Researching the Not-Too-Distant Past: Guest Blog from James W. Ziskin

James W. Ziskin’s Ellie Stone mysteries have become one of our favorite series here at the store, and we’re pleased to say that James will be joining us in person on Tuesday, January 24th, at 7 PM, to speak and sign his latest, Heart of Stone. He’ll be joined by Terry Shames and Melissa Lenhardt for a panel discussion on small town mysteries. 

Researching The Not-Too-Distant Past

  • Guest Blog from James W. Ziskin

I write the Ellie Stone Mysteries, a series of traditional whodunnits with hints of noir set in the early 1960s. Readers often ask me about the research necessary when writing stories that take place in the past. I always say the research is one of the most rewarding and frightening aspects of writing historicals, especially ones set in the not-too-distant past. Rewarding why? Because it’s fun to immerse yourself in another era, to reflect on what people did, how they did it, and what they were wearing when they did it. But for me, the rewards of recreating a believable past come with the fear of getting some historical detail wrong. And having some gleeful know-it-all point out the error for all to see. That’s enough to keep me on my toes.

But the pitfalls of historical research aren’t really so different from the challenges of present-day research. At least historical research isn’t a moving target. Think about technology in contemporary novels. How quickly the latest and greatest becomes laughably antiquated. And how many fine writers have fallen victim to gun errors in their books? That’s one reason I don’t use guns in my books. Another reason is that I prefer strangulation, a well-struck blunt object, or the smart shove off a cliff. Gravity unleashed, I like to call it.

So how do I approach research in my books? I consult various sources for my information, nearly all of which can be found on the Internet. Newspapers, timetables, movies, television shows, music, and history. It’s all out there. And there are less obvious sources as well. For the fifth Ellie Stone mystery, Cast the First Stone (June 6, 2017), I made liberal use of an online Los Angeles Street Address telephone directory from 1961. I managed to locate the addresses of places important to my story, including one of the early gay bars in LA, the Wind Up.

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Elsewhere, I found the timetable for the TWA flight Ellie would have taken from Idlewild to Los Angeles. A minor detail, but one that certainly sets the scene. Spoiler: she took flight 7 aboard a 707 Jetliner.
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From a practical point of view, I consider three things essential in research: accuracy, measure, and effectiveness.

  1. The historical reference must be accurate or, let’s face it, it’s wrong. That doesn’t mean I don’t take liberties with certain details. As the writer, I’m in the driver’s seat. I can blur the focus or omit outright anything I’m not sure of. Imagine my heroine is driving a car and stops to fill up the gas tank. What if I don’t know which oil companies were around at that time? Well, for something as commonplace as filling up, nothing requires me to identify the brand of gasoline or the price per gallon. Unless I want to make it a significant plot point, e.g. the murder took place at the Esso station or Ellie only has enough money for a gallon of gas..
(A caveat on the subject of accuracy: Don’t win the battle but lose the war.  I sometimes wrestle with historical facts that may “appear” anachronistic to the present-day reader but are actually correct. Suppose I know for certain that the first color television broadcast in the US was a baseball game in August 1951. 1951! I would have assumed later. And my readers might, too. I don’t need any angry e-mails telling me there was no color TV in 1951, even if there was. So in my books, I might choose to avoid the problem altogether and leave out the question of color.)
  1. Measure. I weigh the pros and cons of exactly how much detail to provide. In my research, I may have stumbled some fascinating information that blows my mind. But that doesn’t mean I should necessarily include it in my book. You can easily bore the reader with too much detail that stinks of research. Everything in good measure.
  1. Effectiveness. I sometimes use historical details to create more than just plot points. I can evoke the period in just a word or two. I call these words “madeleines” after the nostalgic triggers in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. If my heroine asks the gas station attendant to fill the tank with Ethyl or high test or Good Gulf, the reader will probably know we’re not in 2017 anymore. And older readers might feel immediately transported back in time. That’s gold for a writer of historical fiction.

My madeleines can often evoke period with one or two words better than a recount of the actual news stories of the day. Here are some “madeleines” that I’ve used in my Ellie Stone mysteries.

  • Horizontal and vertical hold. Remember adjusting the picture on your old television sets?

  • Crackling AM radio. No frequency modulation there.
  • Transistor radios. My publisher inserted a transistor radio into the cover image specifically to help evoke the proper time period.
  • Rubbers. The kind you wear over your shoes in the rain.
  • Party line. Sharing a phone line with your neighbors, not an adult phone sex number.
  • Phone booths. Where have they gone?
  • Silver dimes and quarters and half dollars. They stopped making them in 1964. You can hear the difference when you flip them off your thumb or drop them on the floor.
  • Telegrams. Kind of an old-timey Twitter.
  • TWA and PanAm. Gone but not forgotten.

I enjoy my trips to the past. I hope readers will too.

James W. Ziskin comes to BookPeople to speak and sign his latest Ellie Stone, Heart of Stone, on Tuesday, January 24th, at 7 PM. You can find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

His next installment in the Ellie Stone series, Cast the First Stone, comes out in June. Pre-order now!

 

Nostalgia & Progress in a Small Texas Town: MysteryPeople Q&A with Melissa Lenhardt

The Fisher King is an involving follow up to to Stillwater, Melissa Lenhardt’s small town hard boiled featuring Jack McBride, a newly appointed police chief in his Texas hometown up a against a corrupt political fixer. Here the battle deepens and continues in an engaging manner. Our Meike Alana caught up with Melissa who with be discussing small town crime fiction with Terry Shames and James Ziskin at BookPeople on Tuesday, January 24th, at 7 PM.

  • Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

Meike Alana: Your fictional town of Stillwater faces an issue that confronts many small Texas towns—the age old conflict between maintaining the integrity of small town life and embracing the growth that would generate jobs and income. Was there a particular town that you modelled Stillwater after?

Melissa Lenhardt: A few years ago I attended a Texas historical conference and heard an academic speak about two west Texas towns within twenty miles of each other that had two very different histories. One town was a boom and bust town, whose fortunes relied on the success of the latest industry, usually oil and gas. The other town focused on steadier, slower growth. They never got so caught up in the boom that they neglected to nurture other aspects of their economy.

I thought it would be interesting to explore these two opposing civic ideas in my fictional town of Stillwater. Joe Doyle likes the boom and bust model because he’s gotten rich from it either way. When people are doing well, they use his legitimate businesses. When things are going poorly, his illegal business is there to make people feel better. Being a master manipulator, he uses the nostalgia argument to convince good people to go along with his ideas. Ellie, on the other hand, sees the town is dying, and knows the boom and bust path isn’t sustainable, especially when young people are leaving, instead of moving in.

I started writing The Fisher King in 2013, well before nostalgia versus progress became the central issue of the presidential election. The battle between the two ideologies isn’t new, and there isn’t an easy answer, though I suppose we’ll see over the next four years how well the nostalgia theory works in reality.

“I started writing The Fisher King in 2013, well before nostalgia versus progress became the central issue of the presidential election. The battle between the two ideologies isn’t new, and there isn’t an easy answer, though I suppose we’ll see over the next four years how well the nostalgia theory works in reality.”

MA: When we first met hero Jack McBride in your first novel, he had taken the job as police chief because he thought it would be an easy gig and a way to escape the memories surrounding his failed marriage. That was only 6 weeks ago, and Stillwater has experienced more crime in that short amount of time than it probably has since it was founded—and now the ex-wife has moved to town, determined to win Jack back. Yet you don’t paint Jack as the stereotypical white knight who does no wrong while solving all the world’s problems—he’s a flawed human being who sometimes struggles to do the right thing. What was your inspiration for Jack?

ML: I can’t point to one person who was inspiration for Jack. I did have a very clear idea of what I didn’t want Jack to be, and that was the stereotypical tortured loner cop who drinks too much and has a big dark secret haunting him. Those characters are as boring to read about as white knights are. I wanted him to have a strength of character that is constantly tested, but that doesn’t always pass the test. I think the best thing I did for Jack was have him get his ass kicked before page 100 of Stillwater. It established his fallibility as a cop, and put him on guard that Stillwater wasn’t Mayberry, like he’d hoped. The second-best thing I did was have him fall in love. His willingness to open himself to Ellie shows his deep well of trust and hope in the goodness of people. Those two sides of his personality are constantly at war, and that makes him fun to write.

MA: With everything else going south in his life, Jack is also dealing with a moody teenager who has his own hormonal issues—and that makes Jack seem all the more real. What prompted you to incorporate his parenting conflicts into the book?

ML: Giving him a teenager was part in parcel of making sure Jack didn’t check out from the world after Julie left. He couldn’t. What easier way to humanize a character than make them a parent? What easier way to insert tension than to make the child a teenager?

“I think the best thing I did for Jack was have him get his ass kicked before page 100 of Stillwater…The second-best thing I did was have him fall in love.”

MA: Who are some authors you take inspiration from?

ML: Deborah Crombie, Deanna Raybourn, Larry McMurtry, Kate Morton, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anne Bronte…

MA: What are you reading right now?

ML: I’m listening to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Middlemarch by George Eliot. I’m reading The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith.

MA: Is there another Stillwater book in the works?

ML: I should be able to start the next Stillwater mystery later this year. Currently I’m working on a historical fiction book I’m under contract for. I do have a completed novel set in Stillwater with Kelly Kendrick, Ellie’s best friend, as the main character. But it’s women’s fiction, not a mystery, and between getting The Fisher King and the Sawbones series ready to publish, I haven’t been able to polish it up for submission. I hope it sees the light of day one day.

MA: I know you have a new series that you’re working on, can you tell us a little bit about that?

ML: My Sawbones historical fiction trilogy will be released in April, May and June of 2017. It’s about a female physician who is falsely accused of murder in 1871 and goes West to start a new life with a new name. Of course, things don’t go as planned and she’s chased by Pinkertons and bounty hunters across Texas and Indian Territory, down the Mississippi River and back west to Cheyenne.

The historical fiction novel I’m working on now is a stand-alone, but a character or two from the Sawbones series might make a cameo. It’s early days on the new MS, but it’s tough leaving my Sawbones characters behind, I love them all so much.

You can find copies of The Fisher King on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Melissa Lenhardt comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her latest on Tuesday, January 23rd at 7 PM. She’ll be joined by authors Terry Shames and James W. Ziskin. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Mette Ivie Harrison

 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

 

 

Mette Ivie Harrison has been one of our favorites at MysteryPeople over the past couple years, both for her psychologically astute protagonist and for her richly detailed depiction of a Mormon community. We’ve selected each of her crime novels as our Pick of the Month, including her latest, For Time and All Eternities, which continues her exceptional depiction of internal debates within Mormonism, as well as establishing her growing mastery over the genre.

We’re excited to announce she’ll be joining us to speak and sign her latest next Monday, January 24th, at 7 PM. Mette was kind enough to answer some questions ahead of the event. 


Molly Odintz: I loved the locked-compound aspect of your latest. What inspired you to do a locked-door mystery?

Mette Ivie Harrison: It was only after I’d started writing it that I realized that was what it was. I had to go back in and add a few details to make it a little more locked, like the fence around the compound, and then I had fun, playing with the more elaborate reasons not to call the police and have Linda be the detective without having to step around an official investigation.

“One of the pleasures and pains of this series is that I get to (and must) grapple with Mormonism now, which means that it is changing every moment and I have to be able to write about that in a cogent way.”

MO: Without giving away any of the twists, it seems that Linda Wallheim, already an independent woman, really comes into her own in terms of her decision making in For Time and All Eternities. Tell us about the evolving balance of power between Linda Wallheim and her family…

MIH: Linda does do some things in this book that are more independent than in The Bishop’s Wife. Now that she’s an empty nester, she can really figure out who she is, without the label of “mother.” And I suppose it’s also true that she is starting to care less and less about what traditional ideas of Mormonism are and is inventing her own Mormonism as she goes along. As a writer, this can be tricky because I’m not always sure if non-Mormon readers are following the nuances between Linda’s Mormonism and more mainstream versions. Linda and Kurt’s relationship as a couple is in peril here, and that was the most difficult thing to write. I think readers have loved them together before, but they’re at odds through almost all of this book and that can be painful to read (and write) about.

MO: You’ve said that changes in Mormon policy while writing your third Wallheim mystery led to numerous revisions of the manuscript. Can you tell us more about how new church policies affected your latest work?

MIH: Oh, boy. Well, to be fair, there were plenty of problems with this manuscript that had nothing to do with the policy and were just me trying to work the plot. But it’s also true that emotionally, I think I was blocking myself from figuring out how to deal with the policy change in the book because I had no idea how to deal with it in real life. When it happened in November 2015, I told myself that it would probably be twenty years before we saw real change, and I tried to prepare myself for the long haul in being an ally. One year in, and I’m ready to be done. So much for patience and long-suffering and all those Christian qualities, right?

Anyway, there have been days in the last year where I wondered if it was time for me to give up Mormonism entirely as have so many of my friends and family members. Somehow, I’m still here, but I’m not sure where exactly here is. As a writer who is supposed to be writing about Mormonism, you can see how this might have made any story I was writing at the time difficult, but in particular one that was about the complicated history of the church which I actually hadn’t known about until I did research for this book, and which turns out to not make the church look so good or very divinely inspired.

MO: There’s a bit more discussion of the history of Mormonism in your latest than in previous volumes, which I enjoyed as adding another layer to the richly detailed landscape of Mormon culture you’ve created. Would you ever consider having Linda solve a historical crime?

MIH: Well, I’m not a historian and was playing catchup here. I don’t feel like history is a particular strength of mine. There are many Mormon historians already out there doing important work. I doubt that’s what Linda will do in any of the future books I will write about her. That said, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of writing a story set in the Mormon past about another character, either real or invented, who solves crimes.

MO: You’ve spoken of the differences between Linda and yourself – what do you and Linda share? What makes her perspective different from your own, and are there aspects of the character that are more difficult to write?

“…in writing this novel it became more clear to me that Linda’s view of Mormonism isn’t the same as mine, and I suspect we will start diverging more and more as the series goes on from here….”

Well, since you ask, at some point this year I wrote up this list of similarities and differences between me and Linda:

Ways I am not Linda Wallheim:

1. I have 3 daughters and 4 sisters (Linda has only brothers and sons).

2. I hate scouting and camping.

3. I am not a good cook, though my baking isn’t terrible.

4. I am about 10 years younger than Linda.

5. My kids are not all out of the house yet.

6. I am not as devout as Linda is. I struggle with many literal truth claims of the church that Linda accepts.

7. I have a PhD from Princeton.

8. I am very fit physically and am a nationally ranked triathlete.

9. I was never married to a gay man.

10. I am not particularly nosy as a neighbor.

11. I do not play piano well and do not have much music in my life.

12. I can’t imagine running into a burning building.

13. I don’t really send missionary packages.

Similarities between me and Linda:

1. I have 5 children.

2. I lost a daughter to stillbirth several years ago.

3. I went through an atheist phase after a faith crisis.

4. My husband is very like Kurt Wallheim.

5. I have a child who left the church and created different reactions from me and my husband.

6. I also read lots of mystery novels.

I would say that in writing this novel it became more clear to me that Linda’s view of Mormonism isn’t the same as mine, and I suspect we will start diverging more and more as the series goes on from here. I’m toying right now with the idea of writing a character into the series who is more like me in terms of my current view of Mormonism. We’ll see how that works out.

MO: Linda Wallheim is recruited to solve mysteries more deliberately in For Time And All Eternities than in previous series installments, as opposed to stumbling upon a murder. Is she shaping up to be the go-to detective for her community in future books?

MIH: This is such a tricky problem with an amateur mystery series. Why would one person like this stumble on so many murders? Will there be anyone left in her community who is still alive or not in prison once the series is finished? I’m working on book 4 right now and there are some elements of Linda being seen as the go-to person at least in the police department when it comes to getting help behind the scenes in Mormonism. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

MO: What’s next for Linda? We’re already anxious to read the next book!

MIH: I planned out book 4 before the election and it takes place in October and November of 2016. It won’t be out until 2018 most likely, though, so I’m struggling to figure out how much of the election to put in the book. Since the results of the election took most people by surprise, I’m writing that in. And since Mormonism played an interesting role (though not a deciding one, as some had hoped), I’m also putting in some of that. But who knows what it will look like when it’s finished.

I talked to some mystery writer friends about the problems I had in For Time when real life events overtook events in the book. One suggested that I should just keep my book as it was and then write a note in the back about my book now diverging from the real timeline of Mormonism. Ahem. I couldn’t imagine doing this. Another suggested that I should set it back in time and just keep Linda in that same year before the POX (policy of exclusion) came out. I also chose not to do that. One of the pleasures and pains of this series is that I get to (and must) grapple with Mormonism now, which means that it is changing every moment and I have to be able to write about that in a cogent way. In some ways, this is great because it means there is always new material (literally, every day, things change in Mormonism–modern revelation, you see). But it’s a pain because I’m always having to rethink both the mystery itself and the relationships around the mystery that are probably what draw the most readers in.

You can find copies of For Time and All Eternities on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Mette Ivie Harrison comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her latest on Monday, January 24th, at 7 PM

MysteryPeople Review: AN UNSETTLING CRIME FOR SAMUEL CRADDOCK by Terry Shames

  • Post by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

97816338820961Terry Shames introduced us to aging lawman Samuel Craddock just over 3 years ago in A Killing at Cotton Hill, the first in a Texas-based mystery series that has quickly become one of our favorites at MysteryPeople. Set in the fictional small town of Jarrett Creek, the series features the former Chief of Police; at loose ends in retirement and mourning the death of his beloved wife Jeanne, Samuel steps in as acting police chief until the bankrupt town can afford to hire a replacement.

Macavity Award winner Shames’ latest, An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, is a prequel that takes us back to Samuel’s early days in the 1960’s as a woefully inexperienced 20-something police chief confronted by his first serious crime. The Jarrett Creek Fire Department is called to extinguish a fire in the outskirts of town (a section the residents refer to as “Darktown”) and makes a horrific discovery—the blaze seems to have been set to obscure the grisly murder of 5 black youths.

The Texas Highway Patrol assumes control of the case, and Samuel takes an immediate dislike to the racist trooper in charge of the investigation, John Sutherland. Sutherland quickly arrests Truly Bennett, a local young black man whom Samuel knows and respects. Although Sutherland’s evidence against Truly is dubious at best, Samuel realizes that the law works differently for black men in 1960’s Texas. He has to make an important choice, one that will define him as a lawman and as a man—does he follow protocol and allow the THP to control the case, or does he run his own investigation and try to clear Truly?

At the same time, Samuel is confronted by a growing drug problem in Jarrett Creek. When a high school girl is hospitalized following a reaction to drugs provided by a classmate, Samuel realizes he must find the source of the drugs before someone ends up dead. As he delves more deeply into the local drug trade, he begins to sense that there may have been a hidden agenda behind the town leaders’ decision to hire him as Chief of Police.

Although this would be a great starting point for a reader new to the series, Shames’ fans will enjoy meeting characters that have only been alluded to in Samuel’s memories. The novel is set during the early days of Samuel’s marriage to Jeanne, a time when the pair are still finding their way as a couple—there are signs that they may never have the children they so desperately long for, and Jeanne is troubled by the demands of Samuel’s new vocation. Samuel’s mother, with whom he has a difficult relationship, is still alive. We learn the history of Samuel’s troubled bond with his brother Horace, who lives nearby with his wife Donna and their son, Samuel and Jeanne’s dear nephew Tom. And we witness the delivery of Samuel’s beloved cows, which provide purpose and a sort of companionship in Samuel’s later years.

You can find copies of An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Terry Shames comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her latest on Tuesday, January 24th, at 7 PM. She’ll be joined by James W. Ziskin and Melissa Lenhardt, fellow masters of the small-town mystery. 

50 Mystery Novels by Women Crime Writers, Read in a Year

  • Post by Molly Odintz

The list below is the tip of the cold, murderous iceberg when it comes to works by women crime novelists, but like any other list, it’s a good place to start.

With my yearly New Year’s Resolutions, most of which I will never revisit, I usually come up some kind of reading project, based around genres, authors, or settings I’ve neglected. 2015’s goal? Best not mentioned, as I miserably failed in my efforts to complete it. 2016’s reading goal? Read fifty books by women, and if possible, fifty works of crime fiction by women; not just new releases, but also classic noir and domestic suspense. With the release of Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s, we’ve entered a new era of publisher and reader support for crime fiction classics by women.

Many of the books below are part of the zeitgeist – you’ll see a lot of girls in the title. I’ve also tried to focus on reading some of their antecedents, and you’ll see works on the list from Dorothy Hughes, Daphne Du Maurier, Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, and other classic women crime writers of mid-century America, plus a couple of golden age works from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. You won’t find many representatives of the tough second-wave protagonists of the 80s and 90s, or many works in translation – both areas, I’m sorry to admit, I neglected in the past year.

You will find quite a few books set in Texas, and some that have yet to be released; both quirks of a bookseller’s reading habits, as we tend to dive deep into the literature of our areas, and often receive early copies of upcoming releases.

The list below is the tip of the cold, murderous iceberg when it comes to works by women crime novelists, but like any other list, it’s a good place to start. There’s no particular order to the list below, aside from focusing on new releases, and perhaps this lack of pattern indicates how diverse and eclectic women’s crime fiction has become over the years. I’ve read and enjoyed every one of the books listed below, and project or no project, I hope y’all enjoy these reads just as much!

  1. The Case of Lisandra P. by Hélène Grémillon, trans. Alison Anderson – A French novelist’s take on 1980s Argentina, in which a woman’s deadly fall leads to the imprisonment of her therapist husband, who then enlists the help of a client to find out the truth.
  2. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – A classic work of romantic suspense, in which a young woman fears the long shadow cast by her husband’s first wife and the sinister intentions of his housekeeper.
  3. Security by Gina Wohlsdorf – A slasher novel, told from the perspective of a luxury hotel’s video cameras as a killer stalks its halls.
  4. Judenstaat by Simone Zelitch – An alternative history of Israel and East Germany, in which a Jewish state is established in Saxony. An archivist prepares a documentary for the anniversary of her state’s founding as mysterious clues about her husband’s murder point to disturbing answers.
  5. Black Water Rising by Attica Locke – Civil rights attorney and former activist Jay Porter takes on big business and political intrigue as he works to protect Houston’s African-American community and its allies from sinister forces.
  6. Pleasantville by Attica Locke – Jay Porter, decades later, defends a young man accused of murder in a case with vast ramifications for the the future of politics in the prosperous African-American community of Pleasantville.
  7. Good as Gone by Amy Gentry – Long after the disappearance of Julie Whitaker’s daughter, a young woman with more than a passing resemblance to the missing girl arrives on her doorstep claiming to be her returned child. The Whitaker’s are ecstatic at their daughter’s return, yet Julie suspects there may be more to the young woman’s story…
  8. Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg – After the murder of her childhood friend, a bored barista traverses the alien landscapes of Houston’s highways in search of the killer, with more than a little hedonism to round out this sultry gem of a novel.
  9. Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry – A woman seeks her sister’s killer and unearthes dangerous small town secrets in rural England.
  10. Murder on the Quai by Cara Black – Aimee Leduc’s first case! This one should please series fans and new initiates, as we follow Aimee through her final days of med school and a case involving Nazi gold and family secrets.
  11. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – I know, I should have read this two years ago. I know all of you already know this, but man, that book is messed up. For a case study of how two people can destroy each other, read this book.
  12. The Do-Right by Lisa Sandlin – A woman recently released from prison finds a job with a private eye just starting out. The two work together to build a practice and tackle cases big and small in 1970’s Beaumont.
  13. The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King – Although I love all the books in the series, this one might be my new favorite. Despite the provocative title, most of King’s latest tells an alternative version of Mrs. Hudson’s backstory. Dickens meets Thackeray for a rollicking 19th century adventure.
  14. Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers – Sayers’ send-off of the petty jealousies of those in advertising. Wit, sarcasm, and a murder – the perfect Golden Age text!
  15. The Animal Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder by Patricia Highsmith – Highsmith loved animals a lot more than humans, and here’s the proof. Each story in the collection is told from the perspective of an animal, most of whom  end up (justifiably) murdering a human.
  16. The Assistants by Camille Perri – I file this one under the category of heist novel. Several underpaid assistants, saddled with student debt, devise an ingenious plan to pay off their loans with a little help from the company expense fund.
  17. Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman – A prosecutor returns to her father’s home after her husband’s death, and quickly takes on a murder case with profound implications for a different crime in the town, thirty years before.
  18. The Trespasser by Tana French – French’s latest Dublin Police Squad installment. A woman with seemingly no personality is murdered, and it’s up to Detective Antoinette Conway to brush off sexual harrassment from her department while digging for the truth. Out in October – Pre-order now! 
  19. Maestra by L. S. Hilton – As steamy a mixture of art history and sex as The Thomas Crown Affair, with a much darker message about the power of duplicity.
  20. Wolf Road by Beth Lewis – Elka discovers her guardian is a killer, and flees from him in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, getting help on the way from a wolf and a worldly young woman.
  21. Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer – In this fairy-tale-cum-mystery, after a young girl’s kidnapping, her mother goes quietly insane, while her daughter battles dark forces and twisted attitudes.
  22. The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan – Her second in her community policing series has sexy poetry-quoting Esa Khattack in a bind, as the Canadian government forces him to infiltrate a terrorist group whose charismatic leader has gotten unconformatly close to Khattack’s sister.
  23. Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry Greenwood – After an elderly woman is flung from a train, Phryne Fisher takes on the case to relieve a spot of boredom, and enjoys a good frolic in between seeking clues.
  24. The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis (included in the Library of America collection Women Crime Writers of the 1940sedited by Sarah Weinman) – This may be one of the earliest and most fascinating “murder on a college campus” mysteries. Read it for the plot, and also the sweaters. Such collegiate sweaters.
  25. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes (included in the Library of America collection Women Crime Writers of the 1940sedited by Sarah Weinman) – An early reversal of the femme fatale trope, this cold, creepy thriller follows an homme fatale as he seduces and kills women across the city, while renewing a wartime friendship with the police officer in charge of the case. Only the policeman’s wife can sense the danger lurking behind his charming visage..
  26. The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson – Partially a true crime story of the murder of Nelson’s aunt, Jane, in the late 1960s, and the trial of her aunt’s murderer decades later, and partly a haunting expose of society’s obsession with the murders of young, beautiful white women.
  27. The Dove’s Necklace by Raja Alem – When a corpse is discovered in the back alleys of Mecca, the police investigator assigned to the case becomes romantically obsessed with the corpse. Alem’s narrative shifts between two women, one of whom escapes the neighborhood, and one of whom dies in its streets, keeping the reader guessing.
  28. Dare Me by Megan Abbott – Abbott’s cheerleader noir uses soldier-inspired language to great effect as a new coach interrupts the complex dynamics of the team and propels them to either victory or doom.
  29. You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott – This one’s a gymnastics noir, as a heartthrob’s death tears apart a tight-knit athletic community on the cusp of seeing their star head to the Olympics.
  30. The Night She Disappeared by April Henry – Two teens work to solve a series of disappearances associated with their humble pizza parlor.
  31. The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis – In a hotel known for the glamorous models and secretaries who once called it home, a journalist investigates a mysterious attack that occurred in the 1950’s.
  32. Land of Shadows by Rachel Howzell Hall  – A homicide detected is assigned the murder of a high school senior and discovers significant parallels between the case and her sister’s unsolved disappearance from year’s before. What secrets was the victim hiding from her family, and could a shady construction developer have played a role in the murder?
  33. Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet – Millet’s protagonist hears voices – as long as her daughter remains speechless. When her daughter utters her first words, the voices stop, but their warnings remain: she must leave her husband behind in Alaska and take her daughter to Maine, where she joins a commune of other voice-hearers and tries to make sense of her husband’s menacing attempts to reunite their family and ensure his future political dreams come to fruition.
  34. The Girl Before by Rena Olson – A woman believes she’s in a happy marriage, and has had a happy life, until the FBI arrests her and her husband. As she is interrogated by the police, she gradually realizes that her fond memories of close family may be hiding a far more sinister nature to their relationship.
  35. The Good Daughter by Alexandra Burt – Aurora, TX is the setting for this tale of long buried secrets come to life, as a woman with no papers and several names sets out to find out the truth to her origin, as she and her mother become suspects in a wayfarer’s attempted demise. Alexandra Burt comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her latest on Tuesday, February 21st, at 7 PM
  36. Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough – This one is out in February of 2017, and I’m already sure the novel’s twist ending will be the biggest (literary) surprise of the year. As Behind her Eyes begins, we follow a young divorcee as she becomes increasingly involved in the sick relationship games of her boss and his wife. Sarah Pinborough comes to BookPeople Saturday, February 18th, at 3 PM. 
  37. For Time and All Eternities by Mette Ivie Harrison – Harrison’s latest is our pick of the month for January, and when you read it, you’ll certainly understand why. For Time and All Eternities is Harrison’s most complete mystery yet, with a locked-compound murder providing a satisfying structure to Linda Walheim’s sleuthing. Harrison comes to BookPeople Monday, January 23rd at 7 PM, so mark your calendars!
  38. Collected Millar: Legendary Novels of Suspense: The Stranger In My Grave by Margaret Millar Madmen meets Faulkner in Margaret Millar’s stunning sixties tales of identity in crisis, with an emotional and physical landscape that is all California. In The Stranger in My Grave, a woman dreams of her own tombstone marked with a date four years before, and hires a private detective to find out what happened on that fateful day.
  39. “”: How Like an Angel by Margaret Millar How Like an Angel takes us deep into California Cult Country when a drifter is hired by a nun to track down a man whose disappearance still haunts a small California town. 
  40. “”: The Fiend by Margaret Millar The Fiend brings together every classic motive – money, sex, power, and obsession – when a young girl disappears, but Millar keeps the reader guessing as to the girl’s whereabouts, and the morality of those in her small community, till the very end. An astonishing portrait of the selfish and the truly disturbed, and the unstable border between.
  41. “”: Beyond This Point are Monsters by Margaret Millar  Beyond This Point are Monsters begins with a court date, as members of a family go to a judge to try to get their disappeared loved one declared deceased. As the inquiry continues, secrets come to light, and complicated relationships between characters are revealed.
  42. The Mother by Yvette Edwards –  Eight months after 16-year-old Ryan is stabbed to death by another teenager, his killer goes on trial, ready to protest his innocence. Ryan’s mother, and her sister Lorna, hope the legal system will show that they value Ryan’s life, the life of a murdered young black teenager, yet they also find empathy for Ryan’s classmate on trial. The outcome of the trial comes down to the testimony of a vulnerable teenage mother previously involved with both Ryan and the defendant. An important exploration of justice, violence, and the school-to-prison pipeline.
  43. The Last One by Alexandra Oliva – Competitors on a reality TV survival show face increasingly brutal challenges to win an enormous sum. As contestants face dangerous situations, they begin to wonder if the show’s creators are still in control, or if more sinister forces have devised their challenges….
  44. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerey – A pensioner’s murder of a suspected burglar sets in motion a kaleidoscope of characters. From the elderly woman’s criminal son, recruited to cover up the murder, to the alcoholic father of six he hires to help; from the alcoholic’s drug-dealing son who bears the brunt of his father’s misdeeds, to the burglar’s ex-girlfriend, seeking answers while vacillating between drugs and religion for her fix, McInerey examines the long-term consequences of murder, and the even longer search for redemption.
  45. The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo – Two eighth grade girls, one popular, one not, are in a sandwich shop after school. A masked gunman robs the store, and kidnaps one of the girls. The other, he leaves behind. What follows is a fascinating meditation on the privileges and pitfalls of popularity, as the girl left behind feels a complex mixture of jealousy, relief, sadness, solidarity and concern for her classmate, even as her dramatic experience catapults her into the Queen B position left vacant. The Fall of Lisa Bellow comes out March 14th – pre-order now!
  46. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – Well, I finally sat down and read Paula Hawkins’ runaway bestseller, and between the booze-soaked protagonist and the many twists and turns of the plot, man, did I enjoy it!
  47. Down City by Leah Carroll – In this stylish, intense memoir, Leah Carroll explores the untimely deaths of both of her parents – her drug-addict mother a victim of a mafia killing before Leah’s fifth birthday, and her alcoholic father dead from heartbreak and his own excesses by the time the author reached 18. Down City is on one hand, the story of a murder, but moreso, the story of the long-term consequences of addiction mingled with misery. Down City comes out March 7th – pre-order now!
  48. The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda – When Leah is fired from her newspaper job for refusing to reveal a source, she runs into an old college friend just out of a relationship, who suggests that the two move to a small town and get a house together while the controversies in their lives die down. When a woman resembling Leah is found near-dead nearby, Leah’s roommate disappears, leaving behind no evidence of ever having existed.The Perfect Stranger comes out April 4th – pre-order now!
  49. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie – While normally I take a few steps back from any story with a Christmas theme, this Poirot novel was simply delightful! When a conniving yet lovable patriarch is murdered, it’s up to Poirot to take a trip to the sleepy manor setting and find out which deliciously petty relative was responsible for the crime.
  50. Little Tales of Misogyny by Patricia Highsmith – This violent, twisted short story collection may not have proper claim to the title ‘mystery,’ yet it shows (like The Animal-Lover’s Guide to Beastly Murder that appeared earlier in this list) the incredible literary experimentation of Highsmith’s later work. Little Tales of Misogyny takes Highsmith’s ability to portray gendered disgust to the limit, with a good amount of gallows humor thrown in.

You can find each of the books listed above on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Tim Bryant

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

 

One of the most under-rated novels of 2016 was Tim Bryant’s Old Mother Curridge, the fourth book in the story of Alvin “Dutch” Curridge, a private eye, operating in postwar Fort Worth. This time he has two mysteries to solve – the death of an Elvis fan at one of his first concerts,  and another case opened up by the death of his father that unlocks several family secrets for him. We got in touch with Tim to talk about the book, his protagonist, and influences.

MysteryPeople Scott: In Old Mother Curridge, Dutch seemed a little harder than in the first book. Do you think he has changed some?

Tim Bryant: Sure. I think, by now, we’ve seen Dutch get a little more disillusioned with his life, and even with Fort Worth. There’s a sense of being let down by the things he’s depended on, and maybe the people too. That’s probably why he’s questioning things, questioning himself even. He’s looking beyond the city limits, and beyond his personal limits too, for something he can believe, something he can hang onto.

This time, much of the mystery is personal, and Dutch doesn’t do personal very well.

MPS: What made you decide to delve into Dutch’s family?

TB: It’s been there all along, and I knew I would get to it in time. I always tried to keep it in mind, through all of the books, that Dutch himself is the real mystery. And we’ve seen the shadows of his mother and father, and his younger sister too, from the very beginning. They sometimes loom large. But he’s always seen them in fairly simple terms until now, when he’s forced to see them through different eyes.

I think this is the first book where I would recommend someone read at least one and maybe more of the others first, so you get a good sense of those characters. A lot of what happens in Old Mother Curridge has roots in the other books. Chickens there that come home to roost here.

“I always tried to keep it in mind, through all of the books, that Dutch himself is the real mystery. And we’ve seen the shadows of his mother and father, and his younger sister too, from the very beginning.”

TB: One of his cases brushes up against the Elvis phenomenon that reflects a lot of the themes of the novel. Was that a part of the plan when you decided to use it, or did it simply organically connect with the rest of the story?

TB: We’ve finally hit 1956, which was Ground Zero for the Elvis phenomenon. I knew, with music as a constant background in Dutch’s life, I had to make some reference to it. Even if I knew he was unlikely to be a fan, he would certainly make note of it. Elvis’ ascension to the top was played out in Fort Worth in 1956. He really did begin the year opening a show for Hank Snow (whom Dutch is a fan of) at the North Side Coliseum. By the time the year was over, he’d played the Milton Berle Show, Steve Allen, and Ed Sullivan, come back to Fort Worth as a major headline act and would never open for anyone again in his life.

The specific Elvis Presley storyline at play in Old Mother Curridge is also based in truth. I saw an article about it a couple years ago and just made a mental note of it. Things like it were taking place in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, even if they thankfully didn’t play out the same way.

Tying it in with the bigger storyline was either subconscious or a bit of writing magic. I don’t which. I don’t sit down and plan things like that, but when you set things up right, and you put them in the right context, in the right environment, they tend to start working together in ways that you may not even understand at first. I could see it at a certain point, but it’s mysterious even to me. I’d like to keep it that way.

MPS: With themes of family and past sins, I couldn’t help but notice some echoes of one of your favorite writers, Ross Macdonald. Is there anything from his work you’d like to apply to yours?

TB: Lew Archer is always somewhere in there with Dutch. I read all of Hammett and Chandler and Jim Thompson— who is Dutch’s favorite writer— but I think I learned more from Macdonald than all the others put together, especially his later novels. What I first liked about Macdonald was, he was really the first to hone in on the psychological workings of his characters. It allowed readers to pick up on things that characters didn’t always recognize in themselves, and I did pinch that from him.

Old Mother Curridge has a more direct, obvious Macdonald influence. Specifically, disconnected families and families with dark pasts and secrets that have come back to haunt the present. Ross Macdonald seemed to circle back to that time and time again. I didn’t consciously set out to follow his example when I began writing this novel, believe it or not, but I didn’t run from it when I recognized it either. I’m quite happy if people see it as a sort of homage to Ross Macdonald.

“When I finished this book, I noticed that it didn’t seem as humorous as the others to me. It seemed the most desperate, darkest of them all. But I think Dutch does dark particularly well. His humor, when it’s there, comes from a dark place.”

MPS:  As a writer, what makes Dutch a character worth coming back to?

TB: Going back to your first question, I think it’s because Dutch does change over the course of the four books. You see him screw up and lose important things, and he doesn’t always get closure. So you get to see how he lives with that tension. What kind of adjustments he makes. The way he lives and learns.

When I finished this book, I noticed that it didn’t seem as humorous as the others to me. It seemed the most desperate, darkest of them all. But I think Dutch does dark particularly well. His humor, when it’s there, comes from a dark place.

You can find copies of Old Mother Curridge on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with Richard Newman

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Richard Newman’s Graveyard Of The Gods made our list of the Top 5 Debut Crime Novels Of 2016. The main character Gene Barnes gets rid of bodies for his criminal buddy with the help of the hogs on his Southern Illinois farm. When he recognizes a victim, he looks into what lead to the man’s fate, taking him to a town in which the small economy’s only life support is a shady casino. This a strong rural noir, lean, uncompromising, with a great action finale, that serves as an elegy for the Midwest. Mr. Newman was kind enough to talk about the book.

MysteryPeople Scott: What made this a good story for a first novel?

Richard Newman: I hope it’s a good story. I enjoyed writing it, especially the ending, which I didn’t know myself until I’d written the thing twice. It’s full of my family and geographical background, which I hope enriches the story. It’s a short novel, and not overly complicated with too many subplots, so it was definitely workable as a first novel. I’m thinking about another one set here in the Marshall Islands, where I live now.

MPS: What makes Gene Barnes a strong protagonist for you?

RN: One of things I like about Gene is that he isn’t particularly likable at first. Part of his arc is that we like him more as we get to know him and his motives and as he discovers more about himself and grows during the course of the novel.

MPS: Southern Illinois almost acts as a character and an untrustworthy one at that. What did you want to say about the area?

RN: That’s a great way of putting it. I have a strong relationship with the Southern Illinois landscape. It has affected most of my poetry, that and the Southern Indiana landscape where I grew up. Some of my family members still live in Illinois. I have spent a huge portion of my lifetime driving through the countryside. I spent much of childhood in Carmi, Illinois, or camping in Shawnee National Forest. It’s an area that can be bleak and beautiful, sometimes both breathtakingly so, sometimes at the same time. It definitely has a character, so I’m glad you took it that way.

MPS: Family also plays a large part. What did you want to say about that?

RN: The cliche goes we don’t choose our family. We don’t always even love our family members either. Sometimes loyalty is the best we can muster as a surrogate for love or even affection. I think that’s part of Gene’s growth and understanding over the course of the novel. But I grew up steeped in family stories and family lore. It made me who I am, relating my family lands and landscapes to my ancestors, and it also made me love story.

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

RN: I probably drew from all kinds of influences. I love James M. Cain–one of my favorite writers ever. I’m also a huge fan of Daniel Woodrell. I think the novel I finished right before I started the first draft of Graveyard of the Gods, oh so many years ago, was Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I’m not sure how it influenced me, but I love that novel, so it must have influenced me somewhere along the line.

MPS: You’re mainly known as a poet. What as a novelist did you get to express, that you couldn’t in that field?

RN: I tell stories even when I write in lyric forms like sonnets or actual songs. I can’t help it. I love stories in any form–novels, short stories, film, ballads, narrative poetry, opera, television, comic books, or just sitting around talking on the back porch with friends. It was fun to stretch out in a novel and take my time to develop a character or characters and explore and discover the mysteries of that larger story in Graveyard of the Gods. I sure didn’t know those mysteries when I started with the first scene, wherever that came from, so I suppose more than what I got to express it was more about what I got to discover.

You can find copies of Graveyard of the Gods on our shelves and via bookpeople.com