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imagesGoodreads lists 250 novels set in Louisiana and the list is not complete.  Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin and Anne Rice come immediately to mind and set certain categorical standards, but in their wake are legions, including me.  I wrote An Unremembered Grave after spending twenty years visiting my pal Doug in Angola, frequently as the guest of Ann Butler at her plantation B&B in St. Francisville, Butler Greenwood.  I was and remain captivated by the complexity of Louisiana, its spirit and eerie allure.  But for the macho and more grossly accurate version of that writerly experience, nobody can hold a candle to James Lee Burke.

He gets it, gets its saint-and-sinner smile, its barely-dead ghosts and most of all, its demise beneath the wheels of change.  He gets that its messy, beautiful soul in all its outrageous excesses is the unvarnished soul of a country.

Now he’s written another novel.  Here’s my review of it.

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Travel once again into a mythical and creepy-dangerous corner of Louisiana that exists only in the mind of Detective Dave Robicheaux, stand-up guy. Robicheaux and his equally stand-up-even-when-drunk best bro Clete Purcell are in their eighth decade and Dave’s damsel-in-distress daughter Alafair has to be pushing fifty by now, but hey, archetypes cannot age. They exist in a Jungian collective unconscious that author James Lee Burke navigates like William Blake on a Bird scooter in rush-hour traffic. Hang on for the ride!

Clete sees a man in jailhouse garb jump from a train into a river and beats himself up for 447 pages in hardback for not reporting the event. Ten days later, Dave, visiting a local-boy-now-Hollywood-maven in town to film parts of an astronomically expensive and symbolically significant movie, sees the corpse of a woman nailed to a cross floating in on the bay. By page 17 the jumper turns out to be Hugo Tillinger, an escaped convict accused of burning his house to the ground with his wife and ten-year-old daughter inside. One page later we learn that the crucified woman is 26-year-old Lucinda Arcenaux, who’s been working for the Innocence Project trying to help wrongfully convicted prisoners. Including Hugo Tillinger.

It’s a nice set-up, but don’t even THINK you’ve been handed the backbone of a story. More like the bones of a thumb and a kneecap from a different skeleton. There are quickly more (many more) murders, each bizarre, brutal and exquisitely described. The Crusader’s Maltese cross turns up in a baby’s amulet and elsewhere, as do some of the major arcana of the Tarot deck. There are so many plot threads and delectably-described characters (including Chester Wimple, a small, disturbingly childlike hit man who trusts no one but Wonder Woman), whole arsenals of lovingly identified weapons and ammo, ghosts, hallucinations, hookers, blues singers and references to AA, old movies and organized crime that a truly dedicated reader will record names and details on recipe cards, tack them to a wall and then spend weeks with colored string trying to track the connections.

The result will be an impenetrable mess, but as NYT reviewer Marilyn Stasio said of this book, “But does anyone really read Burke expecting a coherent narrative?”

No. We read Burke because his poetic flair touches an American cultural base of longing for an imagined past in which there actually were good guys who respected women, loved animals and children, and never hesitated to track down and kill bad guys. Also because of that brain-worm he describes in each of us, the one that secretly relishes at least the idea of sickeningly violent retribution.

Burke in the Robicheaux tales is sort of the American Janus – two sides of the cultural coin, beauty and beast, saint and sociopath. Required reading in a time governed by the worm.

Bone Blind

Of course there was a dead body in Boston, a man savagely murdered in an old Victorian house with an extremely unlikely weapon.  But that’s only the beginning.

Enter two writers of horror novels, Finn Ryan and Tally Serzak, each burdened with secrets that make them a little odd, especially Tally, whom readers love to hate.  (She really is a nightmare, but, you know – there’s a reason.)  Let’s just say their love affair probably sets the standard in American fiction for romantic dysfunction.  And still they can’t stay away from each other.  A mad passion poisoned by a secret that can wreck both their lives.

Circling them and the murdered man in an ever-tightening gyre as Finn writes a Victorian horror novel in Boston and Tally lives in one on Cape Cod, is about-to-retire detective Warren Yost.  He’s determined to solve the cold-case murder before he hangs up his service revolver and goes into business restoring – yes, old Victorian houses.  (There’s a wealth of Victoriana in this tale!)

Bone Blind will be only 99 cents in the Amazon Kindle store today and tomorrow, Friday August 9 and Saturday August 10, 2019.  Click on the cover pic, grab one and settle in for lots of murder, passion, betrayal, revenge and mysterious Victorian bric-a-brac!

Free Mystery!

The perfect summer beach read!  Well, depending on your beach.  Try to find one where something strange was buried 150 years ago.  Look for a mossy, isolated prison looming nearby, and invite a young historian who isn’t what she seems to share your s’mores.  The sun will be a problem for one of the characters, so maybe bring a big beach umbrella.  A black one.  He’ll appreciate the gesture.

An Unremembered Grave will be free for Kindle starting today, Friday, May 24, through Tuesday, May 28.

And when you back out of the parking lot at the beach, don’t just depend on your mirror.  Look over your shoulder.  Because, you know, not everybody has a reflection.

It’s done.  All the Bo Bradley mysteries, including the latest, have new, matching covers, with crows!  Yes, crows.

I didn’t realize until writer-pal Mary Lou Locke pointed out to me that there are crows in pretty much all the  Bo novels.  (A stranger at a booksigning years ago also had to inform me that “Bo Bradley” sounds an awful lot like “Boo Radley,” the reclusive and undoubtedly mentally ill character who only comes out of hiding to save threatened children – the mysterious figure who gives Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird its title.  Of course!  Except I had no idea.)  Unconscious influences are afoot the second anybody sits down to write a novel and Bo-as-Boo makes sense, but why crows?

They don’t play roles in any of the plots; they’re just there.  Bo is aware of them, watches and describes them through six perilous adventures as they watch her, but they don’t do anything.  Except, I guess, reprise their own ancient symbolism as, with ravens, magpies and all corvids, the universal totem animal of mystery, intelligence and transformation, including death.  Bo is Irish, and in Celtic cultures crows were so highly regarded as oracles that under Druidic law killing one was a felony, so there’s that.  But I rather imagine Bo herself, with her quirky, fractious, bipolar mind, reflects crowness entire.  And now all her book covers, thanks to the patient skill of cover designer Cheri Lasota, are embellished with those black feathers.  Be sure to let me know which one you like best!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And also help me decide what to write next.

Seriously.

I’ve been dying to write the sequel to An Unremembered Grave, taking Danni and the vampire Grimaud one step further toward her mysterious past and their dangerous connection, but it’s time for Bo and Andrew to head for Louisiana and a Cajun wedding – omg, their own!  (You know Bo is going to balk every inch of the way, so there may not even be a wedding.  We’ll see.)

So which setting?  The little-known limestone caves beneath the streets of St. Louis for Danni, or Spanish moss and crawdad étouffée in Louisiana for Bo?

Cheshire Cat

Often seen at Oxford

It’s a trope – the author who meets one of his/her characters in real life. It never goes well, predictable conflict erupting over exactly who gets to control the story.  Of course it can’t actually happen because, you know, fictional people aren’t real.

But it did.

In the midst of finally getting a new Bo Bradley mystery released (that process being an abyss of technological snarls in which many hapless souls are lost forever) I decided getting some exercise might stave off the desire to abandon it all and flee to Idaho under an assumed name.  So I walked into an ordinary suburban shopping-center health club for a Silver Sneakers class, and there was a living, breathing character from, not the new Bo Bradley with which I was obsessed, but another one of my books I wasn’t even thinking about.  It was Jude!

A few years back in a magical realist phase I wrote The Paper Doll Museum.  It’s my idea of American magical realism, with all sorts of spooky/folkloric things going on.  Nearly all the characters in Paper Doll are vague, single-fragment aspects of real people I either knew or, more often, had merely heard about.  Except one.

Jude.

Jude is the BFF of Paper Doll protag Taylor Blake.  Jude’s a type – salon-blonde, Givenchy eyes, acutely attuned to pop culture and prone to dramatic outfits.  Jude is a combo of Dolly Parton and Melina Mercouri with a touch of the wise-ass cocktail-waitress heroine of a thousand stories in which she shrewdly outsmarts the villain while singing “Did I Shave My Legs for This.”  In my entire life I’ve never actually known anybody like Jude.   I made her up.

But there she was – the dance instructor, blonde, flashing jewelry, sparkly outfits and Jude’s signature wistful pragmatism.  Exactly as I wrote her, every detail concise.

The French terms, déjà vu, déjà entendu, and déjà visite cover those situations in which you’re absolutely certain you’ve seen or heard something before, exactly as you’re seeing it hearing it now, except you’ve never seen or heard it before. Or in déjà visité you’re someplace you’ve never been in your life and you recognize every single detail of the landscape.

No one can explain these experiences, although many try.

I figured I’d try by going to lunch for an interview with Jude, whose name is Micki.  Micki

Micki

Jude/real-life Micki

has read Paper Doll and doesn’t identify with Jude at all.  Micki doesn’t even like Jude.  “The blonde ponytail,” she says.  “That’s about it.”  Micki thinks Jude is flaky.

I think I’m missing something.

Micki says she’s been teaching dance at that shopping center health club for 20 years. I’ve been going to movies, buying groceries and eating lunch there for longer than that, but until walking into it, I never even noticed the health club.  Eerily, the Midwestern-style diner of those many Reuben-and-fries lunches does get a cameo in Paper Doll.  So there’s a weak link between the book and the place, but that’s all.

Friends hypothesize that I obviously saw some blonde in a shiny dance outfit in the parking lot at some point and subconsciously latched onto the image when I was framing Jude.  But I know better, didn’t see any dancers in parking lots and remain curious.  Weird things fascinate me.  I keep looking for clues.  Why is this total stranger a character in a book I wrote?

The character Jude bounces between jobs and men like a sparkling pinball, secretly regretting the long-ago rejection of Luke, her classic romantic soulmate.  This is key to dance_shoes_woman_dancingJude’s character and becomes a subplot near the end of the tale.  And the symbolic icon for that plot thread is the parting gift Luke sent to Jude so long ago – one of those music boxes with a little figurine of a dancer!  (Except he’s replaced the dancer with a carved woodpecker, but, and this is so weak, there arguably was a dancer in this book somewhere.)

Still at lunch and grabbing for straws by this point, I intrusively ask Micki if by any chance she has a heartbreaking lost soulmate story she’d like me to share with the entire world.  “Not yet,” she says enigmatically, meaning, I assume, that despite three husbands the soulmate has yet to be lost.

It’s too nebulous and unclear, but I guess it will have to do.  Micki must be the real-life avatar for Jude’s dream that can only happen in fiction that fuels a multi-million dollar romantic publishing industry?   A nice, tidy analysis that explains nothing because the book isn’t a romance.  So despite my stretched-beyond-belief attempts to rationalize an experience only definable in French words (déjà vu) that mean “already seen,” I still don’t have the slightest idea what it is that I apparently already saw.

If you have a nice, cogent explanation for this sort of thing, and I’m sure somebody out there does, please let me know!

 

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Do you even have a favorite book cover? That will be one the image of which remains crisp and crosses your mind more often than, say, the name of your high school Latin teacher. Late in life you will spend months online trying to find that book with that cover, and may pawn your entire collection of Mary Kay coffee mugs in order to buy it.

Or is it the story you remember, the cover being irrelevant? (I mean, you know, covers change from edition to edition and who cares?)

I ask because, having finally completed a new Bo Bradley mystery, it’s time to repackage all six titles in the series with new covers that look like books in a series. The cover for the new one, Stork Boy, is done and waiting for the final manuscript edit. That cover is nicely evocative, I think. But now it’s necessary to do the previous five. And I’m stuck on the first one, Child of Silence.

There are several hundred online how-to articles addressing this topic, all stressing the monumental importance of the cover. It must, like Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, “arouse emotions” in potential readers while clearly identifying genre while appealing to a target audience with a typeface of which that audience is fond. The “emotions” to be aroused are Suspense, Intrigue or Lust, which right away aren’t actually emotions, but I get the idea while remaining unsure about my target audience.

Intrigue

Intrigue

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Suspense

I think my audience is basically people who like novels with long sentences, but what is their taste in typefaces? I don’t even know what my own taste in typefaces is; I just get a kick out of the names. Like “Skeleton Antique, Highway Gothic,” and “Bastard.” But the designer will know, won’t she? And Lust appearing nowhere in any of the Bo Bradley mysteries, do I go with Suspense or Intrigue? What’s the difference?

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Lust

Child of Silence has had many covers already, none of them suggesting Suspense or Intrigue. The book is set in Southern California with a lot of desert stuff and has one secondary Native American character.

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The original has that cool typeface but the artwork gets lost online and the cover copyright belongs to the publisher anyway, even though the book doesn’t.

The British editions of all the Bo Bradley mysteries use a model that just doesn’t look like Bo, at least to me.  She’s too coy and sexy or something.  The rock-artish images are okay, but what looks like a huge slice of lime is puzzling.

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The French editions are all gorgeous but  focus exclusively on Native American images.  This is because the French just love all things “Indian” and Southwestern from watching old American movies on TV when they were kids.  But this cover features a Navaho and the book’s Native American character is Paiute.

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Two German editions, the first with sort of rock-arty figures, the second with a cat. Bo has a fox terrier named Mildred. There is no cat anywhere in the book.

A Danish edition – snow-capped mountains somewhere colored pinkish-orange to look like a desert? I fail to see Suspense or Intrigue in any of these, although most might make me sufficiently curious to read the flap copy. But then almost anything will arouse my curiosity, so really, does the cover even matter as long as it’s interesting? Do you remember the cover of any book you’ve ever read?

The only book cover I will never forget!

Veggies of Hell

crow-standing-on-branch-in-front-of-full-moon-scary-halloween-sceneHalloween?  Best of all possible times, when the veil grows parchment-thin and occasionally tears.  Ah, that, when we suddenly see what was always there but hidden.  What a shame that the ancient, ritual bow to what Freud called Das Unheimliche, the Uncanny, is now nearly buried in an array commercialized distractions.

An overkill of dismembering zombies, inflatable yard-coffins and plastic cat skeletons has dulled our ability to perceive the eerie strangeness hidden just behind the familiar.  Still, it is now that the Uncanny, the creepy, the unsettling, are close.  And they’re scary.  Even when they’re vegetables.

So here’s the mystery.  From the late 1800’s to 1918, Victorian England and America were addicted to postcards.  They were cheap and fun and sent with a frequency that must have burdened postal services, especially near holidays, including Halloween.  Collector’s Weekly documents some outstanding Halloween examples and gives credit to the artists.  Missing from that journal’s display, however, are the creepiest – the many, many postcards featuring completely unnerving, anthropomorphized vegetables.

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With the exception of the dismayed beet at center, this one isn’t too creepy despite resemblances to Trump (lower right) and certain contemporary Republican senators, merely strange.  But the question of Why vegetables? haunts me.  Yes, autumn and the harvest, with a concurrent Celtic tale about a drunken miscreant named Jack, who was so damned even hell wouldn’t admit him.  Cursed to wander eternity forever with only a single burning coal-from-hell carried inside a lantern made of a turnip to light his way, he became Jack O’Lantern.  Over time his turnip became the easier-to-carve pumpkin, so we get it about pumpkins.  But what about demonic gourds, squashes, beets, potatoes and onions, occasionally accompanied by apples, pears and watermelons?

 

 

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This pumpkin driver of a watermelon is vastly more sinister than the bat or the cat or the witch.  A gleeful Charon heading for the River Styx?  Eerily apt.

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The Victorian practice was to look in a mirror by candlelight at midnight on Halloween in order to see your true love or the future, depending on your gender.  For women, presumably,  the only possible future was dependent on getting married.  This one, kneeling eagerly before the eternally damned Jack, must have had a wretched future.

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Here creepy gourds with corn-cob arms and beet hats attack a cake.  But what is the cake?  Can’t help but think at this point it’s the planet, but what was it then?

devil pulling popper

Enter the startling (two-party?) relationship of vegetable and demon.  In this and all the demon/veggie-themed postcards, the demons appear sophisticated, dapper and oddly benign in comparison to the larger and horrifically grinning veggies.  What can this mean?

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Diabolical pumpkin casts a knowing, conspiratorial glance to something above the scene as happy apples clamber into a bobbing tub only to realize as they jump that they’re going to perish!  (The similarity to contemporary Republican behavior is inescapable, but these apples are from the previous century.  So the comparison is unfair, isn’t it?)

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Note courteous demons sitting properly at the table as obnoxious veggies writhe and scream for (vegetable?) soup.

Odd Vintage Halloween Postcard (2)

Even the demons are appalled at this grotesque and inexplicable romantic pairing.  The red shoes with moon clips and moon headdress suggest that the woman is a witch, but why is she seducing a child-eyed pumpkin with zucchini limbs?  And disparities in spelling over time notwithstanding, “Gobelins” were a 15th century family of French dyers later famous for tapestries.  We can only assume the author to have meant “goblins.”

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Creepiest of all and what can this mean?  Again the red shoes, so the woman is a witch, but why the parade of pumpkin/zucchini (or are those cucumbers?) men dancing across the sky to do what?  The first seems to bow to her, but the second glares with murderous intent while the third fearfully watches the second as the fourth notices something off to his right.  Maybe the photographer?  She isn’t afraid of them but should be.  Or should have been.  It’s too late for her now.  This scene reflects a time 120 years in the past.  Or does it?

All art, especially popular art, is to some extent political, and I can’t help but see the polite, thoughtful and unfortunately passive demons as contemporary Democrats, and the hideous vegetable men as contemporary Republicans, but over a century ago, why vegetables?

Surfing the Net for variants of “late 19th and early 20th century vegetable iconography” turns up nothing.  Nor does any combination of “demon, devil, evil or hell” and “vegetable.” The meaning of these images in their time is just not accessible.

My ever-into-pop-culture grandmother would definitely have seen and might even have sent these postcards at Halloween 120 years ago.  They were available everywhere and cost a penny, as did the postage.  She would have understood the evil veggie symbolism and been happy to explain it to me.  But in the 11 years that my life was concurrent with hers, I never asked!

So please respond with every erudite theory you may have about vegetables while I research a bunch of later postcards featuring young and curiously buxom witches.