~post by Molly and Scott
MysteryPeople’s Molly Odintz and Scott Montgomery were invited to be moderators at the 19th Annual Texas Festival Of Books held at the state capitol last weekend. It was Scott’s fourth time moderating at the festival and Molly’s first time ever. They both survived to tell the tale to report back.
Crime fiction had its strongest presence yet at the festival with six panels and three one-on-one interviews with the likes of Walter Mosely and James Ellroy. Even before the actual festival got underway, I got to sped some time with the authors. Timothy Hallinan, author of the Junior Bender and Poke Rafferty series, shared some BBQ as we talked books and his time working with Katherine Hepburn. I also got to spend some time with friends Harry Hunsicker, Mark Pryor, and the three authors who make up the pseudonym Miles Arceneaux before they went to their panels. Then I had my own.
First up was an interview with Craig Johnson, who’s latest book, Wait For Signs, is a collection of all the short stories featuring his Wyoming sheriff hero, Walt Longmire. He told the audience that Walt’s last name came from James Longmire who opened up the trail near Washington’s Mount Rainer and had the area named after him. He felt the combination of the words “long” and “mire” expressed what his character had been through. He added it also passed the test for a western hero name in that it could easily be followed by the word “Steakhouse.”
My panel panel discussion, Risky Business, had Jeff Abbott and debut author Patrick Hoffman looking at the art of thriller writing. The discussion got interesting when when it got into the topic of being categorized in a genre. Jeff said he wanted to get pigeon holed, “That way I know I’m selling.” He added it has never interfered with the type of book he wanted to write. We also got into an interesting talk about use of location. Patrick Hoffman talked about how he would often use his company car to drive to the location of his San Fransisco centric, The White Van, and write there on his lunch hour. Jeff and I also had fun drawing as much attention we could to our friend, author Meg Gardiner, who was in the audience and should have known better.
By the time the festival was over my body dehydrated, my voice was shot, and my blood alcohol content was questionable. Can’t wait til’ next year.
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of moderating two mystery panels at the Texas Book Festival. This was my first try at moderating panels and I am so thankful to MysteryPeople and the Texas Book Festival for giving me the opportunity to channel an NPR interviewer.The first, a panel on International Crime, featured authors Kwei Quartey, on tour with his latest Darko Dawson novel, Murder at Cape Three Points, and Ed Lin, with his new novel Ghost Month. Kwei Quartey’s novels take place in Ghana and increasingly focus on the economic and social imbalances of modern day Ghanaian life. Ed Lin has previously written novels depicting the Asian-American experience, including his Detective Robert Chow trilogy, set in New York City, and Ghost Month is his first to take place outside of the country.
We talked about what it means to write international crime fiction, the place of food in the detective novel, fiction as a method of dealing with historical and current societal trauma, and how to escape from a crashing helicopter. Both authors are published by SoHo and you can find their books on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
The second panel, looking at crime noir, brought together authors Rod Davis, with his latest, South, America, and Harry Hunsicker, with his new novel The Contractors. South, America follows a Dallas native living in New Orleans as he finds a dead body, gets tangled up with the dead man’s sister, and must go on the run from mobsters. The novel reaches deep into the twisted Louisiana web of racism and poverty to write a lyrical portrait of two desperate people.
Harry Hunsicker is the author of many previous novels, and his latest, The Contractors, explores the blurred lines between public and private when it comes to law enforcement. His two protagonists are private sector contractors working for the DEA and paid a percentage of the value of any recovered substances. They get more than they bargained for when they agree to escort a state’s witness from Dallas to Marfa with two cartels, a rogue DEA agent, and a corrupt ex-cop following them.
We talked about the meaning of noir, the craft of writing mysteries, the purpose of violence in fiction, and stand-alones versus series. South, America and The Contractors are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
Wait For Signs by Craig Johnson
2015 will mark ten years for Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series. It’s fitting as we approach the holidays and this anniversary that fans can now get Wait For Signs, a collection of all the short stories Craig has written about the Wyoming sheriff. It fills in the history of the character, catching him at quieter times between all the murders, escaped convicts, and conspiracies. In these stories, the reader learns that Walt’s life is still not totally quiet.
Much of the collection is composed from the annual stories Craig sends to his newsletter subscribers around Christmas, but they deal with more than just the holidays. “Thankstaking” allows Walt’s Cheyenne buddy Henry Standing Bear not only an opportunity to save the day, but the chance to voice his opinion on a certain November celebration. One of the Christmas stories takes place before the series, at one of the lowest points in Longmire’s life, when he is mistaken for the son of God. On New Year’s Eve, he and previous Sheriff Luican Connally solve a crime both old and new at The Durant Home For Assisted Living. Even the Jewish New Year is used for suspenseful and humorous effect. Johnson avoids the schmaltzy trappings of many holiday stories, making them appropriate to read at any time of the year.
There are also other pieces of short work. The very first Longmire story, “Old Indian Trick,” puts the myth of the criminal mastermind to rest. Two e-book specials “Divorce Horse” and “The Messenger” are available in mass print for the first time. “The Messenger”, a comedy of manners, errors, and situation involving Walt, Henry, foul mouthed deputy Victoria Morretti, a bear, and an owl trapped in a Port-A-Potty, is worth the price of the book alone. There is also a new story “Petunia, The Bandit Queen” that tackles domestic discord, Wyoming history, and sheep.
The collection gives a clearer picture of Walt, seeing him more in his day-to-day life. In many of the Christmas stories we get a deeper understanding the effect that losing his wife Martha had on him and how he got through it. Two stories that seem to happen back to back, one with a hitchhiker, the other with a marine, reminds us that Walt’s main goal is to heal, even though he avoids opportunities to find his own peace. We also see more of his connection to spirituality than he typically admits to.
Without the need to deliver the tropes of a mystery, we see Johnson’s strength’s as a writer on full display. Without a grim murder, his use of humor is able to flourish. We also get to fully appreciate his gift for misdirection that we associate with how he takes our attention away from who done it. Here he often shows how it helps provide theme and internal conflict without being heavy handed.
Wait For Signs gives us an extra glimpse at one of the best mystery heroes of this new century. We get a better understanding of his strengths, flaws, and what sustains him. All in all, we get the hope that old fashioned virtue can trump even the most modern problems. Boy Howdy.
Wait For Signs by Craig Johnson is now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com
One of our recent stories was a Lawernce Block tale featuring Matt Scudder, the PI hero featured in the film adaptation of A Walk Among The Tombstones. This Friday we have a short story written by the writer-director, Scott Frank, that was on Popcorn Fiction. Scott Frank is the screenwriter of the acclaimed films Little Man Tate, Dead Again and The Lookout. He has also adapted a number of titles for the screen, including Get Shorty, Out Of Sight, Minority Report and most recently, Marley & Me.
“As Ivan slowly let Rima slip from his grasp, he had no idea that her fall would become the stuff of Big Top legend everywhere. If you could have seen his face that night, you would have seen that Ivan’s mind was clearly somewhere else. Before this particular night, Ivan had caught Rima over thirty-five hundred times without incident. Theirs was a relationship based on trust; Rima knew that Ivan would always be there with strong hands and perfect timing. And Ivan knew that Rima would always be there, hanging in space, reaching for him. Sure, there were many close calls: Rima would step on his shoulder, scrape his ear with the point of her heel. Ivan would flinch from the pain, and loosen his hold on her leg, but in the end, he would always catch her. And sure, there had been hundreds of times where he almost dropped her. But he had never completely let go before. He was always there. He had always caught her. But, unfortunately, on that fateful night in Jnimski, he was thinking about something else.”
HARD WORD BOOK CLUB TAKES ON TOUGH GUY AUTEUR AND NOVELIST SAMUEL FULLER
The Hard Word Book Club will wrap up this year with a hard boiled master of the screen and page, Samuel Fuller. Fuller was best known as a filmmaker with tough guy classics like Pick Up On South Street, Shock Corridor, and The Big Red One. He also wrote several novels, including The Dark Page. Hard Case Crime recently brought one of his last books, Brainquake, to the U.S. for the first time. We will be discussing it and all things Fuller.
Brainquake begins in classic Fuller fashion with a murder by baby. That odd rub-out starts a series of events that put a syndicate bag-man, who suffers from odd brain seizures, and a mob widow on the run from Father Flannigan, a hit man who dresses like a priest and crucifies his victims. It gets even more outrageous with the action moving from New York to France , with several reminders of Fuller films.
We’ll be starting our discussion of Brainquake on our third floor, October 29th at 7PM. After the discussion we’ll be screening The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera, a documentary on Samuel Fuller featuring Tim Robbins, Samuel Fuller, Quentin Tarantino, and Fuller himself. Books are 10% off to those who attend.
We will be taking a break for the holidays, but get ready to come back in January for our discussion of L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy.
October is here, and as the weather cools, the end of the year stealthily approaches. But 2014 still has plenty in store for us, this month especially. Here are the three MysteryPeople picks for this month:
The Thicket by Joe Lansdale
One of the best from 2013 is finally coming out in paperback. At the turn of the last century in east Texas, a young man hires a bounty hunting dwarf, an African American tracker, and their hog find the outlaws who took his sister. Peter Dinklage just bought the rights to turn this into a movie. Full of humor and adventure, this book is loved by everyone who has read it.
The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
Neville’s latest with Belfast police detective Jack Lennon. Lennon is asked by a former lover to look into go off the record to look into eight possible murders that may have happened and could compromise her politician father. Neville is a skilled storyteller who looks at the sins of his country with an unflinching and entertaining eye that becomes universal.
Prison Noir by Joyce Carol Oates
This may be the darkest book of the Akashic Noir series. The short stories, most written by current and former inmates, all take place in our country’s incarceration facilities. These are looks into life without freedom, both well written and unflinching.
If you’ve read my review or talked to me lately, you know I’ve become a huge fan of the adaptation of Lawrence Block’s Walk Among The Tombstones. For fans of the the New York PI, Matt Scudder, here’s a short story involving Matt from when he worked for the NYPD that appeared on the Mulholland Books website. Block gives the reader a good sense of what his hero’s morals were like at the time.
“When the phone call came I was parked in front of the television set in the front room, nursing a glass of bourbon and watching the Yankees. It’s funny what you remember and what you don’t. I remember that Thurman Munson had just hit a long foul that missed being a home run by no more than a foot, but I don’t remember who they were playing, or even what kind of a season they had that year.
I remember that the bourbon was J. W. Dant, and that I was drinking it on the rocks, but of course I would remember that. I always remembered what I was drinking, though I didn’t always remember why…”
The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan
On the heels of Benjamin Whitmer’s Cry Father, comes another dark look at the modern west with Kim Zupan’s debut, The Ploughmen. The novel meditates on the subjects of death, violence, and evil, finding humanity, but not a silver lining in those dark clouds. Even its main theme of human connection brings up more cold questions than warm answers.
The book features two men on opposite sides of the law. John Gload is a hired killer, practicing his trade for over half a century until an accomplice rats him out. Valentine Millimaki works as a sheriff’s deputy in Central Montana with a marriage failing due to life’s pressures. Both men have a history with death. Gload killed his first man at fourteen. As a boy, Millimaki discovered his mother’s body after she hung herself and it seems the last several missing persons he’s searched for have been found dead.
Valentine becomes John’s guard during the night shift, as the killer awaits trail, asked to pull more information of past murders from him. What develops is a relationship that drives the novel. Millimaki resists calling him a friend, yet realizes he’s the closest thing to a person who understands him. Zupan writes Gload with the right amount of distance from the reader for us to get his charm but never quite trust him, even though we want to. Much of the suspense in the book comes from the effect each man will have on the other.
Zupan uses the Montana winter setting for all it is worth. The harshness and desolation mirrors the lives of these two men. The bareness and lack of population also shows how the cold, wide, empty space can make people on opposite ends simpatico. Like a skilled western film director, the author often allows the landscape to speak for his characters.
There is a belief that friends are the only people you choose to be a part of your life. The Ploughmen questions that thought as well as the nature of friendship itself in an approach both realistic and poetic. I look forward for the next subject Zupan chooses to look square in the eye.
The Ploughmen is currently available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com
Glenn Gray has quickly gotten to be a favorite of ours. With his funny and often unsettling stories, usually involving the medical profession, Gray blends the lines between genres to produce something new and unique. This tale in Shotgun Honey is no different, and if you like this story, be sure to check out the MysteryPeople review of Gray’s collection The Little Boy Inside and Other Stories or our Q&A with the author.
“‘Dennis settled in his chair, the scent of cauterized tissue lingering in his nostrils. Stacks of medical texts loomed on the wood desk. One of the texts, a neurosurgical tome, was splayed open at his chest. Beside that, a dictaphone with mini-cassette.
He lifted the handset, began dictating the operative report…”
A Walk Among The Tombstones is a movie many crime fiction fans have been waiting for. It is one of the more admired books from Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series, and one of the touchstones of modern private eye writing. The adaptation was placed into the hands of writer-director Scott Frank, who is responsible for two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations out there (Get Shorty and Out Of Sight), while his directorial debut, The Lookout, is one of the best crime films of this century so far. On paper, it was a tantalizing match, but there were also some reasons for trepidation. The book is the seventh in the series with Scudder in mid-transition, making it an odd choice to adapt to film. It is also close to 400 pages with an important sub-plot involving Matt’s girlfriend, Elaine, that contributes to that arc. On top of that, you have a lead character who is incredibly internal. After viewing the film and especially thinking about it after, one realizes that Scudder was in the right hands.
The film starts with a well executed and defining gunfight for Scudder. Then, after one of the most disturbing opening credit sequences you’ll see, the plot begins much like the book. Scudder, an unlicensed P.I. and recovered alcoholic (one of the main differences in the movie is he quits the day after that shoot-out) is approached by a fellow AA member to work for his brother. The brother, a drug trafficker, paid a ransom for his kidnapped wife, only to have her returned in pieces, wrapped like butcher meat. He wants Scudder to find the men responsible and bring them to him. Matt turns him down first, but takes the job, realizing the perpetrators are psychopaths, in it for the hunt and torture, and that they will do it again.
Most of the changes from page to screen come from Scott Frank’s compression of the tale to reach a manageable running time. A sharp bit of craftsmanship comes in reshaping a part of the book where a witness mistakenly believes there was a third suspect during the abduction of an earlier victim. Instead of this, Scott creates an unsettling yet utterly human character who gives Scudder three leads in one scene, though it took Scudder close to hundred pages to gather these in the book. Frank also had to jettison two supporting characters, a hooker who survived the psychos and the lawyer who represents her. Both alone are worth picking up the novel for.
Another character missing is Elaine, the call girl Scudder is at the start of the relationship with. She helps Matt in the investigation and his involvement with her marks a particular turning point in the series. It is in this book where Scudder makes the choice to truly connect with someone again or not.
Here, Scott Frank does something interesting. Instead of using the arc from the book, he tackles a small step in Scudder’s stumbling soul search. This is dealt with in his relationship with T.J., a street kid who acts as Matt’s Baker Street Irregular, portrayed without sentimentality by Brian “Astro” Bradley. He also uses a device employed by Block, where the shoot outside the bar becomes clearer as Scudder tells it in a more honest way. We’re seeing a man as he begins to realize his position in the dark world he has chosen for himself.
Fans will truly appreciate Liam Neeson’s performance. The actor allows his presence and natural gravitas do much of the work for him as he underplays with a worn and weary edge. He and Frank take a cue from the author, realizing the hero’s complexity’s and subtle contradictions, they simply let the character run and let the audience, like the reader, bring themselves to him. Early on we get to witness Scudder’s detached realism when he is asked if the corruption on NYPD made him quit the force and Neeson delivers the line. “No, I couldn’t have supported my family without it,” with perfect tone. At that point, we know we have our Scudder.
A Walk Among The Tombstones is a harsh film. I flinched at things I knew were coming from having read the book. With little gore and violence, we get the the the full impact of the very mean streets this private eye walks down. Much like Lawerence Block’s series, it pulls no punches, telling a very adult story and treating its audience as such. That alone makes it a film worth supporting.
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…”