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MysteryPeople Q&A with J. A. Jance

~Q&A Conducted by Scott Butki

Let me start this with a confession: This is my first J.A. Jance book. I have seen her books at the library and at the bookstore and always made a mental note to read her books. I’ve finally gotten around to it. I read her latest, Moving Target, and the stride she’s hit after publishing forty-nine other titles over the last thirty years produced a really fun read.

So, when I was given a chance to interview her for MysteryPeople, I made sure to ask where readers should start when jumping into one of her four current mystery series.

All that aside, Moving Target is a great novel with some interesting twists and fascinating characters, and it didn’t seem to matter much that it was well into an established series. An added bonus: part of the book was set in Austin and the Austin area.

I would like to thank J. A. Jance for the chance to interview her, and School Librarian Mary Zell for help with the questions.

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MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did this story develop?

JA JANCE: The story started with my husband sending me an article about the dark web — how to access it; what’s available on it.  That put me on the trail of Lance Tucker, a kid who develops GHOST (Go Hide On Server Technology) which is a program allowing users to access the dark web without leaving any cyber footprints.

MP: How would you summarize this book?

JAJ: From what I said above, it sounds like a techno-thriller, but it’s really a story about the people involved- some good and some very bad. Lance Tucker, the teenaged hacker who invented GHOST, is targeted by people who want to control his program.  He’s in a juvenile detention facility and facing a bleak future at the beginning of this book. It’s up to Ali Reynolds and her fiancé, B. Simpson, to keep him safe and get him on track to a better future.

MP: One part of the story is about a school district requiring students to wear GPS devices so they can be tracked, watched or helped. What do you think about such policies?

JAJ: Lance Tucker and I are on the same page on this one.  (Since I created Lance Tucker, that’s hardly a surprise!)  I personally feel that the kinds of programs that compel students to wear any kind of tracking device is an unfair invasion of their privacy.

MP: This is the first book of yours I’ve read and it’s several books into one of your series (the Ali Reynolds series). Where should readers new to you start? At the beginning of the series or can they just jump in anywhere?

JAJ: I always recommend readers start at the beginning, in this case with Edge of Evil.  In that one, Ali, a long time news anchor in LA, is booted off her news desk because she’s considered to be over-the-hill. When her marriage ends at the same time her career does, she goes home to Sedona as she looks for what she’s going to do with the rest of her life.  This is a book about losing your dream in middle age and going about finding another one.

MP: As an Austin resident of five years I got excited at the events based in and around Austin. Have you been here?

JAJ: Yes, I was there a year ago in November for the first F1 race on the Track of Americas.  Loved the race; loved Austin.  I was also there this past September on the book tour for Second Watch.

MP: How does your police-trained protagonist differ from many other protagonists in the mystery genre?

JAJ: I think my protagonists are people first and cops second.  They live complicated lives with family, friends, church and community commitments, and pets.  A lot of the other police procedural folks seem to be loners living lonely lives and living only to work.  I strive to have balance in my life, and I want my characters to have the same thing.

MP: What kind of research do you do for books like this?

JAJ: As much as necessary.

MP: This is your 50th book in 30 years. That’s an amazing output. That comes out to almost two books a year. How are you able to write so fast? Or is there another reason you’re able to put out so many books?

JAJ: I’ve always loved writing — it’s been my dream since second grade — and most of the time, since I’m living my dream, it doesn’t seem like work.  But I agree, 50 books in thirty years is pretty remarkable; especially for someone who wasn’t allowed in the Creative Writing program at the University of Arizona in 1964 because I was a “girl!”

MP: Is Wikipedia accurate in saying you use your initials for your pen name because a publisher told you that disclosing your gender would be a liability for a book about a male detective?

JAJ: That is correct.  That’s what I was told by the marketing folks at Avon books in 1983.  Going by J.A. Jance rather than Judith Ann Jance has saved me a ton of time over the years.  J.A. Jance is much easier to autograph than Judith Ann Jance.

 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Hilary Davidson

Today is the release day of our April Pick Of The Month, Blood Always Tells  by Hilary Davidson.  It is an interesting take on family, shared history, and story telling itself. Hilary was kind enough to talk about the book with a for a few questions.

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MYSTERYPEOPLE: Which came first, the story or the way you decided to tell it?

HILARY DAVIDSON: The story came first, and it came about in a way that was very unusual for me. I was actually working on another book that featured Desmond Edgars in a relatively small but essential role. But he was such an intriguing, compelling character that he and his backstory started taking over that book. I realized I was more interested in Desmond and his world than the book I was writing, and I made the gut-wrenching decision to set aside the 40,000 words of it and work on Blood Always Tells instead.

The structure of Blood Always Tells evolved organically. Even though it was the character of Desmond that brought me to the book, I realized that it would never work if his sister, Dominique Monaghan, didn’t have as strong a voice as he did.

MP: What was the biggest difference between writing Blood Always Tells and the Lily Moore books?

HD: One major difference was that I went into this knowing so much more of the story than I ever did with any of the Lily Moore books. That was simply because substantial parts of it originated as Desmond’s backstory in that unfinished book I set aside. I can’t say that nothing changed — there were some major shifts from what I originally envisioned. But being more certain of the story I was telling meant that I felt freer to play with the narrative. I love writing from Lily’s point of view, but it means that there’s no way for scenes she’s not witnessing to make it into those books. Blood Always Tells is told in the close third person, so readers still get inside the characters’ heads, but because the perspective changes, it means the essential action is always onstage.

MP: Point of view is not only part of the structure, it also differentiates the characters by how they see the same thing or person differently. What did you want to explore with point of view?

HD: There were a couple of things. One is that I wanted each section of the book to be revealed through the eyes of the character who has the most to gain or lose. The stakes are incredibly high for each of the three characters who control the narrative. In some ways, they couldn’t be more different, and yet each character makes a major sacrifice at some point in the story.

I was also fascinated with questions of memory, and how what you hold in your mind shapes your identity. The characters in the book remember essential events and people in completely different ways. I dedicated the book to my grandmother for several reasons, one of them being that it was her death that made me think about how differently two people in the same family could interpret the same action so differently. My brothers and I all loved her, but we have such distinctly different memories of her. That led to conversations about other things from our childhood and how we remembered or interpreted things in completely opposite ways.

MP: The first part of this book has more of the noirish vibe of many of your short stories. What was it like sustaining a darker tone for a longer period of time?

I thought it would be hard to do that, so I was surprised by how much I liked it. In my short stories, the reader is often inside the head of a criminal, and when you first meet Dominique, you know she’s planning something bad for her boyfriend. But her motivations are complex, and the more time I spent with her, the more I understood her and sympathized. Plus, her plans are interrupted by people who’ve got far worse intentions. The scenes after she and her boyfriend are kidnapped were sometimes harrowing to write, and what got me through them was Dominique’s sense of humor. It’s ironic that Dominique’s section of the story is the most noirish and yet the funniest.

MP: Many of your characters in this book, the Lily Moore series, and your short work come from broken homes. What draws you to family dysfunction?

HD: I was lucky to grow up with supportive parents and a close family, but that’s not the case for many of my friends, and for other members of my own family. I’m not so much drawn to dysfunction as I am to resilience. What really drives me is, what keeps people going when they’ve gone through tragic circumstances? My grandmother lost one of her children when he was thirteen years old, and that was something that marked her for life. It didn’t make her any less of a fighter or a powerhouse character, but a loss like that casts a long shadow. I want to explore how people live under a shadow like that.

MP:  What’s in store for your readers next?

HD: I’m working on another standalone novel right now. If you like my dark side, you’ll be glad to know that goes into some very dark places. I’ve got several short stories coming out soon. There’s one in Ellery Queen called “My Sweet Angel of Death” about a serial killer at work in the Andes mountains. I’m also in a collection that David Cranmer is putting together in memory of his nephew, and in Trouble in the Heartland, an anthology edited by Joe Clifford featuring stories inspired by Bruce Springsteen songs. I never stray far from my dark roots.

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Blood Always Tells is available now on our shelves & online via bookpeople.com. Hilary Davidson will be in our store on Thursday, April 14 at 6:30pm in our third floor event space to speak about & sign copies of Blood Always Tells

Hard Word Book Club Goes to Norway with Jo Nesbo & THE REDBREAST

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.

Crime Fiction Friday: ‘Devine, TX’ by George Masters

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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.

Devine, TX’ by George Masters

“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….”

Read the rest of the story.

SCENE OF THE CRIME: Brad Parks & Newark, New Jersey

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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.

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The Player is available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Road Trip!

scottprofileI’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.

See you when I get back for the discussion on Thursday, Thursday, April 24 at 6:30PM with Hilary Davidson, who will speak about and sign her latest thriller, Blood Always Tells.

I promise to take pictures of sights along the way.

3 BOOKS FROM 1970 THAT SHOOK UP CRIME FICTION

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.

Crime Fiction Friday

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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.

 

“Life of Salvage” by Frank Bill

“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….”

Read the rest of the story.

Shotgun Blast From The Past: Double Barrels of Block

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.

3 Crime Fiction Picks for April

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.

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