SUBLIME CRIME

 

In celebration of the recent release of FLESH AND GOLD, leave a comment and win a chance to receive an eBook in your choice of format. I’ll let my computer randomly select four winners on Wednesday, October 24th. Good luck!

With the release of FLESH AND GOLD, book four in my Cantor Gold crime series, I’ve been busy with the marketing effort on social media, posting the cover image and snappy blurbs. Some of you might have seen them. In the posts, I’ve described Cantor’s latest adventure as steamy, passionate and dangerous, which it certainly is, and that’s why I’ve used those buzzwords. Marketing a book, as we all know, requires grabbing a potential reader’s attention and getting them excited enough to make the purchase. The right buzzwords can push the right emotional buttons.

Marketing should tell a truth, though, and FLESH AND GOLD is indeed steamy, full of passion and danger. But the need for the quick, compelling image doesn’t always allow for a book’s subtler truths. So I’m faced with the problem: how to market the subtler, meatier truths of the book’s story? Hell if I know. This is even a greater challenge in marketing crime, mystery or thriller fiction, where the kernel of the genre is action and danger. Subtlety in marketing doesn’t cut it.

And then there’s another marketing hurdle crime fiction writers, indeed all genre writers, must overcome, the “Hey, it’s only genre fiction!” attitude which influences some readers, reviewers, and various literary taste makers. The implication being that genre fiction is not important. It’s not literature. Has nothing to say.

Well excuse me, but I beg to differ. I’m a crime and mystery genre writer and I’ve got plenty to say, and so do the characters I create. They carry all those subtler truths. My characters, living in their danger-filled, life-and-death world, are eye witnesses to justice or lack of it, the Law and its ramifications, the wretched effects of poverty, the corrosive effects of bigotry, family dysfunction, greed run amok, survival despite long odds, and other social issues. Who better to address some of the most moving and consequential dramas of human existence than characters who perpetrate or suffer these indignities?

People outside the crime and mystery writing community who know me, or who know something about me, sometimes think it’s odd that crime fiction is my preferred genre. After all, I’m a woman of a certain age, as they say, a Professor of Art History, not an action or adrenaline junkie, certainly not a criminal or a cop and have no inclination to be either. In other words, a dusty little scholar by day, purveyor of murder and mayhem by night or days when I’m not teaching my classes or creating my college lectures. Why would someone like me want to spend time in the hearts and minds of villains and victims?

Those of you who’ve read my Cantor Gold books or my other blogs posts know that my protagonist is herself a criminal. Cantor is a successful art thief and smuggler in the 1950s who enjoys her life in the New York underworld. She’s smart, she’s brave, she’s daring. In her own way, she’s a romantic soul. So why has she chosen to be a criminal? Here’s where the social issues come in. Cantor Gold is a butch lesbian, very dapper in her custom tailored suits. In the 1950s, that alone marked her as a criminal. If caught on the arm or in the bed of another woman, she and the woman would be thrown in jail or the psychiatric ward, subjected to abuse in jail and horrific procedures in the psycho ward. So I write the Cantor Gold series from the point of view of someone who’s asked herself, “If the Law labels me a criminal just for being alive, do I owe the Law that oppresses me any allegiance at all?” Her answer: “Nope.”

And we’re off to the races. Cantor’s underworld life allows me as the author to look at, describe, journey through, and involve the reader in the reasons people commit criminal acts. Crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s an outgrowth of social circumstances, or mental illness, or society’s rules. Sometimes it’s in defiance of those circumstances or rules, such as Cantor’s criminality, or a hungry person’s theft of food, a desperate person’s theft of money or goods. Sometimes crime is actually in cahoots with social circumstances, such as white collar criminals taking advantage of a rigged financial system that benefits those “in the know” and shortchanges everyone else. Sometimes it’s a way to grab power if you have none, or grab more of it to satisfy ambition. Sometimes crime is the result of mental illness, and sometimes, sure, it’s just plain evil.

By writing in the crime and mystery genre, I can expose various social issues without being preachy. As a crime writer, I have to keep the action moving, keep you turning those pages, keep you on the edge of your seat while guessing who-dunnit, if there’s murder involved, and there almost always is. Which brings up the question of why they dunnit. Another social issue. Was it just plain evil? Was it self-defense? Was it after years of emotional or physical abuse? Was it mental health? Human desperation? A power grab? Jealousy? The Law, in real life, is often expressed in only two terms: guilty or not guilty. In crime fiction, I can shred those extremes and expose the fascinating, desperate mess of human life that struggles to survive in between. Most of all, crime fiction can make you question the definitions of guilt and innocence. These are complex questions of morality which it’s sometimes easy to ignore in real life when we’re neck deep in pursuing our own ambitions or surviving our own daily struggles. In FLESH AND GOLD, for example, the action takes place in the world of sex work, some of it coerced, some of it not. Cantor must navigate a morass of moral conundrums: the sex workers’ choices or lack of them, the brothel operators as fair or brutal employers, and most of all, her own attitudes. And while she’s at it, she has to dodge the bullets and knives of scheming gangsters, each with their own subtle layers of need and truth.

Now, the trick in crime fiction, as in any literary effort, is to write the stuff well. The best genre writers strive to push their stories beyond the purely sensational or formulaic into the realm of well crafted literature. Count me among those strivers who take the art of crime fiction seriously and strive to lift it into an experience of the literary sublime, even while my characters dodge bullets and knives.

Sublime crime. How the hell do I market that?

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THE MUSE TAKES A HOLIDAY

One of the (many) wonderful things about being an author living in New York is taking a lazy, escapist day at a museum and calling it research. And so it was, on a recent hot, sticky Saturday, hanging around my apartment, even in the cool glory of air conditioning, became a rare exercise in boredom. Even the writing muse was off her stride. “Nope,” she said, “not today, I’m taking an afternoon vacay, so fuggedaboutit.” In other words, get the hell outta the house.

Always at the mercy of my muse, who bosses me around without pity, I got the hell outta the house.

Across the green beauty of Central Park I went, maneuvering my way through families tossing balls, tossing frisbees, tossing children, arriving at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the city’s encyclopedic palace of the world’s art and culture. Truth be told, I go there often when I need to recharge my batteries or spirits, and yes, for research. As an adjunct professor of Art History, my job depends on maintaining a depth of art historical knowledge. More important to my muse, though, all that artwork on the Met’s walls and in display cases is catnip to Cantor Gold, the art thieving and smuggling protagonist of my Cantor Gold crime series. So yeah, sure, research. That’s why I abandoned my laptop to mosey around the museum. Uh-huh.

Once inside, where to mosey? The place is gigantic, impossible to see all its collections in a single day. My wanderings were ultimately decided by a wonderful recent event in my life, reconnecting via Facebook with a French friend from my college days. My mind has since been filled with all things French, particularly Paris, my friend’s hometown, where I visited her years ago and where she still lives. So I let the Met take me to Paris.

First stop, pre-Revolutionary Paris, where they really knew how to slather on the luxe. Today’s One-Percenters have nothing on the Baroque and Rococo French upper classes when it comes to excess, and those old hoarders of wealth even had better craftspeople.

 

Parisian bedroom, ca 1700 edited

Bedroom; various artisans, c. 1700

I mean, get a load of this bedroom! Hand woven silk and wool tapestried wall, a pair of candelabra of gilt bronze with rock crystal shades, silk and wool embroidered bed hangings and spread, carved and gilded wood and plaster balustrade. They sure didn’t pick that stuff up at Target.

 

French Hallway

Corner Louis XV Room; Jean-François Roumier, designer (attributed) 1788-1793

 Continuing from the bedroom I passed through the Louis XV Room, which dazzled with so much gold the Met should post a sunglasses requirement. The portrait on the wall is of Louis as a child. Turns out he wasn’t much of a king when he grew up. He had a lot of nice stuff, though, like the pair of Sèvres porcelain vases on the table. It occurred to me that Cantor might have a client who—

Uhh, moving on.

After meandering through several other Baroque and Rococo rooms, my eyes started to glaze over, but I wasn’t ready to leave Paris (is anyone ever ready to leave Paris?), so I headed to the Decorative Arts galleries, where a couple of nineteenth century pieces won my heart…

 

Galle glass box ca. 1880 edited

Glass Box with Lid; Emile Gallé (1846-1904), Designer, Établissements Gallé, Manufacturer, ca. 1880, width 6 ¾ inches, height 2 ¾ inches

…like this little charmer of a glass box by Gallé from 1880, early in the fin de siècle, when the steep hills and cheap rents of working class Montmartre attracted writers, musicians, and artists such as Toulouse Lautrec, Van Gogh, Bernard, and by the end of the century Pablo Picasso. Montmartre was also home to ragged cafés, dance halls, and brothels, where Montmartre’s denizens danced, argued art, and…uh…entertained themselves. I doubt anyone in Montmartre could afford this elegant little box, but to me, Gallé’s creation embodies all the creativity and zest for life going on in Paris at the time, much of it inspired in Montmartre: elegant in form, sensual in design.

 

Square Vase 1889

Square Vase; Ernest Chaplet,  (1835-1909), Porcelain, 1889, 15 3/8 inches height × 7 ¾ inches × 7 ¾ inches at widest

But this vase…oh this vase! My heart skipped several beats! Absolutely timeless design. Sleek and fabulous, yes? Deep, deep red you want to lick right off the surface.

It was just about now that my muse began to re-think her vacay. She was giving Cantor ideas. Yeah, those ideas. The guard started to look at me funny when it was clear I was no longer admiring the vase but examining the construction of the display case. Hey, it’s research!

I seem to have worn out my welcome in the Decorative Arts galleries. Moving along now…

…to French painting.

 

Comedy-ca. 1736 - Copy

Study for Comedy; Pierre Charles Trémolièrs (1703-1739), oil on canvas, ca. 1736, 18 ¾ inches x 23 ½ inches

Well, ooh-la-la! Yummy early Rococo eye candy. I’m sure I was thinking utterly politically incorrect thoughts, but, hey, wouldn’t you? I mean, she’s luscious and racy, which is what the French Rococo was all about. Don’t believe me? Check out Fragonard’s “The Swing,” really look at what’s going on in the scene—or look up the art historical descriptions—and then get back to me about the purity of your thoughts. Riiiiight…

 

Madame de Maison-Rouge as Diana 1756

Madame de Maison-Rouge as Diana; Jean Marc Nattier (1685-1766), oil on canvas, 1756,

53 ¾ inches x 41 3/8 inches

I’m a sucker for strong women, and this near life-size portrait of Madame de Maison-Rouge posing as Diana the Huntress pushed all my Lesbian buttons. Now, I could tell you all about the strength of the composition, the artist’s sensitivity to light and shadow, his understanding of color theory, his expertise in depicting textures, his talent for altering perspective, his skill in modeling the woman’s face, and on and on. But what really held my eyes was that tiger fur wrap. Yeah. The. Wrap. The way it’s tied just below the bodice. Hey, whaddya want? It’s French Rococo, f’cryin’ out loud. Cantor has clients who swear they have refined tastes who are crazy for the French Rococo. As a matter of fact, one of them is trying to get in touch, or so my muse, rousing from her holiday, is whispering to me.

 

Figures on the Beach-Renoir 1890 edited

Figures on the Beach; Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), oil on canvas, 1890,

20 ¾ inches x 25 ¼ inches

Well, even Parisiennes have to get out of town from time to time, hit the beach, and by the late fin de siècle, with the Industrial Revolution triumphant and railroads now moving in and out of Paris daily, folks were able to get out of town a lot. Like these two young ladies…and just what’s going on here, my muse wants to know? What are they up to? And that dame with her hand on her hip looks like she ain’t gonna take “non” for an answer.

Leave it to Renoir, and all the French Impressionists, to capture the seductive, naughty, and pure lusciousness of life.

And such was my Saturday afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, luscious. My boredom dissolved, my muse roused and speculating which of the Met’s many treasures Cantor Gold may want to “acquire,” or may have already acquired (heh heh), which is why you and I and thousands of others have the privilege of standing before them on these walls.

Yeah, research. C’est la vie.

LIFE IN THE (LITERARY) CRIME LANE

The recent Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS) Conference in Chicago was fantastic! Lots of wonderful authors reading from their superb books. Lots of terrific panels on important–or just plain fun–literary topics. And lots of old friends to catch up with and new ones to treasure.

I gave a presentation on Writing Lesbian Crime & Mystery Fiction. The event was well attended (whew!) and was a lively session. Attendees had an opportunity to think about and express their most murderous fantasies…now isn’t that fun? 😉

In case you missed the presentation, or didn’t get to the conference, here’s the Power Point I created for the event: Writing Lesbian Crime & Mystery Fiction.

GCLS Presentation

LIFE IN THE (LITERARY) CRIME LANE

LIFE IN THE (LITERARY) CRIME LANE

by Ann Aptaker

Life’s tough on a crime and mystery writer. Okay, okay, I can hear everyone telling me to stop complaining—“Who are you to complain?! You’re a published author with two books out and a third under contract!”—and just go back to peddling my papers. But I ask you: how would you like to lay awake nights thinking of ways to kill people? Year after year, book after book, shooting, stabbing, gouging, tossing people off bridges, blowing their heads off, cutting them to ribbons. That’s a lot of abuse of my mind.

So how do I stay sane? (And I assure you I am sane. Boringly, tediously sane. Everyone out there who knows me agrees, yes? Anyone?) I suppose my claim to sanity is tethered to the act of writing. Writing fiction depends on a bifurcated discipline: even as the imagination wanders into unreality, the mind is also tightly focused, organizing all those plot and character details which give the story clarity, enrich it, and make it believable.

Well, “So what?” you say. That bifurcation is true for any writer, not just crime and mystery writers. Okay, yeah, you got me there. But I think what separates crime writers from other fiction writers—besides our obvious and disturbing comfort with devising ways to do bloody murder, a trait we probably share with those other dark thinkers: horror writers—is our insistence on finding a spark of beauty in our deadly stories, a fundamental beauty in what it means to be human in what are otherwise threatening situations involving nasty people. For some crime writers, that beauty is expressed in the protagonist’s intellectual ability to solve the murder puzzle. Such writers celebrate the human mind itself. For other writers, the protagonist’s sense of right and wrong expresses the possibility of an ideal human morality. Still other writers celebrate the beauty of decisiveness, of taking action instead of backing down when faced with danger. For me, though, the beauty comes in finding my protagonist’s purpose.

The world of my Cantor Gold crime series—Goldie award nominee Criminal Gold, released by Bold Strokes Books in November 2014, and the second book, Tarnished Gold, releasing by BSB this month—is morally murky. Cantor is a true criminal after all, an art thief and smuggler. Dapper and self-assured, she takes great pleasure in the outlaw life of 1950s New York. But she is a butch lesbian at a time when such a life was illegal, subject to arrest and worse. So Cantor knows what it’s like to have the boot of oppression on one’s head. This doesn’t make her a saint (believe me, she’s far from that; in fact, she can be quite the cad), but it does make her aware of the sufferings of other people. Together with her gender-defying persona, Cantor Gold, underworld criminal, well-tailored butch dyke, thus embodies four of genre fiction’s enduring archetypes: the “Good Guy” and the “Bad Girl,” and the “Bad Guy” and the “Good Girl,” all in the same person.

So, what of her purpose?

In Tarnished Gold, Cantor’s general purpose is to find a killer. That’s what crime and mystery fiction requires. But her personal purpose is far more complex. In order to solve the murder, Cantor must uphold the victim’s—and her own more tarnished—honor. She has to untangle issues of identity, satisfy an unfamiliar responsibility, make morally questionable decisions and do morally questionable acts, cope with a painfully haunting passion for one woman and admit a passion for another, and do all of this within a life of crime, where “respectable” rules for survival don’t apply. And therein lies Cantor’s beauty: she must hang on, even by the most soiled and slender thread, to an inner humanity she depends on to guide her through her treacherous quest.

Well, all that is Cantor’s job. My job is to make you believe it, lift you out of your everyday experience, challenge your emotional safety, defy your sense of right and wrong, and reveal the beauty of Cantor’s flawed but exquisite humanity. And oh yeah, give you a hell of a good time on every page.

Whew! Big job.

Like I said, life’s tough for a crime and mystery writer.

 

CRIMINAL GOLD and TARNISHED GOLD from Bold Strokes Books:

http://www.boldstrokesbooks.com/Author-Ann-Aptaker.html

CRIMINAL GOLD on Amazon:  amzn.to/1FIwvJ7

TARNISHED GOLD on Amazon:   amzn.to/1Kz6YEB

 

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