One of my favorite ideas about writing actually comes from Ansel Adams, one of the great photographers of the twentieth century. Famous for his breathtaking shots of majestic national parks, he was remarkably straightforward about his process. “A good photograph is knowing where to stand,” he said. It’s a concept that applies just as well to writing fiction.
There is nothing I love more than getting inside a character’s head while I write. Figuring out which narrative perspective to use to tell the story is the author’s way of finding where to stand. It’s how you ground yourself in the book. If you’re not on solid ground, it’s all too easy for the thread of the narrative to slip out of control.
My first three novels are told in the first person from the point of view of one character, which made sense because those books were as much about her evolution as they were about the plots. But my latest novel, Blood Always Tells, is a completely different case. I knew from the start it was a much more complicated story, and there was no way to tell it from one character’s point of view. Instead, the book allowed me to get inside the head of three characters: Dominique Monaghan, a former model looking for revenge on her cheating lover; Desmond Edgars, an ex-military man determined to come to his sister’s rescue; and a third character (whom I’ll leave nameless to prevent spoilers), who is one of the villains of the story. Why these three characters? In their respective sections of the book, they’re the people with the most to gain and the most to lose.
Dominique, at the start of the book, is hell-bent on vengeance, so much so that she’s willing to spike her errant lover’s drink to get him into serious trouble. She’s aware what she’s doing is wrong, and she hears her late grandmother’s voice, over and over, chiding her for her actions. When her plan goes horribly wrong, she’s both stunned and guilty. She knew it was a terrible idea from the start, but she went ahead with it anyway. Later, she’s given an awful choice to make: she can go free if she sacrifices another person. The decision she makes sets in motion a series of events with far-ranging consequences.
Desmond is trying his best to best to be an upstanding citizen: he’s retired from the Army after twenty years of service, and he’s got his hands full with his day job as a pilot and the volunteer work he’s committed to. But a call from his sister, Dominique, in desperate need of help, pulls him off that path. As a kid, Desmond wasn’t such a straight arrow, and his rusty skills for picking locks and breaking into places start to come in handy as he searches for the truth about his sister. He’s acutely aware of doing wrong, but he believes his ends justify his means. The irony is that his attitude is mirrored by the criminal in the third act of the book, whose many awful actions are motivated by a desperate desire to protect another person.
All of my characters are flawed in some way. I don’t like perfect people on the page; they always seem like caricatures rather than characters. What’s tricky for me is that my villains are motivated by the same impulses that drive my protagonists. In that way, they’re like a shadow side of my “good” characters. I like to push my characters to see how far they’ll go to get what they want or need. There’s a powerful tension in watching a character who’s good at heart cross a moral line they know they shouldn’t. How far over can they go before they lose their moral compass?
For my protagonists, doing what’s right is a struggle between head and heart. They experience the same dark impulses that the antagonists do, but they fight them. The villains, on the other hand, might well experience guilt over their actions. It’s not that they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. It’s that there’s no end to the cruelty they’re capable of to achieve their ends.
Hilary Davidson will join us to talk about & sign her latest book, Blood Always Tells, tonight, Thursday 4/24 at 7PM. Visit bookpeople.com for more information.
~post by Molly
We’re proud to have Christopher Irvin‘s novella, Federales, on our shelves. It’s a tight, violent, hard-boiled story that looks at the Mexican drug wars. I caught up with the author to ask him a few questions.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: The moral center of your story, Eva, is consistently portrayed as an enigma, seen through the eyes of the much more problematic detective Marcos. Did you decide to distance the readers from Eva because her actions are so moral as to be difficult to identify with?
CHRISTOPHER IRVIN: Yes, that is part of it for sure. Eva demonstrates an almost mythical level of perseverance and sacrifice that I think would be difficult to grasp/believe from her perspective without a long narrative. I tried to walk a fine line on Eva being a very strong character, but not irrational or unlikeable. Readers get to view and perhaps come to understand Eva through Marcos’s skewed vision.
I think this helps ground her character, especially since the book is a novella, with limited time to develop Eva and her struggle. I also really like to use a close third person point of view, and while Federales is both of Eva and Marcos’s story, I thought Marcos was the best window (albeit clouded) to tell it through.
MP: The story’s inspiration comes from the real life murder of anti-cartel campaigner Maria Santos Gorrostieta, yet the story focuses more on the relationship between her, her daughter, and her protector. Was this mainly so as to set the story within the detective novel conventions? What inspired some of the major differences between the story and its inspiration?
CI: It’s interesting that you bring up detective novel conventions, as the book definitely has some, though it’s not consciously what I set out to do. My aim was to tell a character-driven story to get at the heart of the struggle in Mexico, and on a low enough level that it feels real. Marcos came to mind when I first read about Gorrorstieta (more on that below) and I think he drove the major differences between the story and its inspiration. I didn’t want to recount Gorrostieta’s life, though Eva does take on much of her past.
I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say that from the beginning the reader has a good idea of where the story is headed and what the fates of Eva and Marcos might be, so I think the relationships between the two and Eva’s daughter were more important than ever to drive the story. If the reader knows what’s coming, how can you make them stick with it and hopefully) surprise them a little? In hindsight, that question drove a lot of my thinking and edits.
MP: How did you come upon Gorrostieta’s story, and what in this story made you want to turn it into a novel?
CI: I make a point to read about Mexico in the news. It’s a fascinating country and the level of violence that exists is as baffling as it is unsettling. That said, I actually stumbled upon Gorrostieta’s story on report of her murder. Gorrostieta’s crusade against the cartels is both inspiring and terribly tragic. While searching for more detail, I found it difficult to learn about her life aside from the summaries reported at the time of her death. As I mentioned earlier, around this time bits of Marcos began forming in my head, and once the two came together I just felt like it was a story that I had to write.
MP: As a follow-up, what do you hope for people to take home with them, from such a timely novel?
CI: I hope readers take away a glimmer of the toll of corruption and violence on Mexico. Federales is a work of fiction, but you can find the essence of the book in the news almost every day. Here in the United States, the Southern border and immigration issues dominate the headlines, keeping our neighbor and her people mostly out of sight, out of mind. I think it can do good to put a face on the struggle.
MP: I was so intrigued by the ending. I have to ask, it seemed to me that most of the novella is a particular narrative about a policeman protecting a politician and her daughter. At the end, however, the story gets much more symbolic and filled with dramatic irony.
Did you set out with the intent of telling a particular story and then get a bit more literary as you went on or was your initial intention to have the main characters as stand-ins for the larger historical drama?
CI: A bit of both (if I can shoot for the middle.) I think the novella is very much a tale of two halves, with the latter half organically growing a bit more literary because of where the book turned. I did intend for the characters to represent some of the larger picture, and I’m happy if some of the readers–yourself included–came away with that. The larger context came about after a decision to challenge myself to add more layers to the book. My first idea (read: never go with your first idea) was more of a straight revenge tale, but it was boring and felt done to death. Elements of the first idea made it into the final book, but they ended up being very different works.
I think most importantly, the ending felt honest and true to me – the only place for the story to go. I’m proud of how that turned out, and I think readers are picking up on it.
MP: Since that last question was a bit long, I’ll just finish up with a short one – what’s next?
CI: Thanks for asking! I’m working toward completing a novel (very different from Federales) and I’ve outlined a spiritual sequel to Federales, tentatively titled “La Milicia,” centering on the militias in western Mexico. I’m also working on Expatriate, a comic series with artist Ricardo Lopez Ortiz (should have more to share on that soon, here.)
As for stuff on the horizon, I’ll have a short story in the latest issue of Needle: A Magazine of Noir, which drops on April 15th, and a short story in Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the songs of Bruce Springsteen, edited by Joe Clifford.
Federales is available on our shelves now and online via bookpeople.com.
Billy Kring is a former Texas Border Patrol Agent and consultant for law enforcement agencies around the world. He is also a friend and regular BookPeople customer, so we we’re excited to carry his debut, Quick, a novel about a brutal criminal that draws a Texas Border Agent, Hunter Kincaid, two Florida cops, John Quick and Randall Ishtee, together in taking him down. We talked to Billy about the the book and the personal background that informed it.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the idea for Quick come about?
BILLY KRING: I wanted to write a story that would allow me to use my work experiences in South Florida, West Texas, and Mexico by weaving the tale through those environments. Many people don’t realize there is a Border Patrol presence in Florida, so I thought that would be something new for readers to discover, too. I also wanted to write a story that was hard to put down, and by forcing the story to keep moving from place to place, I felt I could keep the action and suspense high.
MP: Hunter Kincaid works for the Border Patrol, like you used to. What did you want to convey about your former job?
BK: I hoped to make the reader feel like they were in an Agent’s footsteps, and experiencing how isolated many of the locations are; how much physical effort it often takes for Agents to perform their duties. There are places where there is no help within miles if trouble occurs, and these places have dead areas where no communication is possible, so you’re pretty much on your own if it comes down to it. Working alone, forty miles from the next closest Agent, and on a trail of smugglers…it’s not dull, let me put it that way.
MP: One of the things I liked about Quick was that there was little of that cliche friction between Hunter and the Florida cops. In your experience, do most law enforcement agencies want to work together?
BK: Agencies get along, that’s been my experience. There are exceptions, but on the whole, most law enforcement people I’ve dealt with, especially at the street level, know the old adage of strength in numbers. The other plus of working together is that an expanded range of enforcement laws comes into play. Combining state laws with federal laws makes a much wider net to arrest a criminal. Most multi-agency task forces are put together with this in mind, and they work very well. It also builds a communications network for law enforcement at the street level that bypasses a lot of formal red tape and power plays from higher up the chain. It doesn’t have to always be “through official channels” to get things done. And the network seems to hold up for years and many friendships develop that way.
MP: The book is quite brutal in places. What made you decide to go that far?
BK: They came from crime scenes I witnessed while working as a consultant in Mexico. I had seen dead people and murder scenes while in the line of duty, and I thought I was hardened, but these particular ones rocked me. I felt it was necessary in Quick to show how even a hardened law enforcement officer like John Quick could be shaken to the core, and how that could affect his actions and mental state afterward.
MP: Conan is a particularly scary villain. Is he drawn from anyone you encountered in your work?
BK: Not that I personally encountered. Cop stories of legendary bad guys make the rounds through all agencies, and Conan is partially based on a few of those, plus my imagination. And bad dreams or some bad moonshine, I’m not sure which.
MP: This being your first book, did you draw from any influences?
BK: You bet. All the authors you’ve recommended to me when I come into BookPeople! That is a true fact. Also script writers like John Milius and Sam Peckinpah. A few of the authors are: Don Winslow, Elmore Leonard, Craig Johnson, Thomas Harris, James Carlos Blake, Megan Abbott, Peter Farris, Frank Bill, James Lee Burke, Jonathan Woods, Benjamin Whitmire, Robert Crais, and a ton of others.
Quick is available on our shelves now and online via bookpeople.com.
Look Out For: Hop Alley by Scott Phillips
On Our Shelves 5/13/14
Scott Phillips is one of the best authors currently working. One of his best books the Western noir Cottonwood. There is a point in Cottonwood where the photographer, saloon keeper, philanderer and criminal protagonist, Bill Ogden, mentions time in he spent in Denver prior to the novel, which has him wind up in San Francisco. Denver holds a bloody history for Ogden, and you’re left with a lot of questions. In comes the short novel Hop Alley where Phillips answers those questions and shows us what exactly happened to Ogden’s during those lost years in Denver.
Odgen is scraping by under an assumed name because of the events in Cottonwood. He has a photography studio and is having an affair with a laudanum-addicted dance hall girl named Priscilla. When the father of one of his employees is murdered, it is pinned on two men from the city’s Chinatown section. Things start to spiral out of control from here. With the city about to riot and Priscilla’s constant manipulations, Bill’s personal life and the tumultuous air in Denver come crashing into one another.
Phillips weaves historical fact, satire, and a fresh spin on noir tropes into a book just as unique as Cottonwood, that serves well as either a standalone or companion piece to the original book. It is a fun visit from one of the most complex anti-heroes in Phillips’s rogues gallery. You can get reacquainted with Bill on May 13th, when Hop Alley officially hits shelves.
Hop Alley is now available for pre-order via bookpeople.com.
~post by Chris M
Three years ago I had never heard of Jo Nesbø. I was still relatively new to crime fiction and had only really covered the essentials: Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, etc… I remember the day I cracked open my copy of The Redbreast, which was the earliest Inspector Harry Hole novel available in America at the time. I was sitting in a coffee shop on South 1st here in Austin, TX. I distinctly remember taking a sip of my coffee and burning my mouth. So I read a few pages, or so I thought, reached over and took another sip of coffee and it had gone cold. I looked at the corner of the page and quickly realized that those few pages I read were actually the first hundred.
I was enthralled. I finished The Redbreast in two days. Within a month I’d read four Harry Hole novels. By the end of that year I’d read every Nesbø novel I could get my hands on.
2011 was the year Jo Nesbø became my favorite modern crime writer, and in October of 2013 I got the chance to interview him. I remember having a slight freak out in the minutes before I was supposed to call Jo at his hotel in Vancouver, BC. I was pouring over the questions I’d written in advance, sweating, and chain smoking in a futile attempt to calm my nerves. But when I did finally connect with Mr. Nesbø the strangest thing happened; I forgot all about my pre-written questions, my nervousness faded into the empty space at the back of my mind, and my cigarette burned out without my noticing.
It was a singular experience for me, a guy who rarely gets star struck. I was all geared up to wow my favorite author with intellectual questions about art, and writing, and the deeper meanings buried within his novels, but when the time came to ask those questions I just shot from the hip. And we just talked. We talked about his characters, his writing process, his future plans, and the international success of his novels, but it wasn’t forced. We didn’t follow the typical interview protocol of posing a question, getting a response, and moving on to the next item on the agenda. It was a conversation between two people, one of whom happens to be an international and critically acclaimed writer.
When the conversation ended I quickly scrambled to my computer to plug in my digital recorder to review the interview, only to find that my batteries had died about 20 minutes into our conversation. I was crushed. Here I was, ready to transcribe every word and publish it for all to see, and now I had nothing to show. No proof that my dream-come-true had even occurred. So I present to you faithful reader, a very short version of a great conversation with Jo Nesbø.
CHRIS: Do you think there is any redemption for a Harry Hole, a man who is a career alcoholic and addict?
JO NESBØ: I think so. Harry is a haunted guy. Everything he does is for others. He spends a lot of his time trying to help other people because it is his way of repenting. He’s a police inspector because that’s something he excels at. Where he is more or less in control. Relationships are not the same for him, and he struggles with maintaining control. He has a fear that the people in his life will leave him, and I think that informs a lot of his choices.
CHRIS: In a recent NPR segment, you were interviewed while walking the streets of Oslo. Based on that interview it seems like Oslo is a little brighter than the version you write in your novels. Do you think the city is as dark as you present it, or is Harry just the type of character who requires a darker landscape?
NESBØ: The Oslo in the Harry Hole novels is a version that does and doesn’t exist. Oslo has good and bad areas, like lots of cities, but I sometimes focus on the darker aspects of Oslo. We have drugs and prostitution. You can still find working girls and junkies in Oslo, so it’s got its problems, but as a fiction writer you get to create things, so the Oslo in my books is an exploration of those darker things.
CHRIS: Olso is a city that has a bit of a sordid past in the world of music, specifically the Black Metal movement in the early 1990′s. Do you still see those extreme attitudes in present day Oslo?
NESBØ: Not really so much anymore. I think there are still those who believe in that sort of ideology, but it’s not expressed in extreme ways. For example, my band went to a recording studio to record our record and there were these black metal guys in the studio too, but they were very professional. We play a sort of pop-rock n roll and these guys look like the party guys, but it was us who ended up being the partiers! The metal guys were all very nice and respectful. Totally professional.
CHRIS: There is a rumor floating around that Martin Scorsese is going to be direction the film version of The Snowman. Is this true?
NESBØ: Well he was initially supposed to direct it, but he is so busy that he won’t be able to. He is very interested in the film. He is still going to be involved with it, but not as a director.
So there you have it. A very short version of the epic conversation I had with Jo Nesbø. I would like to thank the good folks over at Random House for giving me this opportunity. If you haven’t read a Nesbø novel, come find me at BookPeople and I will make sure you leave with at least one (but probably more like 10).
Even though Hilary Davidson is one the sweetest people in crime fiction (find out for yourself at her event here Thursday, April 24th, at 6:30 PM), she writes some of the meanest hard boiled short stories out there. We have a sample today for Crime Fiction Friday that was originally published in Rose and Thorn.
Silent Partners by Hilary Davidson
“I hear you’re the best in New York,” said the blonde in the short red dress. “You’re younger than I thought from that picture in the paper. Cuter, too.”
Sam flushed as he stepped around his steel desk. There were two metal chairs in front of it, theoretically for clients, though most people were too ashamed to cross his threshold. The chairs were piled high with files and Sam tackled the shortest stack.
“You can guess why I need to talk to you,” the blonde said, sitting down.
Sam looked her over. She was showing a lot of skin, but he didn’t see any telltale red marks. “You think you got an infestation? Lotta people come to me thinking they got bedbugs, turns out it’s just carpet beetles.”
“No, no infestation. Not yet,” said the blonde.
“Nothing to be embarrassed about. Neighbor could pick ’em up, then they crawl on into your apartment. Little bastards are thin as a credit card.” Sam’s male clients cut to the chase, but women agonized about being unclean. Bedbugs were the new leprosy.
“How do I get bedbugs? Can I buy them?”…
Federales by Christopher Irvin
Reviewed by Molly
Christopher Irvin’s Federales could not be timelier in its subject matter, especially for a book set in Texas. Irvin writes tough, hard prose with a mission – he sets out to bring awareness of the true story of cartel violence against a female mayor campaigning against drug violence, and he does exactly that. If you don’t get the message from the novel itself, the afterword certainly hammers it home; Irwin writes that he hopes his book “brings some attention to the never-ending struggle that is mostly out of sight, out of mind to us here in the United States.”
The plot follows a detective in Mexico City who, after having stayed under the radar of the cartels for most of his career, finds to his dismay that he has come to their attention and must flee the city. He finds new employment protecting a politician and her daughter from threats made by the cartels, and in so doing, finds companionship.
The threats surrounding the politician are very real. Two previous assassination attempts have already left her without a husband and with hideous scars, but she has much more to lose.
Irvin’s writing is tough, and his book is short, so you can expect every sentence to pack a punch. The violence is extreme, as befits a story of the cartels, and some parts of the tale read more like a horror story than a hard-boiled detective novel. Irvin is relentless in his harrowing vision of modern Mexican society and the effect of powerful cartels on ineffective bureaucracy. Read this book in bed with the lights on and you just might remember that Irvin’s vision of reality does not constitute the whole, but merely a very, very disturbing part.
Federales is available on our shelves & online via bookpeople.com.
On April 30th, The Hard Word Book Club leaves our normal American environs for one of the foremost practitioners of Scandinavian Noir. Jo Nesbo has rocked crime fiction readers around the world with his Harry Hole series. We will be reading his first book ever published in the States, The Redbreast.
The Redbreast was the first book to have the hard drinking, depressive yet tenacious cop, Harry Hole, out in his own Oslo stomping ground. Due to his past indiscretions, he’s put on a “light” routine assignment of surveillance of a group of “skin-heads.” The assignment becomes tied to the murders of several WWII vets, leading Harry into a plot that involves his country’s dark past.
Our discussion will start at 7PM on Wednesday, April 3Oth on BookPeople’s third floor. The book is 10% off for those who participate. Our co-host, Chris Mattix, is a die hard Nesbo fan, so there will be much to discuss.