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Edens, Plural

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So, I am sitting here in my office, having had the first decent night of sleep I’ve managed in over a week, and a very odd thing is going on. 

Playing behind me is my favorite Bach piece–Concerto in D Minor–and the steady hum of my sons talking on and on about some ancient Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles episode, or movie, or something.

Years ago, I told myself that I wanted to raise children who would be able to “like” Bach and Superman.  I guess this means I managed it, but it’s very odd nonetheless.

Anyway, in spite of the peculiarity, this is not what I am thinking about.

I am thinking, instead, about one of my favorite books in the entire world, Rest You Merry, by Charlotte McLeod. 

Bill and I knew Charlotte very well before her last illness, but I had heard of her long before I met her, and I once did one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever done in my life by not going to a signing she was doing at Murder Ink in Manhattan.

Let me explain.  That was before I’d met her, and Carol Brenner, who then owned the store, made a special point of contacting me when Charlotte was coming to sign, because she knew I liked Charlotte’s books.

I decided not to go, because I was sure she wouldn’t want people to “bother” her.  No, I am not making this up.  I thought a writer coming for a signing would be upset and put off by the fuss of people wanting to meet her.

I figure ever dud signing I’ve ever had since is probably punishment for that really ridiculous decision.

But, again, that’s not what I was thinking of.

I feel like Emily Latella–never mind.

Charlotee McLeod is largely the reason I am a mystery writer.  I found two of her books–The Family Vault and Rest You Merry–in Jacoby’s bookstore in East Lansing, Michigan, when I was completely strung out by teaching and graduate school and everything else.  It was the end of a term.  I was contracted to teach for the next term.  I read those two books, thought:  hell, I wish I could do that–and bought a ticket to New York.

McLeod writes what are honestly placed in the “cozy” category by definition these days, but she does it well enough that her books have none of the really awful qualities of most cozies.  Part of that is that she writes well, and part of it, I suspect, is that Charlotte took seriously what too many other cozy writers take as an excuse for cute.

There is certainly some cute in Charlotte’s work, but it’s never too much.

And, in the Peter Shandy books, there is the background: Balaclava Agricultural College.

Let me start by saying that I don’t think anything that will follow will constitute a spoiler.  I’m not talking about the mysteries here, but about the landscape in which the mysteries take place.

And that is something that every writer of a series, even of a series that is not cozy, takes some trouble over.  The background characters and the background situation are important.   They are what readers will follow from book to book, so much so that the mystery itself can often be weak if the background is strong.  Writers get away with a lot that way.

Balaclava Agricultural College is a small school in Western Massachusetts where all the students are working hard on rock-solid vocational majors.  They’re learning to become farmers, plant soil scientists, even restaurant owners.

As a means of teaching them to do all these things, the college has the students running everything–the cafeteria that feeds students, faculty and staff; the power system (run entirely on methane gas from the…output of livestock); the maintenance of the grounds (horticulture is a major).  Anyway, you name it.

And Peter Shandy, our hero, has become a reasonably rich man by inventing new forms of plant life and patenting the designs.

Of course, the college has become well off from this, too, since they get a cut.

I think I was more than usually susceptible to the charms of Balaclava Agricultural College because I was teaching at Michigan State, and MSU is the ultimate in “cow colleges.”   It was even called, originally, “Michigan Agricultural College,” as the name of its main thoroughfare–MAC Ave–attests.

If there was one thing I learned at MSU, it was a healthy respect for what somebody needs to know to do agriculture well.  I admit to being almost besottedly in love with all things having to do with horticultural majors, who spent their time planting things (in good weather) that were truly amazing to walk through to and from classes.

My favorite project of theirs was the spring tulip thing, where they planted nearly every available patch of ground with huge phalanxes of tulips in every conceivable color, arranged in patterns and pictures and I don’t know what else. 

I have no idea what the rigor of their coursework was like–the level of coursework in the courses I taught there was considerably higher than any I could ask of even my best students now–but I do know that I think there ought to be places for people to go to learn these kinds of things. 

And I’ve got no objection to my tax dollars being used to run institutions that do teach that kind of thing.

It’s also why I got so annoyed at Jane Smiley’s Moo, set at a thinly disguised University of Iowa, where she taught for many years.  But then, I get annoyed at Jane Smiley all the time.  We came out of the same undergraduate college English department, and yet she managed to say, on the publication of A Thousand Acres, that King Lear made no sense unless you assumed he’d been sexually abusing his daughters.

I mean, sometimes my head hurts.

There is, of course, no institution that runs as Balaclava Agricultural College runs, but that’s why you write a series background–to do perfectly what cannot exist perfectly in real life.

One of the things I find interesting about myself–okay, don’t all jump up at once yelling “but we don’t!”–is that I find such a varied group of series backgrounds congenial. 

I could live happily at Balaclava Agricultural College as Charlotte wrote it.  I could live happily in the New York  of Ed McBain and the London of Martha Grimes and the Indian reservations of Tony Hillerman.

So, whatever it is I’m responding to must not be the places themselves, but something about each one that is constant among them.

And I find, this morning, that I have no idea what.

A friend of mine sent me the latest copy I have of Rest You Merry, and I read it as soon as it arrived and then read it again and then picked it up yesterday when though I was going to explode.  So I’m reading it again.

But I’m not reading it for the mystery.

I know how that works out.

By the way, though–it’s a good one.  If you haven’t read this book, you really should.

Written by janeh

March 10th, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Edens, Plural'

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  1. I always liked Charlotte MacLeod’s books. I think I’ve read them all – certainly all I could find, including some of the Alisa Craig ones. She was pretty prolific though, and there might well be a couple I missed. Maybe I should start hunting them.

    Some fictional settings leave out bits, as you pointed out, and are idealized. That’s part of the reason they are so appealing.

    It never occurred to me that you needed anything more than an insecure and aging old man, greedy children, and the inevitable differences among the children to get King Lear. Why on earth would she think you needed sexual abuse to explain vicious family feuds?


    10 Mar 11 at 12:42 pm

  2. Very partial to Balaclava myself–and it needn’t be a fictional as it is. But yes, there are a lot of places I like to visit fictionally–Balaclava, Vorbar Sultana, Jekkara New Town, Rivendell, the Wizards’ Tor in the Sykerst–even a few individual buildings, like the Wolfe brownstone, the Donovan compound in Seattle, the Wolfe Creek In from McCrumb’s ZOMBIES OF THE GENE POOL and the cafeteria in Simak’s GOBLIN RESERVATION. (Hmmm. Is Todos Santos a city or a building? Whatever.)Holmes’ London for me, thank you–not Grimes. Also “Below” from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and, of course, Babylon 5.
    And I don’t know what it is. The storytelling has to be good, but detail won’t do it. I could draw you maps of Lankhmar and Ankh-Morpork, but they don’t make the list. Some of the ones on the list are only sketched in. And they aren’t all places where I’d be welcome. Maybe they’re all places I’d like to be welcome. At least I’ll be off the the Lancaster Host Resort in the morning, and it’s as close as I can get to Rivendell.

    The KING LEAR bit? Really good criticism gives you insight into a work of art. Sadly, most literary criticism just gives you insight into the critic–often something you didn’t want.

    Incidentally, re: Michigan–that’s normal. Pretty well all the states with land grant colleges set up “Euphoria Agricultural College”–or “Agricultural and Mechanical” if they were hopeful of industry–and “Euphoria State Teacher’s College” always in different towns. But the area just outside Kansas State is still “Aggieville.” Even the non-land grants came to see the wisdom: hence Virginia University and Virginia Tech. (And notice EVERYONE figured out they couldn’t play nicely together.)


    10 Mar 11 at 5:02 pm

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