was coming into his own as a writer and expert in the area of crime and mystery fiction, he didn’t share a lot of insights into who he was with me. . .I find out something new about him every time I read an article or a work of fiction he wrote. . .He once told me that he was much more comfortable speaking in front of a large audience than being in an intimate setting with a few people he didn’t know well. Invariably I had to warn boyfriends who met him, ‘He’s very quiet. Don’t take it personally’. . .”

Bill Crider

Hardboiled/noir author Rick Ollerman, who edited the collection, said he invited the contributors here to “write about small-town crime, hard-boiled PIs, or really just anything they thought Bill might have gotten a kick out of.” I’ve no doubt Bill would have gotten more than a kick out of these stories. I sure as hell did. And these stories introduced me to several writers new to me, writers I intend to look up and read more of their work. Too, the nostalgia bug bit me while reading this collection, reminding me it’s time to download more Sheriff Rhodes mysteries.

Did I mention Graham Greene? I don’t believe I did. He’s long gone, as well, and by amazing coincidence I’ve just reread The Quiet American, and was reminded again of his subtle, genteel style while reading one of the stories in Bullets and Other Hurting Things. In fact, by gosh, that’s the one I mentioned up above, the one you’ll have to find on your own. There. A hint. The only one you’re getting from me!

[For more Short-Story Wednesday links check ]Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog


Friday, June 18, 2021

HEARTS AT DAWN – Alysa Salzberg

Hearts at Dawn is a fairy tale told by one of the fairies—or witches, as she tells us, "or some more accurate sort of non-mortal." She doesn't give us her name, possibly out of shame, because, using the witch side of her powers, she once did an "awful awful" thing, and now spends the entire book trying to rally our support in making amends.

Our fairy/witch narrator starts her story recounting a silent duel between her and her mentor, a gorgeous raven-haired beauty who captures the eye of the tall, dark, handsome (of course) Charles Rush whom our storyteller—admittedly plain and with “disaster” hair--had her eye on. Rush and mentor marry, and have a baby boy. Consequently our nameless non-mortal, crushed and maddened with rage, conjures a curse against the child, Orin, that when he turns twelve he will become a monster. And he does.

Elongated hands with claws. “Hooves at his feet, dark fur everywhere, a muzzle overgrown with teeth. . .

“Even in the haze of my anger, I did try to be merciful,” she tells us. “This was only something that would happen at night. . .he could live perfectly normally when it was light.”

And so it comes about. But before this happens, while Orin is still a baby, his father tires of the raven-haired beauty, and she leaves them. Disappears. Charles marries again, this time into a moneyed family, and he and his new bride soon have another son, whom they call Joseph. The half-brothers grow up to be pals, and, when Orin is 24, they move to Paris. Their father, Charles, had wondered if his first wife had bewitched him. Visits to doctors and mystics, however, provide to clue to Orin’s nighttime monsterhood. He and Joseph hope to find their mother in the City of Lights, and possibly an antidote for Orin’s curse. The two take separate suites in the Grand Hôtel, but see each other daily. Orin spends his nights alone in his room studying books that might shed some light on what he now understands must be a curse. He’s a half-time werewolf, it seems, and a mild-mannered one, at that. He’s learned by now a half truth: that the way to undo the curse is to fall in love. As our narrator read in an ancient tome, “Give your heart to another and have their heart. Love and be truly loved.” In a form not visible or audible to Orin, she can only hope to communicate with him by calling upon another witch, which she does, but chooses one who bungles the job. Yet, even had the “madwoman” gotten it right.

Orin’s main obstacle is a fear of getting romantic with anyone. Far as he knows his condition doesn’t include violent tendencies, but how can he be sure? We see him fall in love the instant he sees his neighbor, who runs a photography studio on the same floor as his room. But he avoids her. Uses formal French to address her, instead of her name, and turning or walking away after a brief, polite exchange.

Their first meeting occurred in front of Claire’s studio, near the room he was about take. Claire had just stepped in the hallway. “A woman with a messy chignon. . . short in stature, with a pleasantly proportioned, somewhat generous figure.” Her laugh while talking with a customer in the doorway charmed him. “An extraordinary laugh, a perfect kind of joyful music.” Yet, whether or not he even knew her first name, he continued addressing her, “Mademoiselle Turin,” each time tickling her perplexity button the more:

Claire was standing in the hallway by her studio door. She stared straight at him, her eyes meeting his. Transfixed by fear, Orin stared back at her for a moment. In the woman’s eyes, there wasn’t fear at all, only perplexity and revulsion.” Over the next days she begins peeking through his keyhole at night. A pretty smart cookie, she eventually figures things out, but continues discreetly pursuing her curiosity and arguing with herself that OK, she loves him, but what about this monster business at night? No partying, no strolling the boulevards. She understands the absurd chill, and he’s kind and nonviolent. She couldn’t love him if he were, she knows. But would he trust her to be with him at night? Would he even share his terrible secret? She also had never found love before. Until now.

Complementing this suspense-building, incrementally advancing fairytale romance is its setting. It is Paris, but it’s the mid-19th century Paris under siege during the Franco-Prussian War. Food goes scarce, forcing people to stand in breadlines for hours. Many start killing rats for the meat. Not even household pets are safe if they’re caught outdoors. Cats being the most vulnerable because of their independent nature, the Grand Hôtel’s resident feline, Hippolyte, has Claire and other residents worried. I won’t risk a spoiler here to even hint at how Orin steps up and gets Hippolyte, out of Paris to Claire’s brother and his family where they live relatively safe from catibalism. Everyone knows Orin is now Claire’s hero, but the two still keep a tentative distance between them. She pretends she doesn’t know his secret, and he continues to call her “Mademoiselle Turin.”

Author Alysa Salzberg acknowledges she’d always been intrigued by the classic Beauty and the Beast fairytale, but doing a modern version wasn’t her first intention. But browsing in Paris’s Bibliothèque Drouot, she came upon a book about the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussion War. Despite being a Paris resident, and a writer for many years, she admits being only vaguely familiar with that episode in French history. She found the book fascinating reading, and then started writing about it.

Alysa Salzberg

I learned so much from it, but what stayed with me most strongly was what a weird time that four months was if you were living in Paris. And then, somehow that thought twined itself around a story that’s always floating through my head, my favorite story: Beauty and the Beast.

Are the endings the same? Similar? A modern twist? I cannot honestly say, as I’m not familiar enough with the classic version, nor have I seen the Disney animation--or any of the film or theatrical productions.


I do know how Hearts at Dawn ends. A suggestion: read this review again as close to midnight as you can, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find the answer. Or you can ask Google right now!


Tuesday, June 1, 2021


He’d been in the tub the better part of an hour, Calvin had. The duty water had long washed most of the shit off and carried it down the drain, leaving only a trickle from the shower head above the spigot knob he was unable to reach with enough leverage to push all of the way in to choke off the damnably taunting trickle. Now, awakening from a short nap and remembering he’d somehow gotten himself turned around and was facing the drain and water source, he hoped his muscles were sufficiently rested for another one-handed assault on the wall-bolted steel handle located waist high were he standing. He assisted the pull with the other hand pushing against the tub bottom. The bicep-to-shoulder muscle burn urged him for several heartbeats, until it pooped out. Again.

Taft had help

He lay back. Maybe with a little more rest he’d risk tearing something—tendon? heart muscle? Brain vein? One final herculean strain, if it didn’t kill him might get him at least to his knees. Then he could roll against the side. Maybe drape a leg over onto the bathroom floor. The goal at this point was to sit on the tub edge as a first step to eventually standing. Seemed sensible considering his seemingly critically limited options. Time for another nap. . .quick one. . .get the subconscious involved, maybe flash some new thinking into the cerebrum.

Quickly dominating his slide toward another nap was the concept of critical, which led a dive of notion fragments to the “quiet room” for triage screening. It reappeared shortly, still pack leader, but toting a flag with the word thinking.

Much to ponder with those two words conjoined, he suddenly knew. Critical thinking was a phrase he’d only recently memorized as its familiarity grew to dominate the more learned Facebook discussions. It struck him at first as unnecessarily contrived, redundancy giving serious hue to common sense. And the word critical alone, in most applications, left a vaguely threatening taste in his throat. He’d long known he was a right-brainer, indifferent to math and less interested in logic than intuition. He knew it was optimum to have them agreeing, and he knew he courted danger relying on only one. But at the moment he felt gratitude recognizing it was not too late for a little left-brain help which indeed surfaced, as if beckoned, as an archival memory of having watched two or three episodes of an old TV series called “MacGyver.” The series hero, MacGyver, of course, is a plucky type with a head full of science. Calvin remembered a scene or two where MacGyver helped girls out of impossible situations using everyday simple objects as tools—e.g. hairpins, and/or shoelaces. Calvin had neither within reach right then, but his merely thinking about thinking like this shifted his respect to antidotes from the toxins borne in fear of panic.

  On the verge of another flash-nap, he experienced the eureka recognition he’d been using the wrong muscles, and understanding this with logic proudly affirming his embarrassed intuition, Calvin zoned out and allowed the nap to build energy for one last burst. His newly invigorated neurons closed ranks during the downtime, joining both brain hemispheres to ward off a worst-case fixation that refused to cede its voice: how long could he expect to survive in the tub before. . .

He lived alone, voice out of reach of anyone, cellphone in another room, days away possibly before Jack, the only visitor who braved the Great Pandemic occasionally to see him, might appear with a hot meal from Shirley. Jack had a key. Seeing Cal’s truck out front and getting no response from the apartment he’d surely open the door enough to give a shout. Embarrassment be damned.

Suddenly the horned skull of Jumpin’ Jack Flash appeared indelible in the forefront of his cognitive deliberations. A true boo moment, tainted with the irony he knew he, Calvin, could die regardless—stroke, heart attack, or any of a myriad of mysterious vital failings of a body grown worn and weak from age and inactivity. It could happen anytime, anywhere without so much as a flick of warning. But to be found naked, alone, in a bathtub? At best Mr. Flash had a sense of humor, albeit mitigating the boo effect by rendering the scenario too ludicrous to take root. Calvin almost laughed aloud. He flexed his muscles, concentrating mainly on those in the right arm, the one that might have ruptured itself pulling on the steel wall handle. Now, of course, with MacGyver’s critical thinking assistance, he knew to push with the arm was his main physical strength. He’d barely used those muscles in his desperation to wrench himself to his knees. First step was to reverse his geography to enable maximum purchase of the tub’s sturdy edge. Once realigned he clamped a death grip on the edge. Then, splaying his left hand on the opposite edge for balance, and filling his lungs with what he accepted could be his last conscious breath, he pushed. . .