Chris F. Holm is one of our favorites. His work has appeared in such publications as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2011. He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner. He has a wonderful gift for mixing genres like this cross between noir and horror (with a touch of comedy) that recently appeared in Beat to a Pulp.
“‘… leave …‘
When Simon heard the voice, his mouth went dry, his palms went slick with sweat, and his heart pounded like a drum line in his chest. It wasn’t so much what the voice had said that spooked him, or the menace its throaty whisper conveyed. What spooked him was that it was so clear, it sounded as though it’d spoken directly into the digital recorder in his hand—and yet he hadn’t heard the voice at all until he played it back. Add to that the fact there wasn’t another living soul for miles around—the old Amalgamated Paper mill had been left to rot damn near seventy years ago, and Simon himself had been forced to scale one fence and shimmy through another to even get inside—and that voice seemed downright otherworldly.
The thought sent gooseflesh spreading down Simon’s arms, and slapped a dopey smile upon his face. After all, that’s why Simon was here…”
I came by James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much when it was recommended to me by Joe R. Lansdale. Daniel Woodrell had suggested it to him. Even Raymond Chandler was a fan. Last year, Mysterious Press came out with a reprint of the novel (including a forward by Woodrell). The book shows that rural noir could be just as mean, nasty, and engaging as it is now, possibly more so.
Our narrator is Jack McCall. When is his farm goes bust, Jack throws in as a manager with Smut McCall, the charming local bootlegger, who opens up a road house. Smut’s saviness and ambition are only outmatched by his lust for the wife of the town operator, who he sees as often as he can. When Smut pulls Jack into a crime, holds out on his share of the profits, the two play a cat and mouse and mouse scenarios that out Tom & Jerry to shame.
The book is a mix of Chandler and James Cain soaked in Southern barbecue. The prose style grabs you from the first paragraph, makng Jack’s dialect and manner as its style. Much of the suspense is built through his desperation. Ross gives us detail in the day-to-day business (both legal and not) of running that road house, showing the constant moral compromises these men make and thier justifications. It’s not a shock when murder is treated indifferently.
They Don’t Dance Much is more than just a look at one of the first rural noirs. it’s an involving, seedy tale of compromised men who become thier own undoing with enough twisted humor to satisfy a Lansdale fan. Read it and you’ll recommend it.
“Did you hear about Milton Smith getting his head blown off?” My mother was calling me from West Texas. I was in Austin.
“Wha…no…what?” I stammered.
“You remember Milton,” she wrongly assumed “He has that Texaco station where they take care of my car. He and 4 or 5 big shots play cards down there every Saturday. Well, Sunday morning they were found shot to death. And everyone of them was holding a pistol.”
From that phone call, so many years ago, my novel Slap Noir was conceived. The painful gestation period covered decades. For years I would forget about that shootout. But it would always sneak back into my consciousness when least expected…like in the shower when I ran out of hot water, or while sitting in traffic on an L.A. freeway for no good reason. All I knew was that nobody ever figured out exactly what happened. Or if they did, they weren’t telling.
Then five years ago, I sat down to write about my Vietnam experience. Or maybe about my days pitching story ideas and dealing with Hollywood. Somehow the poker shootout took over. It was the story I had to write.
I wanted to focus on how such a tragedy could impact the people of a small community. How it was dealt with. And hopefully come up with a satisfactory explanation, not though an examination of the facts, but through the freedom of my imagination.
The story had to be dark. A noir mystery. I love noir, from Chandler to Thompson to Phillip Kerr. Lately I have been reading a lot of Scandinavian noir. For a place with all that bright snow, they sure can celebrate the dark.
The problem? I prefer stories with some humor. Existence is indeed dark and hopeless if we cannot laugh at its absurdities. The Scandinavians are not all that funny. Neither are Kerr’s murder mysteries set in Nazi Germany.
No worries. I decided humor could be found in abundance in the chaos surrounding the investigation of my poker shootout. Just allow the action to come from the characters. They did not disappoint me. Now it is up to you, noble reader, to decide if I found the proper balance between mystery and humor.
~Post by Molly
On Monday, July 7, the Seven Percent Solution book club had the distinct pleasure of discussing Rick Riordan’s great Texas noir, The Big Red Tequila. This intriguing foray into the criminal world of San Antonio in the late ’90s is Riordan’s first novel to star Jackson “Tres” Navarre. Tres has a unique skill set: he is an English PhD, T’ai chi master, and all-around force to be reckoned with.
As the novel begins, Tres has just returned to San Antonio after a ten year absence. Why so long away? Tres’s sheriff father was murdered there the last time Tres was in town, and now he’s looking for answers. He also hopes to reunite with his high school sweetheart, who soon goes missing amid conspiracy coming to a boil.
Luckily, Tres Navarre and his enchilada-eating cat, Robert Johnson, have the talent and drive to find his girlfriend, solve his father’s murder, and drink some margaritas on the way. He gets some extra help from his old boss and his brother in Austin, and he and his brother pass some time complaining about the tourists out for the South Congress bat colony. This scene combines with descriptions of the developing I-35 corridor, the burgeoning tech industry, and fights over gentrification to make Riordan’s tale as relevant to Texas today as when it was first published.
We agreed at book club that Riordan’s descriptions provide a heightened sense of reality, and that his knowledge of San Antonio and Texas shines throughout the novel. One member described feeling the Texas heat in particular, so you might want to read this one inside. We also came to a consensus that Robert Johnson was an amazing cat, and that Tres’s old flame might not be the best person to date. We agreed that as long as Texas keeps growing, this novel will never become irrelevant. Finally, we all made up our minds to read the Devil Came Down to Austin, to see what the hero makes of our fair town.
Next up for the book club, we are reading Paper Towns, by John Green. We’ll meet to discuss on Monday, August 4th. This novel won the Edgar Award for Young Adult fiction and since we’ve all been dying to read something by John Green, we were delighted to realize that Paper Towns qualified for our book club. You can check our facebook page to vote on the Seven Percent Solution’s book for September. As always, we meet on the first Monday of each month at 7PM on BookPeople’s third floor. Books discussed are 10% off for those who attend the meeting.
All of BookPeople’s book clubs are free to attend! No reservation necessary.
Lori Rader-Day has been in the crime world for a while – she teaches mystery writing in Chicago and is active in several mystery author organizations. The Black Hour is her first novel, and hits on some fairly heavy themes for a debut, including suicide and a
mysterious campus shooting. Random acts of violence are on America’s mind, and they seem to have been on Lori Rader-Day’s mind as well. Since the novel is set in academia, the fierce competition for prestige and funding in higher education plays a prominent role. There are, it seems, quite a few more reasons to kill someone in the ivory tower than one might realize before starting this thrilling descent into the depths of the near-Ivy League.
The Black Hour begins with a professor returning to work after being gut-shot by a student a year earlier. Why? No one knows – some assume the two were having an affair, but most accept it as random violence that cannot be understood. Dr. Amelia Emmet, however, studies the sociology of violence for her living, and with the help of a secretive graduate student and a persistent reporter, she just might find out the truth. Realistically, it might take a while – every moment she gets closer to a resolution, she hits yet another hurdle in her recovery from injuries and her repairing of relationships wrecked long before her shooting ever took place. The narrative might develop gradually, but Rader-Day’s ear for dialogue and compelling characterizations keep the pace from ever feeling slow.
This is a very human story – Lori Rader-Day shies away from sweeping condemnations of society in favor of a more nuanced take on a woman’s struggle to find closure. Curiosity, personal and professional, also play a part, and Rader-Day enjoys bringing to the fore the central irony of the story – a professor specializing in the sociology of violence has become the victim of that which constitutes her livelihood. The identity crisis caused by this intimate violation of academic distance allows Rader-Day to delve more deeply into the psychology of murder, and sparks additional discussions of class, gender, privilege, disability, and asymmetrical sexual relationships. She presents this all with a dry wit and cynical edge, while drawing towards a suspenseful and satisfying conclusion. The Black Hour is one to read, and Rader-Day is definitely one to watch.
The Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day is available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com
~Post by Scott M.
The Hard Word Book Club is known for its share of tough guy fiction, but we get real manly on July 30th with the anthology Blood & Tacos edited by Johnny Shaw. It is a great tribute to the men’s action paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s.
Shaw rounded up some of the best talent, including Thomas Pluck, Josh Stallings, and himself. Each contributes a story he “found” from the era, along with a bio of the author (which can be as entertaining as the tale). The stories range from straight up homages like Gary Phillips’s The Silencer Strikes or semi-parodies, such as Todd “Big Daddy Thug” Robinson’s story featuring the deep-sea-diving and womanizing he-man Studs Winslow. Many are funny, all are fun.
The discussion should be a blast with Johnny joining us on the phone. We start at 7PM, on the third floor, Wednesday July 30th. Books are 10% off to those who attend. Check bookpeople.com for more info.
Chris Irvin is all about brevity. He is the editor of Shotgun Honey, the site devoted to crime flash fiction that is under 700 words and author of the novella, Federales, an involving and emotional look at Mexico’s drug war that is just over a hundred pages. Here from Shotgun Honey is a quick piece of bad behavior from Chris.
“‘This ain’t Halloween,’ Chaz said, revolver cocked and pressed into the intruder’s neck. Chaz had been nursing a warm beer in the dark trailer, watching the lanky man trudge through the howling nor’easter with alarming ease, robbing the double-wides across the unplowed lot, the contents of the burlap sack slung over his shoulder growing with each visit. Chaz’s phone lay silent in his pocket. The uncut drugs on his coffee table nixed any idea of calling the cops…”
Michael Morton has written an amazing, moving, and inspiring memoir about spending almost 25 years in Texas prisons for being falsely convicted of murdering his wife, Christine Morton. I was so excited when he agreed to let me interview him by email. I do at least 25 author interviews a year, but the two most important and meaningful to me in the last 5 years have been with Morton and movie critic Roger Ebert, both fascinating people.
I have followed the Morton case with interest since moving to Austin about 5 years ago as it was often covered in local news media coverage. It’s not every day that a) A man is released from prison after serving nearly 25 years for a false conviction and b) One reason for the release is the prosecutor, who at the time of Morton’s release was Williamson County District Judge Ken Anderson, withheld important evidence from the defense.
Not only was Morton released but Anderson was rightly punished for his actions. Morton, in his review, avoids what must have been tempting: namely, using the book to get revenge against Anderson and the county sheriff, whose investigation of the murder was so awful as to be laughable. However,his writing about Anderson’s hearing for misconduct evens things out without being mean as it describes a defensive Anderson hating to answer the kind of tough questions he had asked Morton. It’s a nice bit of poetic justice especially when Anderson had to go to jail for contempt of court for withholding evidence though for only a short period of time.
At one point in his memoir about his challenging life, Morton reveals a detail that makes this whole story even crazier: How did the defense realize there was evidence not shared? During conversations with the jury after conviction, someone from the prosecutor’s office told the jury there was evidence not shared. Despite this admission it still takes more than 20 years for the prosecutors and a judge to test DNA found on a bloody piece of clothing found near the house where she was killed.
Ultimately, the DNA matched Mark Alan Norwood, who was also accused of killing another woman in the same manner: beaten to death in their own beds. Norwood was convicted after a trial in which Morton had to once again look at the photos of the crime.
His case sparked a law with his name on it: The Michael Morton Act, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2014. It is set up to ensure the discovery process is more open to remove barriers for getting evidence.
One of the hardest parts of the whole book and Morton’s life is that he and Christine had a child, Eric. Eric told relatives he saw a man other than his dad hurting his mom and this was some of the information the prosecution refused to share with the defense. But Eric was raised by relatives convinced of Morton’s guilt and he eventually believed them so Morton lost the two people he loved the most: his wife and his son. After his dad was released the boy, now a man, has to adjust to the realization that what he thought he knew about his dad was wrong.
One reason the case has received so much attention, with a documentary about his case and his life and a 60 Minutes piece, is that this is just a regular guy with no criminal history, who did nothing wrong but who got caught in the system. It’s a reminder that there ARE innocent people in jail. As Morton said at one point in the book he’s just lucky his was not a capital case because he might not still be around.
Fortunately, groups like the Innocence Project work to find people protesting their innocence and do DNA testing to help them get freed. I’ll end my introduction here with an excerpt from the foreword, written by Barry Scheck, the co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project:
“Michael Morton is the innocence movement’s best approximation of Everyman – a self-described average, middle-class guy, living in a Texas suburb with a wife he adored and a three-and-a-half-year-old son, who gets up early to go to work. When he arrives home later that day, he learns his wife has been bludgeoned to death. He has no record, no experience at all with the criminal justice system. No reason to believe he could be suspected or, even worse, convicted of this terrible crime. It’s like being struck by lightning without even knowing there was a storm on the horizon. Unthinkable. Yet from Michael’s story alone, especially the way he tells it, any sane American can will have to conclude that if it could happen to Michael Morton, Everyman, it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.”
Scott Butki: How did this book come together? Did you rely a lot on the journals you wrote in prison?
Michael Morton: One of the challenges of writing this book was structuring it to be both interesting and readable, without it feeling contrived. Because it is a memoir, my feelings and memories are important. On the other hand, I wanted it to be accurate. I relied on my journal more than anything. But I also consulted court transcripts, newspaper articles, legal documents, and some of the raw material we collected when making the documentary.
SB: Did you ever think, “If I ever get out of prison I’ll write a book and explain all of this”?
MM: I never dreamed that my life might be a publishable commodity. I kept my journal because I envisioned my son asking about prison, someday. My plan was to drop my 1000+ page journal in his lap. That may not have been too wise, too practical, or very kind (no one likes a mountain of unedited rambling). Nevertheless, that was the ill-conceived plan.
SB: When you told prisoners and prison staff you were innocent did any of them believe you? Did that add to your frustrations?
MM: On those rare occasions when I revealed my situation to someone in prison, I was never sure if they believed me or not. And in the end, I don’t think it mattered if they did. I suppose one of my motivations was simply embracing the human need to share. All prisoners share the horrible food, the institutional clothes, the depressing circumstances, and the odious company. I always took a small amount of comfort when someone inside asked why I was there. They didn’t want to know about my crime. Instead, the obvious implication was that I looked and behaved nothing like a felon. It was a shame that a mere prisoner could see what the entire criminal justice system could not.
SB: You write with clear emotion about how your son never really got to know you and you two drifted apart because you were in prison for most of his life. Have you two been able to rekindle a relationship since your release?
MM: The rebirth or reinvention of the relationship my son and I share has been uneven. At first, it felt forced. Then, it waned. After that, it started anew. I guess the most honest statement would be that the trajectory of our relationship has been “organic.” It’s probably closer to normal now than ever. And just like so-called normal father/son relationships, we take two steps forward and one step back. A lot of people want us to be attached at the hip. But we live in different cities, hundreds of miles apart. We see each other semi regularly. He is a young man with a wife, two very small children, a budding career, and mortgage. I remember what that’s like. So, I just smile and schedule visits when it fits both of our lives.
SB: Did you think you would ever get out? Did you ever reach a point where you gave up on that happening?
MM: For whatever reason — call it optimism or delusion — I always figured I’d get out. I didn’t know how and sure didn’t know when. I just couldn’t accept that such a monumental injustice would last. There were, of course, good days and bad. Who am I kidding? There were good years and bad. But I believe that, in the end, good triumphs over evil. I believe in a universe that makes sense. I know that God is sovereign and that our lives have purpose. Without that belief, we would end up like Nietzsche, alone and insane.
SB: How do you feel about Barry Scheck and others using you as an example of an everyman who gets arrested and imprisoned despite being innocent? Put simpler how do you feel about being put in that role?
MM: To be blunt, I DIDN’T LIKE IT. But in all candor, I have to admit that it made me who I am. The experience, as distasteful as it was, improved me. It refined me and opened my eyes to what is important and what is not. I now see all of existence in its proper perspective. Nietzsche may have been crazy in the end, but he got one thing right: That which does not kill you makes you stronger.
SB: A lot of people including me, view what happened to you as a reminder that courts make mistakes, sometimes huge ones. Is that one of the lessons you want people to take away from this book? What other lessons do you help it will teach?
MM: Of course the courts make mistakes. They’re filled with human beings. So, our system of justice is no better or worse than the people in it. One of the institutional lessons I hope people take away from what happened to me is the genuine need for “checks and balances.” We should be very, very careful about putting too much power in one person. We should also be as sure as we can be that our procedures are transparent. Everything our government does — especially when it is trying to take away a citizen’s liberty — should be open for examination.
On a more personal level, though, I want people to read my book and see that whatever they’re going through — be it financial, marital, emotional, physical sickness…whatever — is for their good. I know that’s a pretty tough pill to swallow, but I’ve found it to be true. If a person is honest, he or she will be able to look back on their ordeal and recognize that it was exactly what they needed.
I also hope people will see what I went through and learn to never, ever give up.
SB: I read that you have forgiven everyone involved in the case. If so how did you manage that? Does that mean you have even forgiven your wife’s real killer?
MM: Yes, I have forgiven those involved with my case. It was a conscious choice. It took a good while, but I learned that keeping that sort of hatred and animus within me was hurting me, not them. When I released all that, it felt as if I’d suddenly lost 20 unwanted pounds. I literally felt better.
We’ve all heard that you reap what you sow. It’s true. Doing to other what we want for ourselves is one of the pillars of the Judeo-Christian/Western Civilization perspective. It is not some arbitrary concept. It’s genuine. It’s good for the individual. And it works out for all of us, in the end.
It is a process, though. Take the man who killed my wife, for instance. I am still working on that. I am not there yet. I believe I will get there…but as it said, it’s a process.
SB: You said in the book that Jack Anderson saved your journals for you while were in prison. How did that work?
MM: Prisoners have a limited amount of space for personal possessions. So, whenever I would accumulate 10 or 20 pages, I’d mail them to Jack Anderson. Through innumerable moves, at least two marriages, and I’m sure the temptation to unload the scribblings of someone who might never get out, Jack held onto my journal. He is a true friend, a man who does what he says he’ll do. That kind of guy isn’t easy to find.
SB: Was it difficult and/or therapeutic to write this book?
MM: It was both difficult and therapeutic. As you might image, it hurt to go through all those years yet again. But it helped me. I’ve probably saved a ton of money on shrink bills.
I began writing this book as one of many ways to put pressure on the Texas Legislature. However, we got what became known as the Michael Morton Act passed rather quickly. Then, I found that I was obligated to finish the book. So, here we are.
Copies of Getting Life are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. We ship worldwide.
~post by Molly
International Crime Fiction Month has finally reached its conclusion. We profiled Europa Editions, Akashic Books, and Melville House, each for their exceptional commitment to bringing us the best in international crime fiction. Now it is time to add one more to that list. Grove Atlantic, with their Mysterious Press and Atlantic Monthly Press imprints, publish a sizable chunk of the international mystery authors on our shelves. These two imprints mainly bring us crime fiction from the UK, but they also put in print many of our favorite crime writers in translation. Prominent authors include Ken Bruen, Val McDermid and Mo Hayder, as well as South Africa’s “king of crime fiction” Deon Meyer. When asked about the commonalities between their authors, a spokeswoman replied that “the main thing we look for in international crime fiction, as in all our books, is simply good writing.”
Through their use of the Mysterious Press imprint, they bring attention to crime fiction publishing history as well. The legendary Otto Penzler founded the Mysterious Press in 1975 with the mission of releasing quality editions of quality mysteries. He used acid-free paper, full-cloth bindings, and artist-designed color dust jackets, all uncommon in the publication of genre fiction at that time. All these visual innovations helped to elevate detective fiction out of the realm of pulp and into the world of modern classics. When Grove Atlantic acquired the imprint, they expanded its offerings of international crime fiction while continuing to publish the best in American noir.
Our featured authors from Grove Atlantic include Christopher Brookmyre of Scotland and Mark Billingham of the UK. Brookmyre writes intriguing exposés of establishment corruption and violence through the eyes of an investigative journalist. Like many international crime authors, he uses his medium as a form of radical reportage. His latest, Bred in the Bone, serves as a reminder of Glasgow’s vicious underworld. His latest also features the attention to place and detail that is a hallmark of great international noir. In Mark Billingham’s new novel, The Bones Beneath, a detective and a notorious serial killer set off on a journey to a remote island to recover a long-dead body. The Bones Beneath places the rugged coastal geography of Wales in a starring role.
So (belatedly) ends the International Crime Fiction Month with MysteryPeople. Thanks for joining our reading world tour, and be sure to stop in and swap recommendations with us the next time you’re in the store!
This Wednesday, July 9 at 6PM we will be screening the film Purple Noon as part of our biweekly noir double feature series. Each event features a screening of a noir film based on a classic of the genre.
Purple Noon is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 classic chiller and best-known work, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Purple Noon was made in 1960 and directed by Rene Clemont. Patricia Highsmith collaborated with French screenwriters to bring the book to the screen. Together, they created a vision of The Talented Mr. Ripley that drastically
departs from the book in its details yet preserves much of its tone.
Patricia Highsmith rose to prominence in 1950s America as the master of psychological drama. She captured the fears, obsessions, and compulsions of a hypocritical post-war society in her work. The inner lives of her protagonists are drastically at odds with their surface personalities. At any moment in her work, a terrible thought can turn
into an irreversible action. Her killers are complex and her victims are far from innocent. This is never truer than in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
As the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley begins, Tom Ripley is a small time crook mooching off his blue-blooded New England friends. When an acquaintance’s father approaches him with a strange proposition – go to Europe and convince his son Richard to come home – Ripley jumps at the thought of an all-expense paid vacation. Ripley joins Richard and his girlfriend, Marge, in Southern Italy. Soon, however, his friendship with the couple soon sours, and is replaced by jealousy and dark ambitions.
Purple Noon begins with Tom and Phillipe [Richard in the novel] already fast friends. The two engage in an ugly night about town, pulling cruel pranks for their own amusement, before heading back home to a distraught Marge, who immediately accuses Phillipe of cheating on her.
The film and the novel differ greatly in their characterizations of Richard and Tom. The film portrays Tom as a full-blown con man from the start, and Phillipe as menacing and manipulative. The novel, written from Tom’s point of view, delves continuously into his
justifications for his actions. The novel portrays Richard as more entitled and unconcerned than mean.
Marge, too, has a very different role on-screen than in the novel. Film Marge is sultry, erotic, an object of desire for both Tom and Phillipe. Tom, in the novel, finds Marge to be repellent, obnoxious, and representative of everything he hates about America. In the film, Marge’s relationship with Phillipe is defined as emotionally abusive, while in the novel the two treat each other with semi-platonic tenderness and she is Richard’s best friend.
Aside from characterization, the film only loosely bases its structure on that of the novel. Major plot points are preserved, but with infinite small variations. Purple Noon does, however, successfully integrate The Talented Mr. Ripley’s menacing tone and hovering potential violence. The film preserves the playfulness and desperation of Highsmith’s narrative, but presents a drama in which the characters are cynical, hardened versions of their book selves.
Both the book and film are ripe for analysis. I like to read The Talented Mr. Ripley as a metaphor for the plasticity of identity in a world where appearances mean everything. In such a world, to deceive is to achieve success.
The story can also be read as an exploration into the ways in which repressive societies can twist desire into unhealthy obsessions. In the novel, Tom refuses to acknowledge his attraction to Richard, but remains fixated on the object of his affections, with dire
Yet another way to read the novel, and the film, is as parody of the American dream. Ripley is a con man and an identity thief, obsessed with the luxurious possessions of those wealthier than him. He gains status through impersonating those with higher status, and he feels that he has earned this status through hard work.
However you interpret Highsmith’s writing and the films based on her novels, her themes are as fresh and intriguing now as they were fifty years ago. Come join us Wednesday, July 9 at 6PM for the screening and discussion of Purple Noon and The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s sure to be a great evening out of the summer heat.
Double Feature Stats
Adherence to book (Scale of 1-5) – 2
Adherence to quality of book - 5
Knife in the Water, The Third Man, Coup de Torchon