Like Raymond Chandler or Joe lansdale, Frank Bill has a knack for taking the regional dialect of where he writes (for him, the area where southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky meet) and fully incorporating it into his novel. It can be seen in his believable post apocalyptic novel, The Savage, that came out last year or this story we plucked from Beat To A Pulp.
There are many mysteries in my first book, Morgan’s Point, but none that involved murder. Two sudden, unfathomable and sickening deaths were a part of the story, but I didn’t focus on willful murder. While I don’t exactly think of myself as a pacifist, I had to overcome some trepidation in my second book, Anahuac, and commit a murder—or, at least, commit to chronicling a murder in print.
But even though there is a murder to solve, in the historic and isolated Texas town of Anahuac (Anna Whack is the way a resident would pronounce it) that gives the book its title, the story revolves around mysteries that may be darker than murder.
Most of us abhor violence. Yet mystery, especially when it involves murder, is one of our favorite literary genres. The “why” of its popularity is not so hard to understand when one accepts that the violence and death in a murder mystery are usually purely fictional. We shiver in anticipation as the roller coaster reaches the top of the hill, because the exhilaration of the bottom dropping out is “safe.” Mystery lets us enter into the violent world of murder without actually being in danger. The journey is aided by the fact that our imaginations don’t—in the moment, at least—distinguish between real danger and the imagined.
Make no mistake, my latest novel Anahuac is a murder mystery, pure and simple. If you liked the Coen Brothers movie Blood Simple, you will probably like Anahuac. The mysteries surrounding the living are as dark and complex as the question of what happened to the dearly-departed woman my readers meet (briefly) in the first few pages.
So, how to write about the murder of a human being by another?
Anahuac is a story told in first person. Jim Ward, the series narrator, is not present at the time of the murder—he’s a lawyer called in to defend the out-of-town stranger who is at the murder scene. We learn the details, through Jim’s eyes, in retrospective interviews and testimony.
Solving the crime in Anahuac does not turn on how the deceased was killed. There is more than one person with the means and the motive to have committed the crime. Anahuac is a murder mystery with a heavy emphasis on multiple mysteries. The perpetrator’s identity—a preacher in a sharkskin suit with a following of evangelicals—is the key to there being a story in the first place; but the murder serves as a vehicle to explore dark questions related to greed, religion, and justice. Without the murder, the other dark mysteries explored in the story would never surface.
A murder defendant must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury’s task of judging the credibility of witnesses is most complex when multiple witnesses in the trial have an incentive to have killed the deceased. The paucity of information about the act of murder is often the case in real life crime. As in life, the jury and the reader are called to judge the credibility of the witnesses in Anahuac.
And to complicate matters, the town of Anahuac is about to be illuminated by the glare of big city television news and newspapers, enticed by the strange circumstances around the case. In 1972 Anahuac was a remote town even by Texas standards. Outside scrutiny of the small town’s justice system puts more than the defendant on trial.
Anahuac puts you in the jury box with a jury made up of rice farmers and the local undertaker. The defendant’s version of the events leading to the death of the victim is sketchy, but he has evidence that points to someone else. If there is a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime, the jury must acquit. What if that means that there might not ever be anyone punished for the crime?
I spent time as both a prosecutor and a defense lawyer. Justice is all too often in the eye of the beholder. The rules of evidence don’t care who is guilty. Convicted criminals seldom think that justice was done. Convicted innocent defendants are sure it wasn’t.
I am writing the sequel to Anahuac. The story is set in Austin, Texas in the mid-1970s and recounts a murder involving the cosmic cowboy music scene, politics, romance, and demands for women’s rights. Ah, yet again I am confronted with the violence of the act of murder. I wonder how I’ll handle it this time.
For our April Hard Word Book Club we will be reading from one of the masters of rural crime fiction. Daniel Woodrell is one of those authors other authors revere. Best known for Winter’s Bone, he chronicles the marginalized in his Ozark home area. We will be reading his first book to do this, Give Us A Kiss.
The book follows Doyle Redmond, a ne’er do well writer, leaving his California wife in her Volvo. As a favor to his folks, he goes down. He goes to his home town of West Table, Missouri, to convince his brother Smoke to turn himself in to Kansas City law enforcement. Instead, Doyle finds his own trouble, when a marijuana deal from Smoke’s “money garden” goes wrong and Doyle reignites a blood feud with The Dollys, a family of hardcore criminals.
This is Woodrell at his most entertaining. The book is laid back and funny with sudden pops of violence that build suspense into the story the further it goes as it looks at family, history, and literature itself. This should be one of our more fun discussions. We will be meeting on BookPeople’s third floor, Wednesday, April 25th, at 7PM. The book is 10% off to those planning to attend.
In May we will be discussing a book by one of Daniel Woodrell’s mentors and friends, James Crumley’s The Final Country.
It is hard for me to resist a heist novel or film. A bunch of sharp professionals with an even sharper plan that somehow goes sideways can always hook a reader or writer no matter how formulaic. Writers Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips found a handful of fellow writers in love with the big score to give it a fresh take with Culprits: The Heist Was Just The Beginning.
Both Gary and Richard write the first chapter together, featuring a unique target. Hard case heist man O’Conner gathers a group of smooth criminals to steal an illegal slush fund off a wealthy right-winger’s Texas ranch. A double cross happens with the pilot who was supposed to fly them out, leaving each member on the run with their split of the take. That’s when the other writers take over.
Each author takes a character and writes about them dealing with the fall out of the heist. Zoe Sharp and Jessica Kaye respectively take the inside players, the power broker’s trophy wife and her penny-ante thief lover, delivering well executed double and triple crosses that ripple through the book. Joe Clifford taps into the hard fatalism of a classic Manhunt magazine story, telling us the fate of “Eel Estevez.” Gar Anthony Haywood gives another side to the turncoat with “I Got You.” David Corbett gives us a slow burn suspense tale featuring the financier of the heist. Brett Battles and Manuel Ramos also deliver great contributions. Richard and Gary come back at the end with the climax.
The movement from each author’s story to the next is fluid. While each works individually as a short story, when placed in sequence each story shows its relationship to the previous. Since each chapter is from the point of one of the criminals, the various author voices never become incongruent.
Like master heist men themselves, Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips gathered their crew together and pulled off a perfect hard boiled job, though nothing went sideways. Most “shared novels,” even the best, come off as little more than an interesting experiment and a fun way to get writers together. This was the first time I felt a seamless story was being told with one. If I was going to join a gang of criminals, I’d want Gary and Richard to be the leaders.
Thanks to author Richard Bush for writing this blog post.
Way back in the day (talking late 60’s, so, yeah, I’m an old soul), I fell off into the blues. Back then blues was imported from across the pond by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. Sure, they were rock bands, but the always included ample examples of blues music, and it was those songs that grabbed me and held on. They spoke in reverence of the bluesmen whose songs they covered and I wanted badly to drink from the source, but albums by those cats just were not available in small town Texas.
BUT, while majoring in journalism at Southwest Texas State University (yes, I still call it that) and shooting pool at Cheatham Street Warehouse a hippie walked in offering to sell a trunk full of albums for a dollar each to raise his rent money. That trunk was loaded with boxes of blues albums, so I sacrificed twenty dollars of my own rent money for records by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Lightning Hopkins, etc…and never looked back.
After college, I took up sucking and blowing blues on a harmonica and began seeking out bluesmen who did the same. Over the years I interviewed them, wrote articles about them and reviewed their recordings for various publications. Some of those can be found at www.bushdogblues.blogspot.com, my way too neglected blog.
So…naturally, when I decided to write a novel, blues and trouble just had to be in the mix. An idea that had swirled around my brain for a number of years sprung from the murders of three extremely talented and influential blues harp players from the 40s/50s and 60’s. Little Walter Jacobs, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson and Henry ‘Pot’ Strong all met their demise on the streets of Chicago. Their murders have gone unsolved, except Strong’s. His wife was arrested for stabbing him, but she claimed innocence. So, I used those incidents as a jumping off point for my first foray into fiction. I just had to write it. Getting it published and read was secondary in my mind. Just planned to share it with blues fans.
My debut novel, River Bottom Blues, is that book, featuring two blues harmonica musicians determined to track down the evil responsible for killing a good buddy. The same protagonists find murder and mayhem in the two books that followed, The Devil’s Blues and Howling Mountain Blues. All of my crime fighting bluesmen stories are set in Texas. The third one does venture down to a Belize blues festival and the boys do find evil to stomp out before they leave.
The Oaxacan Kid is a standalone and offers up a different protagonist in the form of a blues record collector intent on finding an obscure harmonica musician he discovered on one of his finds. Blues and trouble rise their familiar heads when he finds that a few very bad people have the same goal and he’s stirred a pot that puts him directly in their cross hairs.
Richard Bush will be at BookPeople, along with John Shepphird on Saturday, May 5th at 2pm.
Our April meeting of the Murder In The Afternoon will be a special one. We will have bestselling author Meg Gardiner in person to discuss her book Unsub. Be ready to steel yourself before reading.
Unsub is a serial killer novel that delivers what you want from the sub-genre with fresh twists. The Prophet, who terrorized the Bay Area, resurfaces after twenty years. The FBI tap narcotics cop Caitlin Hendrix to get information from her father, Mack, the detective who came closest to catching the killer and lost his sanity in the process.
There is a lot to discuss, the real Zodiac who inspired the character, starting a series, and researching the material. Meg has a gift for explaining the process, making her a perfect live guest. So meet us all on BookPeople’s third floor April 16th at 1PM. The book is 10% off for those planning to attend.
Bottom Feeders by John Shepphird
The cast and crew on location in a small, low budget cable movie gets picked off one by one with arrows. It could be anyone from an angry local to the mobsters who invested. Shepphird, a man who has directed his share of low budget enterprises, captures the microcosm of filming while giving us an engaging whodunnit. You can meet him and Billy Bush (The Oaxcan Kid) on May 5th, 2PM, at BookPeople.
High White Sun by J Todd Scott
Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr
Bernie Gunther returns, although under a different name, working as a Munich insurance adjuster in 1958. A claim takes him to Athens, where there is still no love for Germans, and he becomes involved in plot involving war criminals, stolen gold, and a few murders. Kerr continues Bernie’s saga with historical insight, and tragic fallout of Hitler’s plan, tempered by noir humor. Kerr, of course, passed away last week, and we are saddened by that news.