Well, this was quite the weekend for LSU football. That awful game on Saturday night came first—I won’t share my thoughts on any of that, because it’s unprintable—and then on Sunday, Coach Miles was fired. I kind of thought he was going to lose his job Saturday night after the game was over, but I thought he would last the season. I didn’t realize that the shambles that was Saturday night would mean an immediate change—or that with a 2-2 record, the administration would pretty much decide that the season was over and changing coaches at this point didn’t matter. I’d kind of hoped that he’d be given the rest of the season, and give his players a chance to play for him, if you know what I mean?
Instead, the Miles era is over, and the future is uncertain.
He was the most successful coach in LSU history, and while there have been some major disappointments under his tenure, LSU was never boring, and he was always entertaining. I will miss Coach Miles, and decided to make a list of my favorite LSU moments during his tenure; this is in no particular order.
1. 2007, Auburn game. LSU had been ranked Number One in the country for an entire week, before a horrifying quadruple overtime loss to Kentucky the week before. The SEC and National championships were still within grasp though, but LSU had to win out. This night, in Tiger Stadium, LSU was trailing 24-23, had the ball, no time outs, and the clock was winding down. A field goal was all we needed. And out of nowhere, Matt Flynn threw a pass to the end zone that was caught with one second left on the clock to make the score 29-24 and win the game. (The extra point was good.) Paul and I literally leapt to our feet screaming.
2. 2015, Florida game. We were actually at this game. LSU jumped out to a 28-14 half-time lead in this battle of the unbeaten, only to allow Florida back into the game in the second half. With the score tied 28-28 and fourth down, LSU lined up for a field goal to take the lead—but it was a fake! Kicker Trent Domingue caught a pass from the holder and took off for the end zone for the winning touchdown.
3. 2011, Alabama. The Game of the Century. The top two ranked teams in the country, and clearly head-and-shoulders above everyone else, LSU and Alabama simply were at a different level that year. Played in Tuscaloosa, this game was a nail-biter from start to finish: missed field goals, incredible defense, an amazing interception of an Alabama pass at the one yard line, another missed field goal in overtime by Alabama that enabled LSU to kick one to win it all—it lived up to the hype and then some. Alas, the rematch in the national title game was anti-climactic, as rematches always tend to be, with Alabama winning and LSU being outplayed from start to finish. In fairness, had Alabama made just one of the multiple field goals they missed in regulation, they would have won the Game of the Century.
4. 2010, Ole Miss. This was the first time Paul and I had ever gotten to go to a game at Tiger Stadium, and we were rewarded with an amazing experience. We got there early, wandered through campus, watched the band come down Victory Hill, and even entered the stadium about an hour before kick-off so we could watch the teams warm up and see the stadium fill with people. The game went back and forth until finally, in the closing minute of the game, trailing 36-35, LSU scored a touchdown and made the two-point conversation to go up 43-36 to win. It took about three days for my voice to come back and my throat to stop hurting.
5. 2007, Florida. LSU was ranked #2 in the country behind USC going into this game, and alas, the Tigers fell behind early against the once beaten defending national champions. But about midway through the third quarter the news came that Stanford had knocked off USC. Paul and I were watching at home and we both cheered…and when they announced it in Tiger Stadium the entire place went crazy. The team got fired up and rallied from a 24-14 deficit to win with a touchdown with less than a minute to go, 28-24, converting on four fourth down situations to do so.
6. 2014, Ole Miss. The 2014 Ole Miss team came out of nowhere, upsetting Alabama and going on a tear. They rolled into Tiger Stadium undefeated and ranked #3 in the country, with a shot at not only winning the SEC for the first time since the 1960’s, but making the national championship play-offs. LSU was not a good team that year, and had already lost twice, to Mississippi State and Auburn, with Alabama, Arkansas and Texas A&M yet to go. The Tigers fell behind early, 7-3, but played their butts off, managing an amazing drive against one of the top defenses in the country to go ahead 10-7 with about nine minutes left in the game. Ole Miss was driving in the closing minutes in LSU territory, only needing a field goal to send it to overtime when LSU iced the game with an interception to knock off Ole Miss and dash their title hopes.
7. 2010, Tennessee. On paper, LSU should have won this game 45-0, and on the very first play of the game that looked like what was going to happen as Jordan Jefferson took off for a seventy-five yard touchdown run to put the Tigers up 7-0. But sloppy play and a fired-up Tennessee team managed to give the Volunteers a 14-10 lead, with the Tigers driving as time ran down. Poor clock management and rushing the final play resulted in the snap going over the quarterback’s head and it was game over, a win by Tennessee. But a flag had been thrown—Tennessee had too many players on the field when the ball was snapped. The penalty gave LSU one more play, with no time left, and the ball was moved half-the distance to the goal line, where LSU punched it in for a 16-14 win in what was one of the most insane finishes to a football game ever.
8. 2010, Florida. In the Swamp, Urban Meyer’s last season as the Florida coach. LSU blew an early 20-7 lead to find themselves trailing in the closing seconds of the game, 29-26 and needing a field goal for overtime. On a 4th down, LSU lined up for the field goal—only it was a fake and the Tigers got a first down. However, when the holder flipped the ball over his head to the kicker, the ball hit the ground and bounced up to him. Was it a lateral, making it a legal play, or had the ball landed slightly ahead of where the holder was line up, making it a forward pass, incomplete, and Florida taking over on downs? The officials on the field ruled it a lateral, and a very lengthy review in the booth let the call stand. On the very next play, LSU drove to the four yard line, and two plays later completed a pass to the end zone to pull out the win, 33-29.
9. Alabama, 2007. Nick Saban, LSU’s former coach, had returned to the SEC at Alabama, and this was the first time he’d be facing his former team and the man who replaced him. The game was insane, and the Tigers, ranked Number 1 again after the earlier loss to Kentucky, were intercepted three times and Alabama was rolling. But LSU kept coming back. They managed to tie it up at 27-27, only for Alabama to score again to go ahead 34-27 with only a few minutes left in the game. The Tigers scored again to make it 34-34; and then some magic happened. Alabama, trying to get close enough for a tying field goal, started throwing passes. A quarterback sack, and a fumble…the ball bounced away and towards the LSU goal line, where it was recovered at the three by LSU. Two plays later, LSU was ahead 41-34. A strong defensive stand and the Tigers had beaten their old coach—many of whom he had recruited.
10. Ohio State, National Championship game for 2007. There were a lot of other exciting games under Coach Miles’ direction at LSU, but I couldn’t not list this game. The Tigers, the only two loss team to ever play for the national title, had clawed their way back up to #2 in the rankings for the right to play once beaten #1 Ohio State. The Tigers quickly fell behind in the first quarter, 10-3, before going on a tear in the second quarter and leading, 24-10, at half-time and never looking back before winning their third national title and their second BCS title, 38-24. In doing so, the Tigers became the first school to win two BCS titles, the first to win two titles under two different coaches, the only two-loss team to win the national title, and set off celebrations throughout the state.
Thank you, Coach Miles, for an amazing run and a lot of great memories. I knew once the game ended Saturday with the officials deciding Auburn had won after time ran out, that you were going to probably be fired. I thought they would let you have the season…I am kind of shocked at how they played out, frankly—and I admit, I was furious Saturday night. But the firing still came as a shock.
Last year when there was talk about firing you, I was a defender—after all, no one expected LSU to be 7-0, and the three losses came to the best three teams on the schedule—and thought you deserved another chance, another year. I questioned that after the Wisconsin loss, and I wasn’t happy on Saturday night. There’s no telling how this season will go now, and whether LSU will wind up bowl eligible or not, or what the future will hold for the Tigers.
But this Tiger fan will never forget the years of the Mad Hatter. It’s been a great ride.
Sunday morning, and I am going to make a Costco run. Sunday mornings, surprisingly enough, are the best time to go; New Orleans is, despite all evidence to the contrary, a city that takes its religion seriously so its always great to run errands during church.
I was on a panel several years ago at Bouchercon in Albany when the venerable Rebecca Chance stated that the most subversive thing a crime writer could do was "write a cozy." I've thought about that statement a lot in the years since then, and I don't necessarily agree that writing cozies is actually subversive; although it made for a truly great soundbyte. (I still think about it over three years later, don't I?) I myself have always held that cozies are the bastard redheaded stepchildren of the crime fiction world, and I am not really sure what that is. I do believe there's an element of by women for women about women; about them; nothing seems to earn contempt for books than this reality (the entire romance genre, for example, and Jennifer Weiner for another), despite the fact these books sell consistently well, year in and year out. When I was chair of the newsletter for Mystery Writers of America I wanted to try to come up with definitions for all the various sub-categories of the crime genre; as the official, longest running organization for crime writers, I felt it was kind of our place to define the sub-categories, as they always seem amorphous and fluid and their definitions depend on whomever you are talking to at the moment. The project came to naught, alas, as no one else seemed as interested in coming up with these definitions as I did; which is a shame, but there you have it. I guess that's why they've never really been defined before.
Some cozy writers prefer traditional; and eschew the word cozy. I can certainly understand that, cozy; can be seen as demeaning--I've certainly heard it used in a disparaging way more than once.
So, why all this loathing for one of the biggest and most consistently successful subgenres of crime fiction?
I think--and may very well be wrong--think it goes back to the roots of the divide between male and female readers and writers; back in the days when all the women crime writers, no matter how dark and twisted their stories (Armstrong, Millar, etc.) always wound up with those covers with the lovely young girl with flowing hair running away from the spooky house with a light in one of the windows, while men got the covers with the sexy naked woman and a gun. It was in the 1970's, I think, that women's work stop being taking as seriously (at least in terms of award recognition) as men's, coincidentally as the Women's Movement really began to take hold. When the 1980's rolled around, Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski series basically changed the game for all women writers; suddenly, women write hardboiled private eye series with a woman as the private eye. I don't know if this is true or not, it's all speculation and I wasn't really paying much attention to the crime fiction world, but the rise of women authors like Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton with their hardboiled style of writing and their tough women characters--who didn't need men, swore, could take a punch as well as throw one--unintentionally relegated the cozies to a place even further in the back of the bus.
And yet, they continue to sell and remain as popular a form of the genre as ever. So, what does that actually mean, in terms of the books and their writers themselves?
If I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone dismiss cozies--both men AND women crime writers--well, I'd be typing this on my private beach in the Caribbean as I swill some tropical drink with a lot of liquor in it. I stayed away from reading cozies for a very long time because of this dismissive attitude towards them; yet in the last few years, as I began to recognize (and call out) my own prejudices about reading and book sub-genres, I've slowly but surely started reading some of them--and they are actually quite good. Donna Andrews' Meg Langslow series is quite spectacular; and so is Elaine Viets' Helen Hawthorne series. I am slowly but surely adding more cozies to my reading, and you know--some of them aren't to my taste, but I can also say that about pretty much any subgenre of crime writing.
I started reading Leslie Budewitz' Assault and Pepper yesterday during the embarrassing horror that was the LSU football game, and before I knew it I was halfway through it and really enjoying myself. I met Leslie at Bouchercon this year; she was the outgoing president of Sisters in Crime, and I liked her. So, as always when I meet a writer and like them, even if it's just in passing and a brief meeting, I thought I would give one of her books a whirl. Leslie has done two series--the first is the Food Village books, and this is the first in her Spice Shop series. And I'm liking it. It's clever, the main character, Pepper, who owns a spice shop in the Pike Market in Seattle, is likable--smart and on her game, divorced and reinventing herself after losing her job in HR for a law firm--and the stuff about the spice shop is, in and of itself, interesting. (I did know going in how important spices were to world history; European exploration of the world had everything to do with trade and markets, and spices actually played a very large role in that) And the mystery itself is an interesting one.
I'm really enjoying it, and will probably finish reading it today.
I think it's easy for people who don't read them to write off cozies; I'm still not entirely sure how you would define them as a subgenre, but I will list off a couple of things that I've observed about them:
1. There is a running theme that connects the books. Leslie's series are the Food Village series and the Spice Shop series; Donna Andrews' are all connected by bird puns as the titles; Elaine Viets' are the Dead End jobs series; Miranda James are the Cat in the Stacks books. I've seen ones that are based around desserts, house renovations, flower shops, quilting, scrapbooking--you name it. The ones that are based in food often have recipes in the back (there are some in the back of Assault and Pepper); the scrapbook ones have helpful scrapbooking hints and ideas--you get the picture.
2. The main character is a woman. There are exceptions to this, of course--Miranda James' main character is a man--but without fail, almost always, at least in the first book, the main character is a woman with no romantic entanglements (either single or divorced) and she usually will find a love interest along the way. She is also usually smart, not a wimp but genuinely kind and caring, and while a professional working woman, she is not involved professionally as a crime-solver--cop, private eye, lawyer, reporter--so all of her involvement in murders is usually accidental, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
3. Usually, but not always, there's a pet involved. I've often heard cozies dismissed as 'cat books'--and certainly, Lillian Jackson Braun made a lot of money with her cat detectives, as has Rita Mae Brown. The main character doesn't have to have a pet (Meg Langslow has a veritable zoo on her farm in Virginia), but it never hurts for them to have a cat or a dog who will inevitably wind up on the cover.
4. The books have a very strong sense of place. Crime novels are, I've always felt, very dependent on their setting. V. I. Warshawski's Chicago, Kinsey Millhone's Santa Teresa, Lew Archer's Los Angeles, and Bill Smith/Lydia Chin's New York loom over the books like another character. Cozies are also very dependent on having a strong sense of place. The Fort Lauderdale of the Helen Hawthorne series is as alive and vibrant as Chandler's LA. The cozies that are set in fictional small towns also create a sense of community--the books won't work without capturing that small town essence of everyone-knows-everyone and community ethic. Leslie Budewitz' Assault and Pepper rings with authenticity; this is a Seattle I've visited and can recognize, and it seems very real to me.
I've always wanted to write a cozy series, or at least give it a shot. The Scotty series could have easily gone that way, but I chickened out and made Scotty a private eye by Book Three. I think it would be an enormous challenge--and I am all about the challenge.
And now, back to the spice mines.
I got up early this morning (well, early for a Saturday) to take a streetcar named St. Charles down to Audubon Park for the NO/AIDS Walk. I was scheduled to work in the Carevan, our mobile testing unit--and had to wonder, why has it taken me this many years to figure out that clearly the Carevan is the place to work other than the Prevention table? The Carevan is air conditioned.
It is sad how many years it has taken me to figure this out.
There was, for example, a wedding party having their pictures taken in the park among the live oaks that I stumbled on as I walked back to St. Charles. I didn't photobomb them--though I thought about it--but they were done and walked back to the Avenue by the time I reached them. There was a portable snowball stand set up on the Avenue, and I took a couple of pictures of the bridal party getting snowballs. It was such a uniquely New Orleans moment.
I'm worn out now, exhausted from the heat and the humidity and the heavy thoughts. I am going to repair to my easy chair for a lovely relaxing day of college football (GEAUX TIGERS!) and reading Leslie Budewitz' Assault and Pepper, in preparation for spending the day tomorrow in the spice mines.
Laura Lippman always says that one of the most worn-out, tired cliches/tropes of crime fiction is a beautiful woman dies, and a man feels bad.
On our panel at Bouchercon last week, the subject of cultural appropriation came up, and unfortunately, I didn't get to answer it--which is unfortunate, because my response was going to be, "I appropriate from straight culture all the time. In fact, I used the trope of a beautiful woman dies and a man feels bad in my first novel, only switched it into a beautiful man dies and a man feels bad."
Because really, you can sum up the plot of Murder in the Rue Dauphine that way.
The funny thing is, I didn't realize I was subverting, or appropriating, a trope at the time I wrote the book--but I was also trying to write a gay-themed mystery with a gay main character, and so I wound up using one of the tried-and-true crime tropes without even realizing I was doing it.
When I was a senior editor, one of the things I wanted to see was gay novels that flipped the script on straight tropes--where is the gay James Bond? Indiana Jones? Gay romantic suspense? I honestly believed--and still do--that if the books were well-written and the characters well developed, a gay or lesbian writer could take a trope/cliche from mainstream publishing and breathe fresh life into it. I tried to do this very thing with both Timothy and The Orion Mask, and once I get through these next books I have to write, I am going to try subverting some more writing tropes--like a gay hard-boiled noir, for example; wouldn't that be fun? I have an idea for two that have been simmering in my head on the back burner for a while: Muscles and Spontaneous Combustion.
We shall see, I suppose.
And now, I need to get back to the spice mines, otherwise I will never get any of these things done.
I finished rereading Prince of Darkness last night. I really loved the work of Barbara Michaels, even if some of it is now really dated. She made the books very much of their time--Prince of Darkness was written during the 1960's, so there is very subtle exploration of racism and classism, as well as the student movement of the time--but they still hold up after all this time; which was why Dr. Barbara Mertz, who wrote as both Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters, was such a great writer.
We've also been watching the TV series Turn, about Revolutionary War spies, which is apparently based on the nonfiction book Washington's Spies. It, too, is very well done--in our modern day, which has deified the Revolution and all those involved, turning them all into plaster saints, we have forgotten that they were all just people, who made mistakes, had all the foibles and follies of any of us. I've always loved history, and I am very pleased with how accurate to history this show is.
I've been thinking a lot lately about character; partly because I did teach the character workshop at SinC Into Great Writing last week, and I've done a lot of character workshops over the years. There has also been a lot of talk about the unlikable female protagonist over the last few years, beginning around the time of Gillian Flynn's monster hit Gone Girl and working its way through The Girl on the Train and any number of other books with female main characters. There seems to be a thirst out there for these types of book (any number of people, I've seen, have complained about the Girl books; God save us from any more books with 'girl' in the title). I suppose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is credited with started The Girl trend--I am not a genre critic/journalist--but it was written by a man; Gone Girl was written by a woman, and that's why I credit it with starting the trend (technically, Laura Lippman's The Girl in the Green Raincoat was the first, I suppose--you see what happens when you start splitting the hair?).
The unreliable narrator is not new, nor is the concept of the female unreliable narrator new; Margaret Millar's Beast in View did a great job with this back in the 1950's, for example. It is a trend, nothing more; as soon as the bookstores are glutted with books with unreliable female POV's something else will sell a gazillion copies and the market will be flooded with similar books to it (The DaVinci Code, after all, spawned a million imitators and also the Templar craze). I asked the question, awhile back, 'is unlikable a code word for complex?' And that is something I've been pondering ever since; why are complex women characters so easily dismissed as unlikable or as a bitch?
The arch-type of the bitch has long been a staple of melodrama; what would soap operas have done without the lying, manipulative seductresses who basically drove the plots of the shows? Try to imagine All My Children without Erica Kane, One Life to Live without Dorian, Dynasty without Alexis. The characters became enormously popular (the addition of Alexis to the cast of Dynasty took the show from middling ratings on the edge of cancellation to a Top 5 show for almost the entirety of its run), and often their popularity was explained away by 'they say and do things that people wish they could; they provide some sort of wish fulfillment for the audience.' I don't necessarily think that's true, and the popularity of these 'unlikable' women protagonists in crime novels proves me right. I've always felt that the 'bitches' were popular not only because they were fun to watch, but because they didn't take any crap from anyone and also because they were vulnerable: Erica Kane just wanted to be loved, but was so used to not getting what she wanted that she often defeated herself because she was used to driving people away; the more husbands/lovers she lost, the more she solidified that persona of independence and strength which made it all the more difficult for her to allow anyone to see her vulnerability and therefore completely trust/give herself to anyone. If the character hadn't been written and played that way, she would have just been another two-dimensional bitch that the audience would have tired of after a few years and she would have been written out of the show, sent away or killed off.
In other words, your 'bad characters' have to be just as three dimensional as your 'good characters.' Why is Erica a bitch? What does Alexis really want?
They can't be bad, and do bad things, simply because you need them to for the sake of the story.
When I was writing Sleeping Angel (spoiler!) I wanted to get inside the head of a bully. It would be incredibly easy to simply write the bully character as an asshole. But I wanted to know, and share with the reader, why this character was a homophobic bully. Bullying was integral to the plot of Sleeping Angel (I do think the book still has some flaws, despite its rave reviews and the awards it won), but it wouldn't have worked as well as it did had the reader not really understood the bully, if that makes sense.
Okay, back to the spice mines with me.