On April 30th, The Hard Word Book Club leaves our normal American environs for one of the foremost practitioners of Scandinavian Noir. Jo Nesbo has rocked crime fiction readers around the world with his Harry Hole series. We will be reading his first book ever published in the States, The Redbreast.
The Redbreast was the first book to have the hard drinking, depressive yet tenacious cop, Harry Hole, out in his own Oslo stomping ground. Due to his past indiscretions, he’s put on a “light” routine assignment of surveillance of a group of “skin-heads.” The assignment becomes tied to the murders of several WWII vets, leading Harry into a plot that involves his country’s dark past.
Our discussion will start at 7PM on Wednesday, April 3Oth on BookPeople’s third floor. The book is 10% off for those who participate. Our co-host, Chris Mattix, is a die hard Nesbo fan, so there will be much to discuss.
Being from the Lone Star State, the title of this installment of Akashic’s Monday’s Are Murder series (crime fiction under 750 words, posted every Monday) got my attention. The author’s prose and dialogue style grabbed me soon after that. He’s currently shopping publishers his novel, Concerto For Harp. We wish him the best and a bright future. Her’es a taste of his work.
“By eleven in the morning the streets of Devine, Texas were as flat and as hot as the griddle the cook downstairs was doing bacon and eggs on.
Returning from the bathroom, Ellie got back into bed. She smelled of toothpaste, soap and cigarettes….”
As his new book, The Player, demonstrates, Brad Parks weaves hard edged crime fiction and comedy together. His investigative reporter, Carter Ross, covers the mean streets of Newark, Jersey. We asked Brad a some questions about the town where he used to work as a reporter.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What is the best thing about writing about Newark, Jersey City?
BRAD PARKS: That it’s not some tranquil town in Vermont where, ten books into the series, people are going to say, “Really? Another murder? Seriously?” It’s a sad but true fact that Newark has one-third the population of Austin but drops nearly four times as many bodies a year. I would never make light of the horrible human cost of that–and I certainly don’t in the books. But, on the plus side, it means I’m never going to run out of plausible crime to write about.
MP: How does Newark inform Carter as a character?
BP: One of the ever-present tensions in the series is that Carter is this straight-laced, upper-middle-class white guy–raised in suburban comfort and privilege–who plunges into the roughest housing projects and worst tenements. But he does so while remaining completely true to himself. “You have to know what flavor of ice cream you are in this world,” Carter says in The Good Cop. “And I am vanilla.”
MP: What is the biggest misconception about the city?
BP: That crime is the only thing that happens there. I realize I run the danger of perpetuating that stereotype by setting a crime fiction series there. But any balanced presentation of Newark needs to report that yes, there is crime; and, yes, there are urban ills of all stripe; but there are also a lot of well-meaning people who are working hard to make Newark a better place. In every book, I’d like to think I present a healthy number of those people, too.
MP: Thanks to HBO and the news, we tend to associate the mob and corruption more with new Jersey than with New York now. What do Jersey gangsters have over New York gangsters?
BP: Fongool! Loro sono fottuto conigli! (Warning: do not run this through Google translator around your mother).
MP: What can you write about in crime fiction set in Newark, that you can’t anywhere else?
BP: The thing I love about New Jersey–and, by extension, Newark–is that it really loads a writer’s toolbox with possibility. New Jersey has every ethnic, religious and immigrant group out there. It is the second richest state in the country, by per capita income. It also has, in Newark and Camden, two of the poorest cities. Yet because it’s the most densely populated state, all those people–representing every color, creed and class–can’t help but bump into each other with a frequency and magnitude that they don’t in other places. Those intersections are where you find great stories.
The Player is available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
I’m gearing up to go on the road trip of my crime fiction life this month: Dallas, St. Louis, Memphis, Oxford, and New Orleans. I’ll be hanging out with (okay, leeching off of) a lot of my writer friends, including Harry Hunsicker, Scott Phillips, Jedidiah Ayers, Ace Atkins, and, winner of the University Of Mississippi Johns Grisham Writer In Residence fellowship, Megan Abbott. I have advance copies of Ace and Megan’s books (Cheap Shot and The Fever) packed to take with me, along with a collection of Mississippi writer Larry Brown’s stories.
If you need help finding a good crime novel at the store while I’m gone, introduce yourself to our new employee, Molly. She knows her stuff.
I promise to take pictures of sights along the way.
1970 didn’t just usher in a new decade, it also brought us a new era of crime novels. That year gave us at least three books that would transform the genre by cracking it into sub-genres, bringing different readers to the fold.
The Hot Rock by Donald Westlake
Originally concieved as a story for his hard-as-nails detective Parker series, Westlake discovered that the story– a diamond that has to be stolen over and over– was too silly for that series. He changed Parker to Dortmunder and not only created a second popular series character, but popularized the comic caper novel.
The Friends Of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, Dennis Lehane
Fictional criminals would never be the same again after this book. A former attorney and reporter, Higgins knew the bureaucracy and politics of the justice system as well as the beleaguered cops and criminals caught up in it. His story about an aging mob soldier that is being played by both the law and his lawless cohotrs, has a work-a-day atmosphere of crime and punishment. This novel has some of the most vivid dialogue put on paper. It has influenced modern writers like George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane. Elmore Leonard credited the book for his appraoch to writing crime fiction.
The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman
By using his knowledge of the Native American Tribes in the Four Corners area and a little influence from Australian writer Aurthur Upfield’s mysteries, Hillerman introduced the world to Navajo tribal officer, Joe Leaphorn. The series opened up the west as a setting for crime and murder, giving big cities a run for their money; and it paved the way for other Native American mysteries by the likes of Margret Coel and C.M. Wendelboe. Even more important, it introduced the idea of the mystery anthropology sub-genre where the “whodunit” story investigates a culture as much as the crime.
Frank Bill is one of our favorite new voices. His brand of rough and tumble, visceral country crime fiction has a fresh hard boiled style that has landed him respect with the literary set as well as crime fiction fans. His books Crimes In Southern Indiana and Donnybrook have received some great praise. If you haven’t experienced his work, here’s a taste from a story published in Beat To A Pulp earlier this year.
“Tobar Hicks and Molly Sellers’d led a life fueled by blistered hands of bad luck and the greasy-boned labor of living below the poverty line, scrapping everything from spent trailers, fridges, washing machines and A/C units to barter an existence from salvage yards in and around southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. With the windows down and the 10 a.m. sun bringing the burn of another thick day, sweat bucketed down Tobar’s forehead as he wheeled the ’88 Ford Ranger with four slick treads from Freedom Metals’ tin-sided exit. Chris Knight blared from the CD player singing “Jack Blue.”
The truck coughed, jerked and lost power….”
I recently read two of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books, moving through the acclaimed series in anticipation for the film version of Walk Among The Tombstones coming out this Fall. One of the books was the earlier, lesser known, In the Midst Of Death. The other was one of the more more highly praised, Eight Million Ways To Die. Both books deserve notice.
For those not familiar with Block’s Matthew Scudder, he, along with Robert B. Parker’s character, Spenser, are the most influential crime novel detectives to come out of the 1970s. Already an alcoholic, Scudder accidentally shoots a young girl while attempting to stop a robbery. After that, he dropps out of the force, gives up on his marriage, and moves into a cheap hotel and a spiritual purgatory. As a semi-functional drunk and unlicensed PI, he stumbles around with a certain grace.
As with the entire series, New York is almost another character in both books.It’s the dirty and dangerous New York of the 1970s. After the city goes bankrupt, the environment puts him in as much danger as any case he takes on. The irony is the places of safety and comfort seem to be the bars.
In The Midst Of Death sees Scudder hired by Jerry Broadfield, a whistle blowing cop charged with murdering a call girl. With little help and some interference from the NYPD, Scudder finds his investigation leading to a web of secrets and ambitions belonging to his client and their prosecutors. Many aspects of the book appear to be drawn from the life of Robert Leuci, the real life narcotics detective-turned-informer in Robert Daly’s nonfiction book, Prince Of The City, which was adapted into the Sidney Lumet film of the same name.
There is little actual violence in the book, yet a jaundiced oblivion hangs in the air. Because of what his client has done and the contempt the other cops have for him, Scudder is reminded of his own tarnished past as a law officer. The passages with Scudder and Broadfield’s wife, another lost soul, are poignant without being sentimental. It is a brief connection of two people who have lost their identity in different ways.
A murdered call girl is also at the start of the plot rolling into Eight Million Ways To Die. The victim, Sunny, had hired Matt to negotiate the break from her pimp, Chance. When she is found savagely executed with a machete, Chance hires him to find her killer. There are millions of reasons to not to take the case, but a major one compels him. Now wanting to change, Scudder needs to think about something other than drinking.
The book is actually more about addiction than murder. As Scudder questions the other prostitutes and an alcoholic cop working the case, we come across people addicted to drugs, money, sex, love, and rage. When Matt faces his own addiction head on without blinking, it is utterly moving.
In The Midst Of Death and Eight Million Ways to Die are both great examples of the jagged character arc Matthew Scudder travels in this series. Block realizes that even when you take that big step in deciding to fight your demons, the demons will often fight back. I believe these books argue that in this corrupt world it’s the fragile, broken, and discarded souls that need saving the most.
Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham
If the movie didn’t fill your hunger for more Mars, Rob Thomas comes through with the first of two books written with Jennifer Graham about his cult hit creation. Veronica takes on the town of Neptune’s corrupt cops and dangerous secrets as she goes looking for a coed who goes missing on spring break in her first case back in Neptune as a private eye.
The Kill Switch: A Tucker Wayne Novel by James Rollins & Grant Blackwood
Rollins teams up with military thriller writer Blackwood in this spin-off from his Sigma Force series, featuring Army Ranger Tucker Wayne and his working dog, Kane. Blackwood’s Army edge brings a deeper realism to Rollins’ daring and weird science adventure in a book that travels through Russia and Africa and involves a deadly weapon with origins in the Boer war.
Ruin Falls by Jenny Milchman
Milchman follows up her critically acclaimed thriller Cover Of Snow with the story of a woman uncovering her husband’s dark past in order to find where he’s taken her children. Read it now and join us at BookPeople June 16th when Jenny is here to sign and discuss the novel.