INTERVIEW WITH ROB HART

Take-Out: And Other Tales of Culinary Crime Cover ImageWhen Rob Hart discovered that many of his short fiction dealt with food, restaurants, and bars, he put together a thematic collection, Take-Out, crime fiction with a culinary bent. He added a handful of new tales to the mix as well. Each one serves as as a masterclass for story telling craft. Rob was kind enough to to take a break from preparing the push for his much talked about book, The Store, coming out this summer, to chat with us about writing, cooking, and his city.

1. Why do you think cooking and dining play a part in a lot of fiction writing?

There’s a lot of great detail you can play with there—sensory detail, of course, but too, passion. Everyone is passionate about food. Every food has their own customs and cultures related to it. So you can tell a lot about someone based on their likes and dislikes, where they eat, how to prepare a dish. And at the end of the day, food is the only thing we all have in common—even if the dishes are different, customs of hospitality are generally the same. Everyone wants to sit at a table and leave feeling fulfilled.

2. Is there anything you keep in mind when writing about food?

There’s a balance, I think, between getting across the importance and uniqueness of a dish, while at the same time, not burdening the reader, or pulling a Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien would spend six pages describing a meal. For example, in one of the stories in Take-Out, there’s reference to a French omelet, which is very unlike an American omelet, and very difficult to cook correctly—and to get that all across in a way that’s both informative and concise is a little tough. Or in the last story, which is set in Singapore and about the hawker markets there, there’s so much to talk about related to Singaporean food culture… you want to pay respect to that culture, and highlight why it’s important and unique, while at the same time writing a good story… it’s a lot. But it’s also a lot of fun.

3. Your love of New York often plays a part in many of the stories. Other than familiarity, what makes it a great place for a story?

New York is such a huge, diverse city. It’s like a playground. And there’s the stuff most people know, which is great—it creates a baseline of familiarity with readers—but there are also a lot of weird, off-the-beaten-path places you can go, too. You’ve also got every kind of language, every kind of culture, and in the case of Take-Out, every kind of cuisine… honestly it’s probably spoiled me as a writer. Sometimes the city does half the work for me.

4. Is there a particular way you approach a short story?

Short stories tend to hit me like little bolts of lighting. By the time I sit down to write one I am already very excited for it, and pretty much have it fully-formed in my head. In a general sense, I tend to look at them as little Twilight Zone episodes—morality plays with a bit of a twist at the end.

5. When reviewing Take-Out, I felt like a food critic, explaining how one element, interacts with or combines with another. Do you believe in having more than one layer, even in short fiction?

The best kind of fiction is the kind that can entertain, but there’s something rippling below the surface. That’s something I’m always looking for—how to get a reader compulsively turning the pages, and then leave having grown or thought or changed a bit. It’s what I tried to do with The Warehouse, which is my next book. I wanted to write a ripping thriller that was also very anti-late-stage capitalism.

6. What’s the best dish you can cook?

This is tough—I love to cook and consider myself pretty handy with a stove. Stick me in a decently-stocked kitchen and I’ll make you a meal you’ll want to eat again. But if pressed: I make really awesome chili. Though I never make it the same way twice.

Shotgun Blast from the Past: The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes

The Real Cool Killers (Harlem Detectives Series #2) Cover ImageChester Himes is so much more than the first major African-American crime writer. With his own take on Harlem that heightens both its vibrancy and violence, he was a master at world building. He was also one of the first writers to introduce absurdity into the genre. Both of these characteristics are on grand display in his 1958 novel, The Real Cool Killers.

It opens with a great depiction of Harlem life that turns into raucous violent comedy that would be at home in a Tarintino movie. The denizens at a local tavern, enjoying the drink and badass R&B. The author describes it so well, you can hear the music and smell the sweat. When The Greek, a white regular, drops in, he gets the ire of a customer who comes at him with a knife. The man loses his knife and hand to the bartender and his meat cleaver. The Greek runs out and is chased down the street by Sonny Jenkins, a local drunk with a pistol. Sonny fires and The Greek droops dead.

That’s when Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Johnson, Hime’s black Harlem cops, hit the scene. They attempt to arrest Jenkins, but The Real Cool Moslems, a street gang in robes and turbans, descends on them. One tosses a bottle of perfume at Coffin, thinking it is acid, something that scarred his face before, and guns down the youth. The gangs runs off, taking Sonny with them. It becomes more complicated when they discover Sonny’s gun only fires blanks. If that isn’t enough, Coffin’s daughter is in with the gang.

With Coffin sidelined for the shooting, Gravedigger is on his own in the search for The Real Cool Moslems and Sonny. He hits the streets, questioning hookers, shaking down hustlers, and not above resorting to pistol whipping or gunplay in his urban hunt. He works more with his white brothers in blue than he has in the previous books. This allows the character to confront the notions whites have of both blacks and Harlem.

As in most of Hime’s Harlem Cycle, it feels like the story will burst from its tight plot and short page length. He packs it dense with lively verbs and detail to express the neighborhood and its people. He sets the bar for setting, taking what most authors use as local color and creating an unwieldy, living, breathing organism that’s dangerous. It’s somewhat ironic, since Himes never lived there.

Humor is prevalent throughout the book. It is often tied to the violence and casual attitude toward it. The dialogue pops and dances. everyone has a justification for their actions and it’s usually hilarious. Himes said he used absurdity because that is the daily experience of a black man in white America.

The Real Cool Killers shows Himes Harlem as fast and colorful, full of sex, violence, and humor. It moves to hot jazz and low down blues. It’s entertaining to read about, hell to survive.

People Who Don’t Turn the Other Cheek: An Interview with Dylan & Drew Struzan, Author & Illustrator of A Bloody Business

A Bloody Business Cover ImageA Bloody Business is a unique gangster epic in many ways. For one it is from the source of Jimmy “Blue Eyes” Alo, a retired mobster the author Dylan Struzan met in a nursing home. In his teens, at the dawn of Prohibition, he began working for Meyer Lansky and rose up through the ranks during the Roaring Twenties. He became the model for Johnny Ola in The Godfather Part 2. He had rare view of organized crime moving between the strategy meetings between Lansky, Bugsey Siegel, and Lucky Luciano and the street soldiers, which are both depicted in these books as well as their domestic and social scenes. The book also has illustrations by Dylan’s husband, Drew Struzan, mainly known for his iconic movies posters, such as Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Star Wars film. Both were kind enough to take a few questions from us.

1. (Both Dylan and Drew) Did you immediately see this as a project to work together on?

Dylan: Not really.

Drew: I did, being the husband of the writer. I wanted to support her in what she was doing as she always wanted to be a writer. I thought, gee, a book. I will draw some pictures for her and maybe it will help promote the book and make people want to read it.

Dylan: Once upon a time, we were planning on doing children’s books together. I would write and Drew would illustrate. It sounded like a fun thing to do. This project came along and since it was definitely not a children’s book, I didn’t think Drew would join in with illustrations. Primarily, I didn’t think that publishers would be interested in including illustrations as it adds a lot to the cost of making the book. When he started drawing, I didn’t imagine he would do a piece for each chapter but he did. I figured that even if the illustrations weren’t included in the published work, they would be very helpful in selling the story. When Titan and Hard Case Crime said they wanted to include the illustrations, I rejoiced. It was a boon to the content of the book. I hope everyone enjoys them.

A little side story. Our grandson, Nico, is in the fifth grade. The school has “Author Day.” Nico asked what the subject of the book was. I said “gangsters.” He asked if there were Tommy guns in the story. I told him of course. It’s set back in the ‘20s when Tommy guns were very available. Because of Fortnite, he gave me a great description of the history of the Tommy gun and then asked if there were other guns and violence. Undeterred by the answer, he said, “I guess I can’t ask you to come to school on ‘Author Day’ because there are first graders and the school doesn’t want to scare them.”

I have a very supportive family.

The next three for Dylan

2. What about Vincent Alo’s story made you realize it was worth telling?

Dylan: My initial interest was aroused by the fact that no other man of his stature has spoken (on tape) about his life and the events that occurred during his lifetime. History has always fascinated me and this was an untold story, not just another gangster tale. As Jimmy used to say, the press paints everyone with the same brush. These men were not typical gangsters. Jimmy, as he was known, was partners with Meyer Lansky for nearly 60 years and although this story is about Meyer and Charlie Luciano, Jimmy came into that relationship when he was released from jail after his first offense. He stuck with those two men. Jimmy once said of Meyer, “His philosophy was…you’d be surprised. They had him built up as a villain. He was very far from that. He died a poor man. His philosophy was for the common people. He liked to see justice done. He always thought there was a double standard here in this country. The rich pay the fine and the poor go to jail. He wouldn’t lie about anything. He was a nice fella, a highly principled fella.

3. What surprised you about the mob in that era surprised you when talking to him and doing your research?

Dylan: This is a hard question to answer, there were so many things. The greatest surprise was the personal integrity of Jimmy and Meyer. I’m not suggesting they stepped aside from the things that their world demanded. They did what they had to do. As Jimmy said, “These aren’t the Boy Scouts, you know.” But I was reminded of the Raymond Chandler quote about the mean streets down which a man must go. Jimmy liked to tell the story of his work as a Wall Street runner when he was a kid. How he sat out on the street waiting for the chance to run messages between broker and client. He did this in the scorching heat of summer and the freezing cold of winter. Others were promoted while he was passed over and when he asked why he was told, “Do your job and don’t ask questions.” With that, he turned to crime and then did time. Jail time changed him but he still clung to a gangster’s code of right and wrong. That’s not usually the picture we get when it comes to men of the street.

4. One of my big takeaways from the book was how smart most these guys were. How do you think these mostly young men who grew up on the streets with little formal education could think like chess masters?

Dylan: Meyer was born in Grodno, Poland. Immigration records show that he entered America through Ellis Island on April 4, 1911. They record him as being 8 years old. According to Robert Lacy’s book The Little Man, Grodno was nearly 70 percent Jewish, according to the census of 1887. Communities such as these valued education. Meyer was an avid reader of history throughout his life. As Jimmy said, “He was much smarter than all the guys you got around even then. He had foresight cause he knew history, see. He had foresight and he knew human nature and he knew just how to deal with it.” Meyer followed the trials of Clarence Darrow. Studied the Constitution of the United States. Meyer and Charlie consulted with each other. Charlie knew the ways of the “greasers,” as the old Mustache Petes were called. Such knowledge meant the difference between life and death. They were on a mission not to stake out territory but to take the violence off the streets of NYC so that everyone could earn. They had to come at that job with understanding and wisdom or get killed or imprisoned for their ignorance. I admit, what they accomplished was pretty impressive.

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The next three for Drew

5. Drew, what did this project allow you to do as an illustrator, you hadn’t been able to do?

Drew: First of all, I got to work at my own pace and without any direction from the outside. It was just between me and my wife. I drew what I felt was right for the chapter and I chose things I thought would open people’s eyes just as my wife’s words opened eyes. The illustrations make the book richer. I never had an opportunity to do illustrations within a book. I enjoyed the process.

6. As an illustrator you strike a great balance in capturing the story of the filmmaker or in this case writer. Do you have an approach to this success?

Drew: My illustrations are not meant to give away the story but to enlighten the reader and to get them to want to know more. The pictures are designed to let the reader know there is something here worth seeing, in the case of a film, or listening to, in the case of a story. These illustrations are meant to let the reader know there is wisdom here, understanding, history, something you will want to read.

In trying to decide what to use, rather than just showing a portrait of the Godfather which opens people’s minds to the fact that he is a human being, this is also about a time period.  I live today. I didn’t live a hundred years earlier. Researching it and trying to get people’s mind’s eyes back to that period so that they would understand it with pictorial reference was, I think…it increased my joy. I think it will increase the reader’s joy also. 

8. (Both Dylan and Drew) What do you think draws us to gangster stories?

Drew: There were wonderful movies that were made, but we all know they were fiction. This is the truth. Is the truth any different from what we’ve seen in the movies? It is so obviously different. We’ve got to know why and what. 

Dylan: That’s a good point. My first introduction to gangsters was the movie The Godfather. That’s all I really knew about gangsters for a long time. But that story is one particular vision about one group of people. It is elegantly told to be sure, but it is a small piece of the picture. I’m glad for it. People know the movie inside and out so I don’t have to explain that side of gangster life when I talk about the Italians. The Sopranos gave us a new look at the agony of that life and the toll it takes on families so when I was talking to Jimmy, it was interesting to just focus on his life experience in that world. That was Jimmy’s gift to me and to Tommy (who wrote the foreword to the book and made the recordings with Jimmy) and, hopefully, to everyone that reads the book. He lived that life. He was there and that’s what I tried to bring to the story. Gangsters in general…speaking personally now, after living many years in religion, I was curious about the lives of people who don’t turn the other cheek. What impacts their life? I wanted to know Jimmy’s story and what made him turn to crime. I think we are all interested in that question. It is a moral conversation that we like to have perhaps with ourselves and our friends.

Drew: I was thinking along the same line because we suffered many things in our lives. Jimmy suffered a lot in prison as a young man. One of Dylan’s driving forces was for Jimmy to tell us why he chose this way of life. What was his motivation. They didn’t necessarily choose that life but that life chose them, their circumstances chose them.

Dylan: Yes, and I think part of the interesting thing there is that he had his own moral ethic, too. There will be more on that subject in the next book which is about the gambling years. I’m working on that now. That book will center more around the relationship between Meyer and Jimmy where this book is more about Meyer and Charlie.

A MURDEROUS FEAST: A REVIEW OF ROB HART’S TAKE-OUT

Take-Out: And Other Tales of Culinary Crime Cover ImageRob Hart is one of those rising voices of crime fiction who deserves all the praise he gets. he melds his well learned craftsmanship with a gift of delivering the hard boiled tropes with a fresh and human take. Take-Out a collection of his short work with several new stories, acts as evidence for his talents, allowing you to view his story sense  in smaller models and see how he tackles scenarios.

The stories carry a common thread, some on thin technicality, of an intersection of crime and food (sometimes drink). Hart finds meals as a source of odd bonding, like the history of a relationship between and bagel shop owner and a mobster, and often as a sideways approach to weave both suspense and misdirection at the same together as he does in the final story, “Have You Eaten” (Which can be read here- https://mysterypeople.wordpress.com/2019/03/29/crime-fiction-friday-have-you-eaten-by-rob-hart/). Often, as captured in “Confessions Of  A Taco Truck Owner” and “Bhut Jolokia” it is the source of all out combat. He taps into the emotions, economics, and sociology that swirl around food and restaurant life, with stories forming a crime fiction version of Anthony Bourdain essays.

Many of the stories are also an examination of his city, New York. “Creampuff”, possibly my favorite story, about a bouncer at a trendy pastry shop is a bittersweet ode to the sense of a borough’s community as he pokes fun at its pretension. “Knock-Off” centers on a Time Square Elmo (or “Almo’ to avoid lawsuits) who works as a drug courier and allows Hart to act as a twenty-first century Damon Runyon as he looks at the city’s colorful street characters. It also serves as a prime example of how he uses the city’s identifiable sites, bars, and corner establishments as benign fronts for its darker underbelly.

“Butcher’s Block” can be used as a course in story craft. Nova, chef and partner in a small restaurant, finds herself in a game that is a cross between Top Chef and Saw. The M.C., “The Butcher” announces the sins that brought each contestant to his kitchen from hell intermittently as they are forced to take on cooking challenges where they can sabotage the other. Hart entwines the suspense for nova’s physical survival with our curiosity of how this seeming innocent got here. Both fuel a drive to a climax and both pay off in their reveals and turn what starts out as a broad satire and makes it human.

It is that depiction of humanity that serves as a key to Rob Hart’s work. It’s the indelible mark in all these stories and his larger work. He uses it to provide a narrative drive that can deliver humor, believable plot reversals, horrifying violence, and poignancy all together in less than twenty pages. Food for thought.

 

Interview with S.C. Perkins-Murder Once Removed

Murder Once Removed (Ancestry Detective #1) Cover ImageS.C. Perkins’s Murder Once Removed, winner of The Malice Domestic Award, proves to be an addition to the light mystery subgenre. The protagonist, Lucy Lancaster, operates as a genealogist or “ancestry detective”, giving her many inherent skills for amateur detective work. She needs to put all of them to use when the discovery of one senatorial candidate murdering the relative of his rival in 1849 sparks another murder in the present. S.C. was kind enough to talk about the series and her character.

1.      What drew you to a genealogist as an amateur sleuth?

I have amateur genealogists in my family going back to my paternal great-grandfather, so I grew up hearing stories of my ancestry. When I began thinking of a profession for my protagonist, a genealogist came quickly to mind. If you think about it, there’s a built-in element of mystery of one level or another in researching anyone’s ancestry—and sometimes it makes for a great murder mystery! I thought how fun it would be for Lucy (my main character) to solve some of those mysteries, and have the past affect the present. Plus, I’m a history geek, so getting to include some historical elements made it even more of a no-brainer.

2.      What do you want to explore about ancestry?

There’s many fascinating aspects of researching a person’s ancestry, and I’m curious about them all. Though with DNA testing and forensic genealogy coming into the news more and more, it’s clear things can also get very technical or very dark pretty quickly—we’re talking potentially psychological-thriller-level dark here. However, since I’m writing a cozy mystery series, I’m happy to stay on the lighter end of things to keep the fun and humor coming while still doling out interesting facts about the process of researching a person’s lineage.

3.      Austin is used in a colorful way. What makes it a great city to write about for you?

One of the hallmarks of a good cozy mystery is having a small town with charm of its own, usually inhabited by quirky characters. Austin may technically be a modern, fast-moving city, but it manages to retain a small-town feel—and you can’t beat it for being a place filled with all types of personalities and a fun, anything-goes mentality. Plus, Austin also has all the research facilities a professional genealogist like Lucy needs. There really was no better place than Austin for me to have as Lucy’s home base.

4.      How did Flaco’s Tacos become a touchstone for Lucy?

First, I wanted Lucy to have her own version of a coffee shop or a local bar where she could have a hangout of her own. And since I love to eat—and because tacos rule—it made sense for Lucy to be a bit of a taco addict. The character of Julio “Big Flaco” Medrano actually started out as a bit player in another novel, in fact, but Flaco was such fun to write and I felt he had more to offer, so giving him to Lucy as her scary-seeming, but sweet-hearted taqueria-owning friend just made sense. Plus, Lucy can drown herself in margaritas or queso (or both) at Big Flaco’s Tacos, and no bar or coffee shop can offer that!

5.      You have a lot of fun with Texas culture. What do you think defines the people?

In Texas, we’ve got the whole Southern thing going for us, which I happen to love, but we’re just enough west to have some of that Wild West spirit still running through our veins. We’re as famous for our gumption as we are for our warmth and friendliness, which makes for something extra-special about Texas and Texans that the whole world knows, even if they’ve yet to visit. It makes me incredibly proud to be a Texan for sure.

6.      What can you tell us about Lucy’s next mystery?

If all goes well, Lucy will be delving into a World War II mystery in her next adventure, and there may or may not be an espionage element. I’m very excited about it and I’m definitely having fun writing it!