Mainly Murder Press just published playwright David Steven Rappoport’s Husbands and Lap Dogs Breathe Their Last: A Cummings Flynn Wanamaker Mystery. He and I are regulars at the Owen Society for Hermetic and Spiritual Enlightenment, an offshoot of occult theatre troupe Terra Mysterium. Rappoport kindly took the time to answer a few questions about his new book.
Introduce us to Cummings Flynn Wanamaker. What should we know about him?
One of my great lessons in writing came from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The structure of that sitcom placed Mary, a sort of blank slate, at the center of a constellation of eccentrics. Husbands and Lap Dogs Breathe Their Last is similarly conceived, with Cummings, who is the accidental detective, at the center. He’s short, pudgy, brilliant, and has an almost eccentric disregard for the eccentricity of others – a necessity for solving the strange murders that he always seems to stumble across. He was named for E. E. Cummings (because his father, a crossword puzzle savant, likes word play) and Errol Flynn (because his late mother, who was in the roller derby, liked sword play).
The mystery involves a Chicago occult steampunk meet up group, like the monthly Owen Society gatherings that we attend. It would appear that this is not so much a mystery by steampunk gaslight as a mystery involving steampunk culture. What have you observed from the Chicago scene that makes it into the novel?
I live in Chicago not by accident but by intention. Chicago has many social and political problems, but it’s friendly, it has spectacular arts and culture, it’s built on a human scale, it’s relatively liberal, and it’s relatively affordable. Curiously, it appears that Chicago is in the beginning stages of an occult Renaissance, much like London in the late 19th century. The city is presently full of diverse pagans and occultists engaged in many aspects of the great work. The Chicago steampunk scene is a vibrant part of this.
The mystery involves spontaneous combustion and a museum devoted to ephemera. What other kinds of oddities pop up?
All sorts. To name a few, there’s a gay romance novelist who gets his exercise running naked with his horse; his assistant, an Orthodox Jewish Scottish photographer who speaks in an impenetrable combination of English, Yiddish and Scots; and a down-on-his-luck author of Cold War thrillers who once one novels with titles such as Tomorrow, Your Breasts. Poisoned honey and moldy feta cheese are important. The book involves a murder in Chicago and a murder in Maine and how a series of complex clues weaves them together.
As an astrologer, what kind of starry wisdom do you hope to impart through Wanamaker’s adventures?
Cummings states at the end of the book, “we can define what people do but I don’t think we can really understand it. Human behavior just doesn’t make sense. Amoebas behave rationally. People do not.” However, this irrationality has nothing to do with an interest in “the irrational,” such as the occult. I think it has to do with the depth of certainty of our beliefs. Another character notes, “certainty” has resulted in “the Khmer Rouge, Stalinists, the English Civil War, Pamela, the Inquisition, slavery, the conquest of the Americas, the defenestration of Prague, Pilgrim’s Progress, holy wars, Wall Street bankers, Valley of the Dolls, orthodox American psychoanalysts, twelve-tone music, pesticides, every puerile brush stroke of Jacques Louis-David, and any number of ferries whose captains let on too many people and tipped the boats.”
This is the first in a series. Where do you see Wanamaker headed?
I have the next two books in the series drafted, and a third has been outlined. They center on different crimes, but all have the same madcap tone. I think of myself as writing a hybrid of cozy mystery and comedy of manners. The next book should be out next year.
Bonus: I’m sure that you cast an astrological divination for the novel. What did the stars tell you?
Actually, I didn’t. I do use astrology to time events as much as possible, but astrology can’t override the many circumstances with which one has to engage. As a result, for example, I don’t usually wait to begin novels at propitious times.