Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review of "The Killer Wore Leather" by Laura Antoniou

The Killer Wore Leather is the kind of book that makes my job so much more difficult. A critic wants something to criticize, after all. But here, alas, I cannot find a nit to pick, and with no glaringly obvious flaws to target, three quarters of my juiciest potential vocabulary goes begging; that vast, delightful repertory of tin-god invective, hoity-toity hyperbole, bald-faced condescension and snot-nosed snark that makes a reviewer’s life worth living. I can’t use any of it! At this rate my vitriol’s going to dry up and spoil on the shelf.

Oh, come to think of it, I do have one eentsy complaint about The Killer Wore Leather; it ends. (Sincerest apologies for the spoiler.) The book’s 402 pages (or their electronic equivalent) breeze by with such engaging alacrity, that I found myself in the mild throes of literary postpartum let-down when it was over—surest symptom of an enjoyable read if there ever was one. To be sure, I could have lingered quite happily in Antoniou’s world for another thousand pages—easy!—danced all night and still have stayed for more. The ending itself is perfectly satisfying given what comes before; a murder is committed, investigated and solved just as in countless other genre outings, but the proceedings here are described with so much panache, observed so astutely, with such sympathetic realism and detail, good humor, and—dare one say it?—love, that we’re left wanting more of these subtly-drawn characters and their intriguing interactions.

The Killer Wore Leather coopts the staid convention of the cozy mystery, and turns it on its head, not merely updating the genre to the age of Twitter and Facebook, but brilliantly transmogrifying it to the realm of contemporary cosplay and kink. Of course, masked balls and costume parties have been a traditional mainstay of cozy mystery for more than a century, though seldom fielding the kind of huge, diverse, colorful ensemble-cast Antoniou directs with such seeming effortlessness here. (The only thing coming close in recent decades might be Margaret Frazer’s 1987 who-done-it, Murder at the War (published by St. Martin’s under the pseudonym Mary Monica Pulver), which features a Cecil B. DeMille-sized cast in medieval garb at the Society for Creative Anachronism’s big real-life annual gathering in Pennsylvania.)  Antoniou sets her story at a weekend confab of leather-lifestyle enthusiasts, some 3,000 costumed kinksters crowded into a downtown New York City hotel for the annual Mr. and Mrs. Global Leather (and Bootblack) competition. When a previous title-holder is found dead in his suite, there’s more than enough motive to go around—everybody, it seems, hated the guy—and more suspicious black leather accessories taken into evidence than forensics can possibly analyze before the conventioneers, including potential suspects, head for home on Monday. So, there’s a race against time, bringing its own built-in element of suspense; thousands of possible disguises with a would-be red herring in leather, latex, rubber or fur behind each one, and the bewildering vagaries of personal and organizational politics, virtually impenetrable to an outsider. It’s an absolutely ingenious premise for a police procedural, and Antoniou follows through on this set-up with dazzling deftness, never missing a beat or a nuance, never once letting the reader down.   

Anybody who’s ever dabbled in cosplay or been involved in one of those broad, ever-evolving shared-special-interest groups, clubs or organizations, will immediately recognize some of these characters; the long-suffering event organizer, trying to put on a good show along with a pleasant face for every needy, self-centered whiner no matter how trivial their demands; the bossy, slightly overweight, non-fool-suffering, hyper-efficient head-volunteer who dreams, in her rare off moments, of being dominated by just the right guy; the clueless PC do-gooder, always advocating for some new imagined minority, whether they want her to or not; the dignified and deeply-respected grand dame who becomes a major bitch behind closed doors; the catty, perpetually bemused “I’m so above all this” intellectual-snob-cum-petty-minded sniper; the ever-petulant “I could do a better job than him or her” malcontents; the lost souls and broken outsiders with no other place to hang out; the quietly perceptive, if often invisible, volunteers (in this case. a pair of ultra-hip gender-bending Dromeos, the gofers Boy Jack and Boi Jack), with continually streaming color commentary on whatever’s going on; the mostly nameless, faceless servants and service people, who see everything and only need to be asked to reveal the most mind-blowing of secrets. Antoniou has their numbers and writes them all to a tee; the cadres and cliques; us-versus-them staid traditionalists versus boat-rocking upstart newcomers; snobs and slobs; pompous roll-playing blowhards a bit too into their personae for their own good, or anyone else’s; the junior-league Machiavelli wannabes, and all the shifting alliances, resentments, personal vendettas and concomitant motives, means and opportunities for murder that make an extraordinary mystery into a compelling, irresistible page-turner.

Lots of writers have a good eye for character and a sound ear for dialog; but Antoniou has a way of capturing the subtle nuances of ordinary human behavior without calling undue attention to herself or her process, clearly understanding Heisenberg’s principal that the very act of observation changes the thing being observed. This is what an effective homicide detective, like Antoniou’s Laura Feldblum, must understand as well; a question, posed too soon, too late, or left unasked altogether, may irrevocably alter the dynamic of an entire investigation. Journalists are often excused their carelessness:

DOM, SUB, SLAVE, PUPPY, SWITCH, ALPHA, PRIMARY, BOY or boi, master, mistress or sir and ma’am, top and bottom, 24/7, twink, tourist, Zodian, polyamorous, lifestyler, leather, latex, gear, cyberpunk, steampunk, uniform, vampire, furry . . .

Nancy Nichols hadn’t had such an extensive vocabulary list since the fourth grade. Arriving bright and early to discover the fallout from the meet and greet debacle, she was armed with a scene guide she’d discovered online, scrolling through the wonderful cheat sheet on her smart phone. She hadn’t bothered to do much research on the leather community before—who had the time for real work on a turkey-ass story like this one? But now that it seemed full of filler pieces she could spread out long past the actual event, it was worth it to get a grip on the lingo. She already had outlines for three lifestyle pieces, and the bones of her big story on the event itself.

Nancy also had joined Kinkynet; she’d picked the screen name TELLMEKINKYSTORIES after she found out there were no less than eighty MISTRESSNANCY and LADYNANCY accounts already registered. The chat boards there had been full of outraged and delighted recounts of the Mack Steel outburst, many seeming to be from people who were not actually present.


Including the journalist as well as the detectives in the cast allows the reader to explore ideas, at once essential to the plot, but potentially overwhelming to the uninitiated. It would have been all-too-easy for the author to turn a story like this into an apologia for Kink, a piece of propaganda posing as documentary or some sort of rambling encyclopedic data-dump. True, many of the characters here are willing and eager to talk about their lifestyle and cast it in the most positive of possible lights; but Antoniou skillfully avoids the too-common pitfall of preachy-ness. She does not patronize the outsider or shame him for merely asking an innocent question. Nor do the characters shy away from criticism or complaint. (In other words, they talk and act, live, love, hate, enthuse and effuse, bitch and moan exactly like real people.) Antoniou clearly loves some of these characters; certainly respects many of them, enough to make even a few of the minor players more than mere stage dressing:

“Would the honored free woman like to know why this slave lives this way?” she said lightly. When the folds had been arranged to her liking, she crossed her legs and said, “Because this one is happy to explain.”
“Yeah, cool, let her explain,” Blade said, nodding.
Jazz shrugged, and phyl’ta bowed her head for a moment. When she looked back up, the aspect of simple, smiling passivity was gone from her face.

“I’ll tell you why I do it,” she said, no longer keeping her voice in the upper registers. Several eyes widened at the change in her tone and style of speaking. “And you know what? I don’t care if that old . . . lesbian wrote it for a joke or protest or whatever. Because I’m not doing it for her, and I’m not doing it for any of you, and I sure am not doing it ‘cause I think it’s some mystical, magical truth.”

“Whoa,” Kelly exclaimed. “Okay?”
“Look, I grew up in L.A.,” phyl’ta said, “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be short and fat in the land of tall and skinny? To burn like a potato chip in the shade when everyone else is tan? To be told over and over my whole life how ugly I am and how sad it must be to be me?”
“You’re not ugly!” Kevin McDonald said.
“Maybe not to you—and not in the BDSM scene! I didn’t feel pretty until the first time I got all dressed up in a fancy corset and stockings because my first master bought them for me.” She sniffed a little. “I mean, not that he was much of a master, but I liked him and he thought I was hot because I was a damn sexy submissive; I love getting beaten and caned and tied up and used really hard! He loved me because I was hot to him, all of me, and he didn’t even have to say things, like I was sexy despite being fat, like some guys do.”

Angelina nodded. “Yeah, well, the scene is more welcoming to lots of body types.”
“So fine, I could get laid, I could get played with. But I’m an old-fashioned girl! I like the idea of being a stay-at-home mom. I want a man who thinks he’s my champion and my hero, who wants to take care of me. I want a man who responds to me when I want him, and someone who I can read, too.

“And you know what? My man likes the Zod books. Big fucking deal! He could like Star Trek or football or some stupid game online, but he likes Zod stuff. And when I talk this way and dress like this and say certain things and kneel a certain way, guess what? He goes crazy wanting me! He thinks I’m the hottest thing walking! It makes him happy and proud, and it makes him feel like he’s a stud, too.” She grinned suddenly, “Know why I do this? Because last night while the rest of the Zodians were getting all upset in the dungeons, we were back in our room getting it on. Because last night, I came six times! Six! Because he thinks it’s his duty as a Zodian master to make me ‘weak in the love furs,’ and so he figures that means getting me off so much I have to beg him to stop.

“So, if getting that from Phil means dressing up like this once in a while, and doing a hoochie-coochie dance, and talking like I’m retarded, guess what? That sure isn’t much different from wearing high heels and miniskirts and a ton of makeup, and pretending to care who wins the Super Bowl or the World Series, and millions of women do that. And because I go along with it, and let me be clear, I am perfectly happy to, Phil will be happy when I get pregnant and quite my job and we settle down together the way I always wanted. Because he’s not just my boyfriend, he’s my fiancĂ©. So, yeah, that’s why I do it. The lifestyle I want, the man I love, and a ton of screaming, sweaty, panting, Oh-my-God-it-hurts-so-good orgasms.”

Laura Antoniou’s The Killer Wore Leather is enthusiastically—ardently!—recommended. This review has only scratched the barest surface of all the things that make it one of the most memorable and enjoyable reading experiences of the year. A book to be read, re-read and read again with ever-increasing pleasure. (And, as of this writing it’s understood a sequel may be in the works, too. I, for one, can hardly wait, even if it does end up making my job that much more difficult!)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Notes from The Erotic Writer's Thesaurus, and more

I’ve been concentrating on my own fiction lately, working to complete a new collection of short stories and an additional long-ish stand-alone story (Summer of ’69) with an eye towards publication sometime this fall. Of course, this doesn't mean I've gone cold turkey on reading other people's books or making notes for future reviews. We'll be looking at some exceptionally fine, exciting titles over the next several months here on EFTBB; see below (*) for a list of upcoming notices.

My lastest title, Mr.Friday’s Midlife Crisis was published in November of 2012, and something had been bugging me about it for a while. There were some issues with “head-hopping” in a few of the scenes. I was aware, however vaguely, that this was a flaw in the story, but wasn’t convinced it was a fatal flaw, nor was I quite sure of how to go about fixing it without radically reworking the whole thing. And yet, though I had more or less resolved to forget about it and move on, the question continued to gnaw at me. Then I came across this piece by Remittance Girl, one of the most intelligent, astute, and incisive writers and critics on the contemporary erotica scene. Needless to say, after hanging my head for a seemly period of contrition, I’ve made some changes to the story, and the revised version is available now. I suppose the “moral” of this tale is, ‘always get somebody to beta read for you.’ As RG points out in her article, “head-hopping” is something most writers simply do not notice in their own work. Having a second pair of eyes on a manuscript can potentially save scads of time and trouble, not to mention an eternity of abject embarrassment.  


When it comes to issues of usage and style, I have some seriously gnarly pet peeves; probably enough to start a peeve-petting zoo, or, at least, a peevish-flea circus. For instance, I absolutely hate the word “breakfasted”; so insufferably twee, so pinkies-out namby-pamby. Yuck! I’d prefer “they ate breakfast,” “they broke their fast” or even (albeit holding my nose) “they partook of a fine breakfast”. I despise phrases that include the words “. . . like nothing she had ever known before . . .” or “. . . more intense than anything he had ever experienced.” But hey! That’s just me.

There are lots of usage questions specific to erotica, and it’s highly unlikely one will find the answers to them in Fowler’s Modern English Usage or The Chicago Manual of Style—handy and great as those references are. I love dipping into Fowler from time to time, if for no other reason than to be entertained by the editor’s wonderful, inimitably pugnacious pronouncements on the practice of good English. (Granted, I have yet to internalize the wise old curmudgeon’s notion that “the essence of good English lies in the use of short words.”) But Fowler's not much help when it comes to, say, knowing the difference between areola and aureole, or understanding the distinction between come and cum.  One of the things I hope will make my Erotic Writer’s Thesaurus a more valuable resource to the community is the inclusion of notes on many of these erotica-specific usage issues.

In its current form, The Erotic Writer’s Thesaurus (see its page for today’s major update) has a few drawbacks. Among other things, it’s difficult—especially when attempting to do regular updates—to include clickable internal navigation on the website.  Eventually, I hope to make this reference available as a very-reasonably priced e-book with searchability and full internal navigation. If I can figure out how to make the e-book updatable, I will. (Informed advice on this is welcome.) The usage notes will probably be organized into their own section, separate from the synonym lists. The notes do represent my own opinions. I recognize that reasonable people may disagree, though I hope we can all remain agreeable in the process. Questions, comments or suggestions for addenda are always appreciated and invited.

Here are a few of the notes from the newly updated version:

AREOLA versus AUREOLE. Areola (pl. AREOLAE or AREOLAS) is the clinical term for the dark ring of flesh surrounding the nipple. Aureole, meaning “halo” or “radiance” (as in “aura”) can be employed as an artsy synonym for areola, but the two words should not be confused when one endeavors to write prose.

ASS. There is probably no other word in erotic fiction so often employed out of context or with such careless imprecision. ASS may refer either to (1) the buttocks or Gluteus Maximus, or (2) the ANUS (c.f.). The distinction is important insofar as readers need to have a clear picture of what’s going on in a scene (e.g. She took off her panties so I could admire her tight little ass. I assailed her quivering ass. I rubbed my cock up against her sweet, needy ass). Aside from the obvious, that these are examples of dismally unimaginative writing, can the reader say for sure what specific body parts are being referenced? Writers should also take care to use the word in proper historical and cultural context. While it is ubiquitous in contemporary usage (indeed, many people have grown up knowing no other word), such was not always the case. The word may sound perfectly apt on the lips of a Combat Zone hooker or even an adventurous married couple in the private throes of passion; but probably wouldn’t be quite so believable in the mouth of a Victorian noblewoman. Earlier generations wore their reticence like an extra layer of clothing, priding themselves on propriety and a certain stilted elegance in speech. Our day and age may be a tad more relaxed (or possibly a good deal less imaginative) when it comes to vocabulary, but good writers are always sensitive to issues of context and precision.

ATTRACTIVE people are not necessarily BEAUTIFUL (c.f.) or HANDSOME (c.f.), though these adjectives are commonly regarded as interchangeable.

BLUE BALLS describes both a physical and a psychological condition; that painful soreness in the once-expectant scrotum comes with a sobering sense of unfulfillment and frustration.

BOSOM and BREASTS are not exactly the same thing, though the words are so frequently confused nowadays (even by some supposedly reliable authorities) that it seems futile to point out the distinction. The BOSOM or BREAST (singular) is the general area of the upper chest taken in as a whole, which includes the pectoral muscles as well as the breasts and the cleavage between them. BREASTS (plural) refer specifically to the mammary glands, and are a constituent part of the BOSOM. A woman may be described as “full-bosomed” or “bosomy”, meaning “full-breasted” or “large-breasted” but the general distinction remains; BOSOM is the whole package, BREASTS a distinct feature within that package. And while one may choose to say “bosom” to mean “breasts”, “bosoms” (plural) is NOT a proper synonym for “breasts” though it has become fairly common in informal usage or as slang.

COME versus CUM. A simple rule of thumb for usage in erotic writing; COME is most commonly employed as a verb (e.g. I’m coming! or He came on her breasts.)  CUM is always a noun, referring most commonly to the product of male ejaculation (e.g. He shot his hot cum all over her face.) but also, occasionally the fluid product of female arousal. COME may sometimes be used as a noun, but it is best to maintain the distinction, and, whatever one choses to do, always be consistent.

EROTICA versus PORNOGRAPHY (c.f.). The words have been used interchangeably, their meanings conflated by so many for so long; the difference (or complete lack of any) debated so hotly without resolution or consensus, that it seems pointless, now, to make a case for differentiation. Puritans and prudes will always see smut wherever flesh is referenced, no matter how obliquely, while many of a more open-minded, sex-positive bent see no real value in a distinction. It does seem to matter a great deal to writers and publishers, though, whether due to peevish literary snobbery or mundane marketing concerns. For the purposes of this reference—focused as it is on the needs of serious authors—the words are regarded as possessing two similar but discrete meanings. PORNOGRAPHY deals with objects, focusing almost exclusively on the purely visible (i.e. graphic) physical aspects of the sex act. It eschews story, plot, conflict and character development in favor of vignettes featuring pure action, almost never reflected upon or analyzed in any serious or introspective way. EROTICA deals with subjects—characters—and while it may include a great deal of explicit physical description; it also concerns itself with the feelings and emotions of its actors, usually in a recognizable, coherent literary form. (No value judgment is implied in this distinction.)

FEMININE and MASCULINE (c.f.). Given that these words come with their own noxious freight-load of obsolete values and discredited patriarchal assumptions concerning gender characteristics, writers should proceed with some caution. Surely no one having seen an episode of Xena, Warrior Princess or Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be so foolish as to consider words like “docile”, “soft” or “weak” as universally appropriate (or even remotely accurate) substitutes for FEMININE. Nor, in this day and age, does MASCULINE exclusively (or even necessarily) convey concepts such as “bravery”, “nobility” or “strength”. However, in the name of thoroughness, a separate subheading has been added to include a list of these antiquated synonyms.

GIRL. A mature, sensitive and discerning man (or woman) well knows and appreciates the difference between a GIRL and a WOMAN (c.f.). Yet, in the most rigidly politically correct situations, referring to a female of any age as a GIRL is considered insulting and chauvinistic. Unfortunately, there seems to be no clear rule about when it is or isn’t acceptable to employ this term for “young female”. Some young females insist on being spoken of only as WOMEN (c.f.), while lots of reasonably liberated and mature women have no problem being referred to—or referring to themselves—as girls. As always, when writing good fiction, let the characters speak honestly and for themselves.

GLAMOR versus GLIMMER. Both words may be used to describe magical spells in which persons or things are enchanted in order to be perceived as something other than or different from themselves. (e.g. The ugly witch glamored the knight, who thereafter saw her only as a beautiful maiden.) GLAMOR, in its contemporary sense of artful allure or luxurious attractiveness, is no longer interchangeable with (and only obliquely related to) GLIMMER, which can be employed to describe something shiny or highly reflective.

HOT. Possibly the single-most overused word in all erotic writing; and certainly one of the most misused. Employ sparingly, and with acute awareness of the word’s two discrete functions. HOT (1.) meaning beautiful or extremely attractive, is an adjective with dozens of synonyms, and is easily avoided. HOT (2.) describes the state of being aroused (possibly by observing somebody who qualifies as hot?) again, with many readily available substitutes.

KINKY. Almost all synonyms for KINKY are atavistically pejorative or derogatory. Never mind that many kinky things, once ignorantly regarded as symptomatic of mental illness or sociopathic tendencies, have now begun to emerge, if not into the mainstream, at least into a greater light of understanding. The word, having thus lost most of its transgressive potency, is synonymous with nothing so much as “a willingness to seem different”. Someone into a KINKY LIFESTYLE (c.f.) is no longer reflexively condemned as a pervert; but, more often, hailed as a NONCONFORMIST (c.f.)

LAY versus LIE: Very often confused, especially in their various tenses, these two verbs continue to bedevil many an aspiring writer. Simple rule of thumb: To lay is to put a thing down (e.g. He laid the girl on the bed). To lie is to rest horizontally or to recline. (e.g. She was lying on her back).

PANTIES. Those writers of erotic historical fiction should be aware that the word did not come into the English language until 1908, (MWC 11 ed.) and was not in common usage before the 1920s. The British equivalent, KNICKERS did not appear until the very late nineteenth or early twentieth century (the term may or may not be related to the American “knickerbockers” (1881), a type of gathered short pants.) (MWC)  Nothing is more annoying than blatant anachronism in an otherwise well-written historical narrative.

PRURIENT is regularly employed as a catchall to describe any sort of illicit sexual feeling or state. In fact, PRURIENT has a much narrower meaning; a prurient thing is that which inspires or arouses “immoderate or unwholesome interest or desire.” (c.f. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (2008) (MWC))

SENSUAL versus SENSUOUS: a simple rule of thumb for remembering the difference between these two very similar, albeit subtly distinct, adjectives; what is sensual is often sexual; what is sensuous is occasionally sumptuous or luxurious. In real-world usage, much to the horror of the pedants, the words have become virtually interchangeable, and in their secondary definitions at least, synonymous.  Still, best not to use both in too close proximity.

VANILLA. Originating as jargon in psychological and sexological studies, meant to differentiate kinky sex (i.e. BDSM (c.f.), fetishism, SWINGING (c.f.)) from more socially conventional activities, VANILLA has become a popular put-down, akin to labeling someone a PRUDE (c.f.) or a square. Lately, and, it seems, with increasing frequency and vehemence, the word has been bandied about as a term of derision for those engaging in (or writing about) less-edgy behaviors, particularly non-kinky m/f activities. As is so often the case with rampant bandying, the term has been employed carelessly, and, on occasion, cruelly. It is not, in fact, a synonym for HETEROSEXUAL (c.f.) (based on an antiquated assumption that gay sex was uniquely transgressive, somehow more adventurous or “out there” than straight coupling). There are many gay and lesbian married couples engaging in perfectly satisfying vanilla sex every day of the year, and hundreds of millions of straight people who aren’t into BDSM, LEATHER (c.f.), FETISH (c.f.) or cosplay, nonetheless managing to enjoy exciting, self-fulfilling sex on a regular basis. A sexual practice that may be perceived as boring and conventional by outsiders is often more than adequately exciting to the people engaged in it. (Not everyone can afford to be choosey after all!) As far as usage is concerned, the term applies to those who tend not to show off or flaunt their sexuality; don’t “get their freak on” or engage in kink-related activities for whatever reason—regardless of orientation. Writers and critics should (we hope) employ this term sparingly, with some sensitivity and greater compassion. Bigotry is bigotry, regardless of where it comes from.

(*) SOME UPCOMING REVIEWS (all titles are recommended):

TheKiller Wore Leather by Laura Antoniou

Extraordinary Deviations (short story collection) by Raven Kaldera