- Post by Molly
At the beginning of March, I contacted many of my favorite women in crime fiction. In honor of Women’s History Month, I asked for a few thoughts on the history of women in crime fiction, the future of crime fiction for female authors, or women’s representation in detective fiction. I also asked for some recommendations to pass on – look out for a thorough list of all the recommendations I got in the next week. I received wonderful responses from Lori Rader-Day, Megan Abbott, Meg Gardiner, Ausma Zehanat Khan, and Jamie Mason (read her response here), each highlighting the long history of women in crime fiction, the prominent place in the genre of many female authors today, and passing along some great recommendations.
Lori Rader-Day’s debut novel, The Black Hour, came out last year, and she’ll be releasing her next one, Little Pretty Things, in July. Megan Abbott’s most recent work is The Fever, and her books run the gamut from historical plots set in the golden age of noir to, more recently, plots focusing on the dangerous lives of adolescent girls. Meg Gardiner writes breakneck cyber-thrillers starring extremely capable women. Her latest is Phantom Instinct. Ausma Zehanat Khan recently published her first novel, The Unquiet Dead, to much acclaim.
There is a vast and diverse body of work written by women and shelved in the mystery section – almost an overwhelming amount, when attempting an analysis, especially one written for a blog. Lori Rader-Day, in her response, brought up how “one of the greatest things about crime fiction is how many brilliant women write it. There’s such a long tradition of fantastic women crime writers that I could read for the rest of my life (and that’s my plan) and never catch up.” Meg Gardiner responded, “Women have been the backbone and animating force in crime fiction since the beginning. From Agatha Christie to Patricia Highsmith to Gillian Flynn, women have defined, deepened, and blown up the genre.” Ausma Zehanat Khan, in her reply, mentioned that “most of the mysteries I read are written by women, and I also think women are very well represented as equals in detective fiction, although possibly not as much in higher ranks, which is likely more a reflection of the real world.” I think that we can all agree – women in crime fiction are here to stay.
Do women write crime fiction differently than men? Ausma Zehanat Khan responded, “Generally speaking, I think women write better detective novels with deeper characterizations and greater empathy, although I’m never really sure that you can generalize.” Women are certainly more likely than their male counterparts to have strong female protagonists, yet many male authors do write powerful and intriguing female protagonists. Lori Rader-Day, after writing “I look forward to anything new by Tana French, Catriona McPherson, Denise Mina, Clare O’Donohue, Sara Gran, and Gillian Flynn,” made sure to mention that “I read male authors, too, of course, and I can be enchanted by a male author who captures a female protagonist well, like Alan Bradley and James Ziskin.”Perhaps, in analyzing fiction, we’ve moved beyond wide generalizations based on gender, and this is, in my opinion, a very good thing.
While women may be well-represented in the ranks of detective novelists today, not many classic female detective novelists (with certain exceptions, such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Parker and the great Patricia Highsmith) have stayed in circulation. The history of women in crime fiction is long, yet consistently undervalued. Many of those women who helped to originate, develop, and explode the genre of detective fiction are no longer in print. Those who have remained in print are generally from the British tradition of detective fiction, rather than American noir. Others who helped to originate the detective genre have found a home in classics, their history as genre fiction subordinated to their position as literature.
Meg Gardiner, when asked about the history of women in crime fiction, responded: “Hell, go back to the earliest days of great fiction—who wrote the original novel of tension, terror, and adventure? Mary Shelley. She gets credit for sparking science fiction and the horror genre. She’s also a founding force for suspense fiction!” I had contemplated Mary Shelley as an originator of horror, but had never thought of her before as paving the way for thrillers. I’m adding a belated New Year’s resolution to my already long list: I resolve to remember that the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is a fine and porous line, and like any definition, fraught with ambiguity.
However, the prognosis for our ability to appreciate classic female detective novelists is good. Megan Abbott, in her discussion of the history of women detective novelists, brought to the fore “the Library of America’s upcoming volumes devoted to female crime writers from the golden age of noir. These volumes will be edited by Sarah Weinman and will finally push back into print some of the true masterpieces of the genre.” (The Library of America’s collection of Women Crime Writers comes out this September. Preorder now.) Abbott points out in particular the inclusion of “Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, Vera Caspary’s Laura, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall and Margaret Millar’s Beast In View. These were books that were wildly successful in their day, and had a huge impact on crime fiction to come, but have been unjustly forgotten. It’s a thrilling development.” That the Library of America has chosen to bring back into print these volumes is a statement of confidence in the canonical status of each writer included in the collection. People have always read the novels of women crime novelists writing at the time, but now is our chance to explore the lesser known classics that paved the way for women writing in crime fiction today.
While many of us fans of crime fiction by women did not grow up reading the classics of female noir, we did benefit from the splintering and diversification of the detective genre in the 1970s and 80s. Not only did the feminist movement spur a vast array of more widely politicized detective fiction by women – this time period also saw a diversification of voices in regards to ethnicity, class, and sexuality. Many of these authors have stayed in print and are still read widely. There is a strong continuum of forward momentum from this point onwards, and women are now near-equally represented in the genre.
The forward momentum of increasing diversity, however, has slowed in the intervening decades, and the representation of authors of color, of any gender, has fallen woefully behind. Ausma Zehanet Khan responded, “What I’d like to see more of in detective fiction is more diversity – more women and men of color in leading roles, and also as writers of detective fiction. I love learning about different perspectives on the world, on crime, and culture. For example, I loved Attica Locke’s ‘The Cutting Season.’ And although I’m starting to see secondary characters who are from diverse backgrounds, there is still a long way to go.”
As a female reader of detective fiction by both male and female writers, I believe the biggest gendered problem in detective fiction right now is not a lack of female authors, but an intensification of violence against women by some male and some female writers. The detective genre is certainly a violent one, to its core, and gendered violence is a world-wide issue that cannot be simply subsumed to a socialist realism narrative – when I read a detective novel, I want a nutshell version of a realistic society, and that includes violent, gendered crimes. However, I have lost track of the number of detective novels I have read that not only hideously torture and murder women in uncommon-in-real-life ways, but deny those women any kind of voice, spending more time describing a dead body than a vibrant soul, lost to the world and yet deserving of remembrance. Women are not just corpses – they are characters.
The more women writing crime fiction, the less we will see female characters treated as disposable playthings and the more we will see women enacting their own stories and determining their own agency. There are also plenty of male authors out there bucking the trend – writing strong female characters and taking a responsible attitude towards the representation of violence against women. I’d say the future of women in crime fiction – as authors and as characters – is looking pretty darn good.
One of my favorite books released this spring has been Duane Swierczynki’s Canary, the story of a seventeen-year-old college freshman forced to act as a Confidential Informant. Duane fires on all cylinders in this one: Canary is funny, intense, gritty, and surprisingly moving. We caught up with Duane to talk about the book, its main character, and and her recruitment into the war on drugs.
MysteryPeople: Many of your books have a heightened quality, but Canary feels a little more grounded. Was that your intention going in or was that simply where the story took you?
Duane Swierczynski: Considering my previous novel featured a guy being shot into space, I thought it might be time to bring the action back down to Earth. But yeah, this was by design: I wanted to tell a street-level story that felt as real as possible, to the point where I was blending in true crime stories as background and writing the book in “real time.” (The story is set in late November/early December 2013 — I’m proud to say that even the weather matches!)
MP: Confidential Informants are a staple of crime fiction, but rarely as a protagonist. What made a lead in that position unique to write?
DS: Nobody loves a snitch, so I was determined to create one that readers might root for. One of the inspirations was a New Yorker article about the plight of young C.I.s who are often left to their own devices. Fellow comic book writer (and gentleman) Fred Van Lente pointed it out to me one day, saying that it would make an excellent subject for a crime novel. He was right. C.I.s straddle the line between the cops and the underworld, which is an incredibly precarious place to be.
MP: With a lot of the cop and criminal parts of the book, I couldn’t help but think of some of those gritty crime movies from the Seventies. Did you have any influences for the book?
DS: There’s one huge one—the 1972 L.A. drug noir Cisco Pike, which pits Kris Kristofferson’s pot dealer against a manic narcotics officer (played by the legendary Gene Hackman). I love this movie to death, and tipped my cap to it with character names. Sarie Holland’s surname is lifted from the Hackman character, and her sort-of boyfriend’s last name is “Pike.”
MP: Much of the story deals with Sarie keeping what she’s doing from her father and brother. What drew you to the family element of the story?
DS: I think being a father, and having children of a certain age — and worried about the choices they might make down the line. In my previous novels, I was usually throwing some avatar of myself into crazy situations. But I realized that it would be much more terrifying to have my children in jeopardy.
MP: This is your first female lead and also someone much younger than you are. Did you feel you had to approach Sarie differently or ask more questions about her during the writing?
DS: Dude, are you saying I don’t look 17? Thanks a lot, man.
I was very nervous about writing from the POV of a 17-year-old girl. But I tapped into my own memories of being an awkward, 17-year-old college freshman (like Sarie, I was pushed up a year) trying to figure out the near-adult landscape. Her journal entries, though, didn’t really take shape until I realized that she should be writing TO someone, instead of just recording her thoughts. That helped a great deal.
MP: You delve into the war on drugs with little judgement. What was the biggest takeaway from the subject after writing about it?
DS: It’s funny; I think I am fairly judgmental about it. Recently, Don Winslow (the authority in this area) tweeted a link to a piece about how the Mexican cartels are adapting to pot legalization in the U.S. — namely, by seeking other markets. That right there says it all: drug dealing is a business, and the drug war is no more effective than Prohibition was.
You can find copies of Canary on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
-Post by Scott Butki
You know that famous saying that there are a limited number of plots? Well, with his latest book, Harlan Coben, has just added one more to the list. We’ve all read books, especially thrillers, where a friend or family loved one turns into an enemy and you fight for your life. See Gone Girl, etc, for that plot-line.
Or those books where protagonists are fighting their enemy, adversary, nemesis; be it Sherlock versus Moriarty, Americans fighting Russian leaders in the 80s, or, more recently, those same Americans fighting Middle Eastern terrorists. In both cases plot-lines often involve plot twists which regularly involve secrets.
Coben, in his new book, The Stranger, explores another concept: What if strangers approached you and, without any obvious motivation, told you something about your daughter and/or wife that just destroys you and,potentially, your family? As the book kicks off, the protagonist, Adam Price, is approached by a stranger who tells him that his wife used a website to fake a pregnancy. When he asks her about it she essentially disappears. Meanwhile, a mother is told a completely different secret about her daughter that is similarly shocking and destructive to their family.
Who are these strangers and why are they sharing these secrets? Not since viewing Alfred Hitchcock’s classic noir Strangers On A Train, based on the Patricia Highsmith book of the same name, have I been so wary of strangers. Stranger Danger indeed! I don’t want to say more for fear of giving up spoilers.
I am embarrassed to admit, given that I read about 50 books a year and do at least 15 interviews of authors a year (indexed here), that The Stranger is the first Harlan Coben book I have read. Given how strong and engaging I found the plot-line to be, I will soon be reading more by him.
Harlan Coben comes to BookPeople Thursday, March 26, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s second floor. Mr. Coben will be speaking and signing his latest oh-so-chilling thriller,The Stranger. All BookPeople events are free and open to the public. You must purchase a copy of the book in order to join the signing line. Copies of The Stranger are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
I reached out to several of my favorite female crime novelists at the beginning of March, hoping to get a few thoughts on the work of female authors in the detective genre and the representation of female characters. I was extremely gratified to get immediate responses from several wonderful authors. Check back on Thursday for some additional thoughts, and to (belatedly) kick off MysteryPeople’s March ode to women in crime fiction, I bring you a guest post from a recent visitor to the store.
Jamie Mason is the author of Three Graves Full and Monday’s Lie, and writes intense and atmospheric detective novels brimming with psychological insights. She stopped by the store in February for a signing – you can find signed copies of her latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com – and I was privileged to review her latest novel for the blog. MysteryPeople also got a chance to interview her about her debut novel.
- Post by Jamie Mason
I came into my reading life, or more specifically into my interest in crime fiction, when the idea of crime fiction as the province of male authors was nearing its end. Of course, there were plenty of female authors in the foundations: Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers and Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith and Agatha Christie, just to list a few. There has always been Agatha Christie.
There have always been women crime writers, but by the time my own my reading turned to crime as one of its staple foods in the early nineteen-nineties, finding female crime novelists wasn’t much of a thought for me. The wave of Ruth Rendell and PD James, Patricia Cornwell, Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, and Kathy Reichs was the one I rode out, never wondering if the Captains wore skirts. And isn’t that nice?
I read both men and women crime writers (in fact, I read both male and female writers across any number of genres) but if I take a longer view, you can see the rise of women crime writers over these last three decades. If you regard To Kill A Mockingbird as crime fiction, you can say that the very best in crime writing is floated on the kite strings of double x chromosomes. There are plenty of examples.
“The very best in crime writing is floated on the kite strings of double x chromosomes…”
But I think one of the best things about crime fiction, especially now, is the egalitarian feel of the results. Good crime fiction is good crime fiction. And there’s so much good crime fiction out there just now. Men buy Gillian Flynn and Laura Lippman (as well they should.) Tana French’s readers come in all plumbing. Megan Abbott is brilliant. So are Tess Gerritsen, Kate Atkinson, Lisa Lutz, Mo Hayder, and Sara Paretsky. And these are only the names that come quickly to me. We are Legion.
It’s still important now, for the time being, that we make a point of women in crime fiction, a point of women in very many slots and chutes of achievement, really. But I have hopes that the horizon where gender is no longer an important distinction is a little closer in the crime writing world than it is elsewhere. The future of crime fiction might very well be a small-but-illustrative map of a place where we won’t need initials or neutral pseudonyms to play coy with our genders – a place where good work speaks for itself.
Written in the Thirties, Paul Cain’s Fast One (now published by Gutter Books) is a litmus test for hard boiled fans to see how hard boiled they are. It was the only novel by its author to use the pseudonym Paul Cain, one of several aliases he went by in life. He took the sub-genre and stripped it down to its essence.
Our protagonist, who goes only by Kells, is a retired East Coast enforcer, taking it easy in LA. With several mobs moving out west, he’s given an offer to go back to his bad ways. When he refuses, Kells is framed for murder. With only the help of his questionable girlfriend and his reporter buddy, Kells is on the run from every cop and hood, all of them gunning for him as he plans to get square.
Fast One is a blueprint for a tough guy crime novel. Under two hundred pages, its tight and fast story is mainly told through action and the tersest of dialogue. It is even stripped of many ideals of heroism. Kells didn’t quit the mob out of any discovered morality, he simply found it a hassle. If Fast One values anything, it is self reliance.
Fast One is essential for the hard boiled reader, if just to test how hard boiled you are. It is a two-fisted book that moves like a roadster with the pedal to the metal, and there is no catching up. It definitely deserves its reputation as a crime fiction classic.
You can find copies of Fast One on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
Austin prides itself on individuality. We are both counter-culture and cowboy, known for our own takes on music and food. As Jesse Sublett shows in 1960s Austin Gangsters, even our criminals keep it weird. Sublett chronicles the Overton Gang. They were formed around high school football star Tim Overton, who held a grudge against UT coach Darrell Royal for stopping his chances at being a Longhorn. With fellow football player “Fat Jerry” Ray James, he lead a gang of travelling criminals who burglarized banks and muscled in on vice operations all around Texas, using the new highway system to their advantage, with the Capitol as their base of operations. They were bad men in Elvis haircuts and shark fin Caddies, committing felonies at a rock n’ roll pace.
When it came to Austin history, they were like gangster Forrest Gumps. They hung out at the same club the 13th Floor Elevators played and brushed up against the burgeoning counter-culture. There is even a tense, armed stand-off between Overton and future U.T. tower sniper Charles Whitman.
Sublett uses tons of interviews with the survivors and offspring on both sides of the law. He doesn’t romanticize the gang and doesn’t shy away from describing their brutality, particularly toward their women. However, he does include how some of their victims recall their charming side. He also shows how the methods of overzealous law enforcement almost brought the town back to its wild west roots. Much of the story is told in colorful anecdotes, such as the one about the interaction between a local madam and Overton a few weeks after he robbed and beat her.
1960s Austin Gangsters is a rough, fun ride through Austin’s underbelly during a period of change. Sublett gives us a real world of east side toughs, crooked car dealers, dice men, dogged lawmen, chicken shack patrons, part-time hookers, and elderly brothel matrons.
Yep, even when it came to crime, Austin isn’t what it was.
Copies of 1960s Austin Gangsters are available on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com.
Jesse Sublett speaks about and signs his new book here at BookPeople Monday, March 23 at 7pm.
-Post by Molly
I’ve always been a fan of spy fiction, since I discovered John le Carré, Alan Furst, Philip Kerr, and of course, the great Graham Greene. At its silliest, spy fiction is a collection of gadgets, gizmos, guns and girls (in that order). At its greatest, such as in The Spy Who Came in From The Cold, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, spy fiction becomes a moral minefield; treacherous, duplicitous, paranoid, and thrilling. Agents lurk behind every corner, no one is who they seem, and each stab at connection, empathy and affection is brutally punished by manipulative handlers and their far-away, jingoistic bosses. Berlin, as the secret agent center of the Cold War for nearly a half century, stands out as a setting for spy fiction, and Joseph Kanon, with his latest novel, Leaving Berlin, uses the city just as well as Le Carré. No wonder – Kanon has already made Cold War Berlin his own in such novels as The Good German, and Leaving Berlin is no exception.
Leaving Berlin starts with a perfect set-up. In 1949, Alex Meier a German-Jewish writer with a Dutch passport and a communist past, refuses to testify at the House of Un-American Activities Committee and is promptly deported from the United States. He receives an invitation to move back to Berlin, a city he has not seen since 1933, and join the community of returning Communist exiles, including Bertolt Brecht, determined to help build a new Germany.
Meier, however, does not plan to stay in Germany long – he’s received a promise that, should he provide enough information on his new friends to the CIA, he will be allowed to return to the United States, where his ex-wife and son still reside. The CIA recruits Meier as an agent partially because Meier’s family is dead, and thus they think he has no connections in his former home. Meier proves his handlers wrong, and immediately goes on a quest to find the Junker family who provided him with the funds and opportunity to escape the Nazis after a brief turn in a concentration camp. He finds some of them, including his old flame, still alive, and he decides to help those he can to escape to the west as well.
With such a great setup, its hard to believe that the book could possibly have an equally amazing conclusion. And yet Leaving Berlin ends with one of the best resolutions I have ever read in a spy novel – everyone receives their comeuppances, but not before several double agents, even more murders, a hint of romance, and a thrilling chase sequence during a production of Brecht’s prescient anti-war drama Mother Courage.
Kanon chocks his novel full of historical details. The characters are a veritable who’s-who of East German intellectuals, and the city is described so well as to be almost the protagonist of the novel – in fact, the city, with its ever-shifting sectors and alliances and ever-present construction crews, changes throughout the novel more than any other character. Leaving Berlin, had it been written in 1949, would not have been published, for the censorship at the time on both the Soviet and American sides was far to strict for discussion of certain topics. Kanon’s characters explicitly discuss the mass rape of German women by Soviet soldiers at the end of WWII (encompassing over two million victims and two distinct stages, the first in East Prussia and the second in Berlin). Similarly, characters discuss purges, one-way trips to Siberia, and Stalinist oppression more openly than was possible at the time. Leaving Berlin does, however, read like a novel written in 1949 and hidden in a desk drawer for a day when it could be published, and this is the highest praise I can give to any American writing about the Soviet era.
You can find copies of Leaving Berlin on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. For those spy fiction aficionados who may be reading this post, we are relaunching our MysteryPeople Double Feature film series at the end of April. Join us May 10 at 6:30 PM on BookPeople’s third floor for a screening of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, followed by a discussion of the book and film. All BookPeople events are free and open to the public.
The Hard Word Book club will meet to discuss Ken Bruen’s Gaelic Noir masterpiece, The Magdalen Martyrs, Wednesday, March 25, at 7 PM, on BookPeople’s Third Floor. We will follow the book discussion with a special screening of “The Magdalen Martyrs” episode of the Jack Taylor series, starring Iain Glenn. Books for book clubs are 10% off in the month of their selection.
The Hard Word Book Club continues to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with its latest discussion of one of Ireland’s finest. The Magdalen Martyrs is considered to be Ken Bruen in top form. The Magdalen Martyrs proves Bruen a master of Gaelic Noir on two counts: the novel is very Irish and very, very dark.
The Magdalen Martyrs is Bruen’s third book to chronicle Jack Taylor. Taylor is an ex-gardi (Irish police) with a major drink and drug problem, issues with his mother, a love of books, and a lot of self loathing. To make ends meet, he hires himself out as a “finder” in Galway; detective being a dirty word in Ireland.
Jack has two jobs in The Magdalen Martyrs. A young man hires him to find out if his mother murdered his father like he believes. This taps into Jack’s toxic relationship with his own mother. The second involves a favor called in by local badman Bill Cassell. Taylor’s second case quickly connects to the dark history of the Magdalen Laundry: a place where, for decades, the Catholic Church took in unwed mothers, adopted out their babies, and kept the unwed mothers for years as slave labor. A woman helped Cassell’s mother escape decades ago before she met his father and wants Jack to find the lady to thank her. Both cases turn up dark history that folks want left alone and some are willing to kill to keep secret.
The Magdalen Martyrs provides a lot to talk about, including Ken Bruen’s style of writing and what his subject matter. Join us on the 25th of March at 7 PM, on our third floor. The book is 10% off to those who attend. Following our discussion, we will also be viewing “The Magdalen Martyrs” episode of the Jack Taylor series staring Iain Glenn from Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones.
-Post by Michael S.
C. J. Box’s latest novel, Endangered, begins with murder most fowl. As Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett is investigating the obliteration of a flock of sage-grouse in his jurisdiction, he gets a call that his daughter, who ran off with rodeo hero Dallas Cates, has been found beaten and left for dead in a ditch. Joe is sure Cates is guilty but he’s got to prove it. And he’ll have to do it without the help of his friend, Nate Romanowski, who has been suspiciously ambushed and whose girlfriend is missing.
Demonstrating his characters’ sense of family and loyalty is one of Box’s strengths in his writing, and his new novel proves no exception. Joe is devoted to his wife and kids. His friendship with Nate has held strong through some tough times. His good heart and sense of justice keep him on the straight path. But in Endangered, Box shows us what can happen when family loyalty gets twisted. And the Cates family is twisted with a capital T. Dallas’ mother Brenda is one of the creepiest and most fascinating characters Box has ever given us.
I have enjoyed all of CJ Box’s books and this is one of the best. As always he takes several plotlines (the sage-grouse killings, Nate’s disappearance, April’s attack) and weaves them into an exciting, well-paced adventure with plenty of unexpected turns along the way. And even if you haven’t read a Joe Pickett book before, the characters are so well defined this would be a great place to jump in.
You can find copies of Endangered on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
Michael Robotham is always known for always trying something different, but this time he goes even further with Life or Death, a Texas-set tale. Convict Audie Palmer escapes prison the day before his release. Soon, people on both sides of the law are out to get both him and the millions he may or may not have robbed. Michael was kind enough to talk to us about the novel.
MysteryPeople: Why a convict would break out of prison the day before his release is such a great question to start with. Did you immediately have the answer when you came up with it?
Michael Robotham: The idea for the story was triggered by a real-life escape 20 years ago in Australia when a twice convicted killer called Tony Lanigan escaped from prison on the eve of his release on parole. Lanigan has never been seen since and many people suspect he was murdered, but I’ve always been intrigued by his escape.
I spent years tossing the idea around – trying to come up with a possible answer. Eventually I settled upon the idea of a robbery and missing millions. I knew there had to be a love story at the heart of Life or Death – otherwise it wouldn’t explain why Audie Palmer endured so much misery and hardship in prison, only to escape on the eve of his release.
MP: The voice, tone, and dialogue is way different from your other work. How much of that was because of the different setting?
MR: The ‘voice’ of the book is very much dictated by the setting. My previous novels have all been tense, almost suffocating psychological thrillers set in the UK. Life or Death is very different. It is more of a classic ‘man-on-the-run’ story, battling against the odds to stay alive.
There is a great history in America of prison-based novels and films, such as The Green Mile, Cool Hand Luke and The Shawshank Redemption. I had this in mind when I chose my setting. I am also a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner and James Lee Burke, among other southern writers, and I was determined to draw inspiration from them. I also listened to dozens of audio books set in the south and read by southern actors, trying to catch the rhythm of the language.
3. What drew you to Texas for the story?
MR: Life or Death is a big story and it needed a big canvas. There’s a slogan that says Texas is ‘like a whole other country’ and it’s very true – not just because of its size and cultural diversity, but its food, pride, people and the history. What other state has it’s own Texas Independence Day or bumper stickers threatening to secede?
MP: How did you deal with a setting you were less familiar with?
MR: I’ve always been a huge fan of American writers ever since I discovered Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner in my teens. Apart from my reading (and listening to) a lot of books, I spent seven weeks in the Lone Star State, scouting locations, sitting in bars, chatting to locals and driving enough miles to get white line fever. During that time I met prison warders, bondsmen, bounty hunters, strippers, deputy sheriffs and a district attorney, who was born in Liverpool, England, but finished up living and working in Austin. Mark Pryor is also a very fine crime writer, who gave me a lot of help with the technical side of legal system in Texas.
MP: Audie reminds me of an Elmore Leonard lead in his zen ways. How did you approach him?
MR: I wanted to create an everyman hero in Audie Palmer, someone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, who faces enormous adversity yet discovers untapped reservoirs of courage and calmness.
Over many years as a journalist I interviewed a lot of survivors and heroes who risked their own lives to save others. One of the things that struck me is that none of us knows how we’ll react when confronted by death or danger. The most unlikely of people become heroes.
MP: After writing Life Or Death, did you notice any differences between American and British crime?
MR: There may have been differences at one point in time, but I don’t think they exist any more because the genre is so international in scope.
Traditionally, in British crime novels the crime was often an aberration that upset the balance of a peaceful place, whereas in America the crime is more a ‘fact of life’ and ordinary people are caught up in violent events.
The policing and legal systems are obviously different, but one of the reasons I chose to set Life or Death in the US is because at a local level people often elect their local sheriff, district attorney and judges. The fate of any suspect is determined by only a handful of people – who decide what charges someone faces, who represents them and what judge sits on the case. I find this quite scary.
Copies of Life or Death are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.