Crime Fiction Friday: “Ceiling Fan In My Spoon” by Brian Panowich

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Anybody who has stepped into the store recently has heard me rave about Brian Panowich’s debut novel Bull Mountain. Brian is a former musician and the book has as much in common with Johnny Cash and Steve Earle as it does with his literary influences. Signed copies of Bull Mountain are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. This story, featured in Shotgun Honey, has all the feel of a dark country murder ballad.

“Ceiling Fan In My Spoon” by Brian Panowich

“I’ve been here fourteen years.

Today’s the day.  Sammy brought me a steak.  He’s a pretty good guy, I hope he gets the fuck outta here before this place kills him on the inside.

I deserve to be here. Day in, day out, twenty-three hours in this box, and thirty minutes in the yard.  I did the math once, it added up to a hundred and six days of daylight.  Less than a year of fresh air to show for my adult life.  I never complained though, like I said, I deserve to be here.  I killed a little girl.  A beautiful little eight-year-old girl named Stacy.  I know she was beautiful from her pictures in the paper and the photos they showed in court.  I shot her and her old man point blank with a shotgun loaded with double aught buck.  I don’t remember doing it, but I’ve heard the playback so many times over the past fourteen years of courtroom reenactments that I can recite every detail…”

Read the rest of the story.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Rob Hart

Rob Hart’s New Yorked is both a quirky take on the the hard boiled crime novel and a heartbroken valentine to his ever-changing city. His hero, unlicensed Brooklyn PI Ash McKenna, has as much trouble with hipsters than criminals. we got a chance to grill Rob on writing, his book, and his town.

MysteryPeople Scott: Ash is such a unique tough guy hero. Is there a specific way he came about?

Rob Hart: I wanted to write a private detective-type character, but at the beginning of his career. We often join these characters after they’d been operating for years, jaded and set in their ways. I wanted to open at the start—dig into what would push someone onto that path, make it a story about a good-hearted but misguided kid looking for his moral compass. He’s capable and he’s tough and he’s good with his fists, but he’s also immature and impulsive and still has a lot to learn about the world.

MPS: The backdrop is a gentrifying New New York that angers Ash. What did you you want to question about it?

RH: New York is two cities. For natives, it’s this thing that gets in your blood, and you love it no matter how much it hurts you. For people who came from somewhere else, it’s Shangri-La; the answer to a question you’ve been asking your whole lives. And those two factions can often be adversarial. Natives grumble about gentrifiers taking up space. Gentrifiers grumble about the holier-than-thou natives.

I’ve lived here my whole life, so I understand those feelings of displacement and frustration. You think you’re due something for putting up with all the bullshit this place throws at you. But I also understand how this could be a place of reinvention and salvation.

Really, I’m just endlessly fascinated how this city exists for people—it’s so big and so diverse no two experiences are the same. I wanted to take a snapshot of mine.

MPS: What is the biggest misconception about the city?

RH: That it’s still dangerous as it used to be. It can be dangerous, just like any big city, but we’re very far removed from the Death Wish era. If anything, the city is safe to the point where it’s lost an edge. Living here used to be something you had to earn. Now it’s so sanitized and expensive, it’s easy to feel like in another twenty years there will be armed guards on the bridges, turning away anyone who doesn’t make a six figure annual salary.

New York is two cities. For natives, it’s this thing that gets in your blood, and you love it no matter how much it hurts you. For people who came from somewhere else, it’s Shangri-La; the answer to a question you’ve been asking your whole lives. And those two factions can often be adversarial. Natives grumble about gentrifiers taking up space. Gentrifiers grumble about the holier-than-thou natives.

MPS: For your first novel, did you draw from any influences or did you simply expand from your short work?

RH: This grew out of a short story I wrote in a workshop led by Craig Clevenger. It’s very different—different narrator, different circumstances. It was set around the closing of CBGB. If I dug up that story now I wouldn’t be surprised to see that none of the details survived from there to here. But that feeling of displacement, of the way this city can wear on you no matter how hard you love it, that stuck with me throughout.

MPS:  You also work on the publishing side of things. What should every author know who doesn’t have your experience?

RH: No one knows what they’re doing and anyone who tells you they do is lying. So much of publishing is unknowable. Something works and you just try to replicate it until something else catches fire—then you try to replicate that.

That said, the publishing industry is full of kind, passionate people who work very hard to put out good books. They often get cast as villains, called “gatekeepers” like it’s a dirty word. Yes, good books fall through the cracks, and good authors have gotten bad deals. But at the same time, a rejection doesn’t have to be an indictment of the whole system—it might just mean you have to work harder.

MPS: Ash sees his possible escape in moving to Austin. As a resident of that town, I was curious why you picked it.

RH: I wrote this during a period when I was convinced I was leaving New York. Austin was at the top of the list. A good friend of mine lived there, and my brother went to college in San Marcos, so I’d been down there five or six times, and I loved it. I felt like it was the kind of place I could live, and I don’t feel that way about a lot of places. Plus, I was thinking of setting the second book there, since I envisioned it as a play on a Western.

Sadly, it didn’t work out—I stayed in New York, and I moved the second book to Portland (a much more absurd location for a Western). That said, Ash did go to Austin immediately after the events of New Yorked, and I’m toying with the idea of writing a short story about what happened there that it didn’t work out. He probably got himself into some trouble on Sixth Street. Maybe someday.

You can find copies of New Yorked on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

7 % Solution Book Club to Discuss: THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO AUSTIN by Rick Riordan

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On Monday, August 3rd, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s third floor, the 7% Solution Book Club will discuss Rick Riordan’s The Devil Went Down to Austin, a Tres Navarre novel. Our pick for September is Heat Wave by Richard Castle.

Here at BookPeople, we appreciate Rick Riordan. We love him for his Percy Jackson books (the basis for Camp Half-Blood, our literary summer camp), we love him for his easy and fun interpretation of mythology, and we love him for his San Antonio-based murder mysteries starring Tres Navarre and his enchilada-eating cat, Robert Johnson. Riordan’s detective novels tackle many of the issues and changes seen in Texas today, including corrupt development, shady tech start-ups, growing gentrification, and the ever-popular I-35 drug pipeline.

On Monday, August 3, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s third floor, the 7% Solution Book Club takes on Riordan’s Austin-set Tres Navarre mystery, The Devil Went Down To Austin, and although most Austin residents claim the city has drastically changed since [insert date they moved here], this 2001 novel presents a highly recognizable Austin, both in landmarks and in themes. Riordan even complains about the traffic.

Riordan wrote this novel in the wake of the 90s tech boom and in the middle of Austin’s transformation from a sleepy town full of full-time musicians, sometime students and part-time legislators into a hub for creative technology. His exploration of the world of start-ups and the exploitation of up-and-comers in the tech industry feels as local and contemporary as when the book was first written.

As The Devil Went Down To Austin begins, Tres Navarre, English professor and part-time private eye, is enjoying his time restoring his father’s ranch when his lawyer shows up with bad news. His brother Garrett – programmer, ganja enthusiast, and die-hard Jimmy Buffet fan – has mortgaged the ranch to fund a now-failing tech start-up company. Tres goes to Austin to confront his brother about the ranch.

Upon his arrival, he finds out that Garrett and his business partners are not only in danger of losing their assets. If they don’t sell their start-up for peanuts to Matthew Peña, a ruthless tech mogul trailing suspicious deaths in his wake, they could lose their lives. Tres initially ignores his brother’s worries, but when Garrett’s business partner is murdered and Garrett comes under suspicion, Tres goes on a mission to discover just how dangerous the tech world can be.


You can find copies of The Devil Went Down To Austin on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Book Clubs are free and open to the public, and book club picks are 10% off at the register in the month of their selection. The 7% Solution Book Club meets the first Monday of each month on BookPeople’s 3rd floor.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Linwood Barclay

Linwood Barclay, after a long career as a newspaperman, began writing thrillers full-time in 2004. He has since published over a dozen thrillers, including several bestsellers. Mr. Barclay joins us at BookPeople on Friday, July 31st, to speak and sign his latest thriller, Broken Promisethe first in a new trilogy. It revolves around a small town’s dark secrets, a downsized reporter trying to clear his cousin of murder, and Detective Duckworth, a police investigator, confronted with a rash of odd crimes. The book deals with ideas of community, family, and dark obsessions. Mr. Barclay was kind enough to answer some of our questions about it.


MysteryPeople Scott: In Broken Promise, the town is as much of a character in itself and a morally questionable one. How do you approach writing about a community?

Linwood Barclay: It’s funny, but I don’t think a great deal about it. I think about the people first, and once they’ve been drawn, and we see what they are dealing with, the community itself starts to form. I do, however, give consideration to the the economic factors affecting Promise Falls — the downturn in employment, the loss of a newspaper, etc.

MPS: As in many of your books, family plays an important role. what draws you to that subject?

LB: I don’t think there’s anything much more important than family in a novel. How one defines it may change, but whether it’s a thriller or a literary novel or whatever, it’s the connections between individuals that matter most. If we don’t care about the people in the novel, and if they don’t care about each other, why should we care what happens to them?

MPS: I like the fact that you had Detective Duckworth battling weight gain. what made you decide to go with that for the major police character?

LB: Detective Duckworth has been appearing in my books going back to Too Close to Home. He’s also in Never Look Away, has a cameo in Trust Your Eyes. He’s always been on the heavy side, and when it came to Broken Promise, I knew he was going to play a more prominent role. Broken Promise is the first of three linked novels, and the third will be told, mostly, from Duckworth’s point of view. His weight struggle humanizes him, makes him even more someone we can identify with. And unlike so many fictional detectives who are divorced and alcoholic and deeply troubled, Duckworth is in a happy marriage and he doesn’t drink too much. He needs one vice, and that happens to be food.

MPS: The plot revolves around at least two investigations and several crimes. How are you able to keep all the plates spinning?

LB: That’s the fun part. There are many things going on in this book and the two that follow it. What I like about all those “spinning plates” is it allows me to jump from storyline to storyline. I can take you to the edge of your seat with one story, then shift the focus elsewhere. I think that keeps the reader turning the pages, wanting to get back to that other story to find out what the heck is going on.

MPS: I know you have great respect for Ross MacDonald. What is it from his work you’d like to incorporate into your own?

LB: No writer had a greater impact on me professionally, and personally, than Ross MacDonald. I became obsessed with his novels in my late teens and early twenties, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that he was using the conventions of the mystery novel to explore social issues, dysfunctional families, the degradation of the environment. I don’t think I’m consciously trying to do what MacDonald did, but my opinions and political leanings do have a way of sneaking into my books. And my concern for the state of the newspaper industry — where I worked for three decades — has popped up in at least two of my books.

Mr. Barclay joins us at BookPeople on Friday, July 31st, at 7 PM, to speak and sign his latest thriller, Broken Promise. You can find copies of Broken Promise on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

MysteryPeople Review: LITTLE PRETTY THINGS by Lori Rader-Day

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– Post by Molly

Lori Rader-Day burst onto the literary detective novel scene last year with her murder-in-academia debut, The Black HourI could tell from the first paragraph that Lori Rader-Day is not just a good writer – she has a perfect handle on noir style, and understands how to marry the toughness of the traditional private eye with the deep psychological insights of, well, a mature female protagonist.

What’s more, she taps into many of the themes prevalent in the wave of recently published domestic thrillers made possible by Gillian Flynn’s runaway success with Gone GirlThe Black Hour takes on class, sex, female community versus competition, and that most controversial of all academia subjects, funding, for a gleeful send-off of modern academic institutions, culminating in a thrilling fight sequence during the college setting’s annual regatta.

 Little Pretty Things, her recently released second novel, takes on a different setting, but many of the same themes. Maddy and Juliet, both former cross-country stars, spent high school as the best of frenemies, and then drifted apart after school. When Maddy shows up at the dingy motel where Juliet splits her time between cleaning and bartending, just in time for their ten year high school reunion, Juliet feels only envy for Maddy’s escape from their small, impoverished town. Plus, she still has a chip on her shoulder from a high school track career spent always getting second place to Maddy’s first.

Juliet and Maddy don’t get much of a chance to work things out, for Maddy is found murdered the day after her arrival in town. Juliet sets out to discover the culprit and clear her own name of suspicion, delving into their complex relationship as she seeks out Maddy’s secrets from a decade before. Through her investigation, Juliet gains new appreciation for all those things she thought she never had, including support from her family and her friendship with Maddy. She even discovers a hidden talent for coaching, and begins to appreciate that Maddy’s exceptional talents, on and off the field, increased Maddy’s vulnerability, while Juliet gained protection and perspective from her own mediocrity.

In Lori Rader-Day’s novels, men are ancillary. They exist, and they play important roles, but a reader is never in doubt – these are supporting roles. Strong female characters pervade Rader-Day’s work, and it’s hard to find a chapter in her work that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. Her female characters have names. They are powerful. They talk to each other about many subjects, and they don’t just talk – they act. They are also vulnerable and problematic. Even Rader-Day’s protagonists are far from deified – they make plenty of mistakes, have selfish motivations, and are blinded, at least at first, to the crimes of those they love. I’m a huge fan of tough prose, strong women, and a moody atmosphere, and Lori Rader-Day’s novels make the cut.

Little Pretty Things reads rather like a combination of Grosse Pointe Blank and The Loneliness of the Long Distance RunnerOr like a re-write of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion where Romy gets murdered in the first five minutes and Michele forgets all about blue binder guy and spends the whole movie solving Romy’s murder while reexamining every facet of her and Romy’s life. Readers of Megan Abbott, Tana French, Mette Ivie Harrison, and Jamie Mason should get plenty of enjoyment out of Lori Rader-Day’s work, but there’s a limit to any exact comparison – Lori Rader-Day’s got a style and sensibility all her own. But don’t take my word for it – thanks to Seventh Street Books and their affordable paperback releases, you can find out for yourself.

You can find copies of Little Pretty Things on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Crime Fiction Friday: MERCY KILLING by C.J. Howell

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We were excited to have CJ Howell at our Noir At The Bar last Wednesday. CJ is a master at portraying men whose sanity is an ethereal thing. It’s demonstrated in his acclaimed The Last Of The Smoking Bartenders and this short piece about wounded animals, old friends, and saw-off shotguns both real and imaginary. Signed copies of The Last of The Smoking Bartenders are available on our shelves.

“Mercy Killing” by CJ Howell

“I am sitting at a table on the patio of a Mexican restaurant in downtown Boulder. I am waiting for Brady. We have a mission.

The last time I saw Brady was at the Hilton eighteen floors above the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. That mission ended badly — faulty research, inconsistent background info, and dubious objectives. Funding issues came into play. We couldn’t trust our contact and couldn’t find our target. We smelled a set-up and I skinned out while Brady destroyed our three hundred dollar a night room with help from Jim Beam. I was doing ninety down I-80 West by the time he knew I was gone. That was five years ago.

Brady follows a waitress onto the patio. The waitress is cute, probably breathtaking if you get her out of that cheesy golf shirt with the La Estrellita logo tattooed on her tit. College girl, full of what she was going to be. Brady obviously sees me but he pauses for a moment, as if stunned by the blinding mountain sun. He lifts his sunglasses onto his forehead and looks around, gently holding onto the girl’s elbow, and then he slides his shades back over his eyes and pulls up a chair.

“Captain.”

“Admiral.”

His face is pale with a greenish tint like verdigris. The temperature is in the mid-nineties but he wears baggy jeans with the cuffs rolled up and a T-shirt covered by a wrinkled plaid button down. Brady never dresses for the weather. The few times I’ve seen him in shorts his legs were pasty and spotted with purple blotches like bruises or bad eczema. It’s impossible, but he looks taller than when I’ve seen him last, although his boyish features make his height hard to judge accurately. He has always seemed small. A man-sized toddler.”

Read the rest of the story.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Alexandra Burt

Alexandra Burt’s debut, Remember Mia, is an engaging and well crafted domestic thriller. When a mother is accused of the murder of her missing child, she struggles to find out what happened with the help of a psychiatrist, at times wondering if she could be the culprit. We asked Alexandra about her research and approach to the novel. Alexandra Burt joins us Saturday, July 25th, speaking and signing Remember Mia. The event starts at 4 PM on BookPeople’s 2nd floor.

MysteryPeople Scott: How did the initial idea of Remember Mia come about?

Alexandra Burt: I had a story in the back of my head which didn’t lend itself to a short story and even though I never had any intentions of writing a novel, I eventually signed up for a novel writing class.

I was asked to share the first twenty-five pages of my manuscript; needless to say I hadn’t written anything yet. So I sat down that night and I imagined a woman, ravaged by postpartum depression, being confronted by a psychiatrist working to unravel the ball of yarn that is the disappearance of her infant daughter. A sentence popped into my head: “Tell me about Mia.”

By the end of the class I had written my first draft. Oddly enough those paragraphs never changed as the novel went through revisions and edits and it’s the part I usually share during readings.

MPS: Psychiatry and psychology play an important part in the novel. What kind of research did you do?

AB: I am fascinated by memories; the fact that they never decay, just become harder to access. I did a lot of research about the brain and the formation of memories. I talked to quite a few people who had been in therapy for various reasons. In Remember Mia, I decided to take the story to the highest level of suspense, the ultimate eraser of all memory—amnesia. A mother holds the key to the past but she doesn’t know whether she is responsible, doesn’t know if she’s the victim or the perpetrator. It seemed a premise worth exploring.

MPS: You’re often in Estelle’s head who isn’t always stable. How did you approach writing that?

AB: Unreliable narrators are difficult to write and demand a lot of focus not to ‘slip.’ I imagined the process similar to an actor preparing for a role; I guess one must remain ‘in character.’ Once I ‘tuned’ into my main character(s), I paid attention to the world around me; what people say and do, even actors in movies, and a bell seems to be going off at times reminding me of my own characters. By the time the first draft was done, the character was well established in my head but for a while I ‘lived’ inside the character’s head. It’s a tedious and extensive process that can’t be rushed. I hope to find a formula one day, though.

MPS: You have a very accessible, clean style that moves the eye along, while fully engaging the mind. How important is word choice in your writing?

AB: Being a translator I know word choice is even more important in writing than it is in speaking; you cannot add inflection to words on the page. The force of words is dependent on their precision. I think of it as a lot of right words, a few good ones. And then there are the strong words. Your choice should convey meaning, not obscure it, and evoke a gut feeling. There’s a balance of clarity, evocation, and flow; words shouldn’t overwhelm but draw the reader in. But at the end of the day I don’t pay attention to style like I don’t pay attention to the way I walk. It’s almost as if writers chose to be in this world via their style. I also recognize style changes over time so it’s possible that five years from now I’ll give a different answer to a similar question.

MPS: This being your first novel, did you draw from any influences?

AB: Influences are specific writers I admire as much as reasons why I write the kind of stories I write. I didn’t set out to write crime fiction but the trend emerged. As for any author it might be a matter of life experiences and a certain worldview resulting in a theme we are looking to explore.

I grew up in a small town in the Hesse Highlands. Imagine the settings of Grimm’s fairytales; that was my entire childhood. I’ve always been a gluttonous reader and I compare being fully immersed in a story to following the Pied Piper of Hamlin. As a reader I follow the melody, as a writer I do the seducing, if you will. Both are equally appealing to me; being tossed into a world that’s not my own is what I live for, regardless if I create it or not.

MPS: You reference Alice In Wonderland throughout the book. What pulled you to that story to reference?

AB: Apart from the quotes and references, similarities with Alice in Wonderland, as uncanny as they are, were completely unintentional: There’s a Pool of Tears (just imagine not knowing where your child is), running in circles (Estelle not being able to remember); the crowd hurling pebbles at her (the media judging her). Alice admits to her identity crisis and her inability to remember a poem (amnesia); a cat directs Alice to a house (return to the scene of the crime); a tea party during which Alice becomes tired of being bombarded with riddles (therapy); and Alice argues with the King and Queen of Hearts over the ridiculous proceedings, eventually refusing to hold her tongue (she won’t stop looking for the truth).

References like Alice in Wonderland create an atmosphere the reader can identify with.  The proverbial rabbit hole started it off, no doubt. People say all the time “I’m not going down that rabbit hole with you,” but what if people don’t have a choice? It is definitely Estelle’s state of mind as everybody else’s in the novel; her husband, her psychiatrist, and even the media.


Join us tomorrow, July 25th, at 4 PM on BookPeople’s 2nd floor for a visit from Alexandra Burt, speaking and signing her debut novel, Remember Mia. Copies of Remember Mia are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.