The Bouncer, the Patsy, and JFK: Tim Baker talks FEVER CITY

In Tim Baker’s debut thriller, Fever City, a frantic search for a kidnapped child collides with a plot to assassinate JFK. Here Tim talks about an unlikely inspiration for the novel…

 

The Bouncer, the Patsy, and JFK

Guest Post by Tim Baker

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, my father managed Chequers nightclub in Sydney, which at the time was considered one of the top nightspots in the world, attracting performers such as Sammy Davis Jr, Liza Minelli, Dionne Warwick, Bobby Darin and Trini Lopez. It was a mandatory pit stop for any visiting celebrity, and among the many stars who dropped by for a drink were Sinatra, Bob Hope, The Rolling Stones and the Bee Gees.

But for me it was just a place where my dad worked, and I’d often go there after school, when it was hectic and unglamorous, with dozens of staff preparing for the night: polishing the dance floor, setting tables, unloading liquor in the bar or vegetables in the kitchen. The best part was watching the live orchestra setting up for the evening, tightening cymbals to stands and uncasing gleaming saxophones before the musicians sat down to an early dinner at a table at the back of the stage.

“At night, my father’s workplace was transformed as if by magic. Walking into the club, you’d be greeted with a gauzy haze of cigarette smoke so thick you could almost touch it. It was like a lens through which everything was both blurred and magnified.”

At night, my father’s workplace was transformed as if by magic. Walking into the club, you’d be greeted with a gauzy haze of cigarette smoke so thick you could almost touch it. It was like a lens through which everything was both blurred and magnified. The show was announced with a blinding burst of radiance and whoever stepped into the spotlight was ready to dazzle, to sing; to incite laughter and dreams.

Some of the acts, like Shirley Bassey, Phil Silvers and The Hollies, would take the time to talk and joke with my brothers and I. But the best talker, the best joker of them all wasn’t even a star, but one of the bouncers called Buddy.

He was an American, like many of the clientele – US servicemen on R&R from Vietnam. Buddy had been in the navy, and seen action in the Pacific during WWII. After the war he tried his luck as a Hollywood stuntman, before becoming a professional wrestler. His hands were enormous, his face broad and flattened round the nose and tugged out of shape around the earlobes. He always had a story to share, along with a tab of Stimorol chewing gum that sent my eyes watering with its rich charge of menthol.

Out of all of his stories, the one that captured my imagination the most was about Buddy being in Dallas the day of the assassination of President Kennedy. He said he could remember it like it was yesterday: the flags, the crowds, the bright sunshine – and then the shots. One odd detail made a lasting impression on him. Buddy recalled an organ grinder in Dealey Plaza and found that suspicious – it must have been part of the plot. What plot? I’d wonder. For reasons I can’t explain, the suspicions about the organ grinder remained in my head while the details of Buddy’s other stories – his time in the navy, working in Hollywood, and as a wrestler – were lost to my memory.

“Out of all of his stories, the one that captured my imagination the most was about Buddy being in Dallas the day of the assassination of President Kennedy. He said he could remember it like it was yesterday: the flags, the crowds, the bright sunshine – and then the shots.”

When Chequers closed, Buddy went back home. He’d send us a Christmas card every year from Los Angeles. Eventually I left Sydney myself, but I always made sure to send Buddy a postcard from my new home: Rome, then Madrid, then finally Paris. And every Christmas, I’d get a card from Buddy in return. As the years progressed, he added the name of my wife, and then our son. Buddy was as reliable as clockwork, mailing a card each year, with a few words of good wishes, and a line or two on how he was doing. That was all, but it was enough.

Then we left Paris to live in the South of France just before my son was about to start junior high. It was a busy fall and winter with lots of changes for all of us. I didn’t even think of Buddy until I found out I’d won a prize for a screenplay I’d written and was invited to accept it in LA. I felt terrible and sent him a postcard with our new address, and telling him I would try to look him up when I was there.

Of course I’d been to the US many times, but never to LA. I’d avoided it on purpose, imagining one great, soulless traffic jam. To my astonishment, I fell in love with the city and its proximity to so much stunning nature. In many ways it reminded me of my hometown, Sydney. After a week of meetings, I still hadn’t gotten around to seeing Buddy. I couldn’t find his name in the telephone book, but I did look up his address on Google maps, and realized that his street was on one of the side streets on the way from my hotel on North Crescent Drive, Beverly Hills to Fox Studios, where I had a meeting. I decided to walk there.

After years of living in Europe, the walk took me back to my childhood. The lawn sidewalks. The eucalyptus and flowering Jacarandas. The cars parked in driveways. Nostalgia seeped through me long before I stopped outside Buddy’s place. There was a woman in her fifties gardening. I asked her if Buddy were home. From her reaction, I may as well have asked if Elvis lived there. Of course Buddy was only a nickname, so I gave his real name. She asked me if I was the man who had sent the postcard from France. When I said yes, she went inside. A minute later she came out with a man in his 60s. He wasn’t Buddy but he wanted to know who I was and what I wanted. I showed them one of Buddy’s Christmas cards and explained my story.

“I was stunned by what I found in those three boxes. Untouched matchbooks and programs from Chequers. Newspaper clippings about Sammy Davis Jr’s tour. There were even 45-rpm singles from my father’s record label, Chart Records, that had been such a success at the beginning, but which he had been forced to sell when times got tough. What struck me the most was that the boxes weren’t full of memories of Buddy at all; they were full of memories of my late father. It was unexpected and it was almost overwhelming.”

They told me they had heard that a man had lived for many years in the garage of their house before they’d bought it a year ago. They didn’t know anything about him, but he had left a lot of stuff behind. Would I care to take a look?

I was stunned by what I found in those three boxes. Untouched matchbooks and programs from Chequers. Newspaper clippings about Sammy Davis Jr’s tour. There were even 45-rpm singles from my father’s record label, Chart Records, that had been such a success at the beginning, but which he had been forced to sell when times got tough. What struck me the most was that the boxes weren’t full of memories of Buddy at all; they were full of memories of my late father. It was unexpected and it was almost overwhelming.

The couple explained that they had no way of contacting Buddy. They didn’t even know if he were alive. But they didn’t have the heart to throw out the things he’d left behind. Like this photo, the man said, passing me a frame. Of course I recognized the building Buddy was standing in front of instantly. The Texas School Book Depository. But that’s not what shocked me. It was Buddy. He was playing an organ grinder.

I never showed up for that meeting at Fox. Instead I went back to the hotel and started writing what would become Fever City . . .

FEVER CITY by Tim Baker, Europa Editions, out now

Tim’s twitter handle is @TimBakerWrites

You can find copies of Fever City on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Guest Post: David Hansard on “The Lonely Star”

Our final author to contribute an essay for MysteryPeople’s celebration of Texas Mystery Writers Month is David Hansard, writer of One Minute Gone, one of our best selling thrillers in MysteryPeople. David questions who he is as a Texan and reflects on the power of writing to provide him with the best answers.

“About the only thing common to the various Texan prototypes is that they have almost nothing in common, and really don’t like each other much. Although they do all like being Texan.”

“The Lonely Star” by David Hansard

Texas is romance, myth, legend, and stereotype. A bunch of them, and they’re all different and to a significant degree, contradictory and incompatible. Just like Texans. About the only thing common to the various Texan prototypes is that they have almost nothing in common, and really don’t like each other much. Although they do all like being Texan. I’m not talking only about rural vs. urban or farmers vs. ranchers vs. oilmen, let alone any political denigrations. Among animal people, sheep raisers and cow raisers don’t like each other, and among urbanites, Dallasites and Houstonians like each other as much Longhorns and Aggies. Ft. Worth is next door to Dallas, and those tribes really don’t like each other. Wealthy Ft. Worth native and philanthropist, Amon Carter, was known for taking a bag lunch when he had to go to The Bid D for a business meeting so he didn’t have to spend a nickel in that town.

“So what is Texas for a writer? It’s romantic, mythic, and legendary, with enough characters and character types to populate the Milky Way. It’s not a singularity but a plurality. It’s just about anything you want it to be, assuming you include an epic drought and a few floods of Biblical proportions. It is Texas, and like the star in the middle of its flag, it stands alone.”

I was born in Texas, my family has been in the state for six generations, yet I can’t tell you with any particular acuity what it means to be a Texas writer. In many ways, it’s easier for me to talk about New York where, notwithstanding that I lived there for over a third of my life, I will always be an outsider, and will forever view the city with alien eyes. Porter Hall, my protagonist, largely shares my backstory and the first in his series, One Minute Gone, is set in NYC. Porter feels like, and navigates the city as a familiar stranger. Things that seem commonplace to native New Yorkers never cease to be curiosities to him. The second in the series, How the Dark Gets In, which will be out this summer, begins and ends in New York, but takes place mostly in Texas. For me, writing about Texas was a much different experience, more organic, in a way, because it is who I am without thinking about it. Yet, I can’t describe it in the same way I can describe New York. It’s sort of like asking a manta ray to describe the ocean. “Uh, what’s an ocean?”

In one of her recent newsletters, Taylor Stevens, another Texas author (of the Dallas persuasion), responding to a fan’s question as to what her protagonist, Vanessa Michael Munroe looks like, said apart from her age, size and body type, she really doesn’t know. Strange as it seems, most authors I know don’t know exactly what their protagonist looks like other than in a general sense. I wouldn’t know Porter if I passed him on the street, though I might recognize his clothes, especially his boots. He wears good boots. The reason for this, I suspect, is because you write your protagonist from the inside out. It’s much the same when it comes to writing about a place that’s implanted in you as opposed to one that’s not. In How the Dark Gets In, one scene is set in an actual weedy, hardtack graveyard in West Texas where many members of my (and Porter’s) family are buried; another is set in a house on Sunset in the West U section of Houston, where an ex-girlfriend grew up; and others occur in Austin locations like the Blackwell-Thurman Justice Center, the Whole Foods at Sixth and Lamar, the Book People parking lot, and a condo on West Sixth Street where I lived when I was in graduate school.

‘For me, writing about Texas was a much different experience, more organic, in a way, because it is who I am without thinking about it. Yet, I can’t describe it in the same way I can describe New York. It’s sort of like asking a manta ray to describe the ocean. “Uh, what’s an ocean?”’

Texas is a place I feel as I write while New York City is a place I observe. There is no arguing about how significant “sense of place” is in crime fiction, or how many components there are to it, from landscape to weather to era (think Chandler’s LA compared to that of Connelly and Crais and Marcia Clark, all overlapping, but all distinct). But in my mind there is no component of place more significant than the people who make it up, because that’s where stories come from. That is why my New York stories could never be my Texas stories, and vice-versa. People are place, and place is people.

So what is Texas for a writer? It’s romantic, mythic, and legendary, with enough characters and character types to populate the Milky Way. It’s not a singularity but a plurality. It’s just about anything you want it to be, assuming you include an epic drought and a few floods of Biblical proportions. It is Texas, and like the star in the middle of its flag, it stands alone.

You can find copies of One Minute Gone on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Review: THE LAST GOOD GIRL by Allison Leotta

  • Review by Event Staffer and MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

9781476761114Allison Leotta’s latest thriller, The Last Good Girl, tackles a subject that’s been getting a lot of attention—campus rape and the powerful effect it has on victims and their families. Leotta knows her topic and it shows—she was a federal sex crimes prosecutor in Washington, DC before leaving the Justice Department to pursue a full-time writing career.

Emily, a freshman at Tower University in Detroit, is missing. She was last seen leaving a bar around midnight on a Friday; security video shows her running towards a fraternity the students call “The Rape Factory,” being chased by a fellow student named Dylan.

But these aren’t just ordinary students–Emily is the daughter of university president Barney Shapiro; Dylan is the son of state lieutenant governor Robert Highsmith, one of the most powerful political figures in the state. Just a few short months prior to her disappearance, Emily had accused Dylan of rape.

Assistant US Attorney Anna Curtis is called in to find Emily, but her investigation hits a wall. The grainy video footage seems to be the only clue; though it suggests Dylan was involved in Emily’s disappearance, Anna can’t seem to find any additional evidence. Dylan’s Beta Psi fraternity brothers close ranks and won’t discuss the case. The Highsmith family’s powerful lawyers try to prevent Anna from asking Dylan any questions. Emily’s father seems more concerned with protecting the university’s reputation than in finding Emily.

Then Anna finds a video log that Emily had recorded for a class assignment, and she learns the particulars of Emily’s rape accusation. It seems that Dylan may be a sexual predator and that Emily isn’t the first girl he’s attacked. The more Anna learns, the more it seems they aren’t dealing with a simple disappearance and that Emily may never be found.

The Last Good Girl is Leotta’s 5th novel featuring federal prosecutor Anna Curtis. She’s a brilliant, tough investigator who is dealing with emotional turmoil in her personal life. Leotta has created a complex, fascinating character.

You can find copies of The Last Good Girl on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Mysterypeople Q&A with Larry D. Sweazy

  • Interview by Event Staffer and MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

See Also, Deception is Larry D. Sweazy’s second book to feature indexer Marjorie Trumaine. This time she uncovers dozens of her small North Dakota town’s secrets as she looks into a librarian’s apparent suicide. MysteryPeople’s Meike Alana caught up with Larry about the book, its setting, and the lead character.

 

Meike Alana: Marjorie is an incredibly strong, resourceful, independent woman—particularly given her environment of living in a small, rural farm community. What was your inspiration for the character? Was she based on a particular person in your life?

Larry Sweazy: I was raised by a single mother until I was ten years old. My mother supported the three of us kids the best she could on her own, and with the help of family, of course. My grandmother was diminutive in size (4’9”), but big when it came to heart and strength. So my early role-models were two very strong, determined women. I’m sure some of the traits I witnessed as a boy went into creating Marjorie. But I also think that the era and the setting are also a huge part of character building. Marjorie was a Depression baby, so she was impacted by that time of strife, as well as the uncertainty of the farming life. The weather of the plains that she had to endure through the years helped to form her character, too. Winters in North Dakota are not for the weak of spirit or strength, especially when all you have to rely on is a wood stove and your wits in frequent blizzards and brutal subzero temperatures.

“I also think that the era and the setting are also a huge part of character building. …Winters in North Dakota are not for the weak of spirit or strength, especially when all you have to rely on is a wood stove and your wits in frequent blizzards and brutal subzero temperatures.”

MA: You do an incredible job of conveying the loneliness and desolation of the North Dakota plains. How did you decide to base the series there?Read More »

MysteryPeople Q&A with Steve Hamilton

  • Interview and Introduction by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

We’re only to the end of May, but I’m already sure that our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month, The Second Life Of Nick Mason, is one of the best books of the year. In Hamilton’s latest, the title character gets released from prison twenty years earlier than scheduled, but is given a cell phone that he has to answer at any time and do whatever he is told to from the person on the other end. We caught up with the author, Steve Hamilton, to talk about the book and his approach to writing. He also has a question for our readers.

 

“Heroic is all a matter of perspective, I think. If you follow a main character throughout a book or a series and you find yourself rooting for him to succeed, and find yourself admiring certain essential traits that the character possesses… Does that make him heroic?”

MysteryPeople Scott: The Second Life of Nick Mason is built on a great premise. How did it come about?

Steve Hamilton: It really started from a simple desire to try something new. After ten books with Alex McKnight, I was itching to try something completely different, just as I had done with Michael the young safecracker in The Lock Artist. But in this case, I wanted to develop a fully committed career criminal, and see if I could still create that bond with the reader – just like the great Donald Westlake did with Parker, one of my favorite series ever. If you think about this impossible situation Nick Mason is in, having to keep his end of the deal he made when he was released from prison… There’s just no easy way out.

MPS: This is one of those well-crafted crime novels where everything – plot, characters, and theme – fall perfectly into place by the end. How much do you plan your novels out in advance?

SH: Well, thanks for the compliment, first of all. My own approach has evolved over the years. Where I would once just start a book and then see where it went, I’ve become much more disciplined now. I really want to know where the book is going before I start, so I can concentrate on making every scene count.

“I wanted to develop a fully committed career criminal, and see if I could still create that bond with the reader – just like the great Donald Westlake did with Parker, one of my favorite series ever.”

Read More »

Crime Fiction Friday: “The Larcenists” by Kieran Shea

 

 

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  • Introduced by Scott M.

In this May’s Beat To A Pulp short story “The Larcenists” Kieran Shea shows how you can use just dialogue to propel a story. He also may make you think twice about who is at your local Starbucks.


“The Larcenists” by Kieran Shea

“Man, marketing promotions. A dollar for any tall coffee? I’ll bite. What? No java for you, Jack?

It’s a little late in the day for me, Eddie.

Trouble sleeping, huh? I guess that happens to guys our age. Hell, coffee is one of the few drugs I still get to enjoy.

Have a seat, man.

I need to be serious here, Eddie. I’ve got a client meeting at three so I’d like to say my peace and then head on out for that, all right?

Sure, sure … totally. So, um, what’s on your mind?

Well, it’s been almost a year, Eddie.

Read the rest of the story.

Guest Post: Terry Shames on Writing About Texas as a Lone Star Expat

As we continue on with essays by Texas crime fiction writers in celebration of Texas Mystery Writers Month, we turn to Terry Shames, who will be teaching at our free workshop coming up this Saturday, May 21st, from 9:30 AM – 4 PM. Here Terry discusses writing about her home state as a Lone Star expat.

  • Guest post from Terry Shames

James Joyce said of writing about Dublin, “if you wanted to succeed, you had to leave—especially if success meant writing about that place in a way it had not been written about before.” He writes about Dublin as a setting where he felt constrained by the essence of the place that was so much itself. I wouldn’t think of comparing myself as a writer to James Joyce, but I understand what he meant and I feel in a visceral way the truth of what he said in my writing about Texas.

“The Two dog is about as low a dive as you’ll find. Fifteen feet outside the city limits, it looks like it was built of rotten lumber that someone discarded after tearing down the oldest house in town…The interior is strung with blue lights hind the bar. It has a dance floor big enough for two couples and an old- fashioned jukebox.” A Killing at Cotton Hill

When I first spread my wings as a writer, I was already out of Texas. I wrote short stories, most of them in an imaginary town I called Jarrett Creek, Texas. The characters lived and breathed the air of Jarrett Creek. Based on the town where my grandparents lived when I was a child, Jarrett Creek seemed a natural setting when I began a mystery series. It was familiar, it was in my blood, and it offered a place I had observed my whole life, and now had some separation from.

Jarrett Creek is not singular. I get emails from people all over the country saying, “This book could be set in my town.” Does that mean the smell of the railroad tie plant that still permeates the town of Jarrett Creek is the same in a town in Indiana? Does it mean that the paralyzing heat and humidity occur in small-town Pennsylvania? Do other towns have water that tastes like iron, and have red soil that stains your hands? Do they have the snakes, the fire ants, useless soil, the drought and flooding rains?

“The backyard is as scrubby as the front, with exhausted patches of grass barely holding their own in the red dust. There’s a big hulk of a barn…The heat shimmers off the roof, the glare piercing…” The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake

I think what my readers mean is that someplace has entered their subconscious, and resides there and my books call up that place for them. As a writer, deep memory is what drives my understanding of “place” in Texas. If as a writer I am able to impart the romance, the reality, and the spirit of a place through prose, it translates for the reader into their own known landscapes. .

It’s possible that had I not left Texas I would have been able to describe it well enough, but I think there is a certain romance that creeps in when you haven’t lived in a place you loved for a long time. Nostalgia creates yearning, and that drives my poetic feel for the smell, sight, sound, and feel for Jarrett Creek. But I also know well the hard reality of Texas. In this passage you get the push and pull between beauty and the disagreeable that I constantly balance.

“The west is full of threatening clouds and heat lightning, and in the late afternoon sun, with shadows from the trees beyond the pond, the air is almost lavender. The mosquitoes are in full force when we get near the scummy water. I slap at my arms and legs.” The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake

Come by BookPeople this upcoming Saturday, May 21st, for a free writing workshop taught by Terry Shames, George Wier, and two out of three members of Miles Arceneaux! The workshop starts at 9:15 AM and goes till 4 PM. No reservations required!