Heavenly Creatures Revisited

On a recent evening I started reading Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, by Peter Graham, and spent most of the next day glued to it. If you know the movie Heavenly Creatures, this is the rest of the story, about Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two girls in Christchurch, New Zealand, who in 1954 murdered Pauline’s mother. There was no doubt as to their guilt; the trial centered on questions of insanity.

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Anne Perry and the Murder of the CenturyAnne Perry’s identity as Juliet Hulme was revealed by the making of the film (although not by Peter Jackson, who did not want to expose either of the women). I had read many of Anne Perry’s mysteries before that, but I don’t think I’ve read one since. (She does not come off well in this book.)

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The book is very thorough and well researched, by a New Zealand lawyer with a long-time interest in the case. He goes into the backgrounds of the girls and their families, describes the killing and the trial in great detail, and follows up with the later lives of the two women and many other people associated with the case. I haven’t been so caught up in a book in quite some time. A fascinating look at the time and place, and some very strange psychology.

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After I finished the book, I found my copy of Heavenly Creatures on the DVD shelf and Heavenly Creatureswatched it again (I hadn’t seen it in several years). The movie is quite true to the actual story, with stunning performances by Kate Winslet as Juliet and Melanie Lynskey as Pauline (both film debuts) and some remarkable special effects work animating the girls’ fantasy kingdom of Borovnia and their infatuation with Mario Lanza. The film ends with the murder.

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The film centers largely around Pauline, as her diaries were available and were extensively quoted in the script. The original title of Graham’s book, So Billiantly Clever, came from Pauline’s writings, as did the phrase Heavenly Creatures. Juliet’s mother managed to burn Juliet’s diaries before the authorities asked for them. Graham’s book goes far deeper into the girls’ personalities and behavior, and makes it clear that Juliet, rather than Pauline, was the dominant personality in their fantasies, and a willing participant in the murder.

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Heavenly Creatures is an amazing film, but for the whole story, read Graham’s book.

 

Breaking the TV Habit

They say it takes three weeks to establish a habit, although I suspect that’s a very optimistic estimate. Does it take the same time to break one? Tomorrow it will be three weeks since my Comcast cable detached itself, perhaps with the help of the vegetation shrouding the utility pole and preventing the Comcast tech from reconnecting it.

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I would have been a lot more aggressive about solving this problem if I had ever been convinced to bundle my phone and Internet connections into my Comcast account. Fortunately, those are provided by my phone company, Frontier, and work just fine, along with my Verizon smart phone. With Frontier’s wifi, I have full use of the Amazon Fire tablet I bought a few months ago. It’s not a full-scale tablet for writing and I’m not impressed with the browser, but it’s a great little entertainment machine, which is exactly what I wanted.

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So Cable TV is all I’ve been doing without. That’s not only a first world problem, but folks not far from me are still displaced from their flooded homes, thanks to Hurricane Harvey. I am not complaining.

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I’ve been surprised to discover how quickly I’ve adapted to the lack. (It helps that I’m not a rabid baseball fan and probably wouldn’t have watched any of the recent Astros games anyway, for fear of being a jinx.) I use the TV for background noise at least ninety per cent of the time, running marathons of shows I’ve seen dozens of times or listening to jazz on Music Choice. That’s easily taken care of—I have radios all over the house, including two HD radios that pull in the jazz and classical music stations that Houston seems unable to support over the air (a disgraceful situation in such a large metropolitan area, if you ask me).

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I have discovered that I actually watch very few current shows. I don’t watch reality shows, and over the last year the news has become the worst reality show of all. For what I do want to see, I’ve found alternative methods. CBS.com shows current shows the day after broadcast. (No, Star Trek fan that I am, I haven’t subscribed to their pay service.) The Xfinity Stream app I downloaded to my Fire tablet allows me to watch most cable shows live (I watched the return of Major Crimes on TNT the other night), as well as access to the Music Choice Channels. (Apparently one only gets full service and broadcast channels with an Xfinity home wifi network, but there’s the eggs-in-one-basket thing again.)

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On the Fire or the computer, there’s a lot to enjoy on Amazon Prime: movies, TV, and some very good Amazon-produced shows, and a wide range of music. And then there are the three shelves of DVDs, many of them as yet unwatched, in my living room. This week I’ve rewatched Topkapi and Heavenly Creatures.

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What I have escaped from, I now realize, is the schedule. I’m not planning my evenings by what’s on TV, or when some show starts. I’m not searching for something to “watch” (largely meaning ignore) while I’m getting it all together in the morning. I’m not staying awake at night to watch something I’ve seen a dozen times, just because it’s there. I’m not planning my lunch break to coincide with some show I’ve seen seven times, or hurrying home from something to catch another rerun. The next time my cable box gives me trouble, I’ll probably get one without a DVR.

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Yes, I will get the service reconnected one of these days. I have a new understanding of those who cut the cord with their cable TV providers, but I still like the convenience. But in the meantime I’ve been reading more, getting to sleep earlier, and not watching reruns (well, I have been keeping up with Deep Space Nine on Amazon Prime, but that’s it, honest). I’m going to try to stick with that. We’ll see if three weeks plus is long enough to change a rather mindless habit.

More Mysteries (To Read!)

No technological enigmas today, just three very readable mystery novels.

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Maggie Doyle is back in a new adventure in Zara Keane’s The 39 Cupcakes. She’s settling into her new life as a private investigator on Whisper Island, just off the coast of Ireland, and into her growing relationship with Garda Sergeant Liam Reynolds (at least until his outspoken eight-year-old daughter comes to visit). The Movie Theater Cafe is hanging on (with a showing of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps) despite the opening of The Cupcake Cafe right across the road. And Maggie’s cousin Julie has recruited her to help chaperone thirty summer camp kids on a tour of an archaeological excavation.

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The 39 CupcakesPeople may call Maggie a Corpse Magnet, but it’s actually one of the kids who discovers the first body. Bones do turn up in archaeological sites, but not with modern dental work. With Reynolds technically on vacation, Maggie and her unofficial assistant Lenny are off and running on the investigation.

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The 39 Cupcakes brings back many of the characters from Maggie’s previous cases and adds a few new ones. The cast and the setting of these books is so much fun, and Maggie works her way through the mayhem around her with great humor, seeing her father’s country with American eyes, struggling to pronounce Irish names, and waiting for those official divorce papers.

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Fortunately we won’t have to wait too long for Maggie’s next case: Rebel Without a Claus, coming this holiday season.

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Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mysteries never spend much time on my TBR shelf. I’ve been a fan of the series since the first book, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, came out in 1977. Over the years we have met more and more members of Sharon’s large and increasingly The Color of Fearcomplicated family, and a number of them figure prominently in the latest installment, The Color of Fear. When Sharon’s visiting Shoshone father is attacked and beaten on a San Francisco street, the incident appears at first to be a random hate crime, perhaps related to other recent crimes against minorities. But when Sharon and her colleagues investigate, it appears there’s a lot more going on—and someone will go to any lengths to stop Sharon from finding out the truth.

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Sue Grafton also has a new mystery on the shelf, Y Is For Yesterday. I haven’t picked that one up yet, because I’m three behind—V, W, and X are still waiting for me. I’ve been reading Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone novels since A Is For Alibi (1982), and I will catch up. These are two series that will stay on my keeper shelf.

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I missed David Handler’s Stewart Hoag mysteries completely when they were published in the 1980s. I picked up the first one, The Man Who Died Laughing, when it popped up on an ebook sale email recently (I get far too many of those). How could I resist a mystery starring a one-hit wonder writer conned into trying his hand at ghostwriting? Not to mention the basset hound, Lulu.

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The Man Who Died LaughingIn The Man Who Died Laughing, Hoagy heads to California to ghostwrite the autobiography of famous comic Sonny Day. Much of Sonny’s story comes out in the form of interview tapes, but he’s reluctant to answer the one question everyone asks—what caused the public fistfight which ended his partnership with straight man Gabe Knight. That question seems to be at the heart of a whole string of drastic events: death threats, vandalism, arson, and finally murder. Someone clearly does not want the answer to become public.

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The book is set in the early 1980s, and many celebrities of the day wander in and out of the story (perhaps to assure the reader that Day and Knight are not based directly on any real people), lending considerable atmosphere to the setting. There’s quite a bit of wry humor, but the mystery is a bit darker than I expected. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I have another Handler tale (The Woman Who Fell From Grace) waiting on my Kindle. I’ll be watching for others in the series.

 

Nature vs. Technology

One of the hazards of living alone is that there’s no one else around to handle some task I don’t want to do. If I can’t do if myself, I pretty much have to hire it done. (The benefits include eating cereal for supper, knowing what’s in the refrigerator, and never finding the toilet seat up in the middle of the night.)

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Monday afternoon I came home from the grocery store to find the TV, which I had left playing the smooth jazz station on Music Choice, displaying the dreaded “One Moment Please” signboard. Well, once in a while, the channel really does come back on shortly, so I turned on the radio and waited half an hour to call Comcast. The mechanical woman who answers the phone there (and does her best to protect any human being from having to talk to a customer) assured me there was no outage in my area and offered to send a reset signal to my cable box.

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I have never ever had a problem solved by a reset signal, but it was worth a try. When I got a text message half an hour later asking if the reset had succeeded or failed, I replied “failed.” By then I had checked my other TVs and discovered that none of them were working. I tried to explain that to the thickly accented Comcast agent who called me back, but he insisted on trying to fix the living room box. The usual procedure of unplugging the box and plugging it back in resulted only in a total failure of the box to reboot. At that point the agent (in India, I’m sure) gave up and scheduled a tech appointment for Friday morning, the next day that I could be home.

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I use the TV for background noise ninety per cent of the time; I’m used to it, but not having it isn’t a great sacrifice (albeit, given Comcast’s rates, a rather expensive one). So for several days I listened to the radio, watched video on my tablet, read, and went to bed earlier than usual with no TV to distract me.

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Then the reminders kicked in: one email and two phone calls, one leaving a voice mail, on Thursday afternoon. On Friday morning, I was up early, in time for another phone call at 7:30 and a text message saying the tech was on the way. The next text message, at 8:23, telling me that the tech had arrived, was a bit disconcerting, since there was no tech in sight, but a nice young man did arrive at 9:05. He listened to my description of the problem—the TV box in the living room was out, the one in the bedroom had the right time and the program guide, but no programs, and the ancient TV in the sewing room had no video signal—he immediately knew that the problem was in the outside wiring, specifically in the line coming from the utility pole out back.

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And that’s where Nature came into the picture (or lack thereof). The utility pole is shrouded in bamboo. Wet bamboo, thanks to the overnight thunderstorm we’d just had. The Comcast tech couldn’t get his ladder close to it. He went around the block and approached it from the other side (the pole is actually located on the other side of the fence in a neighbor’s yard). He could see the disconnected line from there, but couldn’t reach it.

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Comcast, he told me, leases access to the utility easement and poles from CenterPoint, the company that handles all the electrical infrastructure around here. Hacking through the bamboo is not the cable company’s responsibility.

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So I called the local tree service that contracts with CenterPoint to trim trees. I had their phone number because they’d left a note on my door a few weeks ago, but as far as I can tell they never did any work in my yard. It seems to me that if Comcast can’t get to the utility pole, neither can the phone company or, more to the point, CenterPoint’s own workers. When the tree service supervisor called back, he seemed pretty unconcerned about pole access, although he did promise to send someone out to look at the problem next week.

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So I’m contemplating the thought of spending a chunk of this weekend hacking down bamboo myself, waiting to see what the tree service says, or looking for someone I can hire (spending a chunk of money rather than time) to solve the problem. And then calling Comcast back and finding someone to actually listen to what I need.

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I had lunch yesterday with a friend who was horrified by the thought of no TV—but she wanted to watch the Astros game last night. Missing that didn’t bother me—I’m glad they won, but I wouldn’t have been watching. I have radios, books, Amazon Prime, piles of DVDs, and the Internet. I can weather a few more days without Comcast just fine.

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But it makes me wonder just who really has jurisdiction over something as simple as utility poles (alas, my neighborhood was built up long before buried lines came into use). And maybe it would be nice to have a husband, son, brother, or nephew who would go out and cut down that bamboo while I read a book.

Natalie Meg Evans: The Wardrobe Mistress

Natalie Meg Evans’ latest novel is The Wardrobe Mistress, set in London shortly after the end of World War II. Vanessa Kingcourt, lately released from wartime service in the WAAF, her art college studies long ago disrupted by the war, returns to London for the funeral of the father she hasn’t seen since she was a small child. From that afternoon in the cemetery she finds her life intersecting with that of Commander Alastair Redenhall, a Naval officer married to Vanessa’s childhood friend, and a mysterious woman who was an associate of Vanessa’s father.

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The Wardrobe MistressRedenhall has inherited the theater where Vanessa’s father was working when he died, and hopes to reopen the damaged building and restore it to a working stage. Vanessa, driven by family mysteries and a hopeless attraction to the Commander, manages to land a job as the theater’s wardrobe mistress, a job she’s not at all qualified for.

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Vanessa is a determined protagonist, drawn into the world of the theater by curiosity about her father, a small-time actor who abandoned her and her mother for life on the stage, held there by her growing love of both the theater and Redenhall. People from her past and from the theater company, all of whom knew her father in one way or another, contribute clues in her search for the truth about her family.

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The shadow of war and constant danger hung over Evans’ previous novels, The Dress Thief and The Milliner’s Secret, set in Paris just before and during World War II. Without that element, The Wardrobe Mistress moves at a slower and somewhat less compelling pace. But it evokes the fascinating world of the theater (probably even more so for those more familiar with the works of Oscar Wilde than I am), and of a time when divorce was scandalous and very difficult, when homosexuality was a crime, and when nearly everything was rationed.

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Natalie Meg Evans’ novels, from the British publisher Quercus, are available as ebooks from Amazon, and on paper from the Book Depository in the UK (good prices and free shipping anywhere).

 

Gerry Bartlett’s Texas Pride

In Gerry Bartlett’s Texas Pride, Shannon Calhoun is reeling from the revelations dogging Calhoun Petroleum, not to mention the terms of her father’s will, which have her working in a cubicle in the public relations department of the now-shaky family business. How is she going to tell her contacts in the world of high society fund raising that Calhoun can no longer afford to support their causes?

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Texas PrideThings only get stranger when Shannon walks into her sister’s office to see Billy Pagan, the boyfriend she dumped in college, now a high-powered criminal attorney brought in to help with Calhoun Petroleum’s legal woes. The old sparks are still there, but have Shannon and Billy grown up enough to fan those embers into a lasting fire–without burning each other?

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Texas Pride is full of action, from motorcycle gangs to an airplane crash, moving from high-rise Houston to rough neighborhoods and biker bars, and a cast of characters ranging from Billy’s orange-haired grandma to his Harley-riding investigator. But at the heart of the book are Shannon and Billy, searching for a path through life that they can travel together.

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It’s always fun to read a book set in a familiar place, and those of us in the Houston area will enjoy looking in on the city, the oil industry, and even an East Texas Indian reservation and casino. Gerry Bartlett is a life-long resident of the region, knows it well, and clearly enjoys writing about it.

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More books set in the world of the Calhouns, featuring some characters we’ve met and some we haven’t, will becoming from Kensington next year. I’m looking forward to more Texas suspense.

 

This ‘n That

Well, I’ve been wildly off kilter lately thanks to an unwelcome Gulf Coast visitor called Hurricane Harvey. My home (located between two lakes and Galveston Bay) suffered no damage, despite 38+ inches in my rain gauge, but I’m still feeling a bit shell-shocked, as is everyone in the area. Four days of nearly uninterrupted rain will do that. We’re still having trouble figuring out what day it is, even though most of us went back to work last week. A few major highways are still under water, so traffic in Houston has been more dreadful than usual. Many people lost homes and cars to the flooding; the rest of us are feeling fortunate, with perhaps just a touch of survivors’ guilt. We’re keeping our fingers crossed and waiting to hear from friends and family in Florida, as Hurricane Irma moves north, and hoping that Jose, Katia, and the rest of the alphabet go off into the uninhabited portions of the Atlantic.

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Phyllis Whitney update: When Whitney died in 2011, her novels were not available as ebooks. Now Open Road Media has acquired at least part of Whitney’s list and has begun Hunter's Greenreleasing the novels as ebooks. The first batch came out in July, another at the end of August, and more are scheduled for late October. So far I’ve snapped up The Turquiose Mask and Hunter’s Green at loss leader prices, but the regular price at Amazon is only $6.15. Open Road Media’s daily Early Bird Books often features classic mystery series. If you’re a fan, check out the site at openroadmedia.com. They produce several good newsletters for book and movie lovers. (I get four or five ebook newsletters every morning, and I really shouldn’t even open them. But I always do.)

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How I wish Al Franken were my Senator! (Moving to Minnesota is not an option–I spent my childhood in Wisconsin, so I know what the weather’s like up there. I’d rather deal with a hurricane every few years.) It does make me happy to know that the good people of Minnesota re-elected him in 2014, so he’s up there fighting for all of us.

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Franken, the one-time comedian and satirist, is still funny, and a good part of this book Al Frankentells of his efforts to avoid being funny, at least on the campaign trail and the floor of the Senate. He doesn’t always succeed there, and he doesn’t even try in the book (don’t skip the footnotes!).

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If you don’t like Franken’s politics (he’s a progressive Democrat), this may not be the book for you. I ate it up. Franken hates my Senator (Ted Cruz) and devotes chapter 37 to explaining why. But then apparently no one in the Senate likes Cruz (nor do I). And then there’s chapter 45, “Lies and the Lying Liar Who Got Himself Elected President.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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But there’s a lot more to Al Franken Giant of the Senate (a very tongue-in-cheek title) than political opinion. The book is also a fascinating and very honest memoir of Franken’s comedy career, his unlikely run for the Senate and incredibly close victory (eight months of recounts), and his discovery of how the Senate actually works. I can’t imagine anyone else explaining the Senate from the inside out in such an entertaining (and often thought-provoking) manner.

 

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