We’re having our first brutally hot spell of the year, with the highs on the verge of cracking the three-digit mark and skies the approximate color of a swimming pool liner. This is expected to continue at least until late next week — the joy of life in the South. But it’s pretty comfortable here in the den, so I’ll lurk down here as much as I can over the next few days.
School is winding down for Mrs. M and her first-graders, so she spent the day packing up some of her class’s supplies. I came by late in the session and helped with a bit of the donkey work, but there’s still plenty to do in the weeks ahead. Honestly, I may be more of a hindrance than a help — as Mrs. M sorts through the books, separating the school’s holdings from the hundreds of her own, I find myself getting interested in some of them. Granted, it takes me longer to turn the pages than it does for me to read them, but seconds add up. Such is the life of the compulsive reader.
My own reading this week has included both old works and new. Eleven days ago, I got my copy of Flip Back, the fourth and latest of Andrew Cartmel’s “Vinyl Detective” series. Once again, our hero is on a quest for an extremely rare album — this one from a British folk-rock band called Black Dog, notorious for torching a million dollars as a publicity stunt and for rimored connections to the occult. In the course of the search, the Vinyl Detective and his crew of friends make a trek to Halig Island (a thinly disguised Lindisfarne, a place that itself provided the name for a long-running folk-rock band from Newcastle. And of course, I’m a sucker for a well-placed Old English place name. Well played, Mr. Cartmel.)
Like its predecessors in the series, there’s plenty of humorous byplay among the central characters, and some peripheral characters from earlier books make amusing appearances as well. However, both this one and its immediate predecessor seem to make whiplash changes in tone late in the stories. The books feel like lighthearted amateur sleuth stories most of the time, but the endings turn decidedly grim. As a consequence, I found myself a bit disconcerted when I finished both books — this one more than the one before it. It’s not enough to put me off the series, but it leaves me a little uncertain about the target audience, and whether there may be a touch of liver in that toothpaste. Still, I’m enough of a music geek to look forward to the next adventure of the Detective, Nevada, Tinkler, and Clean Head.
As I mentioned the other day, I’m revisiting some of Jeremiah Healy’s John Cuddy P.I. novels that have been sitting on my shelves for quite a while. I’m pretty sure that I last read the series during my Ph.D. years, which also marked the second and final time I met Mr. Healy. I first met him at a talk at the Cincinnati Public Library’s main branch, not far from where I worked in the magazine biz. He was affable, engaging, and funny enough that I started reading his work, and I was hooked pretty quickly. I met him again a few years later at an academic conference about crime fiction in Muncie, and that was more than enough incentive to finish the run, thanks to the public library branch a few blocks from campus. (As an aside, the conference has apparently outgrown Muncie and has migrated down the Interstate to Indy. I’m sure it’s still very nice, though.)
But Spiral (1999) turned out to be the last of the Cuddy novels, and Healy’s own story turned darker in the ensuing years. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer and moved from creative writing to raising awareness of the disease. While he survived that illness, he fell victim to what his fiancee described as severe depression exacerbated by alcohol use, and in 2014, he took his own life. By then, I had begun the process of reinventing myself as a writer, and part of that probably can be traced to my encounters with Mr. Healy. He was one of the first examples of a truth that I’ve found since I wandered into the crime genre — crime and mystery writers tend to be extremely pleasant, gracious, and supportive of one another. Doubtless there are exceptions, but thus far I’ve been lucky in those I’ve met, from some of the biggest names in the field to folks on my own level.
Rereading a few of the books, I find myself reading as a writer instead of simply reading as a fan. Don’t get me wrong — the books entertain now just as they did when I read them originally — but if anything, I find my enjoyment to be a little richer because I appreciate the craftsmanship of Healy’s work. The pacing and plotting run nicely, and Healy’s gift for creating both major and minor characters is apparent. One particular example is in Right to Die (which includes a thoroughly chilling murder weapon that Mr. Block has used in one of his short stories as well) — Cuddy decides to attempt to run the Boston Marathon (it’s his hometown, after all). A homeless man turns out to have been a former track coach, and gives Cuddy advice through most of the book. Along the way, we learn some of his own story, along with a portrait of the severe depression that led the man to his current position. In fact, I suspect that one reason the Cuddy books didn’t take off in the manner of his fellow Boston private eye Spenser is that Cuddy is a much darker character than his counterpart.
Of course, in retrospect, one makes connections, but even so, the books are fine work. So I’ve read a couple in the last few days, with a couple more on deck. I wish there could have been more.
The Spawn, meanwhile, has recovered sufficiently from college to begin reading for pleasure again, and has begun pulling books from my dad’s old SF collection. This week she started with Ursula LeGuin’s Planet of Exile, which she liked quite a lot. From there, she plowed through Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X, but was less impressed. Next up is To Reign in Hell, Steven Brust’s take on the War in Heaven from Paradise Lost. Since she has really enjoyed Milton’s work since she encountered it while visiting my classes as a tween, I’ll be interested to learn what she thinks of Brust’s tale.
As for my own fictioneering business, I’m pleased to report that I’ll be appearing in a couple of events at Mystery in the Midlands on 22 June in Columbia. I’ve already mentioned that I’ll be doing a master class on humor in crime writing with Roger Johns in the morning, but I’ll also be part of a panel called “Hot Pursuit” in the afternoon. The panel will discuss the road to publication, and I’ll be happy to talk about my 20-year overnight success story.
Mystery in the Midlands is a one-day event, costing a mere $25, and that includes a hot lunch. A local bookseller will also be on the scene, so there will be plenty of chances to discover your next favorite author. To register, follow this link. I hope to see you there!
Well, I think this is enough for one evening, so I’ll wrap things up. I know almost nothing about this act, other than that they were from my old Cincinnati stomping grounds, but here’s a moody little chunk of jangle and wobbly vocals from 1965-66. It’s the Counts, with “Now You’re Gone.”
See you soon!