This Wednesday, August 6th, at 6 pm, MysteryPeople will host a screening of Carl Franklin’s 1992 noir classic Devil in a Blue Dress, based on Walter Mosley’s book of the same name. The screening is part of our ongoing Noir Double Feature Film Series, a biweekly MysteryPeople event where we screen a film adaption of a noir classic and follow with a discussion of the film versus the novel. Each screening begins at 6 pm and takes place on BookPeople’s third floor.
Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosely’s first novel to star unlicensed private detective Easy Rawlins, follows Easy as he first enters into the finding-things-out-for-money game. A sinister white gangster hires Rawlins to find a blonde bombshell who likes to frequent black clubs, but when Easy gets a little ways into the case, people around him start showing up dead, and it is up to him to find out whodunit before the law decides to go the lazy route and just frame him instead. Easy Rawlins, as a proud veteran of World War II and the mean streets of Houston’s fifth ward, is up to the task. By the end of the book, he may just have found himself a new career and a permanent outlet for snappy one liners.
Mosley’s novel takes place in 1940s LA, like many a neo-noir, and the book is so cinematically written as to form a perfect bond with Franklin’s jazzy interpretation. With a 20 million dollar budget, Franklin creates a vibrant depiction of African-American neighborhoods in mid-century Los Angeles. This, combined with a tight narrative and stunning early performances from Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle, make this a film not to miss.
As a film, Devil in a Blue Dress shares most symmetry with Chinatown – they both take a modern perspective and delve deeply into LA’s sordid history, and the city plays as large a part as any single character. Walter Mosley and Carl Franklin use the groundwork already laid for LA noir, and Devil in a Blue Dress adds a welcome layer to the cosmopolitan patchwork that is representations of Los Angeles in literature and film.
Devil in a Blue Dress is firmly grounded in the hard-boiled detective novel conventions. Corruption, murder, greed, deviance, prostitution, small-time gangsters – Easy Rawlins does not find post-war LA to be a particularly wholesome world. Easy also has all the particular problems of dealing with racism as an African-American in 1948, including police violence, potential lynching every time he talks to a white woman, and a constant stream of indignities and casual racism from almost every white man he meets. Although Rawlins is well established as a hard-working homeowner in a community in which he is known and respected, the admiration of his peers and the constant booze and sex cannot obscure his place at the bottom of society’s totem pole. The film was made shortly after Compton exploded in the aftermath of Rodney King’s beating, and the film struck a particularly heart-wrenching cord upon its release through its portrayal of issues from an earlier time that to this day pervade society.
Detective novels have long been dominated by voices writing from within mainly white communities, where the majority of minority visitors are represented as the other. Devil in a Blue Dress provides welcome relief from such literary tunnel vision – any white visitor to Mosley’s spot-on recreation of 1940s black LA is immediately viewed as a potentially dangerous anomaly. Mosley is, however, certainly not the first detective novelist to represent the African-American experience, and noir set in black communities has a long history stretching back to Chester Himes in the 1950s. Carl Franklin had Denzel Washington read some of Himes’ novels, including Cotton Comes to Harlem, so as to give him a sense of the time and place the film aimed to recreate.
Mosley is one of the most intriguing authors writing now in any mystery subgenre. His detective novels, like his sci-fi and general fiction, have all enjoyed wide renown and crossover appeal. Luckily for us, he is also one of the most prolific authors writing now, and you can find his work all over our shelves. Mosley himself will be coming to BookPeople this fall [DATE? - i wanted to promote his visit with the post but i wasn't sure when he is coming], so keep an eye out on our events calendar.
MysteryPeople is proud to offer a screening of Devil in a Blue Dress, Wednesday, August 6, at 6 pm, up on BookPeople’s third floor. You can find Devil in a Blue Dress on our shelves and at bookpeople.com. Our next MysteryPeople Noir Double Feature will be Wednesday, August 20. We will screen Winter’s Bone and discuss Daniel Woodrell’s book of the same name.
Double Feature Stats
Adherence to Book [scale of 1-5]: 4
Chinatown, LA Confidential, Long Goodbye, In the Heat of the Night, Boyz N The Hood
Tim Bryant’s latest book featuring post-war Fort Worth private eye Dutch Curridge, Spirit Trap, involves theft and the murder of a family, with members of a western swing band as suspects. Tim will be joining us with Ben Rheder and Reavis Wortham for our Lone Star Mystery authors panel this Wednesday, August 6, at 7 pm on BookPeople’s second floor. Tim was kind enough to answer some questions beforehand.
MysteryPeople: Music always plays a big part in the book and this time, Dutch has to deal with a lot of them in this mystery. Being one yourself, what did you want to get a across about a band?
Tim Bryant: There wasn’t a lot of planning that went into Spirit Trap. I experienced it, in some ways, as I would if I were reading it. Still, I brought my history in music to it. I would have to say what came out of that was the dichotomy that, if you look at a band from the outside, it appears very much as a family, a unit that works together. Seen from the inside out, though, it’s made up of a bunch of individuals, each of whom will have their own motives and may see what they’re doing in completely different ways. Both of those things can be useful in writing about life, especially when you’re talking about mystery.
MP: Dutch’s voice is so unique and it carries the book. How did you develop it?
TB: There’s a lot of myself in Dutch, so I didn’t have to invent him from whole cloth. Obviously, we share a dark and rather twisted sense of humor. There’s also a good bit of my grandfather in him, and people that I remember from my grandfather’s era, men who hung around him. I have an ear for how those kinds of people talk. Not just what they say, but how they say it. I had written a series of short stories with a character called Cold Eye Huffington. Cold Eye was a good bit like Dutch, although he was set in New Orleans. The very first story I ever wrote with Dutch as a character was published in REAL literary magazine, and his voice was pretty much fully formed from the beginning.
MP: Which came first to write about, Dutch or Fort Worth?
TB: After the Cold Eye stories, I wanted to develop a Texas character, because I do consider myself to be a Texas writer. Of course, with Cold Eye, I had the whole New Orleans music scene as a backdrop, and I very much wanted to keep music in the picture. It’s something I know well and enjoy writing about, and there’s endless fodder for storylines. So, looking at Texas, and being a huge fan of both western swing music and jazz, Fort Worth became the obvious setting for Dutch. Fort Worth has such a rich music history, and a lot of people aren’t aware of just how rich it is. I mean, Bob Wills and Milton Brown are both associated with Fort Worth, but so is Ornette Coleman. Plus, I knew that Dutch would be a little guy going up against bigger foes, and Fort Worth, always being in the shadow of Dallas, fit into that psychology.
MP: One of the things I Iike best about Dutch is his sense of humor. How important is humor in a story when you’re dealing with somber subject matter?
TB: I think it’s important as a writer and a reader to have that spark of humor there in the dark, but it only works because it’s important for Dutch himself to have that humor. It’s a survival mechanism for him, as much as anything. And he’s no longer a churchgoer, but he remembers from childhood that a joke is always funnier when you’re in a place it doesn’t belong or isn’t expected. The humor just comes naturally from what’s going on. I suppose they all come from my mind as I’m writing the story, but it honestly feels as if they come from the mind of Dutch as he goes about things. That’s what makes it natural, what makes it work.
MP: For an author, what makes Dutch Curridge a character worth coming back to?
TB: The fact that I know him like a friend. I not only know what has happened to him in the three novels, but, at this point, I know the day he was born and I know the day he dies. Elvis hasn’t arrived on the scene in the books yet, but I know what he thinks about Elvis. He’s like any friend. I may need a break from him every once in a while, because he’s pretty intense in a lot of ways, but after a while, I start to hear him whispering in my ear, and I start to miss the guy.
MysteryPeople welcomes Tim Bryant, along with Reavis Wortham and Ben Rehder, to BookPeople for a conversation about crime fiction on Wednesday, August 6, at 7 pm. His latest novel, Spirit Trap, is available on BookPeople’s shelves and via bookpeople.com.
Wendi Corsi Staub shares with us a little bit about her latest thriller, The Perfect Stranger, and her inspirations for writing her heroines.
My latest suspense novel, The Perfect Stranger, is the second in a trio of thrillers that are all connected not by characters or setting, but by theme: you never know who might be lurking behind a familiar online screen name. The Perfect Stranger is about a breast cancer survivor/blogger named Landry Wells, who finds kindred support and friendship online in a group of fellow bloggers who eventually become her closest confidantes. Now they meet in person for the first time at the funeral for one of their own, the victim of a random murder—or so they believed. Landry wonders if she shared too much online and if her killer is a fellow blogger who might be preparing to strike again.
This is the second time I’ve chosen to create a heroine who’s battled breast cancer, and it’s a bold and perhaps risky decision, I know. But the disease has ravaged my personal life, robbing me not just of my mom but of my mother-in-law and her sister. My sister-in-law and several of my closest friends are survivors.
The first time I set out to write my breast cancer heroine, I’d just lost her my mom—it was May of 2005, just after her 63rd birthday and Mother’s Day.
Throughout my career, I had managed to get past whatever was thrown at me. Nothing was impossible. At that time, I was juggling deadlines as usual, scheduled to finish writing an upbeat chick lit novel and a thriller—both due that summer. But suddenly, I was unable to focus. Instead of working, I ran away from home.
Well, not really.
I took my husband and my sons with me, and escaped. We traveled for two months that summer, meandering from place to place as I struggled to get over my loss so that I could get back to work. Even Disney World—the happiest place on earth—couldn’t make it entirely better, but it helped.
Back at home, I struggled again to finish the chick lit novel. I managed to do it, but then, instead of turning my attention to my other deadline, I felt compelled to write a proposal that I knew would be a difficult sell. Not because it was a Christmas time travel romance, but because Clara, the novel’s heroine, had breast cancer. The conventional view in the publishing industry is that breast cancer is too depressing—who wants to read about that?
I assured my agent that the book wasn’t depressing, it was uplifting. Clara’s character was inspired by my mom’s stalwart hope in the face of adversity. My agent was dubious—and surprised by my attitude.
She knew me well enough to know that I am too commercial and too busy a writer to waste my time on something that isn’t a sure thing. I was supposed to be writing a thriller that was already overdue, and I had never blown a deadline in my career.
What the heck was I doing?
I wondered the same thing myself.
But I listened to my instincts. This Christmas Time Travel was a book that I just had to write—even if only for me.
I didn’t realize it then, but writing isn’t just my passion or my job. It’s also my way of working through issues.
I sent the proposal—the first three chapters and an outline–to my agent just before Christmas. She wasn’t enthusiastic. Nothing had changed in the past couple of months; no one was lining up to buy books about heroines who had breast cancer.
My agent reminded me that business was all but completed for the month—the year, really. Most publishing houses close down the week between Christmas and New Year’s; no editor would consider it until January.
“I know,” I said, “but submit it anyway.”
Really, I was physically and emotionally spent. I had been possessed by that story I felt compelled to tell, and now that I had purged myself of it, I just wanted it off my plate. After the New Year, I told myself, I would get back down to business and write what I was supposed to be writing.
The next day, I flew with my husband and sons to my hometown to face our first Christmas without my mom. Walking into my childhood home, I felt emptiness, and I fell apart. Mom’s joyful spirit that always embodied the holidays was gone. Never again would there be a perfect gift chosen just for me out of maternal love.
But I’d been raised by a woman who believed in the impossible, and she taught me to believe in it, too.
Plus…Christmas is a season of miracles.
Minutes after I arrived, my cell phone rang.
It was my agent. “Are you sitting down?”
“An editor at Penguin read your proposal this morning. She said something made her want to read it right then. She loved it, and she tracked down the Editor in Chief on a ski slope somewhere to get permission to make you an offer.”
“They want it?” I asked, incredulous. “Yes, on one condition, and I’m not sure it’s possible—they want you to write the whole thing by the end of January so that they can publish it next December.”
Was it impossible to write an entire book—a time travel that demanded extensive research into another era–in four weeks?
What do you think? That book, If Only in My Dreams, was released the following Christmas to a barrage of terrific reviews and even some movie interest from Hollywood. It’s still in print, and Amazon Montlake picked up the digital rights last year. I even wrote a sequel, The Best Gift.
That first Christmas without my mom—the one I thought would be the first without a Christmas gift from her—actually turned out to be the one when I received my last, and most meaningful, Christmas gift from her. When I look back at how that book, If Only In My Dreams, came to be written, I know that it was my a heaven-sent gift from my mom.
This week, when The Perfect Stranger hits the shelves, I’ll proudly and boldly introduce my readers to breast cancer survivor Landry Wells, a heroine I hope they’ll welcome as warmly as they did Clara. Here’s to strong women facing and conquering challenges – both in fiction and in real life!
New York Times bestseller Wendy Corsi Staub is the award-winning author of more than seventy-five published novels and has sold more than four million books worldwide. Under her own name, Wendy achieved New York Times bestselling status with her single title psychological suspense novels. Those novels and the women’s fiction she writes under the pseudonym Wendy Markham also frequently appeared on the USA Today, Barnes and Noble Top Ten, and Bookscan bestseller lists.
Ben Rehder is an Austin-based author who has long been known for the humor in his books. The second book in his series is Gone the Next, featuring legal videographer Roy Ballard. Rehder’s novel follows Ballard as, during his surveillance work, he notices someone who bears a strong resemblance to a girl who has been abducted.
We are happy to have him join us for our Lone Star Mystery Authors panel this Wednesday, August 6, at 7 PM, on BookPeople’s second floor. He’ll be reading and signing his latest book in the series, Get Busy Dying. We caught up with him for this quick interview.
MysteryPeople: Child abduction is such touchy subject matter that many writers avoid it. What made you decide to take it on?
Ben Rehder: I don’t usually set out to choose a particular topic for a novel; most of the time, raw ideas just occur to me, and I start to play around with them to see if they go anywhere. In this case, the idea was this: What if an investigator had someone under surveillance for a white-collar crime, and suddenly, without any explanation, there was a little girl in the subject’s presence? What if that little girl matched the description of a girl who had recently gone missing? Worse, what if the investigator couldn’t convince the cops of what he’d seen? I saw no reason to avoid the topic of child abduction, and in fact it seemed that there couldn’t be too many more compelling subjects. How far would most people go to save an abducted child? I think the lengths might just be boundless.
MP: As serious as the subject matter is, Ballard is very funny. How do you balance the humor with the darkness?
BR: You hold the darkness in your left hand and an equal quantity of humor in your right hand. Okay, Ballard isn’t necessarily making light of abduction or missing kids, but he does appreciate the value of humor in making tough situations a little more bearable. There’s a back story there I won’t get into, but if Ballard couldn’t laugh about life, he’d be insane by now. He deals with feelings of guilt and sadness and anxiety by making jokes. Of course, he also makes jokes in the absence of guilt, sadness, or anxiety.
MP: What made you choose a legal videographer as a series character?
BR: I was doing research on insurance fraud investigators and I stumbled across that phrase, “legal videographer.” I had no idea what it meant (was it the opposite of an illegal videographer?), but when I read the job description, I realized I’d found the job title for my character. A legal videographer’s duties typically include recording depositions, accident scenes and re-creations, witness testimony, and in some cases, attempting to obtain evidence of insurance fraud. (That’s Roy Ballard’s specialty.) The bonus was that I couldn’t remember any novel revolving around a legal videographer, so it seemed like a unique way to go.
MP: What do you get to do with Roy that you can’t do with the Blanco County series?
BR: The biggest difference is that I get to use the first-person point of view. I’m writing from Roy Ballard’s perspective, so the reader can’t see into other characters’ heads as the story unfolds. That’s actually quite liberating, even though first person also carries some obvious limitations. Also, I get to swap the rural Blanco County setting for a more suburban and urban atmosphere in the Ballard novels. And Roy Ballard is a total smart aleck, whereas John Marlin (the Blanco County protagonist) is a little more serious. It’s a nice change of pace to switch between the two series.
MP: I really enjoyed banter between Roy and Mia. Do you have a particular approach to dialogue?
BR: You want to capture natural speech patterns as closely as possible and still keep it readable. Ever read a transcript of a deposition or any other recorded conversation? The truth is, actual dialog is often very awkward and hard to follow in written form, because you can’t hear inflection or see body language, and there is a lot of interrupting or hemming and hawing. So you have to strike a balance—keep it real but also keep it readable. And if there’s a choice between a straight line and a wise-ass remark, I’ll generally go for the latter.
MysteryPeople welcomes Ben Rehder, along with Reavis Wortham and Tim Bryant, to BookPeople for a conversation about crime fiction on Wednesday, August 6, at 7 pm. His latest novel, Get Busy Dying, and Gone the Next are available for purchase on BookPeople’s shelves and from our online store at bookpeople.com.
Sometimes you can’t wait until the evening to talk about murder. With that in mind, we invite you to join us for Murder in the Afternoon, a brand new afternoon book club, meeting on the third Tuesday of each month at 2PM on BookPeople’s third floor (603 N. Lamar Blvd). Join us for coffee, tea, and discussions of some of some of our favorite books in the mystery genre. All meetings are free and open to the public!
Tues 8/19 – The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson
***Craig will call in to discuss the book with us!
Tues 9/23 – In The Woods by Tana French
Tues 10/21 – The Carter Of La Providence by George Simenon
Tues 11/18 – Death On Tour by Janis Hamrick
Tues 12/16 – The Beggar King by Oliver Potzsch
Tues 1/20 – Death In The Andes by Mario Vargas Llossa
Book club books are 10% off at BookPeople! Just let your cashier know you’re buying it for book club. Or give us a heads up in the Comments field when you’re checking out at bookpeople.com.
MysteryPeople Pick for August: The Iron Sickle by Martin Limón
Reviewed by: Scott M.
Martin Limón‘s series featuring George Sueño and Ernie Bascome is a must read. The cases of these two CID Army detectives in the South Korea of the ’70s explore culture, bureaucracy, and the hard pursuit of justice, with an approach both hard boiled and human. The latest, The Iron Sickle, is the epitome of this.
The title refers to the weapon used by a killer who went on base and murdered two personnel. Some think it is the work of a North Korean agent, given the communist symbolism of the sickle. The plot becomes even more convoluted when Bascome and Sueño find themselves in an investigation where neither the U.S. Army nor the Korean government want to be responsible for finding the perpetrator. With the help of a female Army psychologist, who is after Sueño as well as the killer, the two follow a trail of violence that leads to a mountain village and its dark history, where the line between victim and victimizer blurs.
Limón always creates a vivid sense of his investigators’ time and place. Like Sueño, he has an understanding and respect for the cultural surrounding. We learn much about Korean society through the detectives and their interactions with customs and protocols. He also covers the Army politics and bureaucracy that get in the way of investigations. Sueño has an amazing explanation of how their civilian dress code makes them stand out while trying to work.
The book is also one of the best examples of Sueño and Bascome’s friendship. Sueño is an orphan from the L. A. barrio who has fallen in love with the world he’s landed in. Bascome fought through three Vietnam tours and is driven by action and an adversarial nature. The two are more than a cop-buddy relationship of opposites. We see their subtle effect on each other. Both are comrades united by a clear sense of righteous purpose that doesn’t fit the group they are in.
The Iron Sickle is a great introduction to the Sueño-Bascome series while building on what came before. Limón looks at history and culture, and at the sins of each, with two heroes who understand the true meaning of justice. You’ll be going back for the other books after you’ve read this one.
Tim Bryant will be joining us for our Lone Star Mystery Writers Panel, Wednesday, the 6th at 7PM, along with Reavis Wortham and Ben Rehder. His latest, Spirit Trap, deals with music, the past, and a unique view of things, much like his tale here.
SHIMMIE SHE WOBBLE
by Tim Bryant
Lee Ray Murvin, who most people called Sardine, was down on his knees barking like a dog, and Clement Whitaker was still trying to pour more oh be joyful into him, first from a wooden ladle and then from one of Sardine’s own boots, which along with his trousers and work shirt, were strewn across the hardwood floor. Micah Lockwood sat in a corner playing five-card stud with his friend and kettle drum player Henry Compton and trying to ignore Clement’s devilry, but you can only turn your back for so long.
“Let him alone, Clement. He’s had enough.”
Clement, who was every bit as tanked as Sardine but had the fortune of being Sardine’s foreman on day shift at the mill, was having none of it.
“You got no dog in this, Lockwood.”
Clement laughed at his own cleverness and barked at Sardine who flinched and backed into a corner. Sardine’s face was drenched in sweat, and he had a look behind his eyes that unsettled Micah.
“Get him some spoonbread to settle his stomach,” he said.
He stood up from the table and took a few steps toward the kitchen, where Anna was sitting with a paperback book creased on her knee, passing time until she could send everyone home and close down for another night.
Clement turned like a pitcher on the mound, hurling Sardine’s boot with enough force that it hit Micah’s left cheek like the foot was still attached.
Later, when the law showed up and wanted to take witness accounts, most of the men in the room agreed that it was at this point that they knew things had crossed the line. Two of them, in fact, stood up and left Anna’s Lounge immediately.
As for Micah Lockwood, none who remained had much argument with his claim that everything beyond that point was a big blur. If they agreed that he had lunged at Clement, they also admitted that Clement had it coming. Clement, sensing that he had his hands full, dropped the bottle but drew the ladle up, first in a defensive posture, but then began to poke and prod his opponent with it. That, they said, was when Micah pulled the fife from his pocket.
“No, not a knife,” they told the law. “A fife.”
Micah Lockwood had lived his whole adult life on a cotton farm outside Coffeeville. He seemed to have sprung from the black Mississippi soil fully formed, because no one had any recollection of either his family or his childhood. He played in a fife and drum band called the Coffeeville Ramblers. While they rambled all around Coffeeville, playing at weddings and funerals, family get-togethers and picnics, they never left Yalobusha County.
Micah played a six-inch, five-hole fife that he carved out of the cane fields which grew all along the back of the farm. You were liable to see him at Sweet Jim’s Domino Hall or Hully Gully’s or sometimes, like today, at Anna’s Lounge, but no matter where you saw him, he’d have that whistle in his hand or in his pocket.
By Saturday, September 28, 1935, both Coffeeville cotton farms had sold off their equipment, most of the workers moving north, where jobs were more plentiful. Lockwood lost his bass drummer to a factory job in Chicago and his snare drummer to a jazz band gig in Memphis, but he and Henry Compton stuck around, finding occasional work in the
turpentine mill or in the butcher shop or doing simple carpentry work on the houses and barns in the area.
That night, Micah Lockwood showed up at Anna’s just before the mill workers, driving his mule Oscar and a wagon but arriving alone. Henry Compton showed up a little later. The Mississippi Mud Stompers, a black string band popular all across the deep south, were scheduled to play just around the corner at Jim’s that night, having played to the
west in Clarksdale on the previous evening. The plan was to play cards until the music started and then head on over. Maybe in the breaks, the Mud Stompers would let Micah and Henry play a tune or two, or, if they were lucky, they’d be invited to sit in with them for a few.
Sardine Murvin showed up at Anna’s with the same idea, but only after stopping by Mattie Whitaker’s place to see if she would join him. Mattie was, by unanimous agreement, the prettiest girl in town. She had light brown hair that framed her face like a picture, and she dressed like no one around these parts. She looked like she belonged in Memphis or Chicago or maybe riding down river to New Orleans in a paddleboat. Anywhere but Coffeeville. Mattie was also sixteen years old. Eight years younger than Sardine.
The boot heel collided hard enough with Micah Lockwood’s nose that he immediately smelled blood. He had a habit of losing his temper when that happened. His eyes saw nothing as he swung wild with his first punch and caught air. Clement laughed, which was a mistake because it allowed Micah to readjust. The second blow caught Clement square in the gizzard. Clement shook it off and kept coming, jabbing the damn ladle into Lockwood’s ribs and trying to make a joke of it. Nobody else was laughing.
Clement never saw the fife until it welted him across the face with a loud popping sound that made Anna jump and drop her book. When the blowing end came blowing into the corner of his left eye socket, Clement hit the floor. Bottles scattered, reminding Micah of one of the arcade games at the fall carnival every year in Oxford. Clement didn’t come back up, and that’s when everyone realized the fife was still lodged there in his eye hole.
“I had it in mind that I was going to put a stop to all this nonsense,” said Anna. “But when I saw Mr. Whitaker rise up with that plank in his eye, well, that was more than I was in it for.”
Henry Compton went on to describe in great detail how Clement had pulled himself to his feet and had gone at Mr. Lockwood at full stride, taking a great leap into the air, only to come down on Micah Lockwood in such a way as to drive the wooden instrument so far back into his skull that it came near to poking out on the other side.
“We all looked down at him laying there on the floor,” Henry said, “and we agreed that that’s what it was, pushing against the back of his head like a worm trying to break through an apple.”
Several of the men collected the body and hauled it over to the Whitaker family house on Micah’s wagon, drawn by old Oscar. Only Micah wasn’t there by that point. They made most of the ride in silence, but when they got within eyesight of the place, they took a show of hands and voted not to implicate Micah. The fife had been worked back out of Clement’s head the same way it had gone in. No reason to get the Whitakers all worked up. Nothing good, they decided, would come of it.
Micah Lockwood, on the other hand, had a problem. When they returned his fife, covered in blood and brain matter, he measured it in his outstretched fingers and found that it came up short by an inch. A four-hole fife was enough to get him hung. The old Mississippi
Micah moved out of the cotton farm the following day and made his way up Shiloh Road, somewhere close to Shiloh Cemetery. Some people around Coffeeville claim that he stayed for three days and nights in the old Shiloh Baptist Church. That’s not right, but he did show up at the services there on the following morning.
“I’ve been washed in the blood,” he said, “Does that mean I’m bound
“My friend,” the Reverend Chesley Benefield said, “the Son of Man says if you’ve been washed in the blood, then surely you are already good as gold. Your garments have been made spotless before the Lord your God, and your place in glory is secured.”
And so Micah Lockwood walked into the woods, and that’s where he stayed for three days. And during that time, a great army of men was gathered, and they all went out to find Micah, because a price had been placed on his head. Clement Whitaker’s body had been taken to Oxford, where they scrubbed it and prepared it for burial, and, during
the preparations, Dr. Douglas Whitney had plucked the missing inch of cane fife from the skull of the dead man.
“That can’t belong to none other but Micah Lockwood,” said the dead man’s father Jonas.
The word got passed around so that everybody from Coffeeville to Tillatoba, from Greenwood to Shiloh, knew the name, if not the face, of Micah Lockwood. Because of this, the Yalobusha sheriff sent two of his deputies out to collect witnesses and set their stories down. As people began to compare the stories, a good two-thirds of the army
looking for Mr. Lockwood fell away. It wasn’t worth the money, they said. They didn’t want the blood on their hands. One group of men tracked him down in the woods above Shiloh and urged him to go farther. Travel west to Texas, they said, or north to Paducah,
Kentucky. Carbondale, Illinois.
“My father gave me this,” Micah said, holding his fife out to the gathered men.
“Your father?” one of them said. “We never knew your father. Surely he didn’t give you the fife. You’ve told us yourself, you cut it from the sugarcane growing along Cypress Creek.”
Micah tightened his hand around it until it disappeared from view.
“Not this very one,” he said. “But the gift of the pipe. He showed me how to play the Shimmie She Wobble. The pipe, he said, would deliver me.”
The men went away without having talked him into moving on, but they left him with a warning.
“It’s been two days. In one more day, the family of Clement Whitaker will have a funeral. His family will be arriving from Oxford and from Koskiusko. After he’s laid in the ground, after the last hymn is sung and the dirt shoveled back into the earth, they will come looking for you.”
The next morning, horses and buggies began lining up outside the Whitaker household well before the dew was off the grass. Family and friends, church people and workers from the turpentine mill. The women hurried inside, where they busied themselves preparing food for the masses. The men stood around outside, kicked at the ground and talked about the white deputies who came around and did a bunch of talking and then shrugged and left.
“Everybody knows who done it,” one of them would say.
“If he’d done it to a white man, them deputies wouldn’t of shrugged and walked off,” someone else would say.
They would stare at the ground again and then circulate like they were changing partners at a dance and start it all over again.
At ten thirty, the hearse pulled up with Clement’s casket, and, at eleven, everybody followed it solemnly through the town and out to the negro graveyard on the back side of the white one. A number of people came out to the graveside service who normally wouldn’t have bothered, including a handful of white men. They knew something was bound to
happen, and they either didn’t want to miss it or they planned to do what they could to help one side or the other when it did.
At the appointed moment, Reverend Cecil Calabash, with his stovepipe hat and his long gray whiskers, stood up and began singing, Death is gonna straighten out all you liars
one of these days.
It wasn’t any kind of song to be singing at a funeral. The townspeople knew it, and the mourners did too, but it didn’t stop them from joining in. As if to show the devil himself that they meant business, they followed that one up with all four verses of Keep On The Firing Line.
Just when things were starting to get so tense you thought Clement himself might leap up out of his box, the people in the town started hearing something that sounded like a big thunderstorm coming over the ridge from the west. Jim Swain, who was called Sweet Jim by everybody— even people who didn’t like him— came out of his place and looked up
in the sky.
“Oh my God, will you look what’s coming yonder,” somebody in the street said, and around the bend came Micah Lockwood. He wasn’t alone. He came walking into town with a full drum corps behind him. Henry Compton was there. Charles Freeman. Haskell Cook and Lum Johnson and Miner Gilliam. Micah, ten paces in front, was holding up a fife that seemed to catch the light of the sun, but he never once brought it to his lips. Instead, he was singing.
Glory glory hallelujah
when I lay my burden down,
I’ll go on to live with Jesus
since I laid my burden down,
Every round goes higher and higher
since I laid my burden down…
He was still two blocks shy of the cemetery when a woman came running by Sweet Jim and wrapped herself around Micah. A gasp came up from the gathering crowd when they saw who it was.
“Isn’t that Clement Whitaker’s mother?” said Anna.
No one could believe it, but it was Viola Whitaker, sure as the world. If Micah Lockwood hadn’t come walking past half of Coffeeville that morning, if it had just been a story passed around in the domino hall or at Hully Gully’s, no one would have ever believed it. But when he moved through, he did so with Viola embracing him as if he were her
own flesh and blood.
Praises went up from the crowd, who stepped back into the shadows if not into the buildings, mostly to get out of the way of the drummers, who were stirring up a dust cloud and shaking the ground beneath them with their rolling rumble. Micah kept his eyes fixed on a point straight ahead and in the distance.
“Micah Lockwood, I want you to hear me good,” said Viola Whitaker as she leaned into him. “If they kill you today— and there’s plenty who aim to do just that— I want you to know that they’re gonna have to go through me first. Do you understand me?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
“I’m not going to stand by and let that just happen,” she said. “You and me do understand each other, don’t we?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
She grabbed his face and turned it toward her. “I need to hear you say it, Micah. I need to hear it from you.”
He stopped walking for the first time since he’d started down the Shiloh Road.
“They kill me, they’re gonna have to kill you too, ma’am.”
“And why is that?” she said.
“Because you don’t want me going on to glory and seeing your boy today while you have to stay behind and wait for it.”
“You don’t get to just lay your burden down easy and expect me to pick it up and carry it for the rest of my days,” she said. “It don’t work that way.”
Jonas Whitaker dropped his Colt .45 to his side when he saw his wife holding Micah by the hand. Two other guns also got holstered at his signal. The crowd quickly enveloped the two and, when the drums came to a stop, a quiet confusion seemed to fall over the whole town, as in old biblical times when God confused the tongues of men. Viola looked
her husband dead in the eye.
“Love, you have a decision to make,” she said. “You can kill this boy and risk sending him to his reward, to be with our only son. If you do so, I pray that you send the bullets through me first and don’t punish me twice by leaving me behind again.”
She stood across Micah like the moon passing across the sun.
“I aim to send Micah Lockwood in the other direction, into the everlasting fire,” Jonas said.
His thumb and fingers danced nervously on the grip of his gun.
“I’ve been washed in the blood,” Micah said. “Lord have mercy.”
Jonas raised the Colt up. Micah closed his eyes and waited.
“That was the blood of my son you was washed in,” Jonas said, and pulled the trigger.
The single bullet cracked like a drumstick against the side of a drum, scattering teeth east and west. Micah opened his eyes to see the old man fall empty at his feet.
The food at the Whitaker house was left to spoil, and the crowd at the graveyard grew throughout the afternoon as Mr. Whitaker was made ready for burial next to his son. The only people who weren’t there were the white deputies, who were away in Jackson, and Sardine Murvin, who was laid up in his bed with a frightful case of turpentine poisoning.
“Where are we gonna put that boy?” Sweet Jim said.
“I say we throw Micah in the jail and let the deputies worry about him when they get back,” said one of the plant bosses.
“We don’t have a key,” said Sweet Jim.
“We could always lock him in the outhouse behind the church,” said the plant boss.
“Lock him in it and then burn it to the ground,” said Anna.
They might have done it if Reverend Calabash hadn’t stopped them on account of it wasting a perfectly useful outhouse. Seeing an opening in the proceedings, it was sixteen year old Mattie Whitaker who walked up to her mother’s side, and, placing herself between Viola and Micah, said that killing Micah Lockwood would make them all no better than
they claimed him to be.
“Micah never laid a hand on my daddy,” she said, “and he didn’t aim to kill Clement neither. On the other hand, you all are standing here in broad daylight with murder in your hearts.”
Lee Ray “Sardine” Murvin, as hard as he tried, had never won the hand of the beautiful sixteen year old, but it was because Micah and his music had won her heart years before at summer picnics and church singings.
And so Mattie kept Micah alive that day with a teenager’s love, and Micah and Viola kept each other alive for several more years with something deeper and darker, neither trusting the other to lay down the terrible burden they shared.
“Remember,” she would say, “it don’t work that way.”
On June 8, 1940, Reverend Benefield pronounced Micah and Mattie man and wife at the Old Shiloh Baptist Church, and all three of them moved into a shotgun house on upper Shiloh Road.
“Remember,” Viola would say.
A boy named Earl was born in 1942.
A girl, Nonie, came the year after.
Stories of far away wars arrived over a Rogers Majestic tabletop radio, but the names of the places were strange and seemed no more real than The Thin Man or The Shadow.
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
The battles at home took a daily toll. Drought and sickness were enemies that couldn’t be charged. So, too, fear and vindictiveness. In the winter of 1945, Micah appeared on the streets of Clarksdale. He was telling a murderous tale that no one could quite believe and making a kind of music that hadn’t been heard around there.
“What kind of pipe is that you’re playing?” said a little boy who wasn’t much older than Earl had been.
The boy was holding a three-string guitar and looking like he wasn’t sure what to make of the ghost of a man before him.
“It’s carved out of bone,” Micah Lockwood said. “Pure bone.”
He pulled it from his lips with a kiss and handed it to the boy.”
This Monday, August 4 at 7PM, the 7% Solution book club will be discussing John Green’s Edgar Award-winning novel Paper Towns. In this mature and mysterious exploration of teenage psyche, Quentin Jacobson, a high school senior, is taken on a wild, midnight adventure by his next-door neighbor and long-time crush, Margo Roth Spiegelman. After their one night of risk-taking, Margo skips town, and Quentin must solve a series of intricate clues in order to locate his missing lady love.
John Green said about writing this book that he intended to kill the Manic Pixie Dream Girl through the character of Margo Roth Spiegelman, and he succeeds admirably at doing so. For those who haven’t heard the term yet, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl flutters into a story, says some uplifting things to a depressed young man who falls in love with her, and then flits away. In other words, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not an actual woman, but an idealized version of a woman, without any problems or complications of her own. Her sole function in a story is to heal or inspire a man through her irrepressible bubbliness and sense of adventure, and she has no agenda of her own.
Margo Roth Spiegelman starts out the story as Quentin’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a character to worship from afar. She has a reputation for taking risks, running away, and organizing impossibly elaborate pranks. Her friends are beautiful and popular, and she and the nerdy Quentin haven’t been close since they were children. As the story evolves, her character evolves with it, and by the end of the novel, not only are we left with a complete and human depiction of Margo’s character, but we also go full circle and find out who she, as a child, worshiped as an impossible paragon of virtue.
Paper Towns is not a mystery in the strictest sense – there is no murder, only an investigation, and the investigation follows clues carefully designed by Margo to hint at where to find her. As Quentin follows the clues and gets closer to discovering her physical location, his understanding of her character continues to grow, and each clue leads to another realization about the girl he has loved from afar for too long without trying to understand who she is up close. The clues Margo has left may be complex, but John Green’s message is simple – real love requires real knowledge, and to love someone without knowing them does them a disservice and for you, creates an impossibility.
Glenn Gray’s The Little Boy Inside And Other Stories was suggested to me by several respected opinions before I picked it up to read. Authors Matthew McBride and Scott Phillips raved about it. Joe R. Lansdale put up a glowing post recently on Goodreads. Now that I’ve finally finished the collection, I can say everyone knew what they were talking about. This is a book worth picking up.
Gray, a radiologist, uses his medical background to write about the bad relationships people have with their bodies. Many of his stories are mash-ups of horror, sci-fi, and crime fiction, while others defy genre entirely. The most noir of his stories involves the illegal use of steroids in “Jacked,” an intense tale of a user caught between cops, fellow criminals, and his habit. Just about all of these stories have disturbing vibe. “Expulsion” is a satirical take about a man who “gives birth” to an organism. “A Blind Eye” is a somber look on medical ethics.
While many of these stories aren’t for the weak of heart, it is the skill, not the shock value, that make this writing stand out. Whether working as a slow-burn or grabbing you with an alarming first sentence, Gray knows what cards to show and which to hold close to the vest in order to keep you in the game. Every word has impact and meaning.
The Little Boy Inside & Other Stories is like crossing Richard Matheson and filmmaker David Cronenberg. These are masterfully crafted stories playing to the worst fears of our own bodies. Don’t eat while reading.
Copies of The Little Boy Inside & Other Stories are only available on our shelves at BookPeople. Stop by or give us a call at (512) 472-5050 to pick up your copy today!
Tim Bryant shares with us a little bit about each of his books, and a little more about his Dutch Curridge Series. He will be speaking and signing his new book, Spirit Trap, on Wednesday, August 6 at 7 pm.
I’ve been lucky enough to get some entertaining reviews of my books, but one of my favorites– if it wasn’t the one that said “this was the best time I ever had with three dead bodies”– might have been the one where the guy wrote something along the lines of “Bryant never uses five words when four will do.” If I never write like I’m being paid by the word (even when I am), you can probably blame it on my background in songwriting. Twenty years of telling stories in three verses, a chorus and (maybe) a bridge can have that effect on you.
My friend Joe Lansdale gave me the best advice I ever got. “When you want something done, ask a busy person.” Joe might be the busiest person I’ve ever met, but he damn sure gets a lot done. He’s been a good friend to me and my writing, and I’m certainly glad to know him, but I don’t believe the old maxim that “it’s all who you know.” Write a bunch of crap and give it to Joe, it’s still a bunch of crap. And he’ll tell you so in no uncertain terms.
My friend Elaine Ash, who writes under the pseudonym Anonymous-9, told me that, when writing a series of novels, the second novel is always a bitch to complete and the third is an unmitigated joy. The worst thing a writer can be is predictable, but I went for that one hook, line and sinker. I spent too much time writing and re-writing my second Dutch Curridge novel (Southern Select)but the third (Spirit Trap) was magic from day one.
I wasn’t even planning to write Spirit Trap. I was writing a non-Dutch novel, called Constellations, and, by the time I’d reached the end of it, things were going so well that I was sad to end it. I turned the page and immediately started Spirit Trap.
I had the title and the first scene, and that’s it. Didn’t matter. I wrote the whole thing without ever stopping to outline, watching the story unfold as if I were reading it. Sometimes the best stories come that way. (Beware: some of the crappiest ones do too.)
The Dutch Curridge series has a great number of female fans, including readers who tell me they don’t normally read this particular genre. I don’t know what to make of that, but I like it. I do think Dutch speaks to a wide range of people and issues. He’s damaged. He’s unreliable. He’s afraid of love, and he’s afraid of death. He likes good music, Jack Daniels and Dr Pepper (together) and close friends, and he’ll never be able to tell anybody how much he cares for Ruthie Nell Parker. Especially himself.
Dutch is a lot like me. We’re both interested in Native American issues. We both like barbeque. We’re big fans of Bob Wills, and we like Jim Thompson a lot too. And yes, it’s true: both of us deal with Asperger’s Syndrome. On the other hand, he can flat out drink me under the table. And he knows even more stories than I do.
Dutch may treasure the sound of Lester Young’s saxophone, but he’ll always be an old country song. The good kind, like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell sang. The kind that sound like they’re full of ghosts. Where you can feel something going on in between the words, even though– and maybe because– they’re so damn simple and direct. Dutch is definitely three verses and a chorus. No bridge necessary.
MysteryPeople welcomes Tim Bryant, along with Reavis Wortham and Ben Rehder, to BookPeople for a conversation about crime fiction on Wednesday, August 6, at 7 pm.