Seems like dogs are marking their territory (so to speak) on crime fiction as of late. With the popularity of the Chet and Bernie series and Dennis Lehane’s short story Animal Control being turned into the film, The Drop. A few years back Thomas Pluck wrote this pitch black hard boiled for Plots With Guns about the love between a tough guy and his dog. Not for the squeamish.
“I like hard work. It keeps my mind right. A cool day’s best for it.
It’s cool this morning and still dark when I park by Earl’s house. He’s got a place on Frelinghuysen. He’s not on the porch like he usually is, waiting to waddle to my truck in his overalls, with a list of jobs on a scrap of yellow paper. Not today.
I eyeball up and down the street. It’s quiet, barely dawn. I like this hour, have since I was a boy. Feels like it’s just me in the world, and nothing hurts. I climb out, and a lady hurries into her car, fear in her eyes.
I don’t blame her none. I know how I look. Six and a half. Three fifty. And I got a dent in the side of my head like a bruised apple. But I never hurt no woman.
I walk up Earl’s driveway slow. Maybe he’ll come out, tell her I’m good. I slap his front door, her car squeals off. It needs a fan belt. I could fix it. She won’t let me.
‘That you, Denny?’
‘Yeah.’ I put my face by the little hole he looks through.
His locks open, sound like a good break in pool.
Earl’s a head shorter than me. Big belly fills his overalls. Horseshoe of gray hair on his shiny brown head, and a beard to match. I shave everything clean; probation officer said it made me less scary. I been with Earl six months now, moving junk and scrap. Officer Fiore was right…”
On September 24th, the Hard Word Book Club goes overseas and back in time with Martin Limón as he helps us discuss his novel Jade Lady Burning. The book is the first in the series featuring George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, two CID Army cops stationed in Korea during the Seventies. In Jade Lady Burning they are assigned the case of a murdered Korean girl with a G.I. as their prime suspect. They soon discover the soldier isn’t as guilty as he looks and both the US and Korean governments want the murder swept under the rug.
Not only does the book introduce us to Sueño and Bascom, but everything that makes this series great. Limón was stationed in South Korea and always gives an authentic look at Army life overseas. His love of the country’s culture comes though as it clashes with Americans dealing with it. He uses the setting and cases to show how justice gets lost in bureaucracy and politics.
Martin Limón will be joining us, via conference call for our discussion of Jade Lady Burning. The discussion will start at 7PM, Wednesday , September 24th. Copies of Jade Lady Burning are 10% off to those who will attend.
Molly blogs about international crime fiction the third Thursday of each month. Last month, she looked at the Tartan Noir novel Laidlaw, the first of the Laidlaw Investigation Trilogy, by Ian McIlvanney. Since then, the second novel in the trilogy has been released and is now available on our shelves. This month, she features Jean-Patrick Manchette’s classic noir, The Mad and the Bad, recently released by New York Review Books Classics with a new translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith.
I have been a fan of the New York Review of Books and their releases my entire adult life, ever since I figured out that every single one was bound to blow my mind. The Mad and The Bad, by Jean-Patrick Manchette, released in July of this year, is no exception to this rule. Manchette wrote the novel back in 1972, but the themes of the novel, including an in-depth exploration of mental illness, feel incredibly modern. Manchette combines Tarantino-esque ultra-violence with haunting evocations of fairy tales gone horribly askew, as well as a joyful, burn-it-all-down attitude to provincial middle-class culture.
As The Mad and the Bad begins, we first meet Thompson, a highly paid killer for hire with a stomach ulcer; Hartog, a wealthy industrialist with a penchant for surrounding himself with damaged people; Peter, his spoiled orphan nephew and heir to his wealth; and Julie, a recently released asylum inmate with a poor hold on reality and much better grasp of survival. Hartog has hired Julie as Peter’s new nursemaid, and when Peter is kidnapped, Julie takes her duties surprisingly seriously, becoming a more dangerous foil to her adversaries than anyone could have imagined. Their confrontation leads to a chase across France more epic than that of a storied outlaw.
Manchette has created a tenacious and fascinating female protagonist in the character of Julie. Her capacity for violence and self-preservation serves as a reminder that noir has long had authors interested, willing, and able to write heroines not particularly interested in romance and quite capable of protecting themselves. Julie has as many weaknesses as strengths, however, and each of her actions realistically vibes with her character.
Jean-Patrick Manchette began his career writing screenplays in the sixties, and when the seventies hit, decided to expand into crime novels. His previous career is evident in his cinematic dialogue and stripped down descriptions, with nary a wasted word. Every scene moves the plot forward, and as the novel continues, the pace becomes frenetic in its intensity. The book even takes about the same amount of time as a film to finish.
Manchette represents the best in French crime fiction, with characters whose moral ambiguity and marginal existences come right out of a Jean Genet novel. James Sallis’ excellent introduction discusses the book as one of the defining examples of the neo-polar detective novel where storylines take a hard line against corruption and injustice while affectionately portraying society at the margins.
This book serves as an excellent reminder that the French don’t just analyze American noir – they also write their own, and for some authors, noir does not serve as code for unrelentingly depressing. Some of them write, instead, fairly gleeful noir, and this book will make you think, just for a second, that maybe shooting someone’s foot off or burning down a department store is, in fact, not such a big deal after all. It might, in a twisted way, even be fun.
In Blindspot, Reed Farrel Coleman takes over Robert B. Parker’s
alcoholic small town police chief Jesse Stone. He puts Stone in the
middle of a case involving the mob, revenge, and some folks from in
days as a Minor League baseball player. Reed answered some questions
through e-mail we had about the book and his approach to this
MP: I’m sure there are challenges about taking on an established
character, but what’s fun about it?
RFC: The fun is the challenge of respecting the characters and the history
of the series while carving out a piece of it for yourself. It is both
yours and not yours and that is unique.
MP: Was there an aspect about Stone that gave you an “in” to approach him?
RFC: Indeed. It was his unresolved regret over the injury that ruined his
baseball career. Dealing with unresolved regret is something we all
can relate to and gave me my in to Jesse’s spirit.
MP: I heard that Parker wrote Jesse Stone to push himself into
different territory with third person omniscient. It has also showed
off other aspects of your writing we haven’t seen often. What muscle
did you enjoy exercising the most?
RFC: I am known for my intimate first person, which is in some ways the
polar opposite to how Mr. Parker wrote Jesse. The thing I enjoyed was
trying to bring an intimacy to Jesse, but not by being as intimate as
I am used to being with my own characters. Moe Prager, for example,
wore his heart on his sleeve. Jesse barely wears his sleeve on his
sleeve. So I had to learn to reveal Jesse through his actions. It’s
made me a better writer. At least I hope it has.
MP: One thing you get to do is cover the criminals point of view. Did
you notice anything different in writing for the bad guys?
RFC: Well that is one great advantage of third person omniscient with
multiple points of view. You can, if you so choose, get into the bad
guys’ heads. But the great pleasure for me in the book was getting
into all the bad guys’ heads, not just one. I think readers will be
surprised to see how not all bad guys are the same. How even the most
cold-blooded killer can change, even grow. I believe that subplot is
my favorite piece of BLIND SPOT. Jesse is such a great character:
complex, brave, stubborn. He is a study in strengths and foibles. But
it is writing the bad guys that was the most fun.
MP: You use a reunion of Jesse’s minor league baseball team as a
starting point. What drew you to that part of his past?
RFC: See my answer to your first question. It’s his biggest vulnerability.
MP: It seems that we get to see more of your humorous side than we
normally get to. Do you think there’s something about Stone or the
series that lends itself to that?
RFC: Absolutely. Jesse is actually quite funny in a kind of wry, quietly
sarcastic way. And I like that he can see his own follies as well as
others. I believe you will only laugh along with others who laugh at
MP: Can you tell us about your original series your launching in the spring?
RFC: The novel is titled WHERE IT HURTS and it features retired Suffolk
County (New York) cop Gus Murphy. Gus is a guy who thinks he
understands the ways of the world, but when tragedy strikes his family
he realizes he understands nothing. It is the story of Gus healing
himself as he solves the murder of a petty criminal.
Today is the release of our MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month, Cry
Father. It’s Benjamin Whitmer’s follow up to his brilliant debut, Pike,
and will definitely be be seen on my year end top ten list as well as
many others. It deals with Patterson Wells, a tree cutter in disaster
areas whose grief over his dead son leads him into violent
circumstances. It is a brutal and beautiful book. Ben was kind enough
to take some questions from me on it.
MP: Pike and Cry Father seem like two twins raised differently, you see
the shared DNA, yet they both successfully achieve different things.
What do you see the main difference being?
BW: Well, Cry Father was written right on top of Pike, so it made sense
that a lot of the things I was thinking through got carried over. The
first draft was actually finished in 2010, it just took a long time to
get it published. If Adam Wilson at Gallery Books hadn’t seen
something in it (and, for that matter, if Sophie Littlefield hadn’t
suggested I send it to him) it probably wouldn’t even be published in
English. I’d pretty much decided to skip America and go straight to
France when Adam called my agent.
To me, the main difference is that Cry Father seems more open. I was
less scared to hit on the themes I was interested in. I don’t know if
they came through, but I hope so. In Pike I was more just trying to
establish a kind of tone — I’m new at this book-writing thing, and
still trying to figure out what I’m doing — and in Cry Father I felt
like I had a little more room to move.
MP: Patterson’s job as a tree cutter is both unique and a perfect
metaphor for what he’s going through. How did you choose that
profession for him?
BW: That was actually a gift given to me by one of my oldest friends,
Lucas Bogan. He’s the real deal and actually does what Patterson does.
(I should note that the similarities end right there: Patterson’s
faults are all his own.) Like you said, it seemed like the perfect job
for Patterson. And for me, I like characters who are grounded in the
work they do. It seems to me that a lot of novels skirt work. I’ve
always had a day-job and hated them all, but they consume the greatest
part of your waking hours whether or not you like it.
MP: The idea of fatherhood comes up in many forms. What did you want to
explore about it?
BW: Fatherhood’s probably never gonna be far from anything I write. I’m a
single father with two kids, and my relationship with them is the most
important thing in my life. But it’s a constant game of
second-guessing, doubt and guilt, as you understand all the things
you’ve done wrong. Not to mention all the things that you can’t
protect them from or do for them. It’s a fairly brutal crash course in
understanding how inadequate you are. Likewise, as a father with a
male child, I’m always thinking about the constructions of masculinity
that get passed down from father to son. That was a lot of what I was
trying to think through. As you can probably tell, though, I’m better
at negative examples than positive ones.
MP: There is always a lot of talk about the violence in your books, but
you use very little dramatic embellishment on it. How do you try to
treat it when writing?
BW: I think violence can reveal character just as surely as sex, love,
parenthood, or anything else. I try to write violence in a way that
people feel it. I don’t know if I succeed, but I don’t want anyone to
skim a violent scene. I want it to be ugly and heartsick. And in the
same way, to show that it’s attractive, too. It’s a balancing act. I’m
never gonna write it the way everybody wants it written, because it’s
such a touchy subject for people. But the attraction and repulsion has
to be there, I feel.
We’re more conflicted about violence than anything in this country.
Even sex. We’ll expel a kid from school for a fistfight, but there
hasn’t been a single year in my lifetime where we haven’t been bombing
the hell out of somebody and gloating about it. And we won’t even get
into what we’ll put up with from our police, like in Ferguson. I’m not
a pacifist, but the separation between what we tell ourselves we
believe and how we actually behave is so wide that I wonder that
folks’ heads don’t just start exploding from the cognitive dissonance
of it all.
MP: Many of the characters in Cry Father talk about freedom. Do you
think that’s what they are really looking for or is it something else?
BW: I think it’s a question they’re asking themselves. It’s a question I’m
always thinking about, anyways. I believe in freedom, the real
tangible kind. And I’d argue that we have less of it, in the real
tangible sense, than any of us would like to think. Most of freedom in
this country is just talk, and that disturbs me. When you’ve got more
people in prison than any other country in the world and every move
you make is legislated, I don’t know how the hell you can talk about
freedom with a straight face. I know that’s not a real popular
opinion, and we’re supposed to believe freedom is some kind of
metaphysical quality that we receive by virtue of being able to vote
once every four years, but I have trouble buying that.
Still I’ve also been around long enough to see how people get
destroyed by freedom. And I’ve come close myself at points in my life.
So I don’t know. For me freedom is a question, not an answer. I think
my characters are as lost in the question as I am. I think a lot of
people are right now.
MP: Can you tell us what your next book is and please promise it won’t
take four years before we get to read it?
BW: I have two in mind, actually. One is a jailbreak novel which I’m
really enjoying. I can’t promise it won’t take four years to get it
published, but I can say that it’s about half done and I should be
finished within the next year. I’m also working on a proposal for a
non-fiction book about one of my best friends, Paul Schenck, who was
killed by the police after a shootout last year. I’m not sure anybody
will want it – or either one of them, I guess – but I’m hoping so.
On Tuesday, September 23, at 2 pm, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club will be discussing Tana French’s award-winning debut novel In The Woods. The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets every third Tuesday of the month on BookPeople’s third floor.
When Tana French released her debut psychological thriller In the Woods five years ago, the novel became an instant classic of the genre. It also became one of those rare books to be immediately recognized as an uncategorizable work of fiction that comfortably straddles the line between literature and genre fiction in a way that makes one question the need for categories at all.
The mystery fan has naught to fear, however – Tana French may write beautiful, literary prose, but she also understands how to craft an impeccable murder mystery. In The Woods is just the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series, which now number five; her latest addition to the series, The Secret Place, was just released this month. Each novel of the series is from a different character’s perspective, and each protagonist has already been introduced in a previous novel, whether as a minor character or a major character. In this way, French has managed to create a multi-voiced drama that also allows the reader to delve deep into the psychology and potential unreliability of a fascinating host of characters.
In The Woods, like many detective novels, tells a story of two crimes. Instead of the usual trope, however – two seemingly unrelated crimes that then, rather unsurprisingly, turn out to indeed be related – French’s protagonist suspects the two crimes to be related from the start. In 1984, two children vanish from a wood in the Irish countryside, leaving a third behind with no memory of where his friends had gone. Twenty years later, Adam Ryan, the boy left behind, has joined the Dublin Murder Squad. With his amateur-profiler partner Cassie, he is called back to the place where the children had vanished so long before in order to investigate the murder of another child, found arranged on a Bronze-Age sacrificial stone on an archeological site. Ryan, rather than admitting to his emotional connection with the site of the murder, decides that he can perhaps recover his own memories while working to solve the present-day murder. Thus begins his descent into increasing instability, even madness. What other authors would turn to as solutions, French posits merely as theories. As the detectives investigate each theory, the book’s plot becomes increasingly complex (although never convoluted) and the book moves forward relentlessly to a shocking conclusion.
Tana French has an intuitive understanding of the experience of trauma and how to portray its lasting effects. She knows that suffering becomes much more apparent through understatement. As Ryan delves deeper into the memories he does possess, the extent to which he has been psychologically damaged by the events of his childhood becomes increasingly obvious. French also has an innate ability to portray both male and female characters, and the relationships between – whether romantic, working, or friendly – in a realistic and human manner. The once-in-a-lifetime friendship between Cassie and Adam is more convincing than any other buddy-cop story I have ever read, and French portrays the dysfunctional relationships in the story just as acutely.
Tana French’s transformation into one of the world’s most psychologically astute detective novelists is almost as mysterious as her books. She has built a successful career as an actress, and perhaps this fact is a key to her incredible ability to analyze motive and to place herself in the shoes of others. After finishing In the Woods, I stayed up half the night thinking about it. Given how much thought French must have put into the novel, I felt it was only fair.
Minerva Koenig’s Nine Days is what you want in a debut. It has a fresh voice, an entirely different perspective, and a truly unique character in Julia Kalas, a woman under witness protection from being part of her murdered husband’s crimes. Described as short, round, and pushing forty, she’s not your typical thriller heroine. Minerva will be joining us this Friday, for a discussion and signing of Nine Days. We got a few questions in early about her creation.
MysteryPeople: Julia is a very unique lead. How did you come up with her?
Minerva Koenig: I grew up with her. She’s based on my younger sister, who has always amazed me with her damn-the-torpedoes approach to life. I like a fantasy character as much as the next gal, but I wanted to see the real women I know and love — highly intelligent smart-asses with low bullshit tolerances, who are built like Russian peasants and not afraid to use it — get a turn.
MP: Were there any challenges about writing a lead who is in witness protection?
MK: Actually, the fact that WITSEC procedures are so closely guarded worked in my favor — since nobody knows exactly how they do all that stuff, I could make a lot up, and I did.
The main challenge was plausibility. If I was going to write this realistic character, then the things that she did had to be realistic, too — she’s a street-smart gal hiding from people who want to kill her, so she’s not going to be taking stupid risks. But stupid risks are what keep a crime story going. So I fell back on the canon tradition of the sleuth being a sucker for a pretty face in order to keep Julia in trouble and the plot moving forward. I have to admit, reversing the genders on that tradition made for some pretty entertaining work on my end.
MP: The book uses the Southwest well, especially with its inhabitants. What do you think makes that area different from the rest of the country?
MK: I’m not entirely sure, but Texas is not like any other place I’ve ever been. It’s neither the West nor the South, but some unholy hybrid. My theory is that the region’s history, so intimately intertwined with Mexico’s, has kept it from becoming completely American, culturally. That tension between a sort of half-foreign social tradition and the remnants of a conquering European frontier mentality produces some really interesting people.
MP: This being your debut, did you draw from any influences?
MK: Night Train by Martin Amis blew my socks off about a year before I started Nine Days. It’s one of the few crime books I’ve read where the female lead is not sexualized in any way, and it fascinated the hell out of me. Amis does it by making Mike Hoolihan (who is female, despite the name) essentially a man in a woman’s body, and it made me want to try doing the same thing without that shortcut — creating a character who was more realistically female, but taking out the sexual titillation factor. Not removing *sex*, but having a female lead who wasn’t defined in some sexual way — i.e., not an ex-stripper or rape victim, who doesn’t get sexually tortured or menaced, who relates to men from a position of personal sexual power without being made to pay for it later. Some other crime writers who have also impressed me in this regard: Margaret Millar, Sara Gran, Patricia Highsmith.
As far as style, not that I put myself in any kind of literary category, but the first time I read Hemingway was a revelation. I
started writing around 9 or 10, and was reading Ray Bradbury and trying to imitate his style, which should make you laugh. Nobody can imitate Bradbury. He’s a very lush writer, very good with imagery and metaphor and uses language in a way that just makes me grind my teeth with envy — and I just am not that kind of writer. So when I found Hemingway, I realized that I didn’t have to be; that vast things can be said with very few words. To me, this is what defines what we call ‘noir’ — that sort of clipped, oblique, acerbic voice that points at things rather than describes them in detail. That’s the kind of writer I want to be. I love a short sentence.
MP: One thing you’re incredibly skilled at is the timing and revealing of information. How much of the plot is mapped out before you start writing?
MK: Wow, thanks for the compliment! If you knew what I went through getting that plot firing on all cylinders… there were long stretches of time where I would sit and look at the manuscript and literally cuss myself out for the corner I’d just painted myself into. I’m not by nature a planner, but things got hairy pretty quickly, plot-wise, and so I devised my own method of outlining: I would write along on the manuscript until I got stumped, then I would turn to this running synopsis I had going alongside the manuscript. I’d use that to do a quick and dirty narrative of where the book might go next, to see if it would work. If it looked like it would, I’d go back to the manuscript and keep going until I hit another road block. Then back to the synopsis to work that one out — lather, rinse, repeat. And I did a complete edit of the book eight times. I wish I was making that up.
I tried doing a traditional outline, but I couldn’t stick to it. Things occur to you as you’re writing that you just can’t plan. I’d be
going along, and suddenly think, “wait, what if she did THIS?” I’d map it out on the synopsis to make sure I wasn’t insane, then go back to the manuscript and write it in. Really, it was madness. That’s probably why it took me a little over four years to write the thing.
MP: Can you tell us what the next book is about?
MK: South of Nowhere finds Julia mouldering around in Azula and getting restless — John Maines, the county sheriff who drove her nuts in Nine Days
has become a private investigator, and talks her into helping him with a missing-persons case on the Texas-Mexico border. There will be more cartel bad guys, mistaken identities, further goings-on with the Aryan Brotherhood (the people Julia is hiding from), and some truly scary women. And another stupidly complex plot, I’m both sorry and happy to say. I’m not planning on it taking me four years to finish, but I’m in that cussing-myself-out stage with it right now, so stay tuned.
Minerva Koenig has just published her debut novel, Nine Days, and will be speaking and signing her book on Friday, September 12, at 7pm, on BookPeople’s second floor. Minerva Koenig, when not writing mysteries, works as a licensed architect in Austin, and spends her days engaging in numerous activities, including wrangling cats and fighting the patriarchy.
Nine Days announces a great new voice in Minerva Koenig. The story sweeps in like a southwest breeze, dry in wit and hot in attitude. It is a book that embraces its characters, warts and all. It even goes so far as to practically celebrate their warts.
The lead heroine, Julia Kalas, is particularly unique. Short, round, and pushing forty, Julia used her California building renovation business as a cover for her husband’s gunrunning trade for decades. After the Aryan Brotherhood assassinates her husband, she finds herself in Witness Protection in a small Texas town, in a nice twist on the typical California-to-Texas move, stuck with a tough female marshal she refers to as “The Amazon” looking over her shoulder.
Julia finds work at a local bar owned by Hector, a man with his own dark past, and sparks between them soon fly. When a body turns up on top of the bar, Hector becomes the main suspect. To clear his name, Julia gets involved, using her own criminal contacts. She crisscrosses the state and the Southwest, getting in deeper and deeper, eluding The Amazon and a few bullets along the way.
It is Koenig’s love and respect for her characters that make this book pop. Many are unconventional and few are pretty. They and Koenig don’t ask you to like them and that’s why you love them. Julia herself makes no apologies for who she is and proves she can get a man as easy, sometimes easier, than some teen centerfold. Koenig understands that the way to her characters’ humanity is through their unconventionality.
Nine Days introduces us to a fresh hard-boiled voice. Koenig embraces the genre, yet doesn’t completely play by its rules. I can’t wait to see what other conventions she’ll break.
Minerva Koenig will be speaking and signing her latest novel, Nine Days, Friday, September 12, at 7 pm on BookPeople’s second floor. You can find copies of his new book on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.