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
MysteryPeople’s 3 Picks for July
The three picks for July are all the fourth book in a series which you should know about. Each author has written their books in a way that anyone can dive in without reading the previous titles. With that said, chances are you’ll be going back for the other three.
Herbie’s Game by Timothy Hallinan
(on our shelves 7/15!)
Burglar and ad-hoc private eye for criminals, Junior Bender is back. This time the case involves a missing list of criminals used to set up hits. When his mentor in crime, Herbie Mott, ends up dead, he’s out for vengeance, learning the secrets his old friend kept. Hallinan’s Junior Bender series is a perfect balance of hard boiled crime fiction
and laugh out loud humor.
Vengeance Is Mine by Reavis Wortham
The Lawmen of Central Springs, Texas get more than they bargained for when a hitman on the run from the Vegas mob settles in their town. This book weaves character, humor, and coming of age tale into an engrossing thriller with some kick ass shoot outs. Meet Reavis wortham at August 6th with Tim Bryant and Ben Rehder for our Texas Mystery Night.
The Competition by Marcia Clark
(on our shelves 7/8!)
Special Prosecutor Rachel Knight looks into a tragic school shooting in the San Fernando Valley. As she looks closer, she learns the assumed perpetrators could in fact be the victims. Clark gives us a complex hero in Rachel Knight in a series that engages like no other.
MysteryPeople Pick of the Month:A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride
Matthew McBride caught the attention of crime fiction readers and writers alike with his debut novel, Frank Sinatra In A Blender. It introduced a new and exciting voice with a wild, almost satirical hard boiled novel. With his follow up, A Swollen Red Sun, McBride tones down the satire, but is no less wild.
The action takes place in Gasconade, a meth lab of a county in eastern Missouri. Dale Banks, a decent sheriff’s deputy, has a moment of weakness when he takes $52,000 from the trailer of local dealer Jerry Dean Skaggs. Most of the cash was supposed to go to Jerry’s partners and a crooked lawman to keep up the operation of his boss, the drug kingpin preacher Reverend Butch Pogue. The theft sends these characters and the county into a violent spiral.
This book is relentless. With no chapter breaks, Mcbride jumps from character to character. He has honed his prose style to where every word has punch and velocity. While travelling down some of the territory of fellow Missourian Daniel Woodrell, he goes for a more terse, visceral feel. Less interested in contemplation, he wants you in the moment, no matter how dark or violent.
The book becomes a study of corruption in its personal, institutional, and spiritual forms. With Banks we see a man who must face the consequences of his moral slip. Reverend Pogue shows how justification perverts religion to the point where its spirituality is scorched. Overall, the novel has the feel of Dashielle Hammett’s Red Harvest, showing how a corrupt society eventually destroys itself.
A Swollen Red Sun is a huge leap for Matthew McBride. It expands on his promise, demonstrating more depth as it moves from the intimate to the big picture with the skill of those who have a dozen books behind them. It looks like we’ve only scratched the surface of his talent.
Copies of A Swollen Red Sun are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.
We can’t wait to have our friend Jonathan Woods back at our Noir At The Bar On July 7th, reading from his latest collection of short stories A Phone Call From Hell. His gonzo noir tales of crime, murder, and kinky sex remind us how part of genre writing’s joy is subverting convention. Here he does it in a tale originally published in Akashic’s Monday’s Are Murder feature.
“Jiao Lee, the first female owner of Golden BBQ, stood in the restaurant’s doorway. She watched the morning traffic on Hollywood Road in the heart of Hong Kong Central. Massive apartment blocks rose up the slope of Victoria Peak like giant Lego sculptures. Rain clouds of a winter cold front roiled above.
Mostly antique shops and galleries inhabited Hollywood Road, with an occasional sly, upscale restaurant or bar here and there. As the landlords hiked the rents, the galleries were moving away. Life was ever changeable, thought Jiao.
Golden BBQ had been at its location for five generations, offering succulent, mouth-watering barbecue to its clientele. In the window, a suckling pig, a dozen pressed ducks and a brace of geese—favored for their fatty flesh—hung from metal hooks…”