“Ultimate Blue” by Abigail Padgett

Ultimate Blue is a mystery woven into a lesbian romance or a lesbian romance woven into a mystery rather than a chew-your-fingernails, edge-of-your-seat crime fiction. The novel is a portrait of social psychologist and professor, Dr. Blue McCarron, and her personal growth as she attempts to move on from two lesbian lovers while being tasked with solving an ominous gay-hate incident on campus at St. Brendan University in San Diego. As the investigation begins, Blue becomes attracted to another professor, the enigmatic Dr. Lupe Salazar.        

The first chapter begins with lines that describe Blue’s mood and feelings of transition: “It was eight-thirty on a Thursday night and I was, as usual, in the wrong place. At least not in a good place.” She is searching for a home, a permanent career position, friends, perhaps a lover, and to solidify her sense of self. Blue’s detachment from the foundations of life opens the door to possibilities: to investigate a mystery and follow her attractions wherever they lead.

There are some fine stylistic lines in the novel: “‘Fractious’ didn’t begin to describe the animosity bouncing around the room like an enraged beach ball.” Or, as Blue describes how an ex-lover viewed her: “I was a cumbersome ghost from another time, hovering like a song from a passing car.” The writing throughout is skillful, with short chapters that drive the reader to continue onward.

The themes in Ultimate Blue focus on bigotry toward gays, especially by religious fanatics, and on sex-trafficking, the rape and prostitution of young girls in Mexico, and how an authoritarian, male-dominant culture fosters these behaviors  and threatens anyone who dares to dissent. At one point, Blue mentions the Milgram Experiment, which demonstrates that it is human nature to obey those who are perceived as authority figures even if doing so is against one’s personal moral beliefs. The dangers of paternalism and the emotional, sexual, and physical subjugation of women are woven throughout the story. On the book’s cover, the red hand painted on the woman’s face is a powerful symbol of protest.

And for those of you who are dog lovers, Padgett has thrown us a bone. A Doberman named Brontë, who is Blue’s constant and loving companion.

The story’s structure, plot, lesbian narrator, and the numerous LGTBQ+ characters are conventions in many works published by lesbian authors and presses and therefore will feel comfortable to readers who prefer novels set within this community and with a woman-centered orientation. Ultimate Blue will delight this audience because of its successful depiction of Blue’s life and relationships.

Publication in August 2022 by Bywater Books

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Icelandic Author: Lilja Sigurdardottir

I’ve packed my literary suitcase and ventured to Iceland and a suspense novel, Snare, by Lilja Sigurdardóttir the first in a trilogy that also includes Trap and Cage. The single-word titles are perfect for these lean, taut novels.

Lilja was born in Iceland in 1972 and was raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain, and Iceland, where she currently lives with her female partner. In addition to being an award-winning playwright, she has become internationally renowned as an author, whose works have been published in 14 countries. She began her career as a novelist with Steps in 2009. Snare was published in Iceland in 2015, and two years later, the book appeared in English, her debut outing for English-speaking readers. Its film rights were purchased by Palomar Pictures, with production scheduled for this year. She has published nine novels altogether—two trilogies and three stand-alone titles—but only five are currently available in English, with another book, Red as Blood, due in October. Lilja has won several Icelandic crime fiction awards and has been longlisted for a CWA International Dagger.

Snare takes place from November 2010 through February 2011 in Iceland. The reader is treated to fine atmospheric descriptions of the ice and snow, the long hours of darkness, and the volcanic ash that often blows over the cities and towns. The main character, Sonja, is an attractive, divorced woman who has lost primary custody of her beloved nine-year-old son, Tómas, to her powerful husband, Adam, after he discovered her in bed with a woman, Agla. He also took the house and left Sonja financially stranded. Out of desperation, when an acquaintance from her time with Adam called and offered legal help, she naively accepted. The lawyer, Thorgeir, suggested a way she could provide for herself and save enough money to sue for sole custody of her son. All she would need to do is make a few overseas trips and return to Iceland with cocaine, implying the amounts would be modest and the arrangement temporary. Thus, when we begin the novel, Sonja is already ensnared and has become a successful smuggler—very scrupulous and clever about disguising her operation—though she is constantly fearful of being caught at customs. Her anxiety drives much of the novel, but Sonja must also deal with a sadistic enforcer, who threatens her sexually and then sends photos  of himself near her son, saying he will harm the boy if she refuses to transport drugs. The kilo amounts are then substantially increased, and the trap grows even more treacherous.

Despite her marriage to Adam, Sonja considers herself lesbian, but her relationship with the hard-drinking Agla is fraught with instability. Agla often arrives on Sonja’s doorstep in a drunken state, but the bigger issue seems to be Agla’s unwillingness to accept her lesbianism—this is her first relationship. Her behavior toward Sonja is erratic: at times obsessively attracted and then angry and rejecting. Agla is a high-level bank executive who works with Sonja’s ex-husband, Adam. She is under investigation for market manipulation in the aftermath of the Icelandic financial crash—one of three participants in a fraudulent scheme that includes Adam, though Sonja is unaware of his involvement and also seems unfocused on the depth of her lover’s criminal culpability. Agla’s questioning and prosecution are parallel plot elements.

Sprinkled through the book are brief narratives by her son, Tómas. He reveals how much he loves his mother and wants to live with her. These pages highlight Sonja’s caring and devotion and humanize how her predicament was created by this need to be with her son and to protect him.

The fourth narrator is a senior custom’s inspector, Bragi, who is being pressured to retire. He dearly loves his wife, who has dementia and is in a care facility. Without her at home, Bragi is bereft and lives for his work and his daily visits to his wife. He wants to bring her back to live with him but can’t afford to pay for full-time aides. When Bragi notices Sonja’s polished and strangely consistent behavior at the airport, he becomes suspicious that she might be a smuggler.

The first chapter begins at a European airport’s security gate. Sonja has removed her belt and shoes and placed metal objects on the tray to avoid setting off the alarms and causing the screeners to do a body search. She nervously passes through the metal detector, smiles at the security staff, and takes her bag to the conveyor belt. She then walks as fast as the packet taped between her legs will allow, buys an exact model of a Samsonite suitcase used by another female passenger, and in the ladies’ bathroom, places the drugs inside. After visiting the airport duty-free shops to fill her bag with Christmas presents for her son, she boards the plane bound for Iceland and recounts her anxiety during the flight and upon arrival, when her fears rise as she strolls past the CCTV cameras. At the baggage claim, Sonja exchanges her new suitcase with the woman’s suitcase. After the woman retrieves the Samsonite bag containing the drug packet, Sonja follows the woman to the car park, greets her, and explains that their suitcases were accidentally switched. Taking the case with the drugs, Sonja escapes.

These are the kinds of complicated strategies she must devise in order to stay safe. The author does a fine job describing Sonja’s terror and the ensuing hand-off of the drugs to the enforcer, which frightens Sonja as much as the smuggling itself. Though I won’t reveal any details, watch for the scene with the tiger. It’s chilling.

In response to some questions I sent Lilja, she very kindly provided some enlightening explanations*: “The inspiration for the storyline is partly [based on] Iceland´s huge drug problem that is not much talked about. As we are on an island and have one international airport and one passenger ferry, it is an absolute riddle how this flow of drugs enters the country. So the smugglers obviously have to be very clever. The idea of Sonja the smuggler comes from my own experience of smuggling a salami to Iceland. To be honest, I didn´t know I was smuggling and that certain types of salamis (with raw meat) were forbidden in Iceland so I was shocked when a big man in uniform with a dog took my [delicacy] away. I was also fined but this experience gave me the character of Sonja.”

She adds: “The customs office in Iceland [has] since made up for taking my salami by helping me with all my questions regarding possibilities for Sonja’s smuggling, [giving] guided tours and encouragement. They were absolutely lovely to me…”

Another question I asked Lilja was about Sonja’s lover, Agla, and her shame about being a lesbian even during the period when the novel takes place. She replied: “…gay people in Iceland have had full rights since 2010 and the general attitude towards LGBTQ+ people in Iceland is now very relaxed and open. But some of us of the older [LGTBQ+] generation (I am 50)  remember different times. It sometimes feels like a different planet we lived on back then! And the character of Agla is one of those people. She probably remembers old attitudes toward gay people and she probably has ingested negative…remarks regarding gays when she was a child. But she is also a ruthless business person, a woman in a man’s world that has had to sacrifice a lot to make it in the cut-throat banking world. So she regards her tender feelings for Sonja as a weakness…partly because they are same sex but partly [because] she feels vulnerable with her. I also like to play with the contrast in her character that she feels shame about her feelings for Sonja but not for the financial crimes she is committing.” This last point was illuminating and made me want to re-read Agla’s story. 

Lilja Sigurdardóttir takes a linear approach to her novel, with minimal back story and little discursive padding so that the reader doesn’t need to keep flipping back several pages to recall what has happened. There are also fewer characters as compared to many suspense novels and therefore easier to remember. This structural simplicity gets us on board her thoroughbred tale and takes us for a ride at full gallop. To enhance the speed, the book is divided into very short chapters—usually one to three pages long—so the reader constantly thinks, “Oh, okay…one more chapter…and then “Oh, well, maybe one more…”

Lilja is an accomplished storyteller. Snare casts a web around Sonja but also around the reader, pulling ever more tightly so that we feel as trapped as she is. And though Sonja is technically a drug trafficker and a criminal, her plight evokes our complete sympathy.

 Snare is an engaging read and a satisfying sprint. I look forward to the other two titles in the trilogy, Trap and Cage. All three are available in paperback, audio, and eBook formats.

*I’ve made a few minor deletions or additions to clarify the author’s e-mail text.

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Val McDermid: Queen of Tartan Noir

I’m very pleased to feature the Scottish author, Val McDermid, and The Mermaids Singing, the first book in the series with Dr. Tony Hill and Detective Inspector Carol Jordan. McDermid, who has been hailed as the Titan of Tartan Noir and the Queen of Crime, has sold over 17 million books in 40 languages. Born in 1955 in Fife, on the east coast of Scotland, McDermid read English at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, beginning at the young age of 17. During her early adult years, she worked as a journalist for newspapers in Glasgow and Manchester, wrote a successful play, and then her first book, Report for Murder, in 1987, thus beginning a long career with three major series and multiple stand-alone titles. McDermid has received a Lambda Literary Pioneer Award, the LA Times Book Prize, and a Cartier Diamond Dagger. She is married to Professor Jo Sharp. The two women live in Edinburgh.

The Mermaids Singing was initially published in the UK in 1995. It was combined with the second title, Wire in the Blood, to form the basis for the excellent 2002-2008 BBC series, Wire in the Blood,starring Robson Green (the detective in the ongoing PBS Grantchester series) and Hermione Norris. The six seasons are available for rent on Acorn and iTunes and are absolutely worth the rental fee. The two actors are perfect for the main protagonists, Dr. Tony Hill, a criminal psychologist, who has his own set of complex psychological issues, and Detective Inspector Carol Jordan, who battles gender bias and yet has risen in rank due to her brilliance. And, in one scene, Val McDermid takes a quick bow amid a throng of reporters. The novel is set in Bradfield, an imaginary city located near Manchester.

From the back cover: “Four men have been found mutilated and tortured. As fear grips the city, the police turn to clinical psychologist Dr. Tony Hill for a profile of the killer. His past makes him the perfect man to understand this psychopath’s motives. It also makes him the perfect victim.”

The prologue starts the reader on a fast sprint: “You always remember the first time. Isn’t that what they say about sex? How much more true it is of murder. I will never forget a single delicious moment of that strange and exotic drama.” The killer then describes visiting a museum near Florence and studying the design of medieval torture instruments which will be recreated in a secluded cottage basement. This introduction to the novel leaves the reader chilled, if not downright terrified about what is to follow, with a psychopath who rivals Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, published the year before McDermid began this book. When I wrote the author to ask about any connection between the two novels, she replied: “I had read The Silence of the Lambs. It didn’t inspire me specifically, but it did open up the possibility of writing about a profiler. About which I knew absolutely nothing, but I’m a quick study!” In a BBC interview, she said reading the American author, Sarah Paretsky, encouraged her to feature women as detectives.

Okay, back to the book. Because the bodies have been dumped in areas where gays congregate, the police tag the perpetrator with the nickname “The Queer Killer,” which DI Carol Jordan doesn’t like, nor is she happy with the homophobic attitudes of her colleagues, which of course combine with their misogynistic views.

        Note: McDermid began planning the novel in 1992, so the rendering of prejudice was accurate at the time, although some readers might find some of the dialogue and plot distasteful to modern sensibilities and—warning—some scenes are violent.

Dr. Tony Hill is brought on board as a profiler, though many members of the police department sneer at the use of psychology as part of their investigation. Tony perseveres, with the support of DI Jordan, and becomes fascinated with the killer and seems to crawl inside the killer’s mind, at one point saying to himself, “You can’t hide from me. I’m your mirror image. I’m the poacher turned gamekeeper. It’s only hunting you that keeps me from being you.” In Tony Hill, McDermid has created a complex man who suffered childhood traumas and—though empathetic and a superb profiler—battles with sexual impotency, causing an almost phobic fear of intimate connections. Even so, he’s attracted to Carol Jordan as she is to him, though he retreats whenever she demonstrates even modest interest. This backward and forward interplay is an essential ingredient in the series.

In later books in this series, McDermid introduces a lesbian policewoman to the team, who rather fancies Carol Jordon. In this first book, however, the LGTBQ angles are integral to the story, as naked and mutilated male bodies are left near gay cruising areas, one of which was the body of a closeted gay policeman.

Val McDermid is an excellent stylist who writes revealing dialogue and visceral descriptions of behavior and settings. Here’s a portrayal of Assistant Chief Constable John Brandon: “Not even the shaving soap covering his face like a Santa Claus beard could give him an air of benevolence.” Or Carol’s pithy interior rumination about work: Having “another twelve hours in the day would be a start, Carol thought wearily. Loving a challenge was all very well. But this time, it looked like love was going to be an uphill struggle.” Or when Carol phones Tony early in their acquaintance, and he becomes instantly nervous: “Hello, yes, sorry. I was just trying to…clear a space on my desk,” Tony stumbled, his left leg starting to jitter like a cup of tea on a train.” What a great image!

McDermid’s most notable strength is her in-depth portrayals. Tony Hill and Carol Jordan are nuanced, deeply felt characters as is the killer, whose accounts are sprinkled throughout, written in first-person to conceal the identity. These brief pages teem with torture imagery, a supreme belief in the narrator’s brilliance, and a macabre craving for the perfect lover. As befits a novel of crime fiction, the plot unfolds with a quickening pace and flows organically, told from multiple points of view. Each narrative bite propels the story, adding different perspectives and revealing clues as they surface.

In addition to recommending The Mermaids Singing and the other titles in theseries and by Val McDermid, I would also suggest seeing Wire in the Blood—after you’ve read the book.

The novel is available in eBook and audio formats. A 20th anniversary paperback edition was released in 2015.

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Review: Anne Holt’s “Punishment”

Brad Shreve has asked me to select and review crime fiction titles for his podcast. My first is “Punishment” by the Norwegian author, Anne Holt. If you would like to hear the review: https://www.queerwritersofcrime.com/laury-recommendatio-april-2022

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“Reciprocity” by T.D. Johnston

Reciprocity by T. D. Johnston

Battersea Press

Available in paperback: https://www.shortstoryamerica.com/ and Amazon

T. D. Johnston’s Reciprocity is a breathtaking grand-slalom ride, with high speeds and twists and turns in the thriller tradition of Robert Ludlum, Preston and Child, Steig Larsson, and due to the Cosa Nostra involvement, Mario Puzo. Crammed with action, Johnston drives the plot with a masterful hand, knowledgeable about the workings of the Mafia, FBI, law enforcement, and US government, including a fictional president who is imbedded in organized crime corruption—ring any bells? A cast of unforgettable characters—especially the evil villain, Fingo—diverse locales, and a sweeping plot set the reader on fast-forward beginning on the first page. Buckle up for this one!—Laury A. Egan, author of Doublecrossed

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Thoughts on the Film “Don’t Look Up”

Don’t Look Up – I only watched about forty minutes of the film because I was so overcome with disgust at this satiric take on the state of America’s politicians, news media, and people. In many ways, the movie did a brilliant job portraying our culture and politics and our vapid stupidity, but I couldn’t watch more of what I see and read all day–the film just compounded my pre-existing horror about the state of our country. Meryl Streep’s president made me feel ill–real acting because she herself is definitely everything her film-role president is not. Even so, I felt like she had been personally corrupted and contaminated by the omnipresent superficiality depicted, which is a terrifyingly accurate representation of our current affairs.

During my freshman year in high school, I wrote one of my first short stories, “The Day the Sun Didn’t Come Up,” based on the style of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The concept was that a worldwide disaster would finally unite everyone. Interesting parallel to this film. Then I believed this unification was possible, that if the sun didn’t rise one day, we would band together. Probably this was true in the sixties. Now? Hmm.

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The Writer and the Self

In today’s New York Times Book Review, Laura Miller reviews The Letters of Shirley Jackson edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman. Her review encouraged me to buy a biography of Jackson by Ruth Franklin (will wait before purchasing the Letters) and one of Jackson’s novels. One paragraph in the review caught my attention: “Many writers feel that the self who writes exists in a partially unknowable state, separate from the self who goes about her worldly business, talking with friends and colleagues, cooking dinner, ferrying her children around. With Jackson, the division seems especially vivid, and also tripartite, an impression that this collection […] solidifies. She had not one but two authorial identities, and they appeared to be polar opposites.”

Recently, I’ve completed two partially linked novellas, one of which, The Writer Remembers, features an author relating her story in first-person (at age 70), the same author writing her story in third-person (also 70), and a third authorial character (age 11), also writing in third-person, trying to remember a childhood tragedy. The division of the narrators felt extremely comfortable, so when I read the above quotation, I was struck by the truth of what Miller wrote. As I age and deal with medical issues and Covid, the social separation induced has left me pondering if the writer-self has almost completely subsumed the non-writer self. In other words, “I am what I write”…whereas once it might have been “I write what I am.”

A question for my writing colleagues: How do you react to the quote above? Do you experience two self-divisions? Over the last year, have you shifted personas–i.e., more in your writer self or more in your other self? Would love to hear comments!

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Discover Sylvia Brownrigg’s Novels

Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg (Picador, 2002)

Note: This is the first book of two, both of which I’ve read. The sequel is Pages for Her, but these are stand-alone novels although I highly recommend reading both. Rare to my experience, I found that the two acutely observed characters, Flannery and Anne, who fall in love at Yale, feel very comfortable with some of my experience. Other readers may not identify with Anne and Flannery to the extent that I did, but they will be entranced by their powerful physical and emotional attraction. Some may find the insertion of bisexuality upsetting; others may find the complexity welcome and a fresh relief from the usual either/or orientation choices. I, for one, felt known and understood by the author, and, curiously, as a writer myself, I was frequently aware of an incredible sensation: that these characters might be ones I could create or, in part, already had.

Pages for You is told from Flannery’s perspective. She is a college freshman, seventeen, impulsive, and falls hard for Anne, who is twenty-eight, a TA in the same English department. The overpowering intensity of first love is perfectly captured, as is Anne’s reaction—Anne is the older, wiser, more experienced woman, yet she is unable to resist Flannery. The contrast between these two is brilliantly handled and reflects their differences, yet Brownrigg makes us feel the heat, passion, and understanding as these differences dissolve in the face of their affair. The writing has fine pacing, created by the use of short chapters, yet the author builds her story with care, into an evocative commemoration of a relationship of beauty, subtlety, and originality. Brownrigg is a fine stylist and an insightful writer who perceives the psychological complexity of her characters. Highly recommended (both titles).

Pages for Her by Sylvia Brownrigg (Counterpoint, 2018)

Unlike the first book, which is told solely from Flannery’s perspective, Pages for Her is told from Flannery’s point of view as well as Anne’s. As a result, Brownrigg achieves even better balance and complexity as she weaves together the lives of the two women, and we learn about the paths taken in the years they are apart, after their brief incandescent affair at Yale, when Flannery was a freshman and Anne was a TA in the English department. The story begins again, two decades later. Flannery is married to a famous sculptor, a selfish, boorish man, who—if the novel has a single flaw—is so annoying as to make the reader incredulous that she would be attracted to him. Flannery now has a young daughter, Willa, and Flannery’s maternal feelings are brilliantly depicted. However, it is the character of Anne, eleven years older than Flannery, who drew me in and made me feel a strong resonance with her personality. Anne has reached a wistful age and has been hurt because her partner, Jasper, the love of Anne’s interim years, has left her. (In a nice piece of irony, Anne opted for Jasper over Flannery many years before.) Now, at forty-eight, Anne is at sea—literally, in one of the opening scenes—and she is also searching and assessing her life. When a women’s conference is held at Yale, both women return and the story reignites where the first book ended. The lives and the love story are beautifully rendered; the characters written with strong and yet different personalities. Both follow roads away from their lesbian affair and select a heterosexual primary relationship, and yet the magnetic pull between the two women is the thread that unites them. The fluid sexuality is adroitly handled and explores the range in a way few contemporary novels manage with such believable success. Let’s hope Sylvia Brownrigg has a third book in the making, because the reader will want to continue this evocative saga.

The Delivery Room by Sylvia Brownrigg (Counterpoint, 2008)

The Delivery Room was published in between Brownrigg’s two linked novels, Pages for Her and Pages for You, and is a considerably different creation. This is a “big” novel, with multiple characters whose lives interweave, and a changing point of view, which allows for different perspectives and amplifications of the characters’ histories, thoughts, and feelings. If there is a central protagonist, it would be Mira, a therapist who was born and raised in Serbia. Her English husband, Peter, is dying, so this is also his story and the story of his family and relationships. The war in Serbia is also incorporated, though I would have preferred less detail about its history and the ongoing news there, which is frequently updated throughout, because this shifts the emphasis away from the primary location and characters. In creating Mira, Brownrigg has done a brilliant job synthesizing the numerous pulls and pushes she deals with: her husband’s encroaching illness, the needs of her therapeutic clients, her grave concern about her Serbian family, and her feeling of uneasiness about being a Serbian woman in England. Her character is rich with complexity—true also of Peter and many others. “The Delivery Room” is a very readable novel, with a fascinating cast—the reader will surely find a character who resonates or an experience that hits home.

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“The Ship of State,” a new poem

http://www.thevoicesproject.org/

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“The Ungodly Hour” Is Published!

A Murder Mystery and Romance set on Mykonos.

The black-robed figure entered the viewfinder just as Dana Fox squeezed the
shutter. They hadn’t been there a second before…

While leading a weeklong photography workshop on picturesque Mykonos,
instructor Dana Fox is entranced by the brilliant light of the Greek island, as well
as by the dark beauty, Cybele Karabélias, a local policewoman. But her idyllic
sojourn takes an ominous turn when a series of gruesome murders rock the town.
Heedless of the possible dangers surrounding her, Dana continues to document the
isle in sunlit photographs, unaware of the killer edging closer, hungry for closure
and the evidence she unknowingly possesses.

Author’s Book Launch: Come celebrate: Sunday, April 19, 3:00 pm at Hotel Tides, 408 Seventh Avenue, Asbury Park, NJ. Reading, book-signing and sale (also will feature the madcap comedy, Fabulous! An Opera Buffa. Free event.

Copies are now available at http://www.store.interludepress.com, Amazon, or (signed copies) at the author’s website: http://www.lauryaegan.com

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