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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 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).
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.
As his new book, The Player, demonstrates, Brad Parks weaves hard edged crime fiction and comedy together. His investigative reporter, Carter Ross, covers the mean streets of Newark, Jersey. We asked Brad a some questions about the town where he used to work as a reporter.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What is the best thing about writing about Newark, Jersey City?
BRAD PARKS: That it’s not some tranquil town in Vermont where, ten books into the series, people are going to say, “Really? Another murder? Seriously?” It’s a sad but true fact that Newark has one-third the population of Austin but drops nearly four times as many bodies a year. I would never make light of the horrible human cost of that–and I certainly don’t in the books. But, on the plus side, it means I’m never going to run out of plausible crime to write about.
MP: How does Newark inform Carter as a character?
BP: One of the ever-present tensions in the series is that Carter is this straight-laced, upper-middle-class white guy–raised in suburban comfort and privilege–who plunges into the roughest housing projects and worst tenements. But he does so while remaining completely true to himself. “You have to know what flavor of ice cream you are in this world,” Carter says in The Good Cop. “And I am vanilla.”
MP: What is the biggest misconception about the city?
BP: That crime is the only thing that happens there. I realize I run the danger of perpetuating that stereotype by setting a crime fiction series there. But any balanced presentation of Newark needs to report that yes, there is crime; and, yes, there are urban ills of all stripe; but there are also a lot of well-meaning people who are working hard to make Newark a better place. In every book, I’d like to think I present a healthy number of those people, too.
MP: Thanks to HBO and the news, we tend to associate the mob and corruption more with new Jersey than with New York now. What do Jersey gangsters have over New York gangsters?
BP: Fongool! Loro sono fottuto conigli! (Warning: do not run this through Google translator around your mother).
MP: What can you write about in crime fiction set in Newark, that you can’t anywhere else?
BP: The thing I love about New Jersey–and, by extension, Newark–is that it really loads a writer’s toolbox with possibility. New Jersey has every ethnic, religious and immigrant group out there. It is the second richest state in the country, by per capita income. It also has, in Newark and Camden, two of the poorest cities. Yet because it’s the most densely populated state, all those people–representing every color, creed and class–can’t help but bump into each other with a frequency and magnitude that they don’t in other places. Those intersections are where you find great stories.
The Player is available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
I’m gearing up to go on the road trip of my crime fiction life this month: Dallas, St. Louis, Memphis, Oxford, and New Orleans. I’ll be hanging out with (okay, leeching off of) a lot of my writer friends, including Harry Hunsicker, Scott Phillips, Jedidiah Ayers, Ace Atkins, and, winner of the University Of Mississippi Johns Grisham Writer In Residence fellowship, Megan Abbott. I have advance copies of Ace and Megan’s books (Cheap Shot and The Fever) packed to take with me, along with a collection of Mississippi writer Larry Brown’s stories.
If you need help finding a good crime novel at the store while I’m gone, introduce yourself to our new employee, Molly. She knows her stuff.
I promise to take pictures of sights along the way.
1970 didn’t just usher in a new decade, it also brought us a new era of crime novels. That year gave us at least three books that would transform the genre by cracking it into sub-genres, bringing different readers to the fold.
The Hot Rock by Donald Westlake
Originally concieved as a story for his hard-as-nails detective Parker series, Westlake discovered that the story– a diamond that has to be stolen over and over– was too silly for that series. He changed Parker to Dortmunder and not only created a second popular series character, but popularized the comic caper novel.
The Friends Of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, Dennis Lehane
Fictional criminals would never be the same again after this book. A former attorney and reporter, Higgins knew the bureaucracy and politics of the justice system as well as the beleaguered cops and criminals caught up in it. His story about an aging mob soldier that is being played by both the law and his lawless cohotrs, has a work-a-day atmosphere of crime and punishment. This novel has some of the most vivid dialogue put on paper. It has influenced modern writers like George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane. Elmore Leonard credited the book for his appraoch to writing crime fiction.
The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman
By using his knowledge of the Native American Tribes in the Four Corners area and a little influence from Australian writer Aurthur Upfield’s mysteries, Hillerman introduced the world to Navajo tribal officer, Joe Leaphorn. The series opened up the west as a setting for crime and murder, giving big cities a run for their money; and it paved the way for other Native American mysteries by the likes of Margret Coel and C.M. Wendelboe. Even more important, it introduced the idea of the mystery anthropology sub-genre where the “whodunit” story investigates a culture as much as the crime.
Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham
If the movie didn’t fill your hunger for more Mars, Rob Thomas comes through with the first of two books written with Jennifer Graham about his cult hit creation. Veronica takes on the town of Neptune’s corrupt cops and dangerous secrets as she goes looking for a coed who goes missing on spring break in her first case back in Neptune as a private eye.
The Kill Switch: A Tucker Wayne Novel by James Rollins & Grant Blackwood
Rollins teams up with military thriller writer Blackwood in this spin-off from his Sigma Force series, featuring Army Ranger Tucker Wayne and his working dog, Kane. Blackwood’s Army edge brings a deeper realism to Rollins’ daring and weird science adventure in a book that travels through Russia and Africa and involves a deadly weapon with origins in the Boer war.
Ruin Falls by Jenny Milchman
Milchman follows up her critically acclaimed thriller Cover Of Snow with the story of a woman uncovering her husband’s dark past in order to find where he’s taken her children. Read it now and join us at BookPeople June 16th when Jenny is here to sign and discuss the novel.
MysteryPeople April Pick of the Month: Blood Always Tells by Hilary Davidson
I’ve said before that Hilary Davidson is somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde author. Her short fiction has a hard noir style, usually showing the worst of humanity. Her series featuring travel writer Lily Moore consists of edgy thrillers with a damaged-but-decent heroine confronting her problems. With Blood Always Tells, a stand alone thriller, Davidson fuses both sides of her writing personalities.
The book begins with Dominique Monaghan, a second tier model having an affair with an ex-boxer who married another woman for money. After Dominique discovers he’s cheating on her, as well, she slips a muscle relaxant into his drink, hoping to get him talking about the wife and affairs all while recording the conversation for blackmail purposes. The plan goes awry when some guys with guns burst in and kidnap both of them.
This isn’t your average kidnapping. In one entertaining passage, Dominique is schooled by one of the accomplices on the many reasons for kidnapping. This section has the darker motives and even darker humor of Davidson’s short fiction work.
After a little over a hundred pages, the book goes into hard-boiled sleuth mode as we follow Dominique’s brother Desmond as he tries to find her. The search puts him up against Gary’s diamond-for-a-heart wife and more than a few unhinged criminals.
Davidson has a gift for taking you seamlessly through these different point-of-views and sub-genres. By crafting many well placed reveals and twists that become a part of the pace, she makes the reader accustomed to the speed at which she likes to change it up. There’s also a theme of the importance of family weaved throughout the book that binds it together. All three of the characters come from broken homes and the double edge sword of bother-sister relationships.
Blood Always Tells is a fresh and engaging read. It plays with genre and narrative in a unique way, not flinching when it comes to the characters and their past. I look forward to Hilary’s next walk on the wild side.
Blood Always Tells is available for pre-order on our website. Hilary Davidson will be in the store on Thursday, April 24 at 7PM speaking & signing copies of the book. Click here for more information & to pre-order your signed copy.