Monthly Archives: January 2012
Last summer I got into a discussion with the brilliant author and fellow 80s-survivor Megan Abbott on how that decade defined noir for the mainstream through various filmmakers and publishers who reprinted forgotten masters of crime fiction. Megan brought up that because most of those publishers were male fans choosing the authors they encountered in the fifties and sixties, many female authors were overlooked. She told me the forties and fifties held many great female hard boiled and noir writers. One lady who is often overlooked is Dorothy B. Hughes, who we will discuss at our History Of Mystery class on February 5th.
A book critic as well as a writer, Dorothy B. Hughes worked in many of crime fiction’s subgenres. Much like her readers of the time, she moved noir to the suburbs. The nice neighbor across the street was just as tortured or as ruthless as the low-life downtown. When it comes to mood and character she was a master. Her best known book is the haunting In A Lonely Place. It follows war veteran and struggling writer Dix Steele, who becomes involved in a serial killer case his police detective friend is investigating. The book uses atmosphere in a unique way and gives a vivid snapshot of postwar Los Angeles in place and attitude.
The book inspired the classic film of the same title directed by Nicholas Ray. Bogart stretched his acting chops as Dix and while the film took several liberties with the book, it keeps it’s tragic tone. One main difference is that Steele is now a working screenwriter, which gives Ray many opportunities to skewer Hollywood. We’ll be viewing the film at 3:30PM before our discussion.
Here’s a trailer of the film:
Also, to bring it full circle, Megan Abbott will be calling in to join our talk about the book and film, being a fan of both. Those who are not familiar with her work should pick up Queenpin or The Song Is You right now, as well as her first book, Die A Little, which shares a few things with In A Lonely Place. Her latest, The End Of Everything, earned a spot on many Best Of 2011 lists, including mine. You can learn plenty about crime fiction by just saying hello to her.
Once again, the class is on February 5th. The film starts at 3:30, discussion at 6pm, both on BookPeople’s third floor. The class is free and copies of In A Lonely Place are 10% off to those who attend.
We just received confirmation that bestselling author Charlaine Harris will be here on Saturday, May 12, 7p with her next-to-last Sookie Stackhouse book, Deadlocked. It’s a few months away, but we are very excited and want to make sure fans out there mark their calendars now!
Tonight at 8PM Central on The Travel Channel’s Hidden City, Marcus Sakey (the show’s host and also a crime fiction author) looks at three crimes in Austin, one involving BookPeople.
Sackey Sakey and the camera crew visited the store a couple of months back to do some filming and signed copies of his novel Two Deaths Of Daniel Hayes while he was here. We still have a few available if you want to check them out after you tune in.
Caryl Ferey is an author who deserves more attention than he’s receiving. A French author, he writes dark, violent books about colonized countries and their colonists’ relationships with the native population. The two that have reached the states, Zulu and Utu, prove him a true and important voice in the genre.
Zulu has sold over two hundred and fifty copies in a little over a year at MysteryPeople. Its hero is Ali Neuman, the head of a Capetown police unit of Zulu decent. Having watched his brother and father killed during apartheid and leading a mostly white group of men, he mirrors South Africa. Old wounds open when the bodies of two white women are found with Zulu tribal markings. The search for the killers and the source for a new drug on the streets have Ali and his men moving through the tiers of criminal society; the Tsotsi gangs that roam the city, the Sicilian Mafia flexing their influence, and Western and corporate interests out to exploit South Africa. What starts out as a dark police procedural moves into the territory of a dark political thriller.
In Utu, Ferey gives us a less heroic lead in Paul Osborne, a self loathing, drug and alcohol addicted, washed up ex-cop. He’s called back to duty in Auckland, New Zealand because of his expertise in Maori society. A mass grave of Maoris has been found, all with their femur’s missing (wait until you find out why). The only other cop familiar with the culture, Osborne’s freind and collegue, committed suicide during the investigation. This is just the first thirty pages. Paul is plunged into the dark side of his country, introduced to its demons and putting him face to face with his own.
Ferey’s books aren’t for the faint of heart. He uses depictions of graphic and many times rough sex to define his characters. Not only is his violence brutal, he has a chilling skill of conveying the sense of victimization. One particularly nasty scene in Zulu, featuring a hibachi and a severed limb, will never completely leave your mind.
Ferey uses these elements and a strong sense of character to look at the double edge of tribalism. It can be a place to find oneself, a place Osborne doesn’t have and one that sometimes battles with Neuman’s role as a police officer. It also creates a social chasm both men have to negotiate. Mainly he looks at how certain powers exploit people so that one half of a society can destroy the other for them.
Ferey’s work is epic noir in both scope and style. He delivers a large tableau where societal and personal corruption meet. His heroes tend to take on a suicidal approach to achieve any power over evil. Caryl Ferey starts at noir and ends the trip close to apocalyptic. For those willing to get on board, it is an insightful emotional, and all together exhilarating ride.
According to Crime Time, a UK crime fiction site, City University of London will now offer the UK’s first degree for crime novelists, the Crime Thriller MA, citing “…student demand and the increasing popularity of the genre,” and because, according to the Programme Director, “There is much talk that we are entering a second golden age of crime writing.” If you lived across the pond, would you enroll?
I came across the link to this story over at publisher Melville House’s blog, MobyLives. Just this week they started up a brand new facebook page for their crime imprint, Melville International Crime. Head over and take a look, they’re good folks over at Melville House.
Before I say anything about this book, I have to admit that I am not a fan of rap. It’s a legitimate form of music and art that I’m just not into. However, the story and possible insight Nelson George’s The Plot Against Hip Hop offered (and the fact that it’s on the high quality Akashic label) intrigued me to pick it up.
George gives us a truly unique tough guy hero in D Hunter, a security expert specializing in the hip hop community. Street tough with a harsh personal history (his brother was shot by the police and Hunter is HIV positive), survival has made him knowing and respectful of life. He also shows a love for the music that he grew up with and that pays his bills, yet has a clear eye of the personalities involved.
When hip hop critic and historian Dwayne Robinson is murdered, he gets a copy of a cassette tape into D’s hands before he dies. When the police write the killing off as gang related, D is in search of a tape player. The mystery leads him through the hip hop world from street thugs to power players. There are hip hop cops with dossiers on artists, hangers-on, fans, conspiracy theorists, marketing execs, and astute journalists. George gives a wonderful look at and has great respect for the music and its power.
In many ways the music is also a character in the book. It has a past and interacts with the characters. George seems to argue that it is as much of a murder victim as Robinson, using the mystery to investigate the intersection of art, culture, commerce, and politics.
Nelson George is an authority on the world he takes us through. He has written collections of criticism on African American artists. I hope he continues in the hard boiled genre as well. He is a man with a lot to say and has created a great hero to say it with.
The latest novel by bestselling author (and the master of effortless cool) George Pelecanos is on sale today. What It Was is a paperback original, which means no waiting through the hardcover cycle to get the softer (and cheaper – only $9.99!) edition.
Pelecanos is the guest blogger today over at Mulholland Books, where he shares some of his favorite movies from the book’s era, the 1970’s, and talks about the book in a few videos.
RJ Ellory has earned a great following in his native England writing about the US. In some ways, his books contradict normal crime fiction. They tend to be more sweeping and episodic and, while he takes you through some rather dark and noirish territory, he doesn’t carry the cynicism many crime writers in this country do. At the same time, he captures the American as well as the human experience as well as many of our American writers.
His most recent book to come to the states is A Quiet Vendetta, where the “interrogation” of a mob enforcer, Mr. Perez, in order to find the kidnapped daughter of the Louisiana governor is interwoven with the story of Perez’s life, a story that follows the history of the mafia from the 1950s to the present. It strikes a brilliant balance between sweeping and emotional, and tight and intense. Picture the first two Godfather films with the structure of The Usual Suspects.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Mr. Ellory some questions about A Quiet Vendetta and his process
MysteryPeople: A Quiet Vendett a is a sweeping look at the history of the American Mafia in the last half of the 20th century, yet the story relies on two flawed men in a room. Which came first, the era you wanted to explore or the characters?
RJ ELLORY: Well, the emotion always come first, and that may sound like a strange answer! I don’t write a synopsis or an outline for any of my novels, but I do start with a vague idea of the kind of story I want to write, and also a very clear idea of the kind of emotional response I want to evoke in a reader. In the case of A Quiet Vendetta, the intention was to write about the worst kind of human being I could think of, and yet have the reader be sufficiently seduced by this character to even come to like them by the end of the book. I wanted to write a vast Mafia epic, something that spanned several decades and many cities, and have each city be as much a character as the individuals who drove the story forward. I wanted it be many stories within one story, and I wanted to write one chapter in third person, another in first, and alternate them back and forth. I also wanted to blur the lines between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
MP: How did the character of Perez, a Cuban enforcer for the Italian mob, come about?
RJ: Well, very simply, I wanted to create a character who – no matter how deeply he became involved with the Mafia – would always remain an outsider, simply because he was Cuban. I also wanted to begin Perez’s story during the era of Mafia domination of the Cuban casino business. Therefore it made sense to have Perez be picked up by the Mafia in Havana coincident with Castro overthrowing Batista.
MP: What draws you to using US history as a canvas for many of your books?
RJ: I always read as a child. I was orphaned at seven and sent away to various institutions, and there was always great access to books. When I think of my childhood I think of three things: long-distance running, reading and being hungry! I started with Christie and Conan Doyle, Shakespeare and the classics, and then I found Harper Lee and Truman Capote, Steinbeck, Faulkner and Hemingway. I found a tremendous difference between English and US literature, and the rhythm and style of US prose appealed to me so much more. There was a grace and atmosphere and slow-motion style to it that really resonated.
Later on, in my early teens, the kind of TV we watched was predominantly American. I grew up with Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, all those kinds of things. Additionally, I became – and still am – a huge fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and count amongst my favourite actors such people as Stanwyck, Hepburn, Edward G. Robinson, Bogart, Bacall, Cagney, Cary Grant and James Stewart. I also loved the atmosphere, the diversity of culture presented by the US. The politics fascinated me. America is a new country compared to England, and it just seems to me that there’s so much colour and life inherent in its society.
I have visited a great number of times now, and I honestly feel like I’m going home. And I believe that as a non-American there are many things about American culture that I can look at as a spectator. The difficulty with writing about an area that you are very familiar with is that you tend to stop noticing things. You take things for granted. The odd or interesting things about the people and the area cease to be odd and interesting. As an outsider you never lose that viewpoint of seeing things for the first time, and for me that is very important. Also many writers are told to write about the things with which they are familiar. I don’t think this is wrong, but I think it is very limiting. I believe you should write about the things that fascinate you. I think in that way you have a chance to let your passion and enthusiasm for the subject come through in your prose.
I also believe that you should challenge yourself with each new book. Take on different and varied subjects. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of writing things to a formula. Someone once said to me that there were two types of novels. There were those that you read simply because some mystery was created and you had to find out what happened. The second kind of novel was one where you read the book simply for the language itself, the way the author used words, the atmosphere and description. I think that the truly great books are the ones that accomplish both. A classic, for me, is a book that presents you with narrative so compelling you can’t read it fast enough, and yet written so beautifully you can’t read it slowly enough. I think any author wants to write great novels. I don’t think anyone – in their heart of hearts – writes because it’s a sensible choice of profession, or for financial gain. I certainly don’t! I just love to write, and that love, that passion, has been there since my early twenties. First a reader, then a writer. And the range of subjects and issues and cultural differences inherent in the US draws me to it completely.
MP: Many times you use the concept of a story within a story. While at first look it seems limiting, how is it freeing for you?
RJ: Well, the last thing I would ever wish to do is write a series of novels about the same characters. That seems to me to be the most claustrophobic and limiting thing of all. I can write a historical saga, a romance, a political conspiracy, a serial killer story, anything I like, and all within the framework of a crime novel. To write a story within a story just gives me endless scope to write about whatever interests me, and I have often found that if you write about those things that fascinate you, you tend to find that others are fascinated. I think your enthusiasm for the subject matter comes through in your prose. I consider that the very worst novel you could write is the one that you believe others will enjoy, whereas the best novel you could write is the one that you yourself believe you would enjoy reading.
MP: What sets you apart from many of today’s current crime fiction writers is that you offer a deep, believable sense of hope about life and humanity, no matter how dark the tale. As somebody who survived a pretty rough early life, is this something you feel necessary to convey?
RJ: Well, I don’t really consider that I had a rough early life, to be honest. Is it worse to be orphaned and raised without parents, or to be raised in a loving close-knit family environment, only to then witness the aggressive, bitter and violent divorce of your mom and dad when you’re in your teens? I think the former is easier than the latter. As Joni Mitchell said, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’, and if you never had anything to start with, well you can’t miss it! The simple truth is that people fascinate me. The human condition fascinates me. The mind and life as a whole fascinate me. People are crazy and funny and flawed and brilliant and scary and intense and sad and apathetic and lost and focused, and everything else. No-one is perfect. No-one gets it right all the time. I have a pet hate for those crime novels where the lead investigator jumps to wild conclusions and is proven right all the time. Life is not like that. People are not like that. If they’re surviving, then they’re getting things right slightly more than fifty percent of the time. I think I have a deep and believable sense of hope about life and humanity, and I think how I write is just a reflection of my own philosophy. That’s what makes each book unique to each writer. I think that’s what makes a part of each book written somehow autobiographical, not in the story that’s written, but in the philosophy of the characters.
MP: You’ve hit several American regions during different periods. Is there a time and region you’d like to tackle that you haven’t yet?
RJ: I am doing it now! The Deep South (Mississippi), the era (the end of the Nixon administration), and a character who is a Vietnam war veteran. That gives me three areas to write about that I have not written about in detail before, and I am enjoying it thoroughly. This is for a book called The Devil and The River, due for release in the UK in 2013.
MP: You have the sense of sweep and of emotion of a literary or historical fiction writer. What keeps on bringing you back to crime fiction?
RJ: Very simply, my love and fascination for people. The thing with crime, as a genre, is that you can incorporate any sub-genre – history, politics, culture, music, homicide, blackmail, conspiracy, forensics, serial killing, the CIA, FBI, kidnapping, bank robbery, anything at all! – within that story, and it is still a crime novel. Additionally, and more importantly, confronting a regular person with the extraordinary nature of an act of violence or crime gives me opportunity to write across the entire range of human reactions and emotions, and that’s the thing that excites me the most.
As somebody who has hung out with Roger, I can attest we’ve only scratched the surface with him. So join us January 27th at 7pm for his signing and discussion of A Quiet Vendetta over a couple of beers (or wine if you prefer), and other refreshments.
The Mary Higgins Clark Award is given out at a special party the night before the Mystery Writers Of America’s Edgar Awards, which are given to suspense writers. I’m very happy to announce that two friends of ours (who we had the honor of hosting with their debut novels) made the list.
Sara J. Henry with Learning To Swim – This is a great cross between Du Maurier’s Rebecca and your favorite Harlan Coben thriller. Just released in paperback.
Janice Hamrick with Death On Tour – This is a very funny mystery about a murder on a discount Egyptian tour. Janice is an Austin author who not only won the MWA/St. Martins First Crime Novel Prize, but also wrote a chick lit style mystery an affirmed hard boiled fan like myself can love.